B illy Graham drew incredible numbers to his Harringay, London 1954 evangelistic convention; one still meets Christians who first came to Christ at that evangelistic assembly. Indeed, it actually partly changed the map of British evangelism. Some of it was even put on BBC radio! That could not happen now in modern secular Britain. I still recall my parents listening to Billy Graham at Harringay on BBC radio. I recall them discussing whether this man was truly "a man of God," or whether he had other motives. That stuck in my mind although I was only ten years old at the time. But - even at that age - I recall his powerful voice and his powerful and persuasive delivery. Fact is: Billy Graham said he had a message for Britain and my parents wanted to hear what that message was, so did many hundreds of others. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association UK states the following of the 1954 campaign:
Billy Graham began his Greater London Crusade in 1954 - the biggest single venture in evangelism attempted in the century. A total of 1,750,000 attended the crusade during its twelve-week period, and long before the end its impact was felt throughout the length and breadth of the land. (source: http://www.billygraham.org.uk/Groups/174527/Billy_Graham_Evangelistic/Who_We_Are/About_Us/1954_Harringay/1954_Harringay.aspx)
The 'Golden' Evangelistic Years of 1945-55
That report is no exaggeration, but Britain was a far, far different place in 1954 to modern, secular Britain. Billy Graham pretty much had a captive audience, especially since the BBC allowed some of his message to be put on BBC radio and radio had a very large audience at that time (in contrast, the modern BBC is heavily agnostic in approach, if not actively atheist supporting). There was only one TV channel at that time and British post-war austerity was at its peak, so most people could not afford to go out for any evening entertainment although, truthfully, little was on offer. People had little disposable income and things were quite tough back in 1954; moreover, many were saying, 'We won the war (with the help of our allies) but now we are broke - is there any justice?' Many British people were worrying about the future and what it might hold. In short, many people really were looking for answers at that time. In such a climate therefore it was incredibly easy for the American evangelist to get a big audience and this he certainly did. Elsewhere I have written about the post-war period, 1945-1955, as possibly the greatest opportunity for Christian evangelism which Britain has ever had but I think Graham was one of the very few to take advantage of this time.
From 1957 British Life Started to Markedly Change...
But by 1957 things were changing, life was improving, with greater optimism in the air. Even quite ordinary people started to be able to buy cars and to enjoy pleasant holidays - life started to be sweet again. There was also optimism about what the (then) coming decade of the 1960s could achieve. All of this seemed to be epitomised by the glorious summer of 1959 when Britain had weeks of semi-tropical weather with people flocking to the beaches. I was 15 at the time and can well recall the optimism of the time in contrast to the depression which had gone before. Unfortunately the new-found optimism that Britons could change their own lives and look to the future with confidence also knocked back interest in the Christian Gospel.
Harringay, London. March, 1954.
When Billy Graham said he had an important message which the British people needed to heed back in 1954, it was exactly the right approach for the time in a somewhat sad and impoverished mid-1950s Britain, well over a million people heard his message, but times change...
I recently heard a very sincere man say, "But surely all of those evangelistic campaigns could be done again, we just need to get all the churches interested." This very well-meaning man even, very kindly, said, "You too could be part of it. Billy Graham was great, he preached the Gospel but he never went deep. Today people would want more depth. His way was great in 1950s Britain but he could not get away with his approach today." This man meant well and he obviously partly understood how modern Britain has changed but I don't think he (and others who still pin their hopes on 'evangelistic campaigns') understood just how much. Today people still have questions about Jesus and about Christianity but established Christianity is not where it once was. It has lost enormous ground. Some very well-informed people now do their study and research on the internet. I pick up scores of such questioners! These people would no longer go into their local church to ask questions of a Christian minister, neither would they even dream of attending any "evangelistic campaign," in fact, they would quickly run away from the very idea! The approach has to change. Of course, the message must remain essentially the same, 'the Gospel is the Gospel is the Gospel' - that cannot change, nevertheless, the loose, somewhat emotional manner of Billy Graham, and his refusal to 'go deep' would not work in the Britain of 2014; in that, my friend was certainly correct. Strong and knowledgeable pastoral care is now needed, we need to meet people 'where they are at' (as our American friends might say), today the first questions often concern evolution and things that Richard Dawkins has said; people are now far more well-read. Today people are also often well-travelled, they have seen how others worship God on other continents and they also have questions on that. Billy Graham's team would never have had such questions thrown at them back in 1954 post-war Britain! Back in 1954 it could be assumed that most of the people attending the Harringay convention had probably been heavily exposed to things like Sunday School; virtually no modern children now go to Sunday School. It could also be assumed that most people at least loosely already understood what the Gospel message was claiming, even if it had never really 'hit home' before. So modern, secular Britain in which - let us face it - many now think of organised Christianity as little more than a joke, is truly a long way from where it was back in the 1950s; to refuse to recognise this fact is to bury our collective heads in the sand.
Another big difference in 2014 is that people are now far more prosperous and it is a sad truism that prosperous people always feel that they don't need the Gospel, they tend to trust in money and wealth. Perhaps it only naturally follows from this that the only Christian-related groups that can now draw bigger audiences (but not as big as Graham in 1954) are the personally high-profile TV "evangelists" and prosperity preachers, but they preach a message which Graham has, and does, reject - something which we should all do, since it is a different 'gospel message' and will not be found in the New Testament.
Despite all of the above, people still have questions on religion and Christianity and our internet ministry of UK Apologetics does get emails from many such people (as well as from already professing Christians). I get many of these people and I try my hardest to help them when they email me, but I have no doubt that huge numbers of them never email, they simply read and that is really important. I try my hardest to make the Gospel plain, never avoiding the 'tough questions' either, never assuming that people already understand the basics in a society in which church attendance and Sunday School attendance are now of little importance to most people. Of course, none of the above can possibly hinder the work of the Holy Spirit in convicting consciences but all the evidence is that that is now happening much more in countries which had no access to the Gospel for many years and is happening far less here in the West that it once was.
I thank the Lord that this ministry is internet-based. In this medium I pick up hundreds of interested questioners from all continents every year and have done so ever since this ministry kicked off back in 2001. For myself, I intend to carry on just as long as the Lord spares me.
Robin A. Brace, June 27th, 2014.
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