Tele-evangelism and Billy Graham

In 1958 there was no television in South Africa, while in the USA, tele-evangelism had just got off the ground. The Billy Graham film that I was watching (see  previous post) was one of the films made between 1950 and 1954 of one of his crusades. In the early 1980s, when I was a French teacher at Mmabatho High School, I was caught up in the “Word of Faith” movement where Jimmy Swaggert and Kenneth Copeland were among the foremost leaders. I collected many of their television programmes. A few days, ago, I received an email from an ex-teacher of Mmabatho High School –  I hadn’t had any contact with him for 23 years since leaving the School in 1987 – who thanked me for the invites to my house to watch these videos. I no longer believe in much taught by the “Word of Faith” movement nor in the merit of  tele-evangelism. This does not mean that God cannot stretch His arm through the TV screen and pluck out the viewer’s heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh[1], which on the face of it, appears to be through the evangelist’s mediation; it could very well be in spite of the evangelist’s face – and all the other stuff. Nobody will ever know, and that is good. Nobody cares? That’s not good.

Most tele-evangelism is entertainment. Lots of fishing, but no fish. The people who have a real Christian conversion on TV are minimal. Billy Graham, in contrast, might be a different kettle of fish. I, for one, was very moved by him. But being moved is not the same as having the ground ripped from under you and undergoing a permanent change where Christ remains all in all – where Christ drew me, I came, I made Him and continued to live His life in the assurance that He will never let me out of His hand; that I had eternal life; that I obeyed His commands and produced the fruit of the Spirit, and continued to do so, persevering and preserved to the end.

There is something about Billy Graham, though, that is different to all the other tele-evangelists. “…there is a consensus (says Tony Campolo[2]) among most evangelicals that Billy Graham is in a class by himself, and that what is true for him is not true for the rest of us…A majority of those who have been converted because of television sermons cite Billy Graham’s as the ones that reached them.” Campolo, however, adds the caveat that even where people say that they have been converted by Billy Graham, he was not the main factor in their conversion. “In most instances, peole who were led to Christ be television sermons were watching the show with Christians, who, prior to and following the show, expressed love and gave backup explanations of the meaning of slavation. Consequently it is uncertain whether the sermons or the Christian friends were what was crucial.” I’d like to go further and suggest that it is not even sure whether the Christian friends were crucial for God’s purposes will be fulfilled – to save those He gave His Son before the world began:

“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world.Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours (John 17:6-9).

“For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he  predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will Ephesians (1:4 – 5).

“The electronic church (concludes William Fore) is great show business, a powerful audience grabber, and very much in tune with the times. But its popularity is more indicative that it has become just a part of TV`s entertainment package with a religious gloss than that it is the good news of the Christian faith.”

God will find a way for his sheep to hear or read the message of salvation; sometimes, even through TV.


[1] I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26).

[2] Tony Campolo, “20 hot potatoes Christians are afraid to touch,”  pp. 73-74, Word Publishers.

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