I remember hearing Billy Graham, live, on one of his last UK visits. We were at Crystal Palace in south London, and it was a cool evening. We had hired a red London bus for our church (the Billy Bus, we called it), and we’d brought friends along to hear him. The stadium was full, but it wasn’t packed.
The programme ran as scheduled, and expected, with Cliff Barrows leading the music. Frankly, ho-hum.
And then Dr Graham got up to speak, wth that unmistakeable voice and accent, patiently and carefully explaining what ‘the Bible says’ about God, us, sin, the cross, and the need to come to Christ.
It was good, but (oh, the arrogance of youth) I wasn’t that impressed. Clear, wise, true – but not particularly special. Couldn’t anyone do that?
Then he gave his invitation, for people to ‘get out of your seats’, and come down to the front – ‘Don’t worry – the buses will wait’, and something remarkable happened. At first there was a sound like a slow, mocking hand clap around the stadium. But it gradually speeded up, and I realised it was the sound of hundreds of plastic seats flipping up against the concrete benches, as people left their seats, responded to the invitation, and came to the front.
Now, there are loads of lessons from that. I have about half a dozen biographies of the great man on my shelves, and one of them is still the only biography I have got up to read at 4am, I was so excited. I’ve learned about his single mindedness, his generosity, his prayer life, his dependence, his humility, trusting what ‘the Bible says.’ He is truly one of my heroes. I learnt a ton about my arrogance, God’s power, and proper preaching too.
But I also learned a critical ministry lesson as well that night – about the power of an invitation.
Dr Graham was not afraid to invite people to make a clear response.
And he’s not the only evangelist with that edge, either. I’ve mentioned the great John Chapman before. Chappo once said that the only serious regret he had about ministry were the times he bottled out of the invitation. A voice in his head said, ‘Not tonight, Chappo. No-one’s really listening. They’re all half asleep and want to get home. And your talk certainly wasn’t good enough to do anything useful. Not tonight.’ Did people become Christians every time Chappo offered an invitation? Of course not. But what about the times when he choked it…
I’m not a great ‘I want you to get out your seats’ preacher. I know my temptation to measure success by results. I’m wary of people confusing an outward response with a heart response. I’m cautious about people being swayed by an emotional moment. If you’re a theologian or historian, you’ll understand that I fear Finney. I probably over-think those dangers, because I turn the dial right, right down.
But I still believe in the power of the invitation. Invite people to take the booklet, sign the card, prayer the prayer, go to the course, talk to me afterwards, visit the book table – whatever. A clear, confidently announced invitation. And above all, ‘Would you like to become a Christian, right now? Let me pray a simple prayer which you can echo in your heart.’
After all, why did we have guests on the Billy Bus? Because people had offered an invitation to their friends. Clearly, and confidently.
Don’t lose the power of the clearly articulated invitation.
And happy birthday, Dr Graham.
I wrote more about evangelistic preaching in Cutting to the Heart: Applying the Bible in teaching and preaching
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Aussie? Koorong has it here.