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The Graham effect

rainey

Rev. Billy Graham has died. Christian communities are mourning his death. Condolences are even coming from a number of foreign countries. All out of respect for a major voice of evangelism.

Though worthy of respect, many of us were disappointed in Graham with publication of the Nixon tapes. As Nixon spit out a series of slander regarding Jews and Blacks, Graham was heard repeatedly agreeing and even offering some negative comments of his own. As more people heard the tapes and read transcripts, Graham’s public persona took a big hit. He later apologized but didn’t recant.

Aside from those unexpected conversations, Graham seemed to live the life he preached. A Graham biographer once commented, after the word “God,” the second most used word in his sermons was “faith.” That, Graham seemed to have in abundance.

But, Graham was also big business. Large corporate offices, many hundreds of support staff, advance teams, DVD’s, books, tapes, tracts, movies and more.

It was this business side that attracted me when Graham held one of his crusades in what is now called Taco Bell Arena on the Boise State University campus in the early 80’s. I began an eight month continuing story about that event.

Many weeks before Graham arrived, his advance people contacted all Christian churches in Southwest Idaho. Churches weren’t so much “asked” to participate as they were told what the Crusade “expected” in support. So many choir members, ushers, set up and takedown labor, underwriting of some local expenses, etc.. Even housing.

Days before the big event, large trucks arrived with scaffolding, choir risers, lights, sound system and other staging hardware. All was made ready.

In advance, I contacted six Christian churches to determine then current average attendance. I would do so twice more after the Crusade.

Graham drew several thousand people. The event went as it had so many times before in venues all over the world. When he made his “altar call” near the end, asking those who wanted to openly express their faith to come forward, a couple of hundred did. About the expected percentage I was told later. By sunup the next day, all evidence of the Crusade was gone. As if it never happened.

My first followup calls were made about three weeks later. All denominations contacted reported attendance had, indeed, gone up. The Crusade had apparently been successful.

Six months later, I checked with each church again. In all contacts, regular attendance had returned to pre-Crusade levels. Reporting later, I termed that “the Graham effect.

It appeared what we’d seen at the Crusade was personal involvement at an emotional moment in some lives. Those walking forward seemed moved to do so right then. But, without ongoing individual reinforcement, those emotions subsided and previous lifestyles returned. Though Graham’s staff had instructed churches how to reinforce the outpouring, it didn’t seem to work.

Drop off in church attendance some months after Graham’s appearance was not isolated. I found it in other cities.

None of this is to disparage Billy Graham or his life’s work. Those who got to their feet and walked did so, I’m sure, with honest feeling and emotion.

We’re seeing something very similar right now with school students moving people to their side through emotion. As with Graham and his Crusades, that’s not a bad thing. But, emotion won’t bring success if there’s no followup – no reinforcement of initial reactions with facts and a solid plan to turn the heartfelt outpouring into long-term support.

My prayer – and I’m sure Rev. Billy would concur – is that national action replaces our individual emotional responses to mass murder. Our individual attention has been “captured.” We need to keep our sympathetic responses alive until November when we’re asked to answer the “altar call” of the ballot box. (photo/Richard Bromley)
 

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