Paul Eddy writes: Franklin Graham’s UK Tour sought to reach eight cities with the gospel in 2020. As of today, three out of the eight venues, the O2 in London, Liverpool and now Sheffield have refused to sign contracts with Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA,) and others may well follow.
Is this an attack on the Gospel and free speech in our country? Or, are there simpler, but significant lessons to learn from this for the Church, and indeed, for itinerant evangelists working with churches in the UK and further afield?
During the 1980s and 90s I had significant involvement with Billy Graham missions in the UK and Europe, and served on the national advisory group for Mr Graham’s Satellite relays. I also worked closely for a decade with Maurice Rowlandson, Mr Graham’s UK representative for over 40 years, and with people like Harvey Thomas, who again, had decades of experience in BGEA missions, policies and procedures.
From the very start of his ministry, Billy Graham had a simple rule: he would only go to preach in cities after considerable prayer, and after invitations from a wide spectrum of churches in those cities. Often it was not possible to get wide-support for an invitation, and even if there was, the BGEA team would often defer going until further prayer and united local support was established. All his missions to England – especially his last major one, Mission England in 1984 had such support. Whilst it is true to say that initial support was never united amongst evangelicals (mainly because Mr Graham would work with Roman Catholics), there was always a solid foundation of local church leaders actually ‘inviting’ him to work ‘with the local churches’ in mission.
Contrast that with the Franklin Graham 2020 UK Tour. First, note the title. This is not a bottom-up mission, based on what God is doing at grass roots, and the local church leaders believing that the gifts of an external evangelist were needed to help ‘harvest’ what had been sown, no. This is a ‘personal tour’ – very different.
Franklin has been CEO of BGEA for over a decade now, taking over from his father when Billy Graham was not able to make day to day decisions. His election to CEO was not without controversy, especially within the Graham family. It is widely felt by those close to BGEA in the US that Anne Graham would have been the ideal lead evangelist and CEO but, in US evangelical culture, a woman running such an international ministry would not be accepted. Sadly, in recent times, Anne has suffered with cancer, and so her health may not have been up to the demanding role in any case.
However, the change in leadership brought about a change in style – as is often the case. Mr Graham always had a close circle of advisors around him whose opinion he respected and trusted. He was always the one to finally ‘make the key decision’, and as William Martin, Graham’s authorised biographer (A Prophet with Honour) points out, he was known to make instant decisions against such advice, but he did have a team around him in the US who were prepared to stand up to Mr Graham and speak truth. It is not felt that Franklin has the same network as his father.
Here in the UK, the BGEA Board of Trustees used to be comprised of senior church leaders and, for every mission, Mr Graham would insist on an Advisory Group. They advised the Board, when requested, and also Mr Graham on issues such as local context. So much so that when Mr Graham preached during Mission England, he would ask them, and the local organising committee, for help with local sermon illustrations. Such was his humility and desire to be relevant in each local context. He knew that American illustrations and preaching in the UK what was the ‘norm’ to a church-based American audience would not work. There is no such advisory group for the Franklin Graham 2020 UK Tour.
Within the past five years, the concept of waiting for an invitation from church leaders to conduct a BGEA mission anywhere in the world has changed. Around a year after Billy Graham died, Franklin started on a worldwide preaching tour of usually, one-night (or afternoon) events, where his brand of ‘festival’ would include American gospel singers and he would bring a 25 minute message. The cities/venues chosen appear to have been so because they fell on an anniversary date (usually a year) of a former Billy Graham mission. But those close to BGEA were under no illusion: this was Franklin’s way of stamping his own position on the organisation as ‘lead evangelist’, and making it clear who now ran BGEA International.
Which brings me to the current UK tour and its issues. The first thing those of us in the UK knew about the UK Tour was in an interview that Franklin gave to Premier Radio during his Blackpool Festival (October 2018). He simply announced that he was coming back to the UK in 2020 – no details.
Those of us with BGEA past history were in contact with the UK office and the US office for details. We enquired who had sent an invitation, and how we may support. Silence greeted us. Only the statement that “full details would be announced in the Fall (autumn)”.
A number of organisations involved in Advance 2020, and UK evangelists invited by churches to certain cities also tried to find answers and details. They were greeted with the same response, thwarting ‘bottom up’, local missional plans and making their coordinated work even harder.
Finally, a meeting was held in London towards the end of last year in which the cities were announced. Had there been any invitations? No. Was there a groundswell of local prayer support? No. Had BGEA established an Advisory Group to assist Franklin Graham? No. Maybe there wasn’t time to set these up or wait for invitations? Well, no.
I have it on very good authority that four years ago, at the Breakfast hosted by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association at the National Religious Broadcasters annual event held in the US, that the Vice-President of BGEA US announced a range of Festivals that Franklin would be conducting, worldwide. Four years ago, he announced that Franklin would be conducting a multi-city festival event in the UK in 2020, including London! A friend, who was present at the breakfast went to see the VP after the event and with enthusiasm, asked hm who had coordinated such an invitation to Franklin to come to London as, after all, recent attempts for the capital had failed. The reply was staggering: “That’s not how we do things these days x”. There was also comment that BGEA felt the UK church was also a lot weaker than it was in 1984, when Billy Graham conducted his historic Mission England. My friend gave them a serious warning that coming to the UK to conduct festivals, without invitation, would undermine the church, its ongoing mission, and divide evangelicals. Sadly, his words were prophetic.
The Franklin Graham UK Tour has divided evangelicals. There are those who would say that ‘any proclamation of the gospel’ was to be encouraged and so they, and their churches, will support. Other churches believe that imposing a one-day event on a city, without invitation, is a distraction from the grass root evangelism going on and, will suck life and energy out of existing, locally planned missional events.
The three venues which, thus far, have pulled the plug on Franklin Graham preaching there have done so after protests by three different types of groups, on three different grounds. The first ground is Franklin Graham’s orthodox views on Sexuality.
Most evangelicals, myself included, would be Biblically orthodox on issues of sexuality and marriage, but would not make it the number one priority on our agenda every waking moment in our ministry! However, and it is perhaps the way that Franklin expresses his views—usually through US evangelical TV news channels—which cause many evangelical leaders unease, as well as the LGBTQI community. Most evangelicals would say that having same sex attraction is not a sin, but actually having homosexual ‘sex’ is. However, in ‘A letter to the LGBTQ community in the UK’ by Franklin Graham on 27 January, Franklin says: “The rub, I think, comes in whether God defines homosexuality as sin. The answer is yes.”
Whilst he offers an open invitation to the LGBTQ community at the end of the letter to attend his events and find “God’s love and forgiveness”, if the letter was designed to clarify his stance in any nuanced, or culturally contextualised way, it was a spectacular PR fail! Again, in previous decades such a letter would have been run through trusted UK advisers who would have seen the pitfalls of such a statement, and advised changes. Billy Graham would have made such changes.
The second group which opposes the Franklin Tour are some Muslims, and some churches working in cross-cultural situations in our multi-faith cities. Again, whilst evangelicals would agree with Franklin that the only way to the father is through Jesus Christ, his on-line rhetoric about Muslims, especially linked to what is perceived as American Christian culture, is unhelpful to many Christians working in predominantly Muslim communities in the UK. Comments made by Franklin on-line after the Americans killed the Iran General last month via a Drone attack greatly upset some Muslim leaders in Milton Keynes, and other cities.
Which leads me to the third group of objectors – those who believe Franklin’s almost daily commendation of the President of the United States, Donald Trump, is an embarrassment to evangelicals.
Now, I am no expert on US politics, or the US church scene, but it is clear to any observer that it is possible to ‘pray for those in authority’, and support good policies they make, without personally endorsing someone who quite evidently has strong views and attitudes towards women, refugees and others whom the vast majority of Christians would treat with respect and dignity. Anyone with any knowledge of the history of BGEA will know of the lessons learned by Billy Graham and his personal friendship with Mr Nixon, the former president in the whole Watergate saga. Again, William Martin’s coverage of this, and Billy Graham’s dealing with future presidents is well documented. However, it would appear that Franklin Graham has not heeded the advice his father must surely have passed onto his son.
So, where does this all leave us?
Well, it may be that other secular venues will follow suit and not sign contracts with BGEA either. It may mean that Franklin will end up preaching in large churches, and the festivals only attended by mainly committed Christians, with demonstrations outside by LGBTI groups and others, and relationships on the ground between evangelical churches, and their wider community, impacted.
But there is one way that BGEA can salvage something out of this mess. It is for Franklin to humbly stand aside from the tour, and invite his son, Will Graham, to take the preaching engagements instead.
Will is a former pastor of a church and has a great ministry amongst fellow church leaders. His style of preaching is gracious, and his invitation is one of a Prodigal father to a prodigal son, in contrast with what some have called the ‘John The Baptist’ style of his father, Franklin’s preaching.
Will Graham is younger, engages well with youth. His messages are shorter than Franklins’. They are relevant to local context as he seeks local advice like his grandfather before him. The 2020 Tour could also be the springboard for Will to a much wider, international preaching ministry.
Will Graham is wise. He does not comment on American politics, is humble, and works in partnership with local churches. My prayer is that BGEA UK Board members, if they hold governance over the BGEA charity in the UK, will call on Franklin to pass on the baton to Will, and enable far more evangelicals to get behind the preaching of the gospel via this tour – for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Paul Eddy is the Vicar of St Denys Church, Stanford in the Vale, Oxfordshire. A former journalist, he is a member of the Charity Law Association and of the Ecclesiastical Law Society.
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