Experts Say There Won’t Be Another Graham

NEW YORK – There are evangelical pastors who fill American megachurches each Sunday and others who sell millions of books. Some pack stadiums with their preaching. But none is likely to fill the singular role played by the Rev. Billy Graham, whose weekend revival meeting in Queens may well have been his last in the United States.

Evangelicalism — and the nation — have changed too much for one person to emerge as America’s pastor the way Graham did, those who study U.S. religion say.

“So many different things went into the making of the influential figure that he was. It’s hard to imagine they would come together in exactly the same way again,” said Mark Noll, an expert on American evangelicals at Wheaton College in Illinois.

Even Graham’s children who became evangelists have no expectations of taking his place.

His son, the Rev. Franklin Graham, is president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and preaches around the world, but is known more for his international humanitarian work than his evangelism. He is also more outspoken than his father. He caused an uproar after Sept. 11, 2001, by calling Islam “a very evil and wicked religion.”

A daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, is so popular among evangelicals that her revivals, mainly aimed at women, fill arenas. Yet many conservative Christians do not accept female preachers.

Noll said the elder Graham’s ascendance was the result of his personal qualities, message and his era.

Billy Graham gained popularity during a 1940s postwar religious boom, when church attendance and seminary enrollment were rising, religion books were best sellers and preachers were filling tent revivals. “For evangelists, it was like being a stockbroker in a runaway bull market,” wrote William Martin, author of “A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story.”

The modern media age was beginning with just a few TV networks, and Graham drew extensive coverage with his city-by-city crusades. He so captured the public imagination that Hollywood studios wanted to make him a movie star.

At the same time, a new evangelicalism was taking shape, with Graham as one of its leading proponents. In a split with strict fundamentalists who held themselves apart from nonbelievers, Graham-style Protestants were engaging with other religious groups and society at large.

Today’s religious and cultural landscape bears little resemblance to that time.

Evangelicals are now firmly established in the mainstream of religious and political life, playing major roles in national politics and building congregations so strong that they have become models of church communities — even for those of other faiths.

The evangelical movement has also grown bigger and more fragmented than when Graham came on the scene. Many independent churches and ministries are promoting their own style of worship, made more diverse by an influx of immigrant Christians, particularly from the Third World.

“There clearly was a particular kind of leadership vacuum that Billy Graham stepped into, and in a sense grew into, to give form and shape and ethos to a new movement,” said David Neff, editor of Christianity Today, a magazine Graham helped found. “That movement was born back then in the early ’50s and we’re in a very different situation today.”

The proliferation of secular and religious media outlets have made it nearly impossible for one preacher to have the impact Graham did.

Many prominent pastors today, such as Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in California, Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church in Houston, and Bishop T.D. Jakes of The Potter’s House in Dallas, can sell millions of books, fill stadiums and appear regularly on TV. But they still don’t rise to the same level of prominence as Graham, who has been sought out by U.S. presidents and world leaders, and transformed how conservative Christians view their place in the world.

“I think Billy Graham came into public awareness at a time when it was still possible for a single individual to initiate something new and become a leading spokesperson,” said Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, a prominent evangelical school in Pasadena, Calif. “I don’t think we’ll see a person like that come along again.”

Prior to the three-day event in New York, Graham said he was “sure” the crusade was his last in the United States (an event in London is being discussed). But on Sunday, Graham told the crowd, “We hope to come back again someday.”

When he does retire, it is likely that several evangelists from different streams of conservative Christianity will quietly take on Graham’s work, Martin said.

They may come from the burgeoning Pentecostal churches or from the nation’s black congregations. Pastors from Africa or Latin America could also play a role.

Franklin Graham recalled years ago when his father was speaking before 10,000 evangelists and was asked who would take his place when he retired. He stretched out his arms to them and said, “You.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
AP, via Yahoo News, USA
June 27, 2005
Rachel Zoll, AP Religion Writer

Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday June 28, 2005.
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