By Aaron Earls
On February 21, 2018, Billy Graham left our world and entered into the next. What did he leave behind?
In the year since Graham’s death, modern-day evangelicalism has had its fault lines surrounding ethnicity, gender, and politics exposed.
In addition, numerous high-profile pastors and Christian leaders have resigned or been forced out for personal moral failings, mishandling allegations of sexual abuse, and significant character flaws.
Outside of those being forced out, numerous pastors, denominational leaders and parachurch organization heads have retired or announced their upcoming retirement, including the president of the National Association of Evangelicals and the president and CEO of Christianity Today, which Graham founded.
Significant persecution threatens Christians around the world, while subtle challenges confront believers here in the United States.
And we face all this without the man who has—for decades—been synonymous with the evangelical Christian faith.
In 2017, half of American churchgoers said they had watched a Billy Graham sermon. Only 4 percent said they had never heard of him.
Prior to his death, Graham made Gallup’s “Most Admired” list for a record 61st time.
“We’d be hard-pressed to find another American Christian leader who has that kind of name recognition,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research.
Graham’s passing marked the end of an era.
“As America’s pastor, Billy Graham was able to bring U.S. Christians together at a moment in history when that was still possible,” wrote Tom Gjelten, religion reporter for National Public Radio. “It was an achievement others will have a hard time matching.”
When asked who could be the next Billy Graham, evangelical scholar Mark Noll had a simple answer—no one.
“So many different things went into the making of the influential figure that he was,” Noll said. “It’s hard to imagine they would come together in exactly the same way again.”
One of the difficulties is in the situation of the movement Graham led.
While Graham was able to bring evangelicalism together in many ways, Ed Stetzer, the executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, said, “I think today evangelicalism is fractured and fracturing.”
Yet, Christians do not have to look far to find examples of a church thriving in the midst of difficult circumstances. That has been the historic norm for the church and has been the testimony of the church since the beginning.
In many ways, the world of today looks like the world of the early church—challenged by a sexually permissive culture demanding acquiescence on one side and condemned by Pharisees asserting our sinfulness on the other.
And we have the same gifts those early church leaders had been given.
On Sunday evening after Jesus’ death, the disciples sat huddled together, frightened over what lay beyond the locked doors. But then Jesus appeared and offered them peace.
Later, on the day of Pentecost, they again were gathered together when the Holy Spirit fell on them and filled the room. Empowered by His indwelling presence, they began to boldly preach the gospel in the same city in which they had been so afraid before.
As we walk into an evangelical world without Billy Graham, we do not walk alone. We have the peace of Christ to comfort us and the Holy Spirit to guide us.
The same God who ordained Ester to become queen for “such a time as this,” has ordained each of us to be alive at this very moment for His good purposes.
At Graham’s funeral, Beth Moore was asked who might be the next Billy Graham. “What if there’s not just one?” she replied on Twitter.
“What if instead there are 10,000s of them all over the globe? They’re the ones we could walk in on & find facedown, crying out to God for souls.”
American evangelicalism no longer has one person at the forefront who unites us and embodies our beliefs. But maybe in this moment, we do not need a “next Billy Graham” in that sense.
Maybe we simply need men and women who are faithful and obedient to Christ in their own local context as Graham was on a much larger scale.
God knows exactly what is needed to expand His kingdom and fulfill the Great Commission.
Yes, in many ways, the church in America sits in a different spot than we did just one year ago with the passing of Billy Graham. But the God of the church sits in the exactly the same spot He has always sat—His throne.
AARON EARLS (@WardrobeDoor) is online editor for Facts & Trends.