Am I Evangelical? (5)


Post Second World War Evangelicalism promoted an aggressive style of evangelism in which the street evangelist called people to ‘turn or burn’, the soap box on the street corner was occupied by a sin-focused preacher, and it was the age of the big evangelistic crusade. We will now look at the concept of the big evangelistic crusade as spearheaded by Billy Graham and his organisation.

In 1954, Billy Graham conducted a series of crusades in Harringay, London, which were heralded as being wonderful successes that made a lasting impact on many people’s lives. According to Murray, the London crusades ‘had done much to encourage Evangelicals across the nation’ and the Bishop of Barking spoke of ‘the glorious possibilities these coming years hold for us’.

Reflecting on Harringay, Reverend E.H.Robertson declared that Billy Graham had ‘permanently influenced the preaching of many thousands of our preachers, and he has offered the Churches a new opportunity for evangelism’. Indeed, after Harringay, Billy Graham himself spoke of his ‘belief that Britain is on the verge of the greatest spiritual awakening in her history’.

When the evangelist had responded to the invitation of ‘Tell Scotland’ to lead the ‘All Scotland Crusade’ of 1955, it appeared, according to Bisset, that ‘the advance of the Kirk was unstoppable’. On to Scotland, then, on a wave of success and optimism after Harringay. According to William Fitch, ‘the All-Scotland Crusade, 1955, was born in the floodtide of the blessing of Harringay’ and Reverend Tom Allan said that ‘planning for the All-Scotland Crusade benefited greatly from the Harringay experience’.

After the apparent joy of Harringay, churches and Christians across Scotland came together in a show of unity to support the Billy Graham crusades in Glasgow. These crusades would not only be seen by those who attended the Kelvin Hall each night, but also by many thousands who watched by television relay in halls and church buildings across the nation, and even into England. There were, however, beneath the show of unity, some rumblings of discontent that gave cause for alarm.

Now, one would be forgiven for thinking that the overall policy of the Billy Graham Organization was to preach Christ, or to make Christ known, or something along those lines. In fact, it was nothing of the sort. As Murray noted, the overall policy of the Graham organization was to ‘attain prestige and influence for evangelicals’. Therefore, one might understandably think that the aim of the crusades was actually to benefit evangelical Christians, and that the ‘saving of souls’ was but a secondary aim.

Now, in order to ‘attain prestige and influence for evangelicals’ there had to be a successful image for the Billy Graham crusades that was free from division among ecumenically oriented churches, since Murray noted that Graham exacted their endorsement as the price of city-wide meetings. The crusades would be seen to bring evangelicals together in a glorious show of unity. However, it did not work out quite like that, as Pollock said:

“The unity, however, was not as deep as it looked. It included those who strongly supported Graham but had no interest in Tell Scotland; those in favour both of a Graham crusade and of Tell Scotland; and those who would not have supported Graham, but, being committed to Tell Scotland, were loyally behind a crusade of which they did not fully approve. Deeper still lay a fundamental cleavage on the meaning of the Cross and the nature of the Gospel. The long term effect of the crusade would depend upon these hidden tensions being resolved.”

There were also those who were unhappy at the ‘decision for Jesus’ style of evangelism used by Billy Graham. Lloyd-Jones believed that the base of claim for Harringay’s success on the numbers going forward to ‘receive Christ’ was an entirely unscriptural assessment. Murray observed that the virtual identification of saving faith with the decision to walk forward was bound, in many cases, to ‘confuse individuals as to their real spiritual condition’.

A number of significant people were particularly critical of the perceived lack of follow-up of those who had ‘made a decision for Christ’. There seemed to be an atmosphere of ‘job done’ when people went forward at the crusades, and virtually no interest in follow up by the participating churches. The new Christians were largely left to fend for themselves instead of being taken into Christian communities for discipleship.

John Matthews highlighted this danger when he wrote, “People are content simply to believe, whereas the developing, nourishing and sustaining of Christian faith and practice is impossible apart from the life of a believing community”. Therefore many saw the ‘decision for Christ’ as a false indicator of spiritual birth, and were shocked that discipleship was nowhere to be seen.

According to the Baptist Union of Scotland, ‘The aim of conversion is to make disciples, so discipleship and conversion must not be contrasted with each other or separated.’ There were those who were unhappy at exactly this division in the Billy Graham crusades, since the evangelist left follow-up in the hands of local churches who were far from united.

What also concerned Lloyd-Jones about the London crusades was the frequent triumphant cry that there was no emotion in those who responded to the appeals and ‘made a decision for Christ’. ‘Can a man’, Lloyd-Jones asked, ‘see himself as a damned sinner without emotion? Can a man look into hell without emotion? Or conversely, can a man really contemplate the love of God in Christ Jesus and feel no emotion?’ For Catherwood, evangelism had become ‘too obsessed with results, and ‘decisionism’ was no substitute for the proclamation of the truth in all its fullness’. In truth, the foundation of unity for the Glasgow crusades was only skin deep.

On Monday 11th April 1955, as the Glasgow crusade opened in the Kelvin Hall, thousands of people were gathered in halls and churches all over Scotland to watch the meetings on television; they were a vast and unseen audience all over the land. Furthermore, with a television audience second only to the Coronation, Pollock noted that ‘it was unquestionably the vastest [sic] audience addressed by a preacher in Britain’.

Many people still remember the crusades, and so does the media. A few years ago, the then Glasgow Herald looked back on the success of the Glasgow crusades that took Scotland to what they called ‘fever pitch’. Over the six weeks of the crusades the paper reported on, the crusades reached more than 2.5 million people and prompted 50,000 Scots to come forward to ‘make a stand for Christ’.

The excitement was contagious. Tom Allan said ‘First, and before everything else, many thousands of people were won for Christ and many thousands more were led, through the Crusade, to new levels of consecration and commitment to the Lord of Life.’ For Pollock, the crusades ‘influenced clergy more than social leaders, and influenced them profoundly’; so that, as Graham himself noted, ‘probably the most lasting results will be in the lives of hundreds of ministers.’

But the enthusiasm for results was tempered with great caution. Tom Allan again: ‘It would be impossible to over-estimate the importance of these particular Crusade meetings, although they present some difficult problems from the evangelistic point of view.’ How would people reflect on the impact of the crusades in Scotland?

Was Billy Graham’s visit to Scotland in 1955 a success? Not if Ronald C Paul’s biography of Billy Graham is anything to go by. He devotes two chapters totalling nineteen pages to the Harringay London crusades, but then dismisses the Glasgow crusades with one single short sentence: ‘A Scotland Crusade followed, with a return to Britain in 1955’.

One of the saddest reflections that John Pollock made on the Glasgow crusades was summed up in one similarly short sentence: ‘Unity did not outlast the crusade.’ Unity has not existed since the crusades, either. As always with any evangelistic crusades, follow-up was one of the areas that caused people the greatest concern. Pollock observed that ‘once again the churches were not truly ready for their opportunities, and many converts did not grow to maturity.’

In considering the after-effects of the Crusade in Glasgow, Tom Allan asks very pointedly: “How far is the Church as we know it able to receive and nurture and train those who have been won? How far is the present pattern of life within the Churches geared to the fruits of evangelism? How far can those so lately won out of the world find themselves at home in the Church?”

The disunity among the supporting churches and lack of follow-up discipleship were constantly recurring themes. Billy Graham and crusade evangelism itself got the blame, but not from everyone. Indeed, for some, ‘crusade evangelism got the blame which rightly belonged to churches who had failed to welcome and nurture their potential new members.’

Colin Holmes observed that, ‘When the hard work begins at the close of a mission, churches are rarely prepared or willing to do effective follow-up work.’ So, the hope of Graham, Allan and many others that the crusades would ‘set in motion a progressing evangelism through local congregations’ was not fulfilled, according to Pollock.

In truth, some people such as John Wimber did not hold out much hope for the crusade style of evangelism: ‘By its very nature and assumptions, programmatic evangelism tends to have as its goal decisions for Christ, not disciples.’ According to Wimber, this type of evangelism is fatally flawed because ‘many people who make these decisions do not encounter God’s power, and thus frequently do not move on to a mature faith’.

Is crusade evangelism little more than a museum piece? It is hard not to get the impression from church that evangelism has been set aside as the work of the few and the few set aside for evangelism. Perhaps, then, as Holmes observes, this kind of evangelism ‘allows the church to escape its responsibility to pass on the message.’ Perhaps, Olyott says, all too often ‘we have thought of evangelism as a thing which exists with its own identity and character, which is somehow connected to the life of the church’ rather than being an integral part of church.

One impact of the Billy Graham crusades was to show that they did not reach anywhere near as many unchurched people as had been thought. Of the enquirers who came forward at the Crusades, 62% described themselves as ‘regular church attenders’. Tom Allan commented on the lack of the unchurched coming forward by proclaiming that ‘there is no possibility of effective evangelism until something is done to destroy the barriers of indifference which separate the Church from the people whom it is here to serve’.

Since Allan wrote those words, the barriers of indifference have grown larger than the church itself, and the church has declined accordingly. Despite the availability of various analyses of results, there is no evidence whatsoever to show that any of the ‘crusades’ of the 20th century served significantly to reverse this decline. This, says Cotterell, suggests that ‘the problem of the declining church has more profound origins than in any paucity of evangelistic missions.’

Yet the crusades did touch many people. I have personally spoken to a number of people who attended the Kelvin Hall Crusades in 1955, and most remember it fondly. But perhaps one of the biggest impacts is seen not in those who responded at the crusades, but in how churches and Christians have responded since.

For example, Colin Holmes writes, “After spending nearly eight years in ‘normal’ evangelism, I have come to question the real long-term value of short (crusade evangelism) campaigns.” John Allan has written that ‘methods of evangelism which do not lead into a New Testament commitment to teach, guide and shepherd the new Christian will never result in very much.’

The Glasgow crusades of 1955 seemed to have caused (or assisted) a degree of polarisation about the methods involved in the crusades themselves, but so much of the focus appears to be on Billy Graham himself and the crusades and so little on the churches that were also involved. Perhaps the greatest negative impact Billy Graham’s crusades have had is to make the churches believe that evangelism is the responsibility of the para-church organisations who are ‘specialists’ in this field. I am sure that Graham himself, serving his Lord in the way that he believes is God-led, would be heartbroken if he thought that he had caused this belief.