By Matt Brown
Billy Graham passed away in early 2018. nearly 100 years after he was born. That day, America—and the world, really—lost one of the greatest evangelists of all time. He undoubtedly communicated the gospel message to more people face-to-face than anyone in human history. Three hundred million people heard him share the simple gospel message live, and countless millions more watched and listened through television, radio broadcasts, and online videos.
I am among those who got to hear Billy Graham preach the gospel live. As a boy, I attended his 1996 Minneapolis Crusade. I remember DC Talk rocking out the Metrodome and then hearing Billy Graham share the gospel. I remember being astonished as thousands of people from all over the stadium made their way down to the front of the stage, with tears running down their cheeks, to make a decision of faith in Jesus Christ.
We lost a living legend. In a biography written in the 1960s, the author called a prominent Christian preacher the “Billy Graham of South Africa.” People have been using variations of that phrase for nearly 60 years! Phrases like that point to the way God used Billy Graham, who maintained his humility, integrity, and focus on the gospel. Billy Graham’s message was “Christ is the only answer to the deepest needs of the human heart.”
While sharing my thoughts online after his death, I was invited as a guest to reminisce about Billy Graham’s legacy with BBC World News Service alongside several other guests throughout the day. The first several questions were about what it was like to hear Billy Graham live and to discuss how expansive his impact was. The final question mentioned a controversial statement Billy had made many years ago and asked us to respond. They said, “People say Billy Graham was intolerant. What do you think?” I was caught off guard. But I expressed my belief that anyone can throw out opinions online nowadays without knowing someone. For everyone who knew Billy Graham or was acquainted with him, he was incredibly loving and gracious.
A few weeks later, as I was reading Billy Graham’s autobiography Just as I Am, I realized how many times the press around the world had asked him similar questions. Before Billy Graham’s first London crusade, he faced a flurry of angry media criticism and questions. Ironically, all the negative media attention gave the crusade much more press and public interest than it ever would have had without the criticism.
Years later, when Billy Graham was back in England, the press had become friendlier after seeing the ways God had used him positively in the region. During that visit, he had the opportunity to meet C. S. Lewis, who wasn’t yet widely known in America for The Chronicles of Narnia or Mere Christianity. Billy’s wife, Ruth, had been reading The Chronicles of Narnia prior to the trip. C. S. Lewis greeted Billy Graham as they spent some time together, and said, “You have many critics Billy Graham, but no one who has actually met you has a single bad thing to say about you.”
In our world, it is easier than ever to make divisive, critical, and blanket statements about others. We think we can say whatever we want without spiritual consequences. But the Bible calls us to a different way of speaking and living.
Why would anyone think Billy Graham was intolerant? In part, it is because Billy Graham would preach the Bible, preach against sin, and call people to Christ as the only answer to lasting peace and joy in the human heart. People think he was intolerant in part because he believed what the Bible has to say about human sinfulness.
Society is changing these days. The New Yorker recently posted an article about “Chick-fil-A’s Creepy Infiltration of New York City.” The article says, “The brand’s arrival here feels like an infiltration, in no small part because of its pervasive Christian traditionalism.” Seriously? The people touting tolerance in our culture have become surprisingly intolerant about Christians. If the New Yorker article had been about a restaurant with owners from any other religious group, it would never have been allowed to be published, not even by the National Enquirer.
People are okay with intolerance toward people they think are intolerant. Jesus taught, “You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:22). And “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).
Truth is not always popular. Sometimes the truth gets you in trouble. But God calls us to walk in both his love and his truth, no matter the consequences.
Billy Graham has written about a season where he wrestled with the truth of God’s Word. He had been traveling around the United States and the United Kingdom doing large youth rallies for an organization called Youth for Christ. One of the other speakers, Chuck Templeton, was on some of those trips with him, and they became good friends. Chuck had begun seminary and had started to wrestle with the authority of God’s Word. He had come to believe there were errors in the Bible that couldn’t be resolved and that the Bible was antiquated in parts. Chuck, even as a pastor, began to believe the Bible couldn’t be taken literally, and he asked his friend Billy some of his questions.
One time, the two men had both traveled to the San Bernardino Mountains in Southern California to speak at a camp called Forest Home run by a Christian educator named Henrietta Mears. Billy, still wrestling with Chuck’s questions, told Henrietta what he was going through, and that he felt too weary to fulfill his speaking engagement. Henrietta, along with another leader, J. Edwin Orr, gave Billy some incredible insights about the authority of God’s Word—good answers to the questions Chuck was raising. For example, Jesus spoke regularly about the Old Testament stories as truth. So if we can trust Jesus, we can trust the Bible.
That evening, Billy made his way down a mountain trail near the camp and laid his Bible on a tree stump. He cried out to God in prayer: “God I don’t understand everything about your Word, or have answers to all the questions that Chuck is raising, but I put my trust in Your Word, by faith.” Tears stung his cheeks, and he sensed the presence of God overwhelm him in a way he hadn’t felt for many months. The next morning, Billy fulfilled his obligation to preach at Forest Home. He preached with a new authority, and hundreds of people made decisions for Jesus Christ at the service.
Just a few weeks later, Billy Graham began preaching a planned series of meetings, which became his historic 1949 LA crusade. The crusade was picked up by major media outlets and ultimately thrust his ministry into the national spotlight. Many celebrities (including Louis Zamperini), media personalities, and even mobsters made decisions for Jesus Christ throughout this crusade.
Interestingly, Chuck Templeton, who had asked Billy the questions, eventually denounced his Christian faith and went on to become a well-known broadcaster in Canada. My friend Lee Strobel had an opportunity to meet with Chuck late in his life at his penthouse suite in Toronto. During the day they spent together, Lee asked him about his struggle and search for truth throughout his life. As a former atheist, Lee tried to give Chuck good answers he had discovered along his own spiritual journey. At one point, Chuck confessed to Lee, “I miss Jesus.” After spending most of his life denying the truth of Jesus, Chuck couldn’t get away from the longing in his heart for Jesus.
In a day when people feel like they can believe whatever they want, and no one is allowed to tell them otherwise, we need truth plus love more than ever.
Imagine what our world might look like if Christians became known for remarkable love, as well as life-giving truth.
The stakes are high and the need is great for Christians to represent Jesus to a watching world. And today, we have more influence than ever before—for better and for worse. We are among the first generations to have access to a global megaphone through social media. But it’s not enough to speak truth louder to a noisy culture. To counter the reputation Christians have earned, our love must be just as loud.
Ask evangelist Matt Brown, and he will tell you Christians today are facing a crisis of influence. In our rush to speak truth to today’s tensions, cultural issues, and trending controversies, it becomes all too easy to focus on proving our points rather than extending God’s grace. Conversely, when we seek only to love yet never proclaim a better way, we short-circuit God’s plan.
Truth Plus Love invites you to rediscover the biblical framework for engaging culture as ambassadors of Christ. Through biblical insight, cultural analysis, and practical principles, Matt Brown outlines how to champion truth without compromise, how to love unconditionally, and ultimately, how to step into this great adventure of representing God to the world. It’s hard, it’s messy, and it’s the unfinished project of a lifetime, yet here we find our great adventure: representing God to a watching world.
Matt Brown is an evangelist, author, and founder of Think Eternity, a ministry dedicated to amplifying the gospel every day to millions through devotionals, videos, live events, and more. Matt and his wife Michelle and their two sons live in Minnesota. You can follow Matt on social media at @evangelistmatt and at thinke.org.