Feb 26, 2018


College Ministry Lessons from the Life of Billy Graham

Chase Abner reflects on the life and legacy of Billy Graham and identifies some takeaways for college ministry leaders.

There is something bittersweet about the death of a saint who persevered until the end. For Billy Graham, the ultimate sting of death is gone. In Christ’s presence, he is now “more alive” than ever as Graham said in a quote borrowed from D.L. Moody. I rejoice at the thought of Graham’s faith now being sight. And yet, death is a reminder that we still live in the “not yet.” Even though Christians can anticipate an eternity free of pain and suffering, that doesn’t mean loss doesn’t hurt now.

Another sweet aspect of Graham’s passing is that my social media feeds have been flooded with articles, quotes, and photos illustrating what happens when an ordinary man trusts and obeys Jesus. As I’ve read the obituaries and tributes, I’ve been struck by a few lessons for college ministry leaders.

1. The college years are a critical launching pad.

We could fill this website with stories of God’s work through Billy Graham’s crusades. Some estimate that his crusades and broadcasts reached over 2 billion people in his lifetime. Wayne Atcheson writes, “By age 30, Billy Graham’s name was appearing in headlines across America. But it was his obedience to God during his college years that forged and fostered the direction of his life and ministry.”

Did you catch that? Billy Graham’s life and ministry were forged in his college years.

It is important to note that this forging wasn’t primarily about skill as a preacher or a ministry leader. In Graham’s college years, God broke his heart for the lost. Graham said, “It was there that I received my passion for the souls of men and began to realize the desperate need of a world outside of Christ.”

You may be leading students who show tremendous skill and capacity, but even more than teaching reps or responsibility, you must cultivate within them a heart for Jesus and the lost.

2. Jesus can reach powerful people.

Many know Billy Graham as the “Pastor to Presidents.” He had personal audiences with every sitting President from Harry S. Truman to Barack Obama. He also spent time with Queen Elizabeth II and North Korea’s Kim Il-Sung. God used Graham’s faithfulness, consistency, and integrity to open these doors and it seems that he leveraged these moments for Christ. George W. Bush, for instance, wrote this week about how “his care and teachings” helped the President begin his faith walk and stop drinking.

As you build relationships with deans, provosts, and other administrators on your campus, you’re not just fostering rapport that gives you access to students. Jesus has a word for those in power and they need to hear it. Be faithful. Be ready.

3. The world needs thinking Christians.

Billy Graham was known for making the message of Jesus plain and accessible to the masses. His crusades avoided the twisting paths of heady doctrine and stuck to the Romans Road, calling sinners to repent and trust in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. However, this does not mean that Billy Graham eschewed the need for theological study and cultural engagement.

Owen Strachan writes, “In truth, though, Graham was a very smart man, and oriented in perhaps a surprising way (for those who sneer at him) toward the life of the mind.” Graham helped to found Fuller Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Divinity School, both of which are significant influencers in Christian ministry and thought. In his words, Graham founded Christianity Today “…to be a focal point for the best in evangelical scholarship.”

If the world needs thinking Christians, I can think of no better place to find and build them than secular college and university campuses. Your ministry will do well to empower your students to love Jesus and the campus community with all their mind.

4. Be forgotten for Jesus.

Mordecai Ham didn’t know what God was going to do through the 16-year-old farmhand who attended his revival meetings in Charlotte, NC back in 1934. Yet, that farmhand is the man whose legacy I’m honoring in this article.

Likewise, you don’t know what God is going to do through that awkward freshman you met last week or the super senior on her “victory lap” semester. It’s not your job to know. It’s your job to point them to Christ who holds the future and has a plan that far exceeds the one you could concoct.

You’re probably not going to preach to millions, counsel Presidents, or found any seminaries. But maybe… just maybe… one of your students will. You won’t be famous and few will remember you after you’re gone. But Jesus knows you and pleasing him is a far better treasure. 

about the author

Chase Abner

Chase is a church planting leader for Send Network in Iowa.