The Elvis of Christianity

Assuming Jesus doesn’t have the role, Billy Graham is the Elvis of Christianity. Or maybe just 20th century Christianity. Either way, Billy Graham has been the man when it comes to Christianity for more than 50 years.

The guy has preached to more people than anyone in the world, but more than just doing a lot of sermonizing, he’s been able to reach people. When Billy Graham tells you God loves you, for some reason people believe it.

Early on, he was fiery and charismatic. He could thump his Bible with the best of ’em, and ads for his 1949 tent-meeting revival in Los Angeles promised another “sin-smashing” week. He shouted, gesticulated, pointed his finger and was downright more animated than Mickey Mouse.

Over the years his style softened but his message stayed the same. In the past 20 years or so he’s become more of a grandfather than an Elvis. He’s soft-spoken, but filled with love and compassion. You get the impression he hangs out with God and a little something of the supernatural rubs off.

But for all the religious showmanship, the Elvis of modern Christendom truly has a heart for the young. He started preaching with Youth for Christ in the 1940s. In 1958 he published the book Billy Graham Talks to Teen-Agers. It included such classic questions and answers as this exchange about Rock ‘n’ Roll:

“Question: You had other types of music to face when you were young, but how would you regard Rock ‘n’ Roll?

“Answer: I rarely hear any of it, but I do feel that it has gotten out of hand. Anything that whips young people into a frenzy is bad, it seems to me. I often have been disturbed by what has happened to teen-agers [sic] after they listen to it. If I were 17 today I’d stay as far away from it as I could.”

Of course Billy changed his tune over the years. In 1970 he published The Jesus Generation which included the information that on a few occasions Billy Graham himself visited various rock festivals, protests and love-ins in an attempt to understand the masses. Of course he attended “incognito” (meaning he donned a hat, sunglasses, and a big sweater). He also managed to use campy 60s expressions, including trying to “rap” with the younger generation in order to “turn them on” to Jesus.

In the early 1990s he went a step farther and invited Christian hip-hop band dc Talk to perform at Crusades in what has been billed as “The Concert for the NeXt [sic] Generation.” The idea was to bring in current Christian artists that teens actually listen to in an attempt to bring salvation to a younger generation. It worked. Ten years later, almost a million teens have come forward at Billy Graham youth nights.

And now, for the first time in Billy Graham’s 50 plus years of ministry, he’ll be putting on a TV special especially for teens. Unlike other televised Crusades, there will be no choir, no old, gray-haired musicians, and no financial pleas. The 84-year-old Billy Graham will be the oldest thing in sight, but you won’t see the teens glazing over. Billy is surrounded and gladly interrupted with the voices and music of this generation.

“Inside Out” is the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s first TV special for teens. It airs next Friday, December 27 on the WB network in most areas (check your local listings) of the U.S. The half-hour show features the music of gospel star Kirk Franklin, rockers Jars of Clay, and Billy Graham’s faithful standby, dc Talk, interspersed with snippets of Billy Graham’s preaching. The show also includes the voices of real teens, talking about life and God.

The Elvis of Christianity has come along way, and if next Friday is any indication, he’ll continue to leave his mark. It’s been one sin-smashing lifetime.

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