I grew up on a farm in North Carolina, and my mom always reminded me of the simple beginnings that North Carolina native Billy Graham came from. His life and message can inspire and inform your writing. Graham’s simple message gives a helpful model for writing, thinking theologically, connecting to the biblical text, and living out the truths you hold dear. Check out the following.
1. Heart and integrity matter. Billy Graham is evidence that God can use those of humble state to do great things. This theme is found throughout the Bible, describing the type of person God uses. Look at David; his own father did not summon him to meet Samuel when asked to gather them to anoint one as the next king. Jesse may not have considered David to be kingly material, but God did. God saw through the ruddy exterior to David’s heart. David focused on his relationship with God, again and again, through mistakes and great moments alike. Your heart and integrity matter in your writing. It will enable you to write with authenticity and passion.
2. Keep it simple. Billy Graham focused on a simple gospel message in his evangelistic sermons and crusades. Every sermon had a clear presentation of the Christian gospel, founded upon the message of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He sent His one and only Son that whoever believes in Him would not perish but have eternal life.” That message was the heart and soul of every evangelistic crusade, everywhere he went. There was no need to reinvent himself every so often. Sometimes the best writing avoids contrivances, complex language, and complicated research. Certainly not all writing can be simplified for a popular audience but don’t think that complex subjects always require complex presentation.
3. Don’t overlook the biblical text. Listen to any sermon that Billy Graham ever preached and count the number of times he said, “The Bible says … .” He didn’t begin many sentences with “I think” or “I feel” or “I believe.” In that regard, Billy Graham, like the Reformers before him, believed Sola Scriptura. He spoke it, lived it, and preached it. Jews and Christians have longed been called “people of the book” because of the importance placed upon the scriptures held dear. Theological thinking should always deal first with an examination of biblical text. Not to do so ignores a huge portion of the Christian community.
4. Don’t get sidetracked by tradition and popular opinion. Billy Graham was a student of the Bible and was not swayed by opinion polls or church traditions that didn’t match biblical content. I have seen this error too many times in my own Understanding the Bible classes. Undergraduates know what they have been taught about the Bible, what others think about it, especially how others have used it in outrageous and terrible ways to justify actions that were anything but godly, yet so rarely know what the Bible actually says. Many times we look specifically at famous stories from the Bible, such as Genesis 1-3 or Jesus’ birth accounts in Matthew and Luke. Students are looking for Eve to bite an apple or wise men to show up at the manger and are often surprised as much by what the Bible does not say. Popular portrayals and church traditions do not always match what a fresh read of the Bible will reveal. Set aside your preconceived notions and hermeneutic of the moment. Anchor your writing to the biblical text first before moving to tradition, then evaluate tradition in light of the biblical text.
5. It’s about God. Graham was not just armed with biblical authority (The Bible says …) but a clear systematic theology grounded in the God of the Bible. To Graham, the Bible is indeed a message of God’s love, God’s invitation, God’s searching for lost coins and lost sheep, waiting with open arms like the father of the prodigal. You did not find God, but God found you and offered an invitation to join Him and become an adopted son or daughter in His kingdom. Those invitations at the end of his crusades were not marked by extreme use of emotion, drama, or sales pitches. Graham thought that a clear understanding of God, His love, and His sacrifice would move people to respond. His invitations reflected this thinking. He most often used the hymn Just As I Am for the time people were given to respond to the message, which reflects the invitation to respond to God just as you are. Writing that responds to others in their current life situations will similarly be on target every time.
6. Emphasize freedom. In that regard, Graham taught that the message of God brings freedom based on your identity in God and the salvation work of Jesus. Graham preached and lived and breathed this message. Seek knowledge and truth in the same way. God is pleased with those who do so, recognizing the search is pleasing, not just an end goal. Graham’s argument clearly taught that a relationship with God frees one from bondage. If your writing liberates, empowers, and transforms, that is the highest goal you can attain—to connect with readers in a way that changes their lives.
7. Personal purity strengthens a simple message. Bringing this discussion full circle, Graham’s life reflected what he thought, believed, and preached, bringing power to his message through living it out every day. I remember hearing about how Graham had rules about not riding elevators or having a meal with a woman alone other than his wife. His purpose was to avoid any appearance or possibility of anything inappropriate. He kept a close circle of friends who kept each other accountable. Likewise, his children and spouse testify of his godliness and life and its consistency with his message. Living out your passions brings life to your writing and will inspire others to share in your journey.