60: Rick Marshall

60: Rick Marshall

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 60 •

Former Crusade Director and key associate for Mr. Graham; current pastor in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

I started working in crusade evangelism with the Billy Graham Team in August, 1980. My first assignment was in Calgary, Alberta, Canada where I coordinated the youth outreach and counseling and follow-up. In 1986 I became a Crusade Director, and continued in that position until July 2003.

Because of my work, from 1980 until 1992 my family moved every year. My four children were all preschoolers when we started. We moved from Michigan to Calgary, Alberta, Canada; to Spokane and Tacoma, Washington; to Anchorage, Alaska; to Hartford, Connecticut; to Paris, France; to Fargo, North Dakota; to Rochester, New York; to Montreal, Canada and then to Glasgow, Scotland. Shaped by the “crusade culture” of moving, my children learned fast how to adapt and especially how to make friends.

Our last move was from Glasgow, Scotland, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where I was going to direct Billy’s June 1992 crusade. My children were then ages seventeen, fifteen, thirteen, and eleven. We called them “crusade brats.” The week of public crusade meeting was an exciting time for them. They would have full run of the big stadiums at an event that everyone in the community was talking about. This was their week to be cool and to be seen.

About a month before the crusade in Philadelphia, over dinner one night, I said to my kids, “Who are you going to invite to the crusade this week?” There was dead silence. Nobody was saying anything. I pushed them. “What’s wrong?” I said. “Why aren’t you going to invite your friends to the crusade like you always do?” It was fifteen-year-old Jessica who blurted out, “Dad, we don’t want to go. It’s so old and there’s nothing there for us or for our friends.”

You know how you can live in something and not see it? I was stunned. But then I began to reflect, and I realized that at that time Billy was seventy-four years old, Bev Shea was eighty-four, and Cliff Barrows was sixty-nine. What had we been thinking? Sure, we had youth nights, but in Anchorage, for example, the youth night featured Norma Zimmer of Lawrence Welk fame, who was in her sixties, and Johnny Zell, who played the trumpet!

I looked at some crusade attendance statistics, and what I discovered was very alarming. Fewer young people were attending our crusades, and this trend was reflected in the nation as a whole. The younger generation, the baby boomers and later the millennials, were outside the grasp of the church. And this trend was accelerating.

I didn’t know what to do about that. Church attendance across the nation was down and in 1992 Billy Graham was not the household name he had been from the 1940s to the 1970s. So as a director I began to ask myself, What can we do to reach the next generation?

In the fall of 1993, I went to Cleveland, Ohio, to prepare for the June 1994 crusade. The organizing Executive Committee was co-chaired by two very unlikely leaders. One was André Thornton, the former Major League Baseball star with the Cleveland Indians and Baltimore Orioles, and Gordon Heffern, then Chairman and CEO of Society Corporation, the largest financial institution in Ohio.

When I met them their first question to me was, “What are you going to do to help us reach the next generation?”

At the time, I had nothing to offer. I said to myself, There’s no way we can get teens and college students to come to our meeting. But the zeal and the convictions expressed by Thornton and Heffern got me thinking about what changes to our preparation and programming it would take to provide an opportunity for Billy to speak to the next generation. Would Billy and the Team be willing to take some risks, with new approaches in advertising, training, and programming to reach the thirteen to twenty-five age group?

To make it work the Cleveland leadership suggested six key ideas: First, we needed thousands of kids praying for their friends. Second, a communication strategy that would let the youth pastors and their kids know that this special youth night was not for their parents, it was for them! Third, an advertising strategy that targeted the MTV generation by means of radio, TV, and movie theaters. Our first slogan was “Introducing the First Concert to Benefit Its Own Audience.” Fourth, video presentations during the program, knowing that if it doesn’t move, it doesn’t communicate. Fifth, music louder than the parents were going to like. And finally, straight talk from a caring adult. That was Billy. He was someone known across the culture for his integrity. Even though the kids didn’t know who he was, nobody spoke negatively about him. He would be like a grandfather, communicating the authority of the Bible with love and simplicity.

But how could I get permission to make this experiment? First I presented my ideas to the program director Cliff Barrows. He was supportive but would not sign off: “You have to run this idea by Bill!” he said. That I was eager to do. Finally I was able to get Billy on the phone to present these new ideas. He listened patiently, and then to my great surprise said: “That’s nothing. That’s not a youth night. Let me tell you what we used to do!” Billy then told me about the early days (after World War II) of the Youth for Christ rallies, where no stunt was too outrageous if it would draw a crowd for the Gospel’s sake. At Chicago’s Soldier Field, for example, eighty grand pianos were placed on the grass for a great musical extravaganza. Toilet seats were placed on the stage, and kids were invited to come and sit on them during portions of the program. They even had a “talking horse” brought onto the stage. The trainer would ask the horse Bible questions. “Did Noah build a great ark?” The reply would be one hoof prancing for “yes” and twice for “no.”

As Billy went on with his stories I became sick with discouragement, thinking he wasn’t understanding me at all, until it dawned on me that his willingness to take risks had a long history! “Billy,” I said. “We don’t need talking horses or toilet seats in the 90s. But we need the same willingness to adapt and change our approach today to reach this generation that you were willing to take fifty years ago.” There was a long silence, and then Billy said, “Let’s do it!”

On that first Youth Night six months later, at Memorial Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio, on June 11, 1994, 65,000 students showed up! In fact, at 3:00 p.m. for the 7:00 p.m. start, over 30,000 students were waiting for the doors to open. That night the program featured a special Christian rock music video by Michael W. Smith and student testimonials on big-screen Jumbotrons. There were only seven Jumbotrons in America in 1994, and we rented two of them for that event at the old Cleveland stadium.

Michael W. Smith and dc Talk started out with a concert that was followed by a personal faith testimony from Mark Price, the point guard for the Cleveland Cavs, who that year was the three-point shoot-out champ at the NBA All-Star game. And the last part of the program was a message from Billy — the straight talk. He raised three questions that night: Who Am I? Why Am I Here? What Is Life All About? The response at the invitation to follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior was overwhelming with over 6,500 responding. We ran out of counselors and materials, and not a blade of grass was visible because so many responded. That warm spring night, at the age of seventy-six, Billy became the oldest youth evangelist in America.

What we had come up with in effect changed the last quarter, if you will, of Billy’s ministry. Later we called them Concerts for the Next Generation. From that night going forward, twenty-two concert events were held (Cleveland, June 1994 to Oklahoma City, June 2003), in places like the Metrodome in Minneapolis, the Erickson Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the Alamo Dome in San Antonio, Texas. In total, 1,286,500 people attended, with 96,651 responding. Of the twenty-two events, twelve broke the all-time stadium records.

But this success was not without some early controversy within the Billy Graham organization. One afternoon in March 1995, while we were in Puerto Rico for Global Mission, Billy asked to see me. The Youth Nights were creating a stir on the team, with many detractors. Following the Cleveland Crusade, the Youth Night in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome that fall had broken the stadium records as well as several eardrums, according to some! With plans underway for similar events in Toronto in June and Sacramento in October, Billy was in the hot seat, with pressure on him to stop these events and return to the old ways.

Upon arrival at his villa west of San Juan, I was greeted by Billy and Ruth, who were both eager to encourage me to continue with the youth events. Ruth told me about the criticism they experienced in the early days of Youth for Christ. She called these folks “old fuddy duddies.” She said that as a young couple, when she and Billy had spoken of their future, they agreed they never wanted to be like that. Billy then related to me a prayer commitment he had made many years ago and had renewed as a result of the new controversy. He read to me Psalm 71:17-18: “Since my youth, O God, You have taught me, and to this day I declare Your marvelous deeds. Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, O God, till I declare Your power to the next generation, Your might to all who are to come.”

This was the earnest expression of a deep conviction. For Billy, the youth event was not something new, something just to attract a crowd, but the outworking of a passion rooted in a lifetime of obedience to God and His Word. I asked him, “Then despite the opposition, do you want me to continue to develop the Youth Night strategy in Toronto and Sacramento?” His reply was simple: “Let’s do it!”

When the heart is soft, the mind is open to change at any age. Billy has the youngest heart of any older man I have ever known. And in the crusades of the 1990s and beyond, that old man with the young heart touched millions of kids who came to hear the message of God’s love. I will always love Billy for that.

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