What Billy Graham Taught Me About the Lord, Life and Legacy

The casket containing the late U.S. evangelist Billy Graham is received by his family and others at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The casket containing the late U.S. evangelist Billy Graham is received by his family and others at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina. (REUTERS/Leah Millis)

As I remember and reflect over Dr. Billy Graham's life and legacy, I see a number of pertinent life lessons we can learn from such a visionary Christian leader. I was honored to be invited by the Graham family to attend Dr. Graham's funeral on Friday, March 2. As I prepared to go to the funeral, I wrote the following thoughts to hopefully inspire you to "keep on keeping on" in the years ahead. These thoughts have been filtered through the interactions with Dr. Graham afforded to me from 1982 until now. I hope these personal leadership lessons will be meaningful to you.

First, when I ponder Dr. Graham's life, Faith and Vision jump off the page of life to me. From his earliest days until he graduated for eternity, he brought faith and vision to the table of key leaders around the world. He had a way of seeing the world from a different view and seeing God from a divine vantage point. While other leaders were trying to reach their respective communities, he was stepping up to reach the world.

I remember, as if it were yesterday, when Dr. Graham spoke at Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri, in 1982. Dr. Thomas F. Zimmerman, the General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God at that time, had invited him to speak to all of the Assemblies of God students, as well as to all of headquarters leaders and personnel.

My brother, Dr. James L. Davis, president of Leadership Development International, and I arrived at Evangel University two hours early so we could sit on the front row. I will never forget Dr. Graham's message. He concluded with words regarding the shortness of time and the challenge to finish the Great Commission in our lifetime. You could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium. His message was riveting!

Second, I think of First and Venture when I consider the impact of Dr. Graham's life. He did not pride himself on being first. He was willing to take the risks when others were not, and as a result he was first to launch powerful initiatives. In 1974, Dr. Graham launched the Lausanne Movement of World Evangelism. It was in Lausanne 1974 that the Church's missional shift began to move from "nations" to "ethnic groups." Today, the Global Church is focusing on the unreached people groups or unreached ethnic groups. It all began with Dr. Graham and his vision for world evangelism. In addition, he was one of the first, if not the first, to speak about Christ via satellite to at least one billion people at one time. He was a giant in maximizing the media, technology and the printed page.

Third, throughout his entire ministry, Dr. Graham brought Focus and Value into the lives of his family, friends and fellow servants. Dr. Graham would often say, "We must keep the main thing the main thing." I believe one of the hardest things to do is to keep the main thing the main thing! Yet, for 70 years, he brought focus to souls, saints and the Savior. He consistently reminded us of why we are here and what we are to do, and he never wavered.

For nearly three years, I was afforded the opportunity to serve on the executive committee for Amsterdam 2000. Amsterdam 2000 is considered to be "the most multinational event in history," as 218 nations, provinces and territories joined us in Amsterdam for this watershed evangelistic gathering of the Church. More than 11,000 evangelists and leaders came together to launch the greatest evangelism thrust possible in the 21st century.

Dr. Graham chose to bring kingdom value to these leaders from every nation on earth. The budget for this historic gathering exceeded more than $30,000,000. Yet, he raised this full amount more than a year in advance! On August 6, 2000, Dr. Graham issued this challenge to all of us gathered in Amsterdam: "Let us light a fire of commitment to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit to the ends of the earth, using every resource at our command and with every ounce of our strength." 

Fourth, it almost goes without saying, but Faithful and Virtue characterized his life and ministry. Dr. Graham lived without scandal and reproach throughout his decades of Christian service. He was faithful to his Lord, his wife, his family, his friends, his organization, his nation and his world. On one occasion he was asked, "What is the most valuable asset you have in your life?"  He answered, "My integrity. It takes a lifetime to build a strong name of integrity but just 30 seconds to lose it."  

When Dr. Graham was coming to a city to conduct a crusade, the first question he would ask is, "Are the people praying?"  He knew that, without prayer, it would be just an event and not an encounter. Notice what he did not ask. He did not ask, "How is the attendance? What is the weather like? Will we meet our budget?"    

In 1993 and 1994 I was honored, as an evangelist, to serve on the executive committee for NACIE 94. NACIE stands for "North American Conference for Itinerant Evangelists." Thousands of evangelists came together in Louisville, Kentucky. Dr. Graham challenged all of us to be faithful and virtuous throughout the decades of our lives. It was during this time frame that I learned the truth, "Small doors can open into large rooms."  

During NACIE 94, Dr. Graham held a press conference for both the secular and sacred press. During the questions and answers, one leading media person asked Dr. Graham's thoughts regarding Democrats and Republicans. I will never forget his answer. It was a classic. He said, "A bird has a left wing and a right wing. I am not interested in saving the right wing or the left wing. I want to save the entire bird."  Dr. Graham was not interested in ministering only to the conservatives or to the liberals, but to all of mankind. Is there any wonder why he had so many friends and why his impact was so deeply felt throughout the world?

Next, Dr. Graham's life epitomized Favor and Valor. When I think about his friends and the people he influenced, there is no mathematical equation to properly compute such impact. Eternal life is not found in the measures, pleasures and treasures of this world!  

The favor of the Lord rested upon his life from the beginning of his ministry until the end. During all of the interactions that I had with his staff and friends, I never heard one person speak ill of him. Additionally, he was the kind of leader who led the way. He was not afraid of the mighty or the wealthy or kings or presidents. Regardless of where the Lord led him, his message remained the same: "Christ is the only way to heaven. He died for your sins."

Last, but not least, I think of Finish and Victory as Dr. Billy Graham's life comes to a close and his legacy continues on. When he spoke at President Richard Nixon's grave, he began with these words, "There is democracy in death. It comes to us equally and makes us equal when it comes."  

An amazing friend of mine, Rev. Greg Smith, President of InStep International in Atlanta, Georgia, said to me, "At this stage of my life, I am asking myself, 'Who am I going to finish with?'"  All of us need to ask this question!  Who are you going to finish with?  You are going to finish. There is democracy in death!  

I can tell you this, most of the people you start with, you will not finish with. Throughout the journey of life, we have to learn how to handle "the great relationship exchange," so we can continue to fulfill our divine destiny. In 2009, Dr. James Merritt, president emeritus of the Southern Baptist Convention, and I, along with Dr. Elmer Towns and others, were in Ecuador for a Billion Soul Summit. I will never forget what Dr. Merritt said to approximately 500 leaders. He said, "All of us are running a race. It would be a tragedy for our life to come to a close and our race not be completed."

Dr. Graham ran "the race [that the Lord] marked out" for him. As he ran this race, with each stride he demonstrated:

  • Faith and Vision
  • First and Venture
  • Focus and Value
  • Faithful and Virtue
  • Favor and Valor
  • Finish and Victory 

May each us write these character traits in our Bibles and apply them to our lives. I share with my daughters that true success in the eyes of our Lord is to find His will, follow His will and finish His will. Dr. Billy Graham has completed his race and received his reward. Let us reach for the baton he has passed to us and run toward the finish line of the Great Commission in our generation.

Dr. James O. Davis is founder of Cutting Edge International and the CoFounder of Billion Soul Network. The Billion Soul Network is a growing coalition of more than 2,000 Christian ministries and denominations synergizing their efforts together to build the premier community of pastors worldwide to help plant five million new churches for a billion-soul harvest. Cutting Edge International and Billion Soul Network, consist of more than 500,000 churches.

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