Amen

In the past sixty years Billy Graham has been a spiritual adviser to seven presidents and has preached in front of more than 200 million people worldwide. And though health problems have recently slowed him down, he made one thing clear when he stepped up to the microphone last October in Dallas: He is still the most powerful evangelist since Jesus.

I SELDOM GET TO CHURCH with much time to spare, but I knew I had to start early if I planned to attend the Concert for the Next Generation, a two-hour rap and rock fest that would kick off Saturday’s Youth Night at Billy Graham’s four-day Metroplex Mission in Texas Stadium this past October. Come again? Billy Graham and hip-hop? After all, for most of more than five decades of public ministry, Graham’s services have by design been familiar and welcoming to people with more conventional notions of worship. By the nineties, however, many of those attending Graham’s crusades, particularly younger people, had never been to a Little Brown Church in the Wildwood and might not regard an invitation of the hymn just to “Trust and Obey” as having much appeal. Encouraged by colleagues with teenage children of their own, Graham has recently agreed to shake up his formula. Word to your mama: The Metroplex Mission was not your grandfather’s crusade.

Inside the stadium, from a giant performance structure that sprawled across one end zone and soared eighty feet upward, a vocalist from Jars of Clay greeted a venue-record 82,000 decorously raucous young folk (10,000 more who could not get in watched a JumboTron screen in the parking lot) with, “Hello, Dallas, Texas! Are you ready to have some fun tonight? Are you ready for a revolution?” That set off an explosion of screaming, pogoing, and as Scripture puts it, “revellings and such like” (Galatians 5:21), even though it seemed that lasciviousness did not come naturally to most of these kids.

The Graham-endorsed contemporary Christian musicians that followed Jars of Clay came in several styles, from soloists who demonstrated their sincerity by looking quite pained to ensembles distinguishable from secular rock, rhythm-and-blues, and hip-hop groups only by their more sanitized lyrics, which were equally indecipherable without liner notes. Most of the groups included vocalists or instrumentalists sporting goatees and wearing peculiar hats, tams, or what looked like berets turned backward, and all relied heavily on extraordinary volume and a throbbing beat to drive the joy, joy, joy, joy down in the hearts of their young fans.

The evening’s final act was no exception. Kirk Franklin, a Fort Worth hip-hop Gospel dynamo, bounced and strutted around the stage as he shouted, “I want everybody in the stadium to lose your Holy Ghost mind! When I say, ‘Throw your hands up!’ I want everybody to just go bananas! Yo, Dallas, Texas, can you do that with me? Show the world that white people have rhythm!” Kirk then recognized he wasn’t the only black person in the stadium and, after running through some of his Grammy-winning repertoire, thought it a good time for them to cross whatever barriers separated them. “To my African American brothers,” he said, “I don’t want you going up to somebody named Tyrone, Raul, Little Man, or T-Bone. I want you to find somebody named Keith, Toby, Tyler, Justin, Brad, or Bruce. And to all my light-skinned sisters, I don’t want you to go up to somebody named Amber, Megan, Jessica, April, or Rachel. I want you to find somebody named Shaquita, Shakwandra—find somebody named Maleesha. I want everybody in this beautiful church tonight to make yourself uncomfortable and get up and hug three strangers and tell them that you love them. All over this place. Come on! All over, all over, all over! Lots of hugging. There you go; there you go; there you go!” And there they went.

When I spoke to Larry Ross, a Dallasite who has handled Graham’s media relations since 1981, he acknowledged that not all the veteran members of Graham’s team were easily won over to this new format. “Let’s put it this way,” he said. “It has been an education process. Though they were very progressive in the early days, this was a whole genre of music they were not used to,” an observation underscored by watching team members remove earplugs and grimace as they tried to communicate through the noise billowing from the stage. Graham’s son Franklin told me that Billy himself isn’t exactly thrilled with the noise either: “Daddy is not too comfortable with the music. He doesn’t like it. He won’t even listen to it. But he’s willing to give it a try. They’re stocking the pond so he can go fishing.”

Around eight o’clock, when it finally came time for 84-year-old Billy Graham to put his line in that pond, he conceded to the crowd that the music was for a generation far removed from his own, but he welcomed members of that generation warmly. At youth nights in other cities, I’ve heard Graham cite MTV or the lead singer of Nine Inch Nails and refer to Kurt Cobain’s suicide. On this night, he stayed closer to home, preaching about the Rich Young Ruler, who had good intentions and asked the right questions but was ultimately unwilling to surrender his great wealth as the cost of discipleship. It was a simple message about surrendering those things that stand between us and God, but when he spoke the familiar words, “I’m going to ask you to come … ,” 3,217 people, nearly 80 percent of them under age 25, streamed down the aisles and across the tarp-covered turf to stand before him to be born again, joining the great host who have made that same short journey in his meetings—more than three million at last count, and they do count.

INDEED, THE MORE THINGS HAVE changed with Billy Graham, the more they have stayed the same. My own personal relationship with the man goes back to one gray afternoon at Rice University in December 1985, when my writing career, though not seriously in need of being born again, was at least rededicated. While looking through the mail that day, I let out a whoop of surprised delight. Since I am not much of a whooper, the sociology department secretary called out, “Is that the letter from Billy Graham?” Good guess.

It was not the

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