Revisiting Mass Evangelism
“ I’m most proud to proclaim this extraordinary message of God’s powerful plan to rescue everyone who trusts him.” Apostle Paul, (Rom.1:14-16 message)
Over four months and 114 meetings during 1959 evangelist Billy Graham drew three million people in Australia and New Zealand to his remarkable crusade. The impact was so significant it has been said that it was the closest Australia has been to experiencing a Christian revival on a national scale.
Sixty years later, on a sunny afternoon in February 2019, people queued for entry to a Melbourne stadium. The gift of one generation had been passed to another. Billy’s son, Franklin Graham revisited the city with the gospel message. The family and message were the same but 1959 had been replaced with the mind set of 2019.
As a reward for waiting patiently in the long queue and for providing personal contact details, people were offered a freebee T shirt and an envelope to mail a contribution. Billy Graham had related to the modern era while Franklin was appealing to the post-modern generation so his delivery was markedly different. The hand-out said, “Many people…don’t know Jesus.—You can offer hope!” Instead of being ‘preached at, from the outset I was being invited to be part of the answer. This was clearly mass evangelism in a different age with a different approach. In the 1950s Billy Graham declared what was regarded as the known truth. His appeal was based on, “The Bible says”. It was a clear sincere declaration followed by a confronting invitation to decide, to choose and respond.
While people’s needs and the message remains the same, we live in a world on the edge of accelerating change. Not only is the pace of life quicker but our way of thinking about life has become more complex. We no longer live in a world that can be sure about being sure. Our culture says we can no longer be certain about what is true. According to our current consciousness we can no longer be sure about where to find the truth or that the bible has the truth.
Today with appeals to ‘false news’ we no longer can make bold claims about universal truth and be taken seriously. Instead; celebrating diversity and valuing tolerance has become the acclaimed virtue. The problem however is that underlying this view there is no final authority and there are contradictory boundaries. This means the possibility of consensus becomes hard to find and instead of real tolerance we end up with selective tolerance. In other words the way we think about life and truth has changed. Today we are told we can only be certain we cannot be certain about anything. Nothing can be absolute. When it comes to evangelism then how can the Apostle Paul be, “proud to proclaim this extraordinary message of God’s plan” (Rom, 1:14 Message) How can we be confident in evangelism and in sharing the good-news in today’s world?
Culturally speaking our world has moved on since the 1950’s. One of the reasons for Billy Graham’s impact in 1959 related to the mainline denominational churches working together in partnership. Today however many churches remain reserved, and sceptical about the validity and effectiveness of mass evangelism. Many have replaced the urgency of the gospel with a mix of socio-political priorities.
Franklin Graham was largely sponsored by a coalition of keen independent churches. There were also other contrasts. The style of delivery between Franklin and his father was markedly different.
Instead of this being a structured mass meeting with introductions to songs, bible readings, or offering, this was a non-stop celebration of music.
Instead of a hand-out song sheet, if you looked rather frail you were graciously offered ear plugs.
Instead of being glued to your seat and ordered by a programme, diversity prevailed and you were invited to participate by jiving in the mosh pit.
The disjointed, rap like rhythm replaced the mass choir and the corporate singing of thousands of people with what appeared to be thousands of standing people stunned by banks of flashing lights and waves of sound vibrations, the intensity of which was indicated by the colour of the song lyrics appearing on two giant screens.
Behind a central lectern the preacher appeared in the distance as a thin pencil like figure but there was no raised voice or bible thumping. Franklin spoke in a moderated conversational manner.
The complex technical infrastructure was contrasted by the simplicity of the message. We were not denounced as sinners but confronted with the reality of our brokenness and a few verses announcing Jesus as the answer.
If Billy was accused of a reasoned emotionalism, this invitation stood as an antithesis. This was an event to be experience. Franklin alerted people that he would call for a response and when he did, people came in their hundreds.
It was a modified, scaled down, post-modern version of evangelism but the authentic message, the important ‘baby’ was not thrown out with the bath water.
There are many styles of evangelism and many ways of engaging people. If our traditional churches have thrown out mass evangelism for more socio-political or natural, relational programmes then we need to ask, ‘Where is the evidence of fruit and growth?’ If the aging institutional church believes that being contemporary simply means advocating social change then we need to relearn that rather than being an end in itself, it is essential to understand that culture can be a bridge that leads to people having an opportunity to choose Christ. Social transformation still begins with personal transformation rooted and found in Jesus Christ.
Rev E. A. (Ted) Curnow. http://www.tedcurnow.wordpress.com