With the passing of Billy Graham overnight there is much to thank God for in terms of his ministry and impact, not only within Christianity in the twentieth century but the world at large. Billy had an impact in over 180 countries and is said to have a major influence in seeing over 200 million people come to know Jesus for themselves.
He is quite possibly the greatest evangelist ever, in the same ilk as Whitefield, Wesley, and Spurgeon.
During the 1950s and 60s my grandfather, Gordon Coombs, was the pastor of Opawa Baptist Church in Christchurch, New Zealand. A few months ago, I had a brief conversation about what pastoral ministry was like in those days, trying to mine as much gold as possible. Part of that conversation, I remembered this morning, was about the 1959 Billy Graham crusade in Christchurch. In light of Billy’s passing I thought I’d give him a call and see whether he would be willing to reflect a little more about that time.
Here are some of those memories and reflections.
The 1959 crusade was held just down the road from Opawa Baptist Church (OBC), at Lancaster Park. Literally, they are on the same street. Being the pastor of the most local church to the stadium there was clearly going to be some involvement.
As Gordon remembers there were three main areas he was involved in.
The first was to be on the organising committee for the eight-day long crusade. This involved preparation meetings and co-ordination with other churches in the city to stage such a large event.
The second main task he had, with the help or many other volunteers from other churches, was to be the host church for the follow-up of the crusade. This involved the use of OBC’s large hall where all the response cards would be collected, sorted, and distributed to the various churches across the city. After each night meeting, and once the counselling had been completed, this follow-up process would begin in the OBC hall and involve many volunteers late into the night and early morning.
And the third task, of vital importance, was to allow the crusade to borrow the brand new OBC organ for the entire eight days. This organ was expensive, it was new, and it was seen as a highly prised possession of OBC. And it would be sitting out in the middle of Lancaster Park day and night. However, after one of the Sunday morning services had been completed Gordon proceeded to announce the situation to the congregation. He asked for their thoughts, even though he didn’t know whether they would allow it. And as he said,
“There were some of the older people who put up their hands in opposition to this idea, but I told them that if we did this I am sure the Lord would bless us for it. And in doing so we had 40 new conversions out of the crusade.”
And it was these 40 new conversions that increased the size of the congregation by a third. For the churches there were new people joining congregations all over the city. There was an increased vigour in evangelism and almost a mini-revival.
“Some of the older people thankfully got their noses out of joint because they couldn’t sit in their same seat at church anymore, but there were some marvellous people who joined OBC in those days through the influence of the crusade”.
And it wasn’t only the churches that felt the impact. It seems that a by-product of this crusade, particularly in the community, was a freedom to speak about Christianity; “for a short period of time Billy Graham and his crusades were on everyone’s lips”. And this allowed for people to speak freely to their friends and neighbours about the Christian faith.
Being on the committee Gordon did get to meet the man himself, meeting him as he arrived at the airport in Christchurch. Apparently, his eldest son (not even five at the time) was keen to go and meet him too but had a serious fever at the time. This meant he could only go as far as the airport window and look out in envy. But what Gordon does remember of him and his ministry was that of a humble man, committed to preaching the biblical gospel to everyone he could.
It is interesting to note that his arrival and ministry through the crusade also bought with it challenges. Some of the ministers in the city were not in favour of his coming because “they wouldn’t go along with his biblical emphasis”. And this is nothing new to those of us who have read a little about his ministry and methods. But he did,
“…bring renewal in the life of many ministers and because of his emphasis on the bible there came an increase in biblical preaching and the restoration of the authority of God’s word; it’s importance and centrality.”
If nothing else, I had a great conversation with my grandfather and was again reminded of how God continues to be at work in times and places and with people we will never know.
RIP Billy Graham.
Below are a couple of photos from the time of the crusade, various people meeting Mr and Mrs Graham.