Billy Graham, who died Wednesday at 99, came from a centuries-old tradition of revivalism in America, dating from when traveling evangelists drew thousands of people to open-air revivals.
But even as his son, daughter and other relatives are drawing sizable crowds as evangelists, Graham may be the last great champion of this style of evangelism.
In fact, his real successor may not be a person but a thing, mass media. And Graham himself represents that transition, using movies, TV specials and other outlets to spread his gospel message.
“The future of crusade evangelism is very much in question,” said Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, which houses a missions and evangelism school named for Graham.
“The spectacle mode of evangelism really fit a specific moment in American culture that does not appear to necessarily into the 21st century,” Mohler said. “People who download podcasts are not the type to go and sit in a stadium waiting for an event for hours.”
While stadium revivals remain popular in Africa and other developing regions, they’ve been eclipsed in North America by a media phenomenon that’s also affecting professional sports, the music industry and other arenas.
“Everything is now instantly available in every household, so getting a large crowd anywhere takes an incredible amount of motivation,” Mohler said.
In earlier centuries, religious revivals were among the most spectacular social events that an American could experience.
Thousands of 18th century colonists flocked to open fields to hear the booming voice of English preacher George Whitefield during the revival known as the First Great Awakening.
A Second Great Awakening crested in 1801, when thousands gathered for a frenzied week of revival at the Cane Ridge Meeting House in Kentucky.
Evangelists reaped new harvests of souls in later generations, such as Dwight L. Moody and Billy Sunday, and Kentucky native Mordecai Ham, whose converts included Graham himself.
Graham later recalled that Ham preached so vividly of secret sins that it “made you think your mother had been talking to him,” Graham later recalled, according to Martin’s biography, “A Prophet With Honor.”
Early 20th century preachers like Aimee Semple McPherson pioneered radio sermons and the mix of revivals with entertainment.
But Graham emerged in the late 1940s as an unprecedented superstar, inducing legions of churches in each city to prepare for his visits more than a year in advance and producing stadium spectacles that could be replicated nowhere else in that era of mainly small neighborhood churches.
For many years, evangelist Oral Roberts’ ministries closely tracked those of Graham as both moved from big tents to stadiums to television — although Roberts’ exuberant faith-healing services, complete with exuberant Pentecostal worship, contrasted with the relatively buttoned-down Graham crusades.
Scores of other evangelists followed suit, to varying degrees of success. And in time, Sunday worship came to resemble stadium-style crusades.
Many large, newer megachurches shed the stained-glass trappings of traditional worship. They began to take on more of the feel of an arena crusade, with video screens and concert-quality music.
“(Megachurch pastors) Joel Osteen and Rick Warren are both major admirers of Billy Graham, but they are not going to say, ‘We’ll drop everything for 18 months and support some evangelist,’” said William Martin, author of “A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham story.”
Martin also cited the explosion of “para-church” organizations — evangelistic associations, broadcasters, music labels, advice peddlers and advocacy groups with no direct ties to a church or denomination.
“What it attests to is the strength and diversity of the evangelical movement,” he said.
Para-church groups are yet another of the evangelist's legacies. He did, after all, found the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
That remains controversial, and some people today say that church planting, and orienting evangelism around actual congregations, is the most effective outreach.