Franklin Stands Up

It is one of modern Christendom's most familiar images.

Evangelist Billy Graham finishes inviting his listeners to get up out of their seats and to come forward to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Then as the crusade choir gently sings "Just As I Am," he steps back from the pulpit folds his Bible against his chest, closes his eyes, bows his head and silently prays while people flow down the aisles

William Franklin Graham III uses many of his father's phrases, but his body language is totally different at this pivotal moment in a rally. He plants his cowboy boots at shoulder width, folds his arms across his chest like a cop and scans the crowd. The unspoken message: It's your decision, but God and I are watching.

The man who built the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) never claimed to be a prophet or a brilliant preacher. But, as he aged, Billy Graham developed a gentle approach that blended his unchallenged sincerity with a flexibility that let him preach to a wide variety of saints and sinners.

The man poised to inherit Graham's legacy doesn't even claim to be a preacher. He's more like Rocky Balboa, punching away with Bible verses and simple parables. Franklin Graham made his first call for repentance a minute after he began his May 24 sermon at this year's Washington, D.C., Promise Keepers rally and ended up including at least 12 other appeals for sinners to walk the aisle.

"Listen up, men," he said, preaching to 55,000 in RFK Stadium. "Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. He died and rose again so that you can say, `I am a sinner!' Franklin Graham has sinned and I asked God to forgive me. ... I'm asking you to do that tonight, to say, `God forgive me, I am a sinner.' Do you have the guts to stand up and do that?

If it sounds like he keeps it simple, that's because he does.

"Speaking is speaking and I'm not a public speaker. That ought to be obvious," he said, afterwards. "I haven't been to seminary and I've never had a course in public speaking. Right now, I'm learning to speak by getting up there and speaking. It's not always a pretty sight. ... But I have decided that I can deliver a basic evangelistic message. I can do that. ... I can't do what my Daddy has done. But I can do what I can do."

Woven through Franklin Graham's message are threads of his own story, the archetypal tale of the rebellious preacher's kid. It's easy to focus on this -- contrasting the son's stance as a sinner in the hands of an angry God with his father's spotless image. After decades of the latter, many may have forgotten that purity is not the norm for evangelists. Billy Graham's predecessors often arrived in the pulpit after visiting the ditch. There's nothing new about an evangelist shouting that God saved him from smoking, drinking and flirting with disaster.

The question isn't whether Franklin Graham has anything to say, but whether great masses will flock to hear him say it.

For historians, the BGEA -- with its staff of 525 and 1995 revenues of $88 million -- is the epitome of the modern parachurch group, the model for hundreds born in the 1950s and '60s. Today's rapidly growing groups are nondenominational, but stress a specific subject or audience. Focus On The Family is one example and Franklin Graham's audience in Washington was assembled by another, the Promise Keepers movement for men. Similar groups target women and young people.

While some worry that the BGEA is becoming irrelevant, Franklin Graham said he's convinced it can retain a niche by sticking with basic evangelism.

"The strange thing is that very few people are really doing what we do," he said. "A decade or two ago, there were 12 or 15 people doing straight evangelistic preaching. You'd turn on the radio and hear them. Now there's a void, out there. ... We don't need to re-define ourselves or create some kind of new BGEA for a new day. We'll stay with the same old same old."