At some point in the modern American model of Christian church growth, a subtle yet significant shift occurred—let’s call it the “Billy Graham” shift. In 1948, Billy Graham began his “crusades,” which reached an estimated 210 million people in over 185 countries. The obvious merit of these events was the explosion of the Gospel message across the globe. Many Christians today point back to one of those crusades as the moment they became secure in their salvation in Jesus Christ, and for that I am genuinely grateful. However, I believe that there is a rarely-discussed downside to the crusades, which is worth exploring.
What happens when a generation of Christians are saved with the words, “This is about you and Jesus—no one else?” I still see this all the time in youth ministry culture. When the moment arrives for the altar call at the end of camp, the speaker wants everyone to close their eyes and bow their heads. Then, he calls for students to stand up if they feel that Jesus is calling them. One of the encouragements in this moment is usually something along the lines of, “This isn’t about what anybody else is doing, don’t worry about them—this is about you and Jesus.”
For what its worth: this is technically correct. The moment of faith, the moment of regeneration, is not something between the student, the crowd, the speaker, and Jesus. It is an act of the Holy Spirit to enable the student to embrace Jesus as Lord and Savior. But the problem is what happens next: the student comes forward, everyone cheers and celebrates, and then life goes on.
That speaker goes home.
Those students from other churches go home.
That new, teenaged Christian goes home—often to non-Christian environments.
And what is left?
Just that student and Jesus.
The Christian life was never meant to be an exclusively personal experience.
One of the most significant reasons for bringing a child to the temple for circumcision in the Old Testament was to make a public statement that the child was a member of the covenant community and would be raised as such. In baptism today, we see the same idea: public, visible inclusion with the body of Christ. And herein lies the shift: we celebrate public inclusion via baptism, yet the moment afterwards demand our relationship with Christ be between “me and Jesus.”
And this has significant ramifications:
Church discipline for those living in sin is lacking, to say the least.
Accountability for those who are church members, yet routinely neglect the gathering of the saints, is dismissed.
Jesus can be worshipped on the ball field, lake, or deer stand.
Jesus can be worshipped via livestream or podcasts.
I believe that the problem Billy Graham furthered was that of the “personal Jesus,” the Jesus in my heart. And while, yes, Jesus is in every way our personal Lord and Savior, he is also our corporate Lord and Savior. He not only saves the stones which build his temple, he sets them in place among the other stones. There is no defense in the Scriptures for a Christian who chooses to be disjoined from the fellowship of believers. There is no argument to be made that the Christian life can be walked alone. We are stones of the temple. We are members of a body. You cannot claim the name of Christ yet reject his body.
When this happens:
Finding a church turns into church-shopping (and hopping).
Church discipline becomes offensive.
Church membership seems irrelevant.
The body cannot function as it should.
Iron cannot sharpen iron.
It is their decision, their Jesus, their faith—please don’t confuse it with Christ’s temple, Christ’s body, or Christ’s church.
Unfortunately, the Billy Graham movement pushed forward the Great Awakening’s uniquely independent strand of Christianity.
I don’t believe it was intentional.
I don’t believe he was aware of it.
I don’t believe it is his fault.
I don’t believe the crusades were all bad.
But I do believe this is a reality that must be addressed.
The corporate body of Christ must recover from an ideology of individualism and autonomy. Friends, embrace the body of Christ. Join a local church. Be honest about your faith. Be willing to be vulnerable. Don’t deprive the body of your gifts, nor you of theirs.
We are stones of the temple, parts of the body, members of his Church. There are no biblical grounds for having it any other way.