At his height, Billy Graham preached the word of God to more than two billion people on live broadcasts at his more than 400 Crusades and global conferences, and reached countless billions through television, newspapers, radio, books and film. And yet rarely has anyone ever examined his early roots in the pulpit. Billy Graham: The Man I Knew, is a detailed recounting of Graham’s extraordinary life through the eyes of fellow evangelist, best-selling author and close friend for more than a quarter-century, Greg Laurie was blessed with an insider’s view of Billy Graham that allows the reader to get a warm yet historical portrait of “America’s Preacher.” Below is an excerpt on 19-year-old Billy Graham at the start of his ministry while attending Florida Bible Institute in the late 1930s. It’s a grace to welcome Greg to the farm’s front porch today…
There is no better place to learn about ministry than in ministry—getting in the trenches and doing what needs to be done to help people come to faith and grow spiritually.
The Bible says, “You have not, because you ask not.”
But prayer is not about getting God to do what we want Him to do. It’s not getting our will in Heaven, but rather God’s will on Earth.
The Lord prompted Billy to ask for what the Lord actually wanted Him to do.
Billy could have refused to pray (and many do), but he would have missed a tremendous open door.
The Lord does not usually give us a full roadmap in life. Rather, He usually leads us one step at a time.
Billy’s confidence soared after he spoke one day to a large group of teens at a local mission. He was asked to come back several times by the mission’s director. Billy even took it upon himself to start preaching on the street, and sometimes in front of seedy bars and rowdy saloons.
When a preacher is willing to put himself in situations like that, it prepares him for what is ahead. One cannot control the reactions of random people on the street. They may applaud you, but they more than likely will ignore you, and sometimes turn on you.
How you react to all of that helps you as a communicator to get into “fighting shape” for greater battles.
Slowly but surely, word got out about Billy’s work. Invitations came trickling in.
One was from a Baptist church in Venice, a small community of about five hundred people on Florida’s Gulf Coast. This particular invitation sounded a little more unconventional than most: the congregation held its services in a converted meat market. Jesus had no problem preaching in an open field and feeding thousands with a few loaves of bread and a handful of fish, and Billy didn’t see a problem preaching here either.
This service was “meaty” however you sliced it. Of the approximately eighty-five people in the congregation, almost a third responded to Billy’s invitation to “commit their lives to Christ.” If an evangelist has a 10 percent response to his preaching, that is considered a great success. But to have a third of an audience respond? That is “revival-like”!
Billy was awestruck. Humbly, he did not believe it was his sermon or the invitation that got so many to come forward; he credited the powerful prayer preceding the afternoon service that set it all in motion.
Billy told me once that he felt he had a gifting from God to give the invitation. He did not regard himself as a great preacher, though I strongly disagreed with him on that point.
Having said that, he did have a supernatural ability, or what the Bible calls “an anointing,” to call people to Christ. You can’t learn that in a classroom or from a book. It is a gift from Heaven, and Billy already had it as a young man. Though every Christian is called to share their faith, not every believer has the “gift” of the office of the evangelist.
Preachers can get discouraged—or encouraged—just like anyone else. For a businessman, a sale, a closed deal, and financial profit are yardsticks of success.
For an evangelist, success is when people come to the Lord. Our “profit margin” is much different. In my opinion, this was a milestone event for Billy. This experience and others to follow would throw some fuel on the flame of Billy Graham.
His confidence soon grew to fearlessness. He was now a crusader, a warrior for the Lord, a Joshua who would wade into any fight or any dark alley.
Sundays were now reserved for Tampa’s worst: he held more than a half-dozen services that day, preaching to the down and out, the indigent and poor, and those crippled by addictions. He went back to preaching to people in prisons, trailer parks, and anywhere else there was a need with renewed vigor.
He once recalled preaching in front of a saloon on Tampa’s rowdy Franklin Street. During the day it was an entertainment and shopping district, and at night it was filled with drunks, prostitutes, and other sinners in need of the Good News.
“I stood right in the door, preaching to people sitting at the bar. The barkeeper came out and ordered me away, and I wouldn’t go,” Billy later said.
“He just shoved me down, and I half fell and half tripped into the wet street. I got my clothes messed up. I remembered the words of Jesus, and felt that I was suffering for Christ’s sake. It was quite tactless the way I went about it, zeal and no knowledge; but those were experiences that helped develop.”
Criminals, addicts, street people, and night hawks.
Billy had entered a new world, far from children and summer Bible camps, and he reveled in it.
He was Joshua reborn, a lion of God who didn’t blink or hesitate.
And he was ready to roar.
Greg Laurie, the senior pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship, one of the largest churches in America, has written more than seventy books. Featured on the syndicated radio program A New Beginning and on a weekly television show on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, he serves on the board of directors of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Greg Laurie was one of those fortunate few, blessed with an insider’s view of Billy Graham’s world for more than two decades. As a strapping North Carolina farm boy, Graham surrendered his life to Jesus at a camp meeting led by a blustery itinerant preacher, but he never lost the mischievous twinkle in his eye or his fun-loving air.
Greg sheds light on Graham’s lesser-known struggles—such as a broken heart before he met the love of his life and a crisis of faith from which he emerged stronger than ever. From the evangelist’s private challenges and public successes to his disappointments and joys, Billy Graham: The Man I Knew provides a vivid portrait of one of history’s most remarkable Christian lives. It’s written through the eyes of a friend – a highlight reel. This book is a biopic of his shaping experiences and the people who impacted him.
[ Our humble thanks to Salem Books for their partnership in today’s devotion ]