Graham's appeal to a new generation
With jumbo screens and pop lyrics, the premier evangelist still resonates with today's youth.
NEW YORK — Rachel Jun is jumping and squealing with all the excitement of a teenager at an open-air rock concert.
But though there's music blaring, and though the stage a few hundred feet in front of her is decked with high-tech lights, two jumbo video screens, and bands with electric guitars and handsome singers, Ms. Jun is most excited, she says, to see the Rev. Billy Graham.
"I read about him in textbooks, about how he was a great evangelist, and how this was probably, like, the last time he was going to preach," says Ms. Jun, a high school senior from Long Island. "So I was so eager to go and see him - so eager to see him speak from the heart."
At least 60,000 others came on Friday night to see Mr. Graham here in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in the borough of Queens, participating in what most believe will be the final crusade of his six-decade career. The three-day revival this past weekend combined Christian rock and country music, salvation "testimonies" from members of Graham's team, and even a "kidz gig" with a costumed superhero called "Bibleman."
For many evangelical Protestants, it's a familiar fusion of old-time tent revivals and the modern MTV age, an embrace of a Christianized version of pop culture that is meant to draw and keep young converts like Jun.
"Steven Curtis Chapman, he's so amazing!" she says about one of the performers this evening. "I love listening to him - he's always on my iPod!"
In many ways, it was Billy Graham who pioneered this fusion of pop culture with evangelical ministry. His unprecedented influence and popularity over the decades, many point out, stem from his willingness to embrace some of the trappings of popular culture at a time when many conservative Christians preferred to withdraw - especially in the '60s, when rock music and television were seen as inherently corrupting influences on youth.
"He's been a big role model for us, opening up a new beginning," says Brian Kim, a sophomore in a local high school in Queens. "It's sort of like we're the generation right now, the Jesus generation, the historymakers. We're the new servants, we're the new followers."
American revivalist preachers, from Charles Finney to Dwight L. Moody to Billy Sunday, have often used flashy and flamboyant styles to draw crowds to their meetings. Moody, whose ministry was based in Chicago, may have begun the era of special effects in evangelism when he used gas lanterns to spell out religious messages behind the pulpit at his tent revivals in the late 19th century.
Today, many so-called "mega churches" around the country use a similar MTV aesthetic on display here, with cameras on cranes and on the stage toggling quickly back and forth between shots of the musicians. Sunday services, like the Billy Graham Crusade, require as sophisticated production as the Oscars.
Yet this weekend, thousands craned their necks to get a glimpse of Graham, and sat rapt as he preached his message of repentance, salvation, and the need to be born again. As has been his style for more than 60 years, Graham peppered his sermon with references to news and popular events such as the Mets- Yankees baseball series and Star Wars, Episode III.
"At the start of the new millennium, MTV counted down the top rock songs of all time," Graham proclaimed on Saturday before 80,000 people, many of them in their teens and 20s. "Do you know what No. 1 was?"
"Satisfaction, by the Rolling Stones." And then he even quoted the lyrics, which caused a scandal when they were first sung back in 1965. "I can't get no satisfaction, 'cause I try, and I try, and I try, and I try." It was an anthem for a young generation, Graham explained, but to find the true path to satisfaction, "Jesus isthe answer."
As many point out, his nonthreatening, nonjudgmental style, along with his engagement with pop culture, helped Graham become as influential as he has been for 60 years. Indeed, on Saturday, he was joined by former President Bill Clinton and his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom he called "my wonderful friends of many years."
President Clinton recalled how impressed he had been when Graham had refused to preach before a segregated tent meeting, right at the time when Arkansas was mired in its historic battle over school desegregation.
"I was just a little boy and I'll never forget it," said Mr. Clinton. "I've loved him ever since. God bless you, friend."
Graham replied, joking that he had advised the former president to change careers and become an evangelist like him, "because he has all the gifts ... and he could leave his wife to run the country." The New York crowd roared its approval.
Many in the audience were surprised at his energy and vigor at the pulpit.
"I think he should continue," says Antonio Rivera, a tattoo artist from the Bronx who says he also ministers to the homeless. "He should keep trying, if God's still using him."