J.I Packer on Billy Graham’s Passing and Evangelicalism’s Future

A week after Billy Graham had passed away, we met with J.I Packer to chat about Billy Graham’s ministry and the future of evangelicalism. Here is the transcribed interview.

Did you ever meet Billy Graham?

No, I never did. I think I’m right in saying that I had a letter from him. That’s the closest we got.


When we think Billy Graham, we think of revival meetings or “crusades.” Do you see in the future anything like his ministry model?

At the moment I don’t foresee anything of that sort again. It takes a man with all the gifts of personality and preaching that Graham had to sustain that kind of ministry. I think we have to recognize God’s providence in raising up Billy Graham. Graham is, shall I say, a one off. There aren’t any clones of him at the moment, and I think it very unlikely that there will be. I think that one of the factors God used in giving Graham’s ministry such a widespread influence was quite simply the size of the meetings. In the 21st century people are impressed at first by size, thinking This is big, so we can’t afford to ignore it. We must go a bit closer and have a look at it and open ourselves to whatever impact it wants to make on us. That has become multicultural; you find it all over the world. By human understanding, that can be dated to the beginning of Billy Graham’s ministry when the Hearst newspapers received a directive from William Randolph Hearst, the money man who owned them, with just the two words: “puff Graham.” You may not be familiar with the use of the word ‘puff.’* It was standard journalistic slang for declaring excellence and importance, and that was what the editorial writers in the Hearst newspapers did. Consequently, in all the places Graham visited in North America and in the rest of the world, there were lots of people who were wanted to hear what he had to say. Under God’s guidance, that was a big factor in giving him a really huge ministry to urban centres.


It almost sounds like Graham’s ministry was something that God had provided for the global church and the entire world at that time. Compared to the last one hundred years, do you think the ministry field in the North America, and really the entire Western world today, has changed significantly?

Well, in Britain and in North America there was a period of ups followed by downs. In the first half of this century there were downs throughout the English-speaking world of Evangelical Christianity. The bottom hadn’t fallen out of it, but most ministers at the time were not conscious of what the ministry and it’s ministers presented themselves as being about. The themes that were highlighted from the beginning of the 20th century onwards were themes of faithfulness; faithfulness to the word of God, faithfulness to Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord, and faithfulness to the mission which put making disciples on the forefront. They were consciously doing that in opposition the liberal idea which had to do with social forms of ministry and social relationships [note: rather than emphasizing theology, doctrinal truth, personal salvation). That was very big in North America for 50 years, but it was pretty big in all the English-speaking parts of the world. It was big in the sense of claiming to be the key to the future and the perspective or the priority of the future and the liberal theologians. They didn’t always present their work as trying to do something in terms of Christian understanding and Christian mission, or in terms parallel to what Darwin and the Darwinist and other exponents of evolution in different spheres of life thought they were called to do. I think it would be true to say that in those first fifty years of the 20th century, evolution was the big deal in society. It was an idea which not only commanded the minds of the top people, but it was idea which held out a notion of benefit, personal benefit to be gained by – well, now I want to say something which I don’t think quite fits, but it almost does – I was going to say getting on the ‘evolutionary bandwagon.’ I can remember back into the 1930’s – I’m 91 at the moment, you probably know that – and in the 1930’s there was a great deal of nominal Christianity in Britain. I am a Brit, you know! The people who were being listened to were the people who had exciting ideas about society, what should be done in society, and how should we integrate society – all that sort of thing. Except of course, for the Anglo-Catholic, or high church Anglicans, who believed that what they were called to do first and foremost was to make the church, as an institution, the biggest deal in society by presenting the qualities which mark Anglo-Catholics today: church-centredness, a doxological way of life, worship, praise, adoration, as the key factors. Institutionalizing the church as far as possible, in order to preserve the sense of significance of the church, and church life in the life of the world. The church all thought Anglo-Catholic thinking is primarily institutional. I mean, primarily an institution, which you support by keeping the institution going and attaching to it as much significance as it appears to claim that it has. Choosing my words there because, uh… laughs. Well, that raises a point which is much stronger than people allow, that there is a type of person in all developed societies for whom religion is the big thing. They don’t all go for the same religion, of course, but those who go for Christianity invoke it, and they see their calling as maintaining the institution that expresses it – that’s the church. They think of themselves, after all that, in really human terms, in terms of the influence they’re going to have on the present and on the next generation.


Do you see that as effective?

No… oh no! By the middle of the 20th century it obvious that it wasn’t effective. And that wasn’t simply the case in Britain. That was the case all around the English-speaking world, and that is the world that I know most about.


So, if we’re taking sides between an institutional approach to Christian faith and a “crusade” personal salvation approach, you would side with the latter?

Oh yes – so far, [the movement was] right, I think, rather than wrong. Personal salvation is the biggest issue in life. That was a point that Graham picked up and ran with in a very persuasive way. At this point, I’m sure that he was helped by the fact that he was brought up in the world of the Southern Baptists. He started, of course, as a Presbyterian, but he became Southern Baptist. You didn’t know that? (No) Oh yes, it is so. He, being a product of that culture, had, shall I say, developed an instinct for scratching where it itches. Seeing to it that personal salvation stayed at the centre of his ministry, he didn’t introduce any new thoughts into the library of Evangelical theology. He picked out the thoughts that express Christ’s influence and transforming life. He was able to talk about that transformation with, I think anyway, great appeal and great force.


In the past century, nominal Christianity and conversion from it was instrumental in American Christianity. What do you perceive is the future of nominal Christianity?

Merely nominal Christianity is definitely on the way out because nominal Christianity stops short at formalism, and formalism is playing a role. There were fewer Christians around in the older Christian world than there are today. There was a remarkable increase of numbers from the older, historic Christian world. I think it would be true to say that after a half-century of Evangelical Christianity being pushed to the sidelines either by forms of secularity or by liberal alternatives, since about 1960 there has been a swing of the pendulum in the other direction. Large numbers of people – as matter of fact, they’re mostly white – so I’ll say the older, white, Christian world. There’s been quite of a revival of the sense, ‘Look here, salvation is the biggest issue of life, and we haven’t been taking it as seriously as we should. And we must, starting now.’ So there’s been a revival that had nothing to do with Graham, actually. Well, that’s another statement. Not directly linked with what Graham was doing, but a revival, that I as an Anglican, perhaps you too, would call serious churchmanship. This starts from the sense that salvation is the biggest deal and Jesus Christ is the most important person, and the spread of the gospel is the most important issue, literally, in the world. If you think of the other Christian leaders who’ve distinguished themselves during the Graham era, whereas he highlighted conversion, salvation, as the big deal, and beginning the Christian life on the right foot, there was Sproul, and there was John Stott, and there still are people like John Piper and they are agreeing really in highlighting the whole gospel, the whole pattern of gospel truth, which is that God is building a new humanity, a church, of which you, you, you and me, were called to be functioning parts. First of all, committed to the project, in terms of purpose, and second, committed to the project in terms of activity. That, I think, will go on, I think, I expect, that there will be quite a number of very able Bible-teaching, evangelically-minded leaders in the next generation anyway. 100 years is rather a long time to be forecasting. I think I can foresee some of the things that are likely to happen in the next generation.


When Graham and others like him were preaching the gospel to unbelievers and nominal Christians, the emphasis of the message was on personal salvation – being saved from hell and following Jesus and going to heaven. Some would critique that this gospel message was a bit a thin. Today, there’s a movement concerned with improving on what we’re saying in the way we share gospel. What do you think about that?

I think there’s truth in the point, and the right thing to say about a great deal of yesterday’s evangelicalism is that it was escapist. It caught the spirit of the Brethren movement more directly than any other part of the world. The Baptists came next, and uh, there have been a succession of big Baptist churches which haven’t made much difference to the community around [them]. They have concentrated on being, well, big Baptist churches. I think that there’s been a very healthy development in the past twenty, thirty years [that is] eschatology focussed round the thought of the coming of the kingdom. Kingdom’s the central idea, and there’s been a very thorough exploration of the kingdom as it’s presented in the New Testament, in which it is very decidedly a supernatural reality. The liberals naturalized the kingdom, they uh, sort of reduced it to, really, to a happy, serving, family. That was where it stopped. Liberalism is on the way out, I think, at the present. Serious, transformational kingdom thinking has been on the way in. Even if focussing on the church wasn’t Billy Graham’s big deal, it’s been the big deal for people who’ve come after Graham and have ministered in his shadow. That seems to me to be very spiritually healthy. That’s what I hope Christian leadership will excel in over the next 100 years. I ask God to give us teachers and leaders who are capable of addressing all the people, who focus their Christianity more or less on Billy Graham, what he talked on, what he gave them, and the kind of institution on evangelism that he did so well. We need to start with focussing on that, and then proceed to take up and indigenize the emphases on loving and health-giving community. I thought I saw that, in the latter day ministry anyway, of John Stott. [Stott and Graham] were good friends, and at one point in [Graham’s] ministry, when he came to England and began to think seriously about the message in a week-by-week mission for England, once he saw it, he grabbed hold of it with both hands. One of the factors there is that he and John Stott had long talks about the ministry, and it is thought, I guess with truth, that John Stott gave Billy Graham a lot of insights and stimulus for a kind of ministry, which spelled out the coming of the kingdom and did so in transformational terms..


Transformational in the culture, or in society, you mean?

Yes, that theologically transformational sense of highlighting the kingdom and the dimensions of the kingdom, the various things that need to happen if the kingdom is to come in its fullness as God intends it should.


What are some of those things?

The passion for truth, revealed truth, and thinking about life in terms of a framework of truth into which you set yourself to fit everything and assess… and judge everything. That’s a matter of central importance, I think. It is still the case that in many ministries, when the teaching of truth becomes the central agenda, the focus is nearly, if not quite exclusively, on the congregations that make up the church. What we ought to be doing is following the emphasis of Abraham Kuyper, among the Dutch immigrants in particular, which is transformational, at least when it’s appropriately embraced. It produces at least… a social conscience that shapes life, grows out of the Bible, and is constantly sustained by the Bible.


When asked if there was anything else he’d like to add, he finished,

I hadn’t planned this. I thought, and still think that in this kind of interview, the best thing that a man can do is to scoop out of the bottom of his heart the big things that are there and exhibit them. Which is what I’ve tried to do.


* i.e “puffing someone up” or making them seem like a big deal


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