Graham breaks stadium records, relaying gospel to young & old

by Tammi Reed Ledbetter, posted Monday, October 21, 2002 (16 years ago)

IRVING, Texas (BP)--Evangelist Billy Graham broke attendance records for Texas Stadium the last two nights of the Oct. 17-20 Metroplex Mission.

Mission organizers said that 11,097 spiritual decisions were recorded that will be passed along to the 1,000-plus area churches that helped sponsor the mission and agreed to follow up on converts.

Billy Graham Evangelistic Association spokesperson Beth Ellis said 4.4 percent of the nearly 255,000 people attending mission meetings made decisions for Christ. "That's a very good response for a mission that was held in the Bible belt where you have a lot of church attendees," Ellis said.

A Saturday night service aimed at a youth audience broke the attendance record for the Dallas-area stadium in Irving, drawing 82,000, with 12,000 of the predominantly teenage crowd watching a big screen in an overflow section of the parking lot. Area churches moved their Sunday evening services to Texas Stadium, and the previous night's record was broken again with 83,500 in attendance.

A torrential rainfall Friday night didn't deter that night's crowd, down by only 3,000 from the opening night. Another 18,000 attended an evangelistic children's program Saturday morning. In an effort to reach out to diverse cultures, translation was offered for nine language groups during the mission.

The north Texas crusade proved that crusade evangelism still works when local churches do their part in bringing unchurched friends and following up on spiritual decisions by discipling new converts, said Frank Harber, pastor of First Baptist Church of Colleyville, Texas.

"Our church took it dead serious," Harber said, describing the church's commitment to provide five to seven chartered buses to each night's meeting. "We're on those buses operating like Southwest Airlines with peanuts and Cokes as they get on board," he said. Thirty-five of the passengers made some type of spiritual decision during the first three nights, he said, adding, "We already have 14 people scheduled for baptism."

Paul Varnedoe, the church's minister of evangelism, coordinated follow-up of the individuals who traveled to the crusade each night. On the ride home visitors completed surveys through which they related any spiritual decisions or lingering questions about faith in Christ.

Harber and Varnedoe praised the follow-up process pioneered by BGEA to make sure new converts are contacted by nearby churches. A BGEA-commissioned study of 15,000 inquirers responding at Graham's crusades over a 30-year period determined that 70 to 80 percent of them remain steadfast in their decision to follow Christ.

"New Christians will receive a letter in the mail right away," Varnedoe said. "But we'll already know about the decisions made by those we transported and they'll be scheduled for baptism before that letter even arrives."

That personal attention made the difference for Sandra Viles of Kansas City whose son invited her to visit and attend the mission. "When I found out Billy Graham was coming here, I thought that was an opportunity to invite my mom down," Viles told the Dallas Morning News. His mother accepted the invitation and made a profession of faith in Christ.

Sandra Viles told the paper, "I just felt it was time and [God] was calling me to come down there and do what he wants me to do. I felt like I really need to be on the right path in my life and that things will be better for me and my family."

Jo Raibley of Inglewood Baptist Church in Grand Prairie also took advantage of her church's free transportation to invite her daughter to the meeting. Just eight years younger than the evangelist, Raibley said Graham's message appeals to all ages. "He plugs in a sense of humor along the way and I think that appeals to any generation -- maybe especially to young people."

Raibley was among the 456,000 people who attended Graham's 10-day crusade in 1971 when the Dallas Cowboys showed off their new stadium. "Billy Graham has many, many friends and it's just really a reunion when he comes back here to all of these people," she said. "I just think it's an experience that you'll never forget, that television cameras cannot capture."

Southern Baptist leaders from the Dallas-Fort Worth area chaired key committees for the Metroplex Mission and played a part in offering the initial invitation that led to the meeting being scheduled. According to Melany Ethridge of BGEA, 208 Southern Baptist churches participated in planning and providing volunteers.

Fort Worth pastor Michael Dean of Travis Avenue Baptist Church remembers traveling on a Greyhound bus from Wichita Falls to attend the 1971 Dallas crusade where he saw a fellow high school student saved. Often described as the nation's pastor, Graham has advised numerous presidents and most recently calmed a grieving country and offered a gospel presentation three days after last year's Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Graham has ties to the Texas area, holding membership in First Baptist Church of Dallas and where his wife's brother, the late Clayton Bell, pastored Highland Park Presbyterian Church. As the mission drew to a close Sunday night, Graham looked up at the sky through the opening in the stadium roof and said, "I believe that people from heaven can see us."

He spoke of the late Tom Landry, coach of the Dallas Cowboys and a leader with Fellowship of Christian Athletes who "would go before us in every crusade and make speeches to let people know about our meetings."

In addition to the passing of Bell and Johnny Lenning, an Hour of Decision radio producer whose son, Scott, directed the Metroplex Mission, Graham said there were many other people he loved who normally would have been at the Dallas mission. "I preached every night from this Bible given to me by the one that edited it," Graham said, citing the inscription from the late W. A. Criswell, longtime pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas.

Standing for nearly 40 minutes to deliver a Sunday night message from John 5, Graham provided the overflow crowd with a doctrinal overview of atonement, beginning with Abraham's willingness to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice and God's intervention by providing a ram, then moving on to describe the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.

"In Colossians 1 it says we have peace through his blood, shed on the cross. We don't like to talk about blood anymore even though we see it on our television screens all the time from criminals and in wars."

Directing their attention to Jesus' healing of the invalid man at the Bethesda pool, Graham said, "This man that had been waiting for 38 years tried everything. Jesus went to him because he was probably in the worst condition of anybody there and nobody had been able to help him."

In the same way that Jesus looked at the invalid man with tenderness and love, Jesus motivates Christians to help people who are suffering from injustice, homelessness and sickness, Graham said. "He sees you, living in a world of hurts," Graham told those listening.

Each night Graham described the gospel's power to combat problems that are often the focus of the evening news. "The heart of our problem is sin," he said, referring to the motivation behind the Washington, D.C.,-area shooter and the "supernatural power" that gave terrorists the ability to hit the World Trade Center. "That supernatural personality is the devil. Who could have ever thought and planned such a thing?" Graham asked.

He appealed to those gathered to follow Jesus Christ by professing faith in him, repenting of sin and believing that God raised Christ from the dead.

"You're thinking of things right now you'd have to quit, but the Holy Spirit comes to help you and as you live the Christian life, he helps you do that." Graham warned of the reality of hell, adding, "God will not always strive with man." He urged, "Don't reject him. Come now."

As thousands streamed out of their seats to approach the platform, Graham reminded, "You've come tonight to Jesus, not to me. He loves you and because of the cross is willing to forgive and take all of your sin away. The files are all deleted. That's a wonderful thing to think about -- the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleansing from all sin."

Urging them to start over in life, Graham explained the importance of getting involved in the life of a local church in order to grow spiritually. "We're going into hard times in this country and in the world." Graham said, noting that there is no other hope than "the hope we have in the coming again of Jesus Christ."

Southern Baptist Convention President Jack Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, emphasized the importance of the next step of the mission as churches follow up on the individuals making spiritual commitments. "I pray that this mission will ignite something in the hearts of God's people that will last forever," he told the crowd.

He praised the nearly 25,000 citizens "involved in making this happen as volunteers" and financial supporters of the ministry. Having been raised in Fort Worth, Graham joked that he had learned "to love God and hate Dallas." The Plano pastor expressed delight and amazement that Fort Worth and Dallas were able to come together as thousands were united for the cause of Christ.

Billy Graham thanked the pastors of all denominations for what they had done in preparing for the meetings. "My prayer is that all that has happened here will flow right back to the churches as Jack Graham mentioned a moment ago." Graham said he'd been asked if the younger Graham was his brother. "I didn't have but one brother and you heard him," Graham said, referring to Melvin Graham. "But we'll take Jack into our family any time."

Graham also thanked the local news media, calling the Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram by name. "I asked you in the beginning to help us and you have more than helped us," Graham said. The two media giants offered extensive reports in advance of the meeting and featured multiple stories following each night's mission meeting.

BGEA media director Larry Ross said reporters picked up on the unprecedented unity demonstrated by the cooperation of churches representing 37 denominations. With 36 of the top 100 megachurches calling the Dallas-Fort Worth area home, Ross commended their involvement in the mission. "We've seen Methodists worshiping with Presbyterians, Episcopalians with Assemblies of God. And Baptists talking with other Baptists," he added, emphasizing the significance in light of theological differences.

Dallas Morning News editorial writers praised Graham's personal integrity that has spanned more than 50 years of ministry around the world. "Some evangelists have commanded great audiences, but then came crashing down alongside their deception and greed. Not Billy Graham, which is one reason that many will still go see the 83-year-old preacher this weekend, even if they have heard his message before," the editorial writer observed.

"People ask me, 'Isn't this your last crusade?'" Graham said. "They say it very hopefully, some of them," he said to the audience's laughter. "I say I don't know. That's in God's hands. I never want to say never because we don't know."

Directing attention to the last chapter of Ecclesiastes, Graham said, "There's a loneliness, a certainty that in this life not many more days lie ahead, or months. I'd like to have nothing more than to go to heaven. I'm looking forward to it," he said confidently.

Staring up at the opening of the Texas Stadium roof, Graham said, "I think there will be a hole up there somewhere and I'll go right up."


(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: EASING THE BARRIERS, STREAMING FORWARD and STADIUM RECORDS.

Download Story