the shape of leadership

America’s Pastor

What lessons can we learn from the life and ministry of Billy Graham?

George P Wood on February 21, 2018


The Rev. Billy Graham passed away Wednesday at his home in Montreat, North Carolina. For decades, Billy Graham was the face of evangelical Christianity, not merely in the United States, but around the world. His death is an occasion for mourning, but his life is an instructive example to Christian ministers today. In August 2015, I wrote the following book review of Grant Wacker’s excellent book, America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation. Rereading it more than two years later, it strikes me as a good summary of the lessons we can learn from the life and ministry of this great man.


America's Pastor is not a conventional biography of Billy Graham. It does not narrate Graham's life in chronological order, in other words. If you're looking for such a book, read Graham's memoir, Just As I Am, or William Martin's magisterial biography, A Prophet with Honor.

Instead, America's Pastor is a biographical study that centers around three questions:

  1. How did Billy Graham become the voice of American evangelicalism?
  2. Why did evangelicalism become so pervasive in the second half of the twentieth century?
  3. And what does it say about the relation between religion and America itself?

To each of these questions, Grant Wacker, a noted evangelical church historian at Duke University Divinity School, offers a single answer: "From first to last, Graham displayed an uncanny ability to adopt trends in the wider culture and then use them for his evangelistic and moral-reform purposes."

America may never see another Billy Graham - an evangelist who has influenced both church and society.

Wacker goes on to say that Graham "possessed an uncanny ability to speak both for and to the times.

Graham's "uncanny ability" explains why ministers would do well to read this book. We, too, need to speak for and to our times. And Graham's life and ministry presents us with both an inspiring example … and a cautionary tale.

The inspiring example is what Christian pastors know best. In his personal life and public ministry, Graham and his evangelistic team set the gold standard of integrity. Much of this arose from a commitment to the so-called "Modesto Manifesto" of 1948, in which the Graham team set out rules of personal and organizational integrity.

Building on this integrity, Graham traveled the globe, using every available media to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. He preached large evangelistic crusades, wrote a spiritual advice column, spoke on radio, appeared on television, produced evangelistic films, and stayed in the public eye. In addition, he helped found institutions that continue to shape evangelicalism: Christianity Today, Fuller Theological Seminary, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and the Lausanne Movement, among others. Graham was so involved with, and so central to, the postwar American evangelical revival that it is difficult to imagine it without him. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine postwar American history without him.

This doesn't mean Graham's ministry — or the mainstream evangelicalism he represented - was without flaws. The most glaring was his penchant for partisan politics. Perhaps nothing discredited his ministry more in the eyes of many than his too-close relationship with, and post-Watergate defense of, President Richard Nixon. And we might also ask how America would have been better off had he cooperated more closely with Martin Luther King Jr. and led white evangelicals in a greater support for African-American civil rights.

Historical counterfactuals such as this are interesting to ponder, but we cannot change the past. We can only learn from the past in order to do better in the future.

Grant Wacker has penned an interesting, informative, and, in many ways, authoritative interpretation of Billy Graham's influence on American Christianity and the American nation. Those of us who, like Graham, are called to minister the gospel would do well to use the book as a mirror of self-reflection, asking questions such as these:

  • Do we conduct our lives and ministries with integrity, and is this integrity obvious to all?
  • Do we lament the baleful effects of contemporary media - television, film, social media, etc. - or do we leverage them to produce better effects?
  • Do we exercise a prophetic ministry within our society, or have partisan interests captured us?
  • In an increasingly secular society, do we cooperate with as wide a circle of fellow Christians as possible, or do we retreat into small circles of like-mindedness?
  • Most importantly, do we preach through our words and demonstrate with our lives the good news of Jesus Christ, calling nonbelievers to faith in Him, and believers toward a closer following of Him?

America may never see another Billy Graham — an evangelist who has influenced both church and society. It will see us, however. Are we, like him, speaking both for and to it in our own, much smaller circles of influence?

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