Franklin Graham bringing concert and altar call

Winnipeg Free Press
March 19, 2011
Brenda Suderman

Although teenagers can download any video, song, or message they like, the grandson of Billy Graham believes there's still a place for another way of instant communication: preaching from a pulpit to a large audience.

"You have a great chance to talk to a lot of people at one time," says Will Graham of an upcoming Christian music concert in Winnipeg for teenagers.

Graham was in Winnipeg briefly last week to unveil plans for the free Sept. 17 Rock the River concert at The Forks.

The five-hour musical extravaganza will be punctuated by two 15-minute messages from Will Graham's father Franklin, who will deliver an altar call similar to the one the famed evangelist Billy Graham, now 92, issued during his eight decades of evangelical crusades around the world.

"We'll call them right to the front of the stage," explains Will Graham, 36, the assistant director of the Billy Graham Training Centre in Asheville, N.C.

"We'll have counsellors just like at the Billy Graham crusade. We won't have Bev Shea and we won't have a choir," he says, referring to longtime Graham crusade baritone soloist who recently won a lifetime achievement Grammy award at age 102.

Franklin Graham's last Winnipeg appearance in 2006 generated controversy because of his comments to CNN after 9/11 about Islam being an "evil and wicked" religion. Last year, he was disinvited to speak at the National Day of Prayer at the U.S. Pentagon because of his opinions on Islam.

So far, the upcoming event at The Forks has generated wide support among Winnipeg's churches, says David Ingram, director of ministry at the Calgary-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association of Canada. About 150 ministers and youth ministers attended a morning rally with Will Graham last week at the Church of the Rock.

"No one has raised any issues to me about Franklin (Graham) and his views," he says.

About 30 churches and organizations have already signed on to support the Rock the River event, says Ted Hall, chair of the Winnipeg organizing committee. Those include Gateway Christian Community, Calvary Temple, Church of the Rock, Elim Chapel, Grant Memorial Baptist Church, St. Aidan's Anglican Church, Westwood Presbyterian Church and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Winnipeg.

The archdiocese will promote the concert and its related events among its parishes and encourage young people to attend, says Erin Kinsella, director of youth and young adult ministries for the Archdiocese of Winnipeg. She expects the evening of Christian music will be attractive to Catholic teens.

"In the end, the thing that is most important is that young people know who Jesus is and that he loves us," says Kinsella. "That's the basic starting point of our ministry."

The United Church of Canada has decided not to participate because the concert doesn't fit with its denominational identity and theology, says Debbie Coss, the young adult and youth minister for the Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario conference.

"The focus on personal salvation doesn't fit with the United Church's response to societal needs," says Coss. "Rather than just the personal relationship with God, how do we live in the community of faith that loves and supports us?"

Graham says the goal of the concert is to encourage teenagers to make personal commitments to the Christian faith, but says his organization works closely with local churches well beyond any event.

"We'll have the local churches follow up with all of those who have made decisions (to become Christian)," he says. "We'll still be here a couple of months later to meet our financial commitments and to follow up with each person individually."

The Winnipeg concert is aimed at Christian youth and their friends who may not go to church, says Ingram.

He says donations from local churches and businesses are expected to cover about half of the $900,000 budget for the concert and the volunteer training workshops scheduled for April and May.

The Winnipeg event follows similar outdoor concerts last summer in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, which each attracted about 8,000 people. The Winnipeg date also includes a morning children's festival with puppet shows, an illusionist and music for elementary school children. Franklin Graham will not speak at the morning event.

Some local Christian bands may be invited to perform at Rock the River, but the final lineup hasn't been confirmed.

As for retired evangelist Billy Graham, he is in good health, reports his grandson in a southern drawl.

"He's doing so well he wants to preach one more time," says Will Graham, who says any sermon by his grandfather will likely be recorded and posted on the Internet.

Billy Graham spoke at the Winnipeg Arena in 1967. His last crusade was in New York City in 2005.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 19, 2011 J13

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