Billy Graham and the Age of Altar Calls

Billy Graham always reminds his listeners that they don't know if they'll live another day or have another chance to repent.

A decade or so ago, variations on this theme began appearing in news reports after his crusades. A kind of "last altar call syndrome" developed, with reporters reminding readers that this would probably be the evangelist's last visit to their region.

Certainly, no one missed the symbolism of June's crusade in Minneapolis -- the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's home since 1950. And last week, the 77-year-old evangelist preached to 336,100 in Charlotte, N.C. Once again, people came forward -- 22,249 in four days.

"It's not too late. ... You have a moment before God that may never come again," he said, ending his last rally in the city in which he was born and, 16 years later, born again. "I'm going to ask you to come and say `yes' to Christ. You don't understand it all, or have to. You just say, `Lord ... I acknowledge that I have sinned. I believe that Jesus is the only way.'"

Graham says he'll preach until God makes him quit. Parkinson's disease has weakened him so much that crusade planners provided a hydraulic lift to take him on and off the high stage in Charlotte. Still, he plans to lead 1997 crusades in San Antonio, Tex., and in the San Francisco Bay area. Aides are studying invitations from South Africa and Brazil.

Many say Graham's finale will end the era of mass evangelistic meetings in North America. Truth is, his own work points to changes that began years ago. For two decades, Graham has stressed the need to find new Third World evangelists, saying that his true heirs will be found there. Also, his crusades have increasingly used advertising and media to target single adults, teens and children. His son, Franklin, has found his largest audiences in another "niche" -- Promise Keeper rallies for men.

Evangelism will evolve, if people have faith that God can still change lives, said the manager of the Charlotte crusade. The "altar call" will only pass away when church leaders become too timid to challenge people to repent.

"There is a certain foolishness to this kind of evangelism in what is supposed to be such a sophisticated age," said Richard Marshall, who has worked in 50 Graham crusades. "There's a kind of intolerance to the Gospel and people today pride themselves on a certain kind of tolerance."

This is even true in Bible Belt cities such as Charlotte. Not long before this crusade, the veteran publisher of the city's newspaper went so far as to write a series of editorials blaming many of the world's problems on Christian orthodoxy.

"It intrigues me that many speak with such certitude -- such choking, stifling, judgmental certainty" on eternal issues, wrote Rolfe Neill of the Charlotte Observer. He offered waves of critical quotes, such as this from a freethinking Presbyterian: "The belief that ... salvation comes only through Jesus Christ, that all other religions are false -- is not the whole Gospel."

Graham has kept preaching his basic message in the face of such criticism, while many others have surrendered, said Marshall. Even conservative "megachurches" may avoid altar calls and clear calls for repentance for another reason: fear of scaring those seeking less pushy ways to turn around their lives.

Too often, preachers become obsessed with people's problems, which seem to have "increased tenfold" amid blitzes of media and the sheer pace of life, said Marshall. The goal is to address the "felt needs" of today's religious consumers. The result may be sermons that substitute personal growth for conversion. Altar calls become anachronisms.

"You end up with churches built on murmurs of the past, murmurs of the faith of your grandparents," he said. "You take out the altar call. Then you take out the confession of sin. Soon, you are left with a kind of religious show. It looks good. It feels good. But does it have any power to inspire people to make decisions that can change their lives?"