By Erik Orgen, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association Special to ASSIST News Service
MINNEAPOLIS, MN(ANS) -- Billy Graham Crusades: we can all picture them in our minds. Large stadiums filled with people singing Just As I Am, streaming forward at the evangelist's heartfelt appeal to place their faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior.
More than 315 million people around the world witnessed this in person. Countless millions more were moved by it through the electric glow of their living room television sets, first in black-and-white and then in color.
For years, one could say that Billy Graham Crusades WERE the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. The massive events were well-known by Christians and non-believers alike.
Today, Billy Graham is 90 years old and, though ministering on a personal level and writing a book, he is no longer holding Crusades. One might be tempted to think the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is in decline and that its days of ministering to the lost are over. Hardly!
Rather, this ministry, which is set to celebrate its 60th year in 2010, is actually growing younger - much younger. Recognizing the importance of impacting youth and teens, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has implemented a trio of unique approaches specifically designed to reach young people with the Gospel, equip them to reach their friends, and disciple them to maturity in Christ.
Take Billy Graham Crusades, for example. That age-old strategy of "going where the people are" - from canvas tents to Yankee Stadium - has been uniquely refined to appeal to teenagers who, studies show, run a very real risk of never knowing hope in Christ if they don't develop a relationship with Him by their 18th birthday. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has placed an emphasis on reaching the souls of teenagers as they face pressures and temptations that many who used to attend Billy Graham Crusades could never have imagined.
The result of this paradigm shift is Rock the River, a multi-city tour up the Mississippi River with one-day music festivals. Using rock and hip-hop bands to speak the language of today's young people, along with challenging messages of purpose, hope and eternity from Franklin Graham, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association reached out to a whole new generation with the Gospel, including many who have never heard the name of Jesus.
"This is a new strategy, to be sure," said Jeff Anderson, director of North American Crusades for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. "But it's the same message that has been proclaimed by this ministry since day one. The music, venue style and format are much different, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ never changes."
Bands that participated in Rock the River, which began on July 18 in Baton Rouge, had stops in St. Louis and Quad Cities, and then concluded on August 16 in St. Paul, include Flyleaf, Kirk Franklin, Superchick, DecembeRadio, Hawk Nelson and Lecrae.
Flyleaf is played on rock and alternative radio stations. Though their music isn't primarily played on contemporary Christian radio, the band is made up of Christian musicians who are excited to have the opportunity to be a part of evangelism. One teenager from the Quad Cities area wrote to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, "I'm extremely glad that Flyleaf is coming to the QC because that band has single-handedly made the concert interesting enough for my non-Christian friend to come."
Said Anderson, "While it's important for Christian youth to have uplifting entertainment, our goal with this was not to create a fun event for church kids. Our whole goal was to reach out to kids who have never heard the Gospel before, and - with much prayer - we tried hard to create an event to which Christian kids could easily invite and bring their unchurched friends."
The Rock the River strategy paid off, as nearly 113,000 people - mostly young people - attended the four Rock the River events. More than 2,300 made commitments to Christ through the outreach, and the ministry is now looking at cities to replicate the effort in 2010.
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association isn't giving up on the traditional Crusade model either. On the heels of a summer full of reaching youth in America, Franklin Graham and his team traveled to Bogotá, Colombia to hold a four day Festival there. Approximately 157,000 people attended the Festival, with more than 11,500 people responding to the invitation. An incredible 75 percent of those who came forward were age 25 or under.
At the same time that the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is reaching out to unsaved teens through Rock the River and evangelistic Festivals, its Dare to Be a Daniel program is helping young Christians deepen their faith and preparing them to share Jesus with their friends.
The program - inspired by the biblical story of Daniel - features a Web site (daretobeadaniel.com), literature teaching Christian principles and Bible verses, and an interactive CD-ROM that includes music, videos, practical tips and the entire Bible. Dare to Be a Daniel is available as an individual Bible study or a 13-week curriculum for Sunday school classes and youth groups. A five-session resource will also soon be available.
Since the program launched in 2006, more than 13,000 young people (approximately eleven per day) have successfully completed the course and are now making an impact by sharing their faith.
"These are good Christian kids," said Chad Miller, director of Dare to Be a Daniel. "They are active in youth group, love Jesus and are passionate about their beliefs, but maybe they don't know exactly what to say if given the opportunity to share their faith with their friends. Dare to Be a Daniel equips them to do that."
After completing the Dare to Be a Daniel program, Allee Keener, a teenager from Albany, N.Y., decided to hold a party for all of her friends and use it as an opportunity to witness to them. "My relationship with God is the biggest thing in my life, and knowing how amazing it is to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ - I really want my friends to experience the same thing," said Keener.
"Kids today are dealing with so much," said Miller. "The messages and temptations they're being constantly bombarded with would have been unheard of even 10 years ago: drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, cutting, suicide. There's a whole generation that is longing for hope and truth, and Dare to Be a Daniel is equipping young Christians to offer new life in very difficult times."
On top of Rock the River and Dare to Be a Daniel, there is yet another shift in strategy from a long-standing ministry of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. In late July, for the first time in the 40-year history of the Billy Graham Schools of Evangelism, an additional day was added to the multi-day training for pastors to focus intensely on youth ministry, with a bevy of seminars designed to assist today's church leaders with reaching the next generation.
Kathy Maas, managing director of North American Schools of Evangelism for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, summed up the importance of training pastors on how to reach out to young people. "Often pastors have told us, 'We want to reach out to the teens in our neighborhood, but we don't know how. It's like they speak a different language,'" said Maas. "We saw a real need to give local pastors the necessary tools and ideas to make an impact."
While this was the first time the Billy Graham Schools of Evangelism used this tactic, it will not be the last. "It was a very powerful time, and we plan to include youth-focused training during more Schools of Evangelism in the future. Our young people are too important to us. We can't ignore the need."
As the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association prepares for its 60th anniversary, they are ever mindful that tactics shift, but the Gospel is unchanging, and they are moving forward with a great sense of urgency to reach a lost generation with that redemptive message.
Is the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association reaching its swan song? "No way," said Jeff Anderson, through a broad grin. "We're just getting started!"
Erik Ogren is Sr. Public Relations Specialst for the Billy Graham Association in Minneapolis, MN.