Who will be the next Billy Graham?

The casket with the body of the Rev. Billy Graham lies in honor during a ceremony in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington Feb. 28. (CNS photo/pool, Chip Somodevilla via Reuters)

People have been asking this question for decades, since at least 1989 when Mr. Graham, at 70, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Two years later he was preaching in New York City’s Central Park before an estimated 250,000 people.

I asked this question recently of Lon Allison, author of a forthcoming book Billy Graham: An Ordinary Man and His Extraordinary God. Lon is an evangelical pastor and knows the Graham family well. He said, “Probably no one unless God so desires. A Billy Graham, a Martin Luther King, Jr., a Martin Luther, are called and gifted for a special calling in a special time. Billy, when asked that question while leading a global forum of evangelists from around the world answered this way: His arm swept out over the large gathering and simply said, ‘They will.’”


There has not been an evangelical Christian of recent memory with anywhere near the popular appeal of Mr. Graham. For a brief time, in 1989, there was talk of Franklin Graham filling his father’s shoes. Franklin began preaching occasionally at Billy Graham Evangelistic Association events. Then, it was Franklin, rather than his aging father, who prayed at the inauguration of George W. Bush in 2001. But people have not responded to Franklin in remotely the same way.

What is it about Billy Graham that seems so difficult to duplicate? For Mr. Graham, intangibles like personal humility and kindness translated across the television screen. There are other prominent evangelicals who have similar traits, such as Pastor Rick Warren, founder of Saddleback Church in California. He is the author of a book that sold more than 30 million copies, and he was once prominent enough that presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain came to his church for a presidential debate in 2008. But since then, there has been less interest in Mr. Warren as a public figure.

If I had to pick someone closest to being a Billy Graham today, it would be Rob Bell.

The most unusual thing about Mr. Graham’s success was the unlikely combination of personal appeal (looks, voice, reputation, likeability) with a message of sin and condemnation. He was able to point at millions and say, “You are a sinner,” and the millions kept watching and listening. Why they did not turn off their televisions, or stop going to those “crusades,” is the real mystery. However, the notion of a “next Billy Graham” must take stock of the fact that we do not watch television in the way we once did. Audiences are more segmented.

If I had to pick someone closest to being a Billy Graham today, it would be Rob Bell. A Wheaton College graduate like Mr. Graham, Bell is currently touring dozens of American cities making the case that “everything is spiritual,” his most common message. Mr. Bell was named by Time magazine as one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World” in 2011, before he left his megachurch in Michigan, moved to California and began appearing on Oprah Winfrey programs. Bell, at 48, has the number one spirituality podcast (RobCast) on iTunes, which is the measure today for what was once measured by people filling a stadium. Bell does not ask for conversions to Christianity per se, but challenges people to live authentic lives. His texts are not always Gospel-based or biblical, and his answers are complex.

All of which is to say: He is no Billy Graham.

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Roy Oldenkamp
10 months 3 weeks ago

Perhaps the question itself is moot, as more and more Americans identify as secular and even many Christians eschew formalized religion for a more personal experience with the teachings of Jesus Christ. The Old Testament talk espoused by Graham - the hellfire and brimstone approach, with redemption as "bait"- is rejected as archaic by many Americans, regardless of their affiliation.
The times, they are a changin'!

Dolores Pap
10 months 2 weeks ago

And thank god for that! We also certainly don't need a charismatic, religious, and public figure telling citizens( esp. if they are supported by establishment politicians, as was Graham) that “You are a sinner.” Just substitute 'Muslim' for Christian, and see how well that would go over..

Tim Donovan
10 months 2 weeks ago

I certainly am an imperfect Catholic. I 'm gay, and have struggled for most of my life (I'm 56) with my orientation. Years ago, I had sex with men. However, I regretted my behavior, and went to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and received forgiveness and consolation from a compassionate priest. I still have lustful feelings, but do my best to avoid them by reading good books and watching good television programs. I have a gay friend who I call occasionally to see how he and his family are doing. I don't VIsit him, as I no longer drive (nor does he) and I live in a nursing home. Although I believe gay people and other people who aren't heterosexual should be treated with respect, I believe that marriage is the union of one man and one woman. I realize that many Americans, especially young pdople, are abandoning organized religion. At one point in my life many years ago I was an agnostic, though I still tried to be a good person and follow the teachings of Jesus as taught by the Catholic Church. I now firmly believe in God, and hope (and believe) that He will forgive me for my many sins. I do go to the. Sacrament of Reconciliation with my compassionate pastor each month. As an imperfect Catholic who tries his best to believe in Church teachings, I believe in purgatory, as I believe some people (surely me!) need to experience purification for our sins before we (hopefully) spend eternal life with God in heaven. I'm not sure at all that there will be a Christian evangelist with the appeal of Rev. Graham ever again. I might note also that I have many friends or know people of different faiths. My sister-in-law and niece are good Presbyterians whom I love, many people I know and respect are Protestants of different denominations. I have a pen pal who is a Jehovah's Witness who is serving life in prison in a Philadelphia prison for a serious crime. I also know and respect several Muslims, and the administrator of the nursing home/rehabilitation center where I live U respect as he's a good Jew. I believe that we Catholics must respect and be kind towards all religious believers. For that matter, as good Catholics we must be kind towards all people, including those who don't believe in God.
Although I don't agree with everything single statement made by Pope Francis, I believe that as the successor to Peter that he has been given by Jesus the knowledge to teach His teachings. Pope Francis is a great speaker, travels all over the world meeting with people in all circumstances. Perhaps he will be the next Billy Graham. With respect, I know that while Jesus was loving as both true God and true man, he did speak about the reality of hell. Jesus did tell the Apostles to teach His principles to all people. I do believe that it's possible for all good, sincere believers in God to go to heaven, regardless of their faith. I certainly don't know if I'll go to heaven, but I hope being a fairly good person and believer will see me get there (after probably spending my due time in purgatory!). I've never heard Rob Bell speak (or even heard of him). I'd be very willing to listen to him speak or read a book by him if he has one published. I agree that some questions in life require complex answers. But I do believe that someone who sincerely believes in his faith, while respecting people of other faiths, should try to convert others in a compassionate manner. Thus, as an imperfect Catholic, I believe that we each should try to persuade others in a reasonable manner that the Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus, and worth belonging to. Do Catholics make serious mistakes? Absolutely. But other people of other (or no) faiths do as well. Although I agree that an evangelist can use other sources than the Bible when teaching, I believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God.

Henry Starr
10 months 2 weeks ago

Speaking of Oprah, and Wheaton college and popular evangelicals, John Piper had an excellent episode on his podcast in response to a question about Oprah's wayward commentary on her favourite Psalm. It is a welcome exhortation against the kind of 'therapeutic deism' I have seen America warn against. Her reading is not based in Christ or our LORD. https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/is-oprah-right-on-psalm-37-4

John Piper is no Billy Graham, but noone will be.
Graham was a man for his time, and as the author notes these times are more fractured and atomised, a product of technological consumerism.
Today I am encouraged by Jon Piper's online ministry, as well as the Bible Project, not to mention America magazine at it's best, and I'm sure there are many others that bear witness, spread the good news, and encourage one another in faith.

Philip Kayden
10 months 2 weeks ago

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Vincent Gaglione
10 months 2 weeks ago

May I suggest that this fascination with Billy Graham as “America’s Pastor” obscures some serious flaws in the man’s behaviors throughout his life.

May I refer you to a column in the New York Post, certainly NOT one of my favorite newspapers, by Maureen Callahan:

We don’t need another “Billy Graham.”

Sandi Sinor
10 months 2 weeks ago

I agree about Billy Graham. He was not a hero of mine. I wish him well, and I think he meant well, but I also think he got a whole lot of things wrong, and, unfortunately, was in a position to impact some politicians and policies.
Rob Bell is a different kind of public "showman" christian than Graham. Bell is seen as a heretic by a good part of Graham's fan base in the evangelical and fundamentalist wings of christianity..

Dionys Murphy
10 months 2 weeks ago

Agreed, Vincent. We certainly don't need the continuing, evil influence of neo-'evangelical' Christianity encroaching on the Church.


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