Graham's huge legacy in a smaller package

The Calgary Herald
May 7, 2006
Joe Woodard

There's long been a counter-cultural movement committed to the notion, "Small is Beautiful."  So now, after 50 years of crusades drawing 50,000-plus (like Calgary's 1999 Franklin Graham celebration of 80,000) the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association puts "small" to the test.

On the second weekend of April, BGEA Canada ran a Wildrose Celebration in the small, central Alberta city of Leduc, a pilot project that drew a modest 2,000 people a night over three nights from neighbouring Wetaskiwin, Devon and Camrose.

The pilot was part of working out the "Graham Legacy" in the 21st century, says BGEA Canada director of ministry Stephen Wile.

News of this mini-crusade, featuring Billy Graham's grandson, Will Graham, was deliberately suppressed in nearby Edmonton, for fear Leduc's modest Black Gold Centre hockey arena would be crammed with outsiders.

"We wanted to reach small communities," said Fellowship Church pastor Jonathan Grenz, who has attended big crusades in Toronto and Portland, Ore.

"This was different. So many people knew one another, it had a real sense of community.  It wasn't churches taking part, but one church under God."

Grenz worked for 22 months with Calgary-based BGEA Canada to put on the Wildrose Celebration. Twelve Leduc and 35 area churches took part.

For all that the crusade was small, BGEA staffers had "a real commitment to quality," Grenz said.

Music was provided by Nashville-based Tree63 on Friday and Saturday nights, and Calgary's own Kim Haller on Sunday.

Kids' evangelist Duggie Dug Dug from England clowned with 800 kids on Saturday morning. And 31-year-old North Carolina pastor Will Graham gave a message that was pure "Billy": all  the wealth of a booming oil industry can't bring real happiness.

"Was Jesus Christ just a man, or was He the son of God?" Graham asked.

"Every person in every generation must answer that question. They can ignore it for a while, but they can't ignore it forever….

"I'm here to tell you Jesus is the son of God , and He died for you and me."

Roughly 100 people nightly responded to the "altar call," and more made "first time decisions for Jesus," contacting local churches.

While the crusade was smaller, the logistics were still overwhelming.

Local volunteer Maureen Conrad recites some details: drapery, lights, sound; ushers, security guards, radios; parking and shuttle buses; signs inside and outside, hospitality suites, food and 52 hotel rooms for BGEA people.

"But it was an enormous privilege to work with the local pastors, to see them so unified," Conrad says.

"And because it was a pilot project, the first Graham crusade outside a major metropolitan area, it was even more of an honour."

The results were worth it, she says.

Conrad watched a local committee member "transformed" from a hard-nosed businessman to a "man of compassion."  And when his kids volunteered in the last busy week, she watched them transformed by their "open admiration for their dad."

Conrad saw a young couple bring his unchurched mom, and watched her commit her life to Christ.

A young mother with a severe drug problem dropped off her husband and daughter, but then "came in for a while," only to stay the entire evening.

"If we did this, and one person came to the Lord, how can you place a price on a soul?" she asks.

Clergy and lay organizers "learned where the cultural cracks are," Conrad says: "We're now dealing with a second generation who haven't gone to church. So when Will Graham said, 'Roll away the stone'" - the stone that sealed Jesus' tomb before His resurrection - "all the kids asked, 'What's he talking about? What stone?'"

Was the event a success?

Leduc pastor Grenz says it was meant as a "springboard" for future joint projects among area churches, and it worked: They're now collaborating on a major future events.

BGEA's Wile says the event generated "lots of positives for the community," and BGEA does not regret responding to the Leduc invitation.

But hard lessons were learned.  Logistics such as shuttle buses for parking were much more daunting than in a big city.   The $200,000 cost was a writeoff.  And the event drew 10 per cent of Leduc and Wetaskiwin, but other towns, not having ownership of it, didn't really respond.

"We knew the churches couldn't cover the costs.  And we target seekers, so their investment is just being there.  But we didn't get many from the surrounding area," Wile says.

"There's a great opportunity in targeting smaller communities, but we still have to figure out how to do it."

It may make more sense to target cities 50,000-plus - a Red Deer or Kamloops, Wile says. Or run tent meetings in fields across a region like Crowsnest, setting up outside different towns on a half-dozen successive nights.  Or Leduc-sized towns of 15,000 might support smaller efforts, like a Duggie Dug Dug kids' event.

"For Charlotte (BGEA headquarters in North Carolina), this is all wrapped up in issues around the Graham legacy," says Wile.

"But with the older generation like Billy and Ralph Bell retiring, there are definitely new, young evangelists rising up out there - absolutely.

"People ask me if there's still a place for crusades in the 21st century.  So I say, do people still go to concerts? Yes, but they're different.  We just have to figure out how to do it."

BBB Festival of Hope My Hope with Billy Graham

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association of Canada

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