What is Franklin Graham’s “Decision America” Tour All About?

In 1950, Billy Graham started a radio show called “Hour of Decision.” Cliff Barrows, Graham’s musical director, hosted the show.  It featured Graham sermons and usually ended with a call to make a “decision” to accept Jesus Christ as savior and be born-again.

Billy Graham’s sermons often included political commentary (usually something about the evils of communism), but when the evangelist talked about a “decision,” it was always meant in a spiritual context.

Franklin Graham, Billy’s son, is current on the road on a tour he is calling “Decision America.”  When a reporter asked Franklin “what is the question being decided?” by his tour,  he gave an answer that would have made his father proud:

If you can’t see the video in the tweet, here is a summary of what Graham says:

[By “decision” I mean] where do you stand before God.  Are you ready to meet Him…Life is coming to an end for all of us one day and are we ready to stand before God at that point.  I believe there is God.  He sent His son to die for our sins….The problems in this world is because of our sin of the human heart. So I hope many people will come.  I hope many people will put their faith and trust in Christ and they’ll have their lives changed forever.

But is this really what “Decision America” is really all about?  Is this tour just about the preaching of the Gospel?  We will have to see how the tour unfolds.

In the meantime, check out Alana Schorr’s Associated Press piece on Decision America’s Greenville, North Carolina stop.  The piece does not say that Graham used his platform to preach politics explicitly, but I think Schorr’s is right when she suggests that when Graham makes reference to the “trouble” our country is facing, he is probably referring to the Democratic attempts to impeach Trump.  It is hard to understand this in any other way in light of Graham’s court evangelicalism.

GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Rev. Franklin Graham did not utter the word “impeachment” as he spoke to thousands of Christians here this week, the latest stop on a long-running tour he has dubbed Decision America — a title with political and religious undertones.

But evangelicals who turned out to see Graham didn’t necessarily need his warning that “our country is in trouble” in order to tap into their deep-rooted support for President Donald Trump during an intensifying political crisis hundreds of miles north in Washington.

“I do feel like we are, as Christians, the first line of defense for the president,” Christina Jones, 44, said before Graham took the stage. Trump is “supporting our Christian principles and trying to do his best,” she added, even as “everybody’s against him.”

The impeachment furor is the latest test of Trump’s seemingly unbreakable bond with conservative evangelical Christians. Trump suggested this week that the peril of impeachment would only cement his ties to that voting bloc, which helped propel him into office, and supporters who have stood by him through accusations of sexual assault and infidelity see no reason to back away from a president they view as unfairly beleaguered.

Frances Lassiter, 65, dismissed Democrats’ pursuit of a case against Trump as “all a bunch of crap” designed to push him from office.

Read the entire piece here.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And don’t forget to sue.

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Last April, four Wheaton College students were distributing evangelistic literature in Chicago’s Millennium Park.  They were doing so in an area of the park that does not allow “the making of speeches and passing out of written communications.”  When a security guard told them to stop passing-out the literature, one of them began “open-air” preaching.  The students are now suing the city of Chicago because they believe that the city violated their freedom of speech and free exercise of religion.  Among other things, they want to be awarded “damages for violation” of their “constitutional and statutory rights and for the injuries and unlawful burdens it has incurred.”

Mauck & Baker, a Chicago law firm specializing in religious freedom, is defending the students.  Partner Richard Baker is a 1977 Wheaton College graduate.

Here is a Chicago Tribune story on the case.

I don’t know who is legally correct in this case. I actually appreciate designated parts of public parks that are free of political speeches, literature distribution, and proselytizing of all kinds.  On the other hand, as an evangelical Christian I am glad to see these young men sharing their faith.  I hope they continue to do so and continue to trust God to open up opportunities for them.

This case has started me thinking about the relationship between Christian persecution and American “rights.”  How should Christians balance their rights as citizens with Bible verses that encourage them to rejoice in suffering and persecution?  It seems that the Bible speaks about persecution and suffering as a spiritual virtue, rather than something that should be opposed in a court of law.  Doesn’t suffering lead us toward hope and a deeper understanding of our faith and reliance upon God?  When we are persecuted for Christ should we expect the government to provide us with damages for our emotional distress?

Matthew 5:10 says that we are “blessed” when we are persecuted for doing what is right. The kingdom of heaven awaits those of us who are persecuted.

Or 1 Peter 4:12-14: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”

What is the theological relationship between sharing in Christ’s sufferings and bringing a legal suit on the city of Chicago?”

How about 1 Peter 3:14-17: “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled,  but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,  having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.  For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.”

Persecuted Christians should not be “troubled.”

Of course no one wants to suffer or face persecution.  When we see such persecution around the world we must speak against it.  To do so is an act of justice.  But when I heard that these Wheaton students were suing the city, something did not seem right.

I am sure that theologians, biblical commentators, and political philosophers have wrestled with the relationship between the Bible’s teaching on persecution and the defense American rights.  Can anyone recommend some good reading on this topic?  (I know the comments are closed, so feel free to hit me up on Facebook or Twitter).

Free Excerpt from *Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump*

Believe Me 3dWhat is perhaps most disturbing about [Dallas megachurch pastor Robert] Jeffress’s [book] Twlight’s Last Gleaming is the way in which his deeply held passion for sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with others is neutralized by his political agenda.  The book begins with a foreword by former Arkansas governor and GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee: “If you are looking for a sweet little ‘bookette’ that is politically correct and safe to read and share with staunch unbelievers so as not to offend them, then put this book down and keep looking.”  In the first sentence of the first page, Huckabee alienates unbelievers and, in the process, undermines everything Jeffress says in the book about the importance of evangelism.  But Jeffress proves in the pages that follow that he does not need Huckabee’s help in weakening his gospel witness.  Jeffress urges his readers to give up on the culture wars and focus on their “unprecedented chance” in these final days of humankind to “point people to the hope of Jesus Christ.”  Then he spends the rest of his book teaching readers how to more effectively win the culture wars.  At one point in the book Jeffress attributes the steep decline in the number of new converts baptized in the Southern Baptist Church to spiritually weak church members who are afraid to offend anyone with the claims of the gospel.  Jeffress may be correct.  But the possibility that the decline in baptisms is related to the fact that most Americans now associate the gospel with partisan politics does not appear to have even crossed his mind.

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, p. 128-129.

I Found Common Ground with Darryl Hart for the Second Time This Year!!!

Hillsdale Church

This is the second time this year that Darryl Hart has agreed with something I wrote.  :-)(The first time was here).  Here is a taste of his recent post at Old Life:

Glad to see John Fea stand up for evangelism (in response to the news of John Allen Chau’s death) as something distinct from social justice:

Read the entire post here.

If ever get a chance to visit Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church I fully expect to see copies of the “Four Spiritual Laws” prominently displayed in the narthex right next to the free copies of the Westminster Confession of Faith.  (Or perhaps they prefer D. James Kennedy’s Evangelism Explosion!)

The Author’s Corner with Donald Akenson

51i8JUNVXDL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Donald Akenson is Douglas Professor of Canadian and Colonial History at Queen’s University. This interview is based on his new book Exporting the Rapture: John Nelson Darby and the Victorian Conquest of North-American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Exporting the Rapture?

DA: This is the second volume in my three-volume set on where and how radical apocalyptic millennialism was built into its central position in American conservative evangelicalism. The first volume, Discovering the End of Time was published in 2016 by McGill-Queens University Press.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Exporting the Rapture?

DA: The big argument is that the ideological core of American evangelicalism was formed overseas and in the period 1860ff began to be energetically imported into North America. Surprisingly, the germinal ground was southern Ireland in the 1820s and thereafter. The entry point was the Great Lakes Basin and the subsequent process was equally a matter of Canadian and US assimilation of imported concepts. That is simple to state, but the process was anything but linear.

JF: Why do we need to read Exporting the Rapture?

DA: Mostly to help us escape the mortmain of American Exceptionalism, which, despite the heroic efforts of some fine historians, too frequently comes forth as American Parochialism.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

DA: I am an historian of Ireland, and of the Second British Empire and of the diasporas that had their origin in the British Isles. For a long time now, I have been arguing that in diaspora studies religion not only counts, it counts a great deal—despite its being marginalized by most historians of physical migration and by their counterparts in the field of cultural studies.

JF: What is your next project?

DA: To complete the third volume of the study and to bring the story up to the first decade of the twentieth century, when the new apocalyptic evangelicalism won.

JF: Thanks, Donald!

The Author’s Corner with Adam Laats

9780190665623Adam Laats is a professor of Teaching, Learning and Educational Leadership at Binghamton University. This interview is based on his new book, Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education (Oxford University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Fundamentalist U?

AL: Over the years, as I researched the history of conservatism and evangelicalism in American education, I couldn’t help but notice the enormous influence of the network of conservative-evangelical colleges and universities. Back in the 1920s, the parlous state of higher education was one of the first concerns of conservative-evangelical intellectuals and activists. Back then, the linchpin of fundamentalist culture-war strategy was the notion of establishing their own, independent, interdenominational, fundamentalist colleges and universities. I wanted to know how the network of these evangelical institutions developed over the course of the twentieth century.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Fundamentalist U?

AL: Evangelicalism stubbornly resists definition. In order to understand it, we should look at the dynamics of its institutions, not only at the statements of its leaders.

JF: Why do we need to read Fundamentalist U?

AL: Anyone who hopes to understand American evangelicalism should study its institutions, and colleges, seminaries, institutes, and universities have been among the most influential evangelical institutions. Why did “fundamentalists” separate from “evangelicals?” How has creationism evolved? What does it mean to be a good, godly spouse or parent? How can white evangelicals confront the legacy of white Christian racism? These issues roiled evangelicalism throughout the twentieth century, and institutions of higher education were often the stages on which the debates played out.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? (Or if you are not an American historian, how did you get interested in the study of the past?)

AL: I fell into it backwards. I taught high-school history and English and became fascinated with the weird ways schools function as social institutions. I wanted to understand schools, so I began studying their history. I’m still hoping to figure it out.

JF: What is your next project?

AL: I’ve moved back in time to the early 1800s. Back then, a British reformer named Joseph Lancaster promised he had found the solution to urban poverty. By implementing his “system,” cities such as Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, and Boston hoped to develop schools that would teach low-income children how to read, write, cipher, and show up on time for work. It didn’t work. I’m trying to figure out why so many prominent leaders, including Governor DeWitt Clinton of New York and philanthropist Roberts [sic] Vaux of Philadelphia believed in what one early historian called Lancaster’s “delusion” of school reform.

JF: Thanks, Adam!

The Author’s Corner with Peter Moore

9781498569903.jpgPeter Moore is Professor of History at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. This interview is based on his new book, Archibald Simpson’s Unpeaceable Kingdom: The Ordeal of Evangelicalism in the Colonial South (Lexington Books, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Archibald Simpson’s Unpeaceable Kingdom: The Ordeal of Evangelicalism in the Colonial South?

PM: When I was a graduate student in the early stages of doing research on what would eventually become my dissertation/first book, I was exploring the mysterious death of William Richardson, an evangelical Presbyterian minister in backcountry South Carolina who had either (depending on the source) hanged himself, been murdered by an enemy, or died at his devotions. There was an account of his death in the diary of his coreligionist and close friend Archibald Simpson, which I found on microfilm in the wonderful archive of the now shuttered Presbyterian Historical Society in Montreat. The diary was not, to say the least, reader-friendly, but it seemed to have a lot of rich material for the social and religious history of the colonial lowcountry. So when I finished the first book, I decided to transcribe and edit Simpson’s diary, parts of which I published in 2012. The diary turned out to be even more amazing as a source than I could have imagined back in 1999, and since I was already so deep into the project, writing a cultural biography of Simpson was a logical next step.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Archibald Simpson’s Unpeaceable Kingdom: The Ordeal of Evangelicalism in the Colonial South?

PM: Evangelicals met with fierce opposition from all directions as they tried to impose an evangelical order on churches and communities in the late-colonial southern lowcountry. Despite the great midcentury revivals, the steady stream of religious dissenters who poured into the region, and all the noise evangelicals made about slave conversions, Simpson’s story suggests that there was no evangelical movement in colonial South Carolina, just a frustrating evangelical slog.

JF: Why do we need to read Archibald Simpson’s Unpeaceable Kingdom: The Ordeal of Evangelicalism in the Colonial South?

PM: This book is a microhistory of transatlantic evangelicalism. Although the heart of the argument deals with the colonial south, four of the ten chapters are set in southwestern Scotland, where Simpson grew up and where he died in 1795. Aside from engaging the debate over the significance of evangelicalism in the pre-Revolutionary American south, the book explores evangelicals’ inner world and the boundaries of religious experience, the really important role of pastoral care in building evangelicals’ credibility, the complicated relationship between evangelicals, slavery, and slaves, and the impact of the Revolutionary War on transatlantic communities, among other things. As a biography it treats these issues in an interesting narrative format. I should add that Simpson’s dour Presbyterian exterior masked his intense emotions, his sorrows and insecurities, and his rich inner life, all of which he poured into his diary. It was both challenging and fun to bring these out in the book, especially in the chapters on courtship and marriage (he was a really bad suitor) and when he runs away from George Whitefield’s orphanage.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

PM: I was not a history major as an undergraduate, and when I made my first attempt at graduate school I studied religion, not history, at Vanderbilt University. One of my first classes was Jack Fitzmier’s seminar on Puritanism, which opened my eyes to the possibilities of religious history and the way it intersected with society, ideas, politics, culture, and psychology. While there I was also fortunate to be able to take two courses on Southern history from David Carleton in Vanderbilt’s history department, and I was hooked. I dropped out of the program, but when I grew up a bit more and returned to graduate school later at the University of Georgia, I was all about southern religious history. At a more personal level, my research projects have also been something of an exercise in working out questions about my own identity as a southerner, spirituality as a Christian, and notions of community and belonging.

JF: What is your next project?

PM: I am in the early stages of research on the failed attempt by Scottish Covenanters to plant a colony (Stuarts Town) in South Carolina in the mid-1680s. Some of this is familiar ground — Presbyterianism, religious history, colonial South Carolina — but much of it is new, a bit intimidating, and very exciting because it brings me into the seventeenth century, the Spanish borderlands, and Indian history.

JF: Thanks, Peter!

This Explains a Lot

Great Commission

According to Barna, 51% of churchgoers have never heard of the Great Commission.

Here is a taste of Barna’s research:

In partnership with Seed Company, Barna conducted a study of the U.S. Church’s ideas about missions, social justice, Bible translation and other aspects of spreading the gospel around the world, available now in the new report Translating the Great Commission. When asked if they had previously “heard of the Great Commission,” half of U.S. churchgoers (51%) say they do not know this term. It would be reassuring to assume that the other half who know the term are also actually familiar with the passage known by this name, but that proportion is low (17%). Meanwhile, “the Great Commission” does ring a bell for one in four (25%), though they can’t remember what it is. Six percent of churchgoers are simply not sure whether they have heard this term “the Great Commission” before.

Are Evangelicals Bothered When They Are Called “Hypocritical?”

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They should be.

Recently I typed the word “hypocrite” and “evangelicals” into a search engine.  Here are just some of the articles I found.  Nearly all of them are written by non-evangelicals:

Focus on hypocrisy: Evangelicals hush on the Trump’s porn star

Is ‘Evangelical’ Synonymous With Hypocrite”

“Billy Graham’s granddaughter smack down modern evangelicals for ‘hypocritical’ Trump support

Exposing America’s Biggest Hypocrites: Evangelical Christians

Why don’t Christians insist on Christ-like values in their leaders?

“Christian Support for Roy Moore ‘Looks Like Hypocrisy to the Outside World”

Roy Moore and the hypocrisy of America’s evangelicals

Trump’s Evangelical Fans Preach the Gospel of Greed, Not Grace

Yeah, Mike Pence is a raging hypocritical–but not because of his puritanical private life

Are evangelicals bothered by this?  Has anyone stopped to consider that our political choices are hurting our Gospel witness in the world?  Some conservative evangelicals will be quick to say that the kind of articles I listed above represent a form of persecution.  The “world,” they will say, does not understand the foolishness of the Gospel.  They will say that we should expect this kind of criticism from the unbelieving world.  This view must be rejected.  Why?  Because the criticisms in the articles above are mostly accurate and fair.  They should force all evangelicals to look in the mirror.

I usually don’t dabble in the kind of providentialism that leads one to claim that Donald Trump is a new King Cyrus, but perhaps, just perhaps, God is using the unbelieving world to rebuke American evangelicals for their hypocrisy.  (Providentialism can take us in a lot of different directions.  Once we open the door to it, the possibilities are endless.  This is why it is not a very useful tool for making sense of our world–past and present.  Right now we see through a glass darkly).

Recently, in a class I am teaching at my church on Christianity and politics, we were discussing the core tenets of American evangelicalism.  One of those tenets is evangelism. If evangelicals are indeed committed to sharing our faith in this world, and being “salt and light” in the culture, then shouldn’t this somehow factor into our political choices?  Should we be casting our lot with political candidates who will make it more difficult to bear witness to our faith?  When opportunities arise to testify to the “reason for the hope that is in you” must we always begin with a caveat explaining why we did or did not vote for Donald Trump?  Don’t laugh– I have already heard multiple stories from folks who are finding it much more difficult to talk about their faith with non-Christians.

When did tax cuts and Supreme Court justices become central to the proclamation of the “good news” in the world?

Grant Wacker on Billy Graham’s 1957 New York Crusade

WackerI have always been fascinated by this Billy Graham crusade. When I was in divinity school I wrote an M.A. thesis on separatist Protestant fundamentalism in the 20th century.  The 1957 crusade was a key part of my story.

Over at the blog “Evangelical History,” Justin Taylor interviews Graham biographer Grant Wacker about the 1957 Crusade, which got underway 60 years ago yesterday.

Here is a taste:

Setting aside whatever influences on the culture this crusade might have had, historians recognize that one of the most significant internal legacies from this summer was Graham’s decision about partnering with modernists, moderates, and mainliners.

The New York crusade embodied and portended one of the most important strategic decisions of Graham’s entire life. He determined that he would work with anyone who would work with him if (1) they accepted the deity of Christ and if (2) they did not ask him to change his message.

In practice he quietly overlooked the “deity of Christ” provision. He accepted the help mainline of Protestants who probably would have the affirmed the divinity but not necessarily the deity of Christ, and of Jews, who found his emphasis on God, patriotism, and decency appealing.

But the second provision—“if they do not expect me to change my message”—proved absolutely non-negotiable. There is no evidence anyone tried.

Inclusiveness worked—on the whole. As I noted earlier, the invitation to New York came from a majority of the churches, evangelical and mainline. It is hard to generalize about Catholics, but signs abound that thousands of ordinary believers and many members of the Catholic clergy supported him. Some Jews, too.

That being said, fundamentalists relentlessly opposed Graham’s effort in New York and, from then, pretty much everywhere else. By working with so-called liberals and Catholics, they reasoned, he had sacrificed doctrine for success, and the price was too high. Their opposition could be called “the bitterness of disillusioned love.” In their eyes, Graham had once been one of them, but he had left the family, never to return.

The diversity was not only religious but also included men and women from a variety of occupations and social levels. The crusade was sponsored and undoubtedly partly funded by leading figures in the business community, such as George Champion, vice president (soon president) of Chase Manhattan Bank, one of the largest in the nation. The nightly meetings featured a retinue of testimonials from prominent entertainers, politicians, and military men. Anecdotal evidence suggests that thousands of ordinary people—more often readers of the New York Post than the New York Times—talked about the meetings on the subways and in street corner diners.

Read the entire interview here.

Should “Trump-Loving” Evangelicals Apologize to Bill Clinton?

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James Dobson made a strong case for the moral character of the President of the United States during the Clinton impeachment crisis in 1998.  You can read about it here.

So did Wayne Grudem.  You can read about it here.

It has now been well-chronicled that Dobson and Grudem have come out in support of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy.

So does moral character still matter?

Writing at The Atlantic, Jonathan Merritt calls attention to what seems to be the hypocrisy of these “Trump-Loving evangelicals.” He demands that “Trump-loving evangelicals should either apologize to Bill Clinton or admit, after all these years, that they too, have a character issue.”

He adds:

“Character counts.” That was evangelicals’ rallying cry in their all-out assault against Bill Clinton beginning in 1993. In response to what they perceived as widespread moral decline, some religious groups had become aligned with the Republican Party during the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. To them, the allegedly draft-dodging, pot-smoking, honesty-challenged womanizer symbolized everything that was wrong with America.

More than two decades after Clinton’s first inauguration, many evangelical leaders of that era have endorsed the draft-dodging, foul-mouthed, honesty-challenged womanizer named Donald Trump for president. Only a handful refuse to follow suit, including Albert Mohler, the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. During the Clinton years, he regularly argued in mainstream media outlets that the Arkansan was morally unfit to serve as Commander-in-Chief.

“If I were to support, much less endorse, Donald Trump for president,” Mohler says, “I would actually have to go back and apologize to former President Bill Clinton.”

At least Mohler is consistent, which is more than can be said for some of his peers in leadership. While prominent evangelicals tied Bill Clinton to the public whipping post for nearly a decade to make him pay penance for his character defects, they now celebrate a reality-television star who is at least as flawed. As Mohler said, if these Christian leaders want to endorse Trump, they should apologize to Bill Clinton…

…Evangelicals during the ’90s were not merely concerned with Clinton’s private behavior; they were worried about its effect on a society they felt had already abandoned traditional values. In September 1998, James Dobson of Focus on the Family sent a letter to 2.4 million conservative Christians claiming Clinton should be impeached because his behavior was setting a bad example for our children about “respecting women.” Dobson’s apparent concern for women back then feels like a partisan political move now that he’s given Trump an enthusiastic endorsement.

While Clinton, at least, hid his indiscretions, Trump has paraded his affairs down Broadway for decades. In The Art of the Deal, Trump actually bragged about bedding multiple married women. He’s slept with so many women that he called his ability to avoid STDs “my personal Vietnam.” He’s objectified or insulted the women he hasn’t married, divorced, or slept with, labeling those he finds unattractive with terms like “fat pig,” “dog” or “slob.” In numerous interviews with Howard Stern, he talked in graphic detail about his sexual exploits and discussed which female celebrities are worth a “bang.” How exactly do evangelicals reconcile this behavior with claims that they value respect for women?

Read the entire piece here.

OK, now some thoughts for my evangelical and Christian readers:

There have been a lot of arguments in the evangelical community about whether one should or should not support Trump.  As I argued yesterday, the pro-Trump argument centers on his promise to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices. But I hear very little conversation within evangelical circles about how support for Donald Trump impacts Christian witness in the United States and beyond.  No one is talking about how a Trump-loving evangelical bears testimony to his or her faith with unbelievers.  (Last time I checked evangelism was a fundamental tenet of evangelical belief).

Whether we like it or not, or whether it is fair or not, we live in an age when religious conviction and politics are closely linked in the minds of many Americans. If you are an evangelical who supports Trump you are going to have a lot of explaining to do when unbelieving friends and acquaintances ask you how you claim the name of Jesus Christ and still affiliate with the immoral candidate that Merritt describes above.  Somehow I don’t think “well, Hillary is a lot worse” or “we need to win the Supreme Court” is going to be an adequate answer.

Worthen: "Billy Graham has no successor"

Recently, while teaching a Sunday School class on American evangelicalism, I was asked who I thought would be the next great American evangelist now that Billy Graham is off the scene.  We had just finished discussing the history of revivalism in America and I traced the history of “big time” evangelism from Whitefield to Finney to Moody to Sunday to Graham.

It was a logical question.  Who would be next?

I thought about it for a second, but no single person jumped to mind.  I wish I had Molly Worthen‘s recent CNN piece to help explain why the Whitefield-Finney-Moody-Sunday line of evangelists may have come to and end with Graham.  Here is a taste of her piece:

In today’s age of fragmented evangelicalism and social media-savvy churches, there is no individual who can represent American evangelicalism to the world. Every believer has his own favorite Christian blog, her own like-minded Twitter network. And evangelicalism’s golden age seems to be ending. The biggest denominations, booming during the height of Graham’s career, are now stagnating or losing members.

Graham’s career ranged well beyond American shores, and conservative Protestantism is flourishing in the Global South. Some evangelists there command crowds that rival or exceed Graham’s biggest crusades. For more than 50 years, the German evangelist Reinhard Bonnke has preached throughout Africa to audiences that range in the hundreds of thousands.

But evangelists making their careers in non-Western societies face different challenges than Graham did. They are trying to reach people who worry not about the threat of secular liberalism, but the fate of their unbaptized ancestors or witchcraft in their villages. In the Global South, the label “evangelical” implies similarities to American religion that don’t exist.

Billy Graham may be an icon of an era that has passed, a Christian coalition that was never as harmonious as it seemed.

The Importance of George Beverly Shea

Shea and Graham

Billy Graham once told the New York Times that without singer George Beverly Shea “he would have had no ministry.”  Shea died April 16, 2013 at the age of 104 and Douglas Harrison remembers him in a piece at Religion Dispatches.  He reminds us that in the early days of the Graham ministry, Shea was the “bigger name of the two.”  He was a gospel music star who, according to Harrison, was the forerunner of Christian Contemporary Music (CCM).  Here is a taste:

Shea’s brand was built on both the pious solemnity of congregational worship, and the warmhearted magnetism of an iconic performer. In this, he embodied a form of Christian celebrity that successfully merged and managed the longstanding tension in gospel between the ministerial and recreational functions of Christian music.

Pulling off this merger of ministry and entertainment was trickier than Shea’s avuncular gracefulness suggested. The meteoric rise and scandalous collapse of Aimee Semple McPherson stand now—and stood in Shea’s time—as a potent parable of the promise and peril of twentieth-century Christian megastardom.

Graham’s wholesome Brother Billy persona was of course one powerful alternative for middle-class evangelicals who wanted to look up and away from Sister Aimee’s down-market unseemliness. Shea’s success distinguished itself for being both more explicitly commercialized than Graham’s, while also retaining all the bourgeois respectability so often found missing in the tawdriness of the Elmer Gantrified competition—the faith healers and the New Thought movement and the flamboyant prophets of prosperity gospel.

Consequently, Shea’s rise represented a much greater movement in the post-modernization of evangelical culture: Shea received the highest honors bestowed by both the commercial world (Grammys and Dove Awards) and evangelicalism’s denominational hierarchy (he was a member of the inaugural class of the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists’ Hall of Faith). In short, Shea helped the worshiping faithful understand the purchasing power of Christian consumers as an extension of their piety, as form of devotional practice that encompassed the ordinary pleasures of music entertainment.

So the next time you encounter Mercy Me or Michael W. Smith or Gaither Vocal Band, listen closely: there’ll be some of Bev Shea’s grace notes in the mix somewhere.

Catholic Evangelism?

Some might say that “Catholic evangelism” is an oxymoron.

Since I left the Catholic Church in my teenage years I have never had anyone make a serious attempt to win me back.  Representatives of Evangelical churches have knocked on my door several times in the hope of converting me, but I have never had a Catholic share their faith with me.  I know that Pope John Paul II called for a “new evangelization,” but I am not quite sure how the Catholic laity pursue such an agenda.

I thus found this Washington Post piece to be particularly interesting.  It seems that some Catholics are trying their hand at what the piece calls “old-fashioned evangelism.”  And when they say “old fashioned evangelism” they seem to mean old-fashioned evangelical-style evangelism.  Here is a taste:

SHREWSBURY, Mo. — On a recent rainy Saturday, about 125 Catholics packed a basement conference room, many of them older, most of them lay people. Many were representing their parishes.

They gathered here to learn how to spread the faith, a concept that is both fundamental to Christianity and nearly foreign to modern Roman Catholics.

For the first hour of the conference, Kenneth Livengood, a parishioner at Holy Trinity Parish in St. Ann, Mo., detailed one way — door-to-door evangelization, a missionary strategy more familiar to Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“We’ve been tricked into thinking faith is a private matter,” Livengood told the audience. “That’s a lie. Faith is meant to be public, and there are many ways to share it.”
He taught them how to form a door-to-door ministry, explained how to divide a boundary map of their parish into geographical sections, suggested useful handouts, gave safety tips, and showed videos that detailed the best way to respond to various reactions from those on the other side of the door.

“Divide up into teams of two,” Livengood said. “One of you can do the talking and the other should be a silent prayer warrior. At the next house, flip your roles.”

Evangelization is central to the Christian mission, but for the average adherent, the physical act of approaching a neighbor, work colleague or family member can be daunting.

Read the rest here.

This sounds like some folks in the Catholic Church have adopted something akin to the “Evangelism Explosion” methods made popular by the late D. James Kennedy