2016-07-27
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The Rev. Billy Graham has always wanted to do big things for God.

At 81, it's not enough for him to pass the torch to one person. He wants to pass it to 10,000. And on Saturday (July 29) in Amsterdam, Graham will do just that at the largest gathering of world evangelists under one roof.

Graham's Amsterdam 2000 conference, five years in the making at a cost of $39 million, will bring together men and women from 185 countries. At the sprawling RAI Center they will learn how to be good evangelists in the Graham mold: how to proclaim the Christian message of salvation through Jesus Christ, invite listeners to convert, and conduct their personal lives in accordance with the faith's values of honesty and integrity.

In hundreds of workshops simultaneously translated into 25 languages, some of the biggest names in the evangelical world will offer participants advice, support and encouragement. They include the Most Rev. George Carey, archbishop of Canterbury; the Rev. Billy Kim, pastor of one of the largest Baptist churches in Korea; Bill Bright, the director of Campus Crusade for Christ; and Luis Palau, the Oregon-based evangelist especially popular among Latin people.

Although Graham's organization, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, has held smaller-scale conferences for evangelists, including two in Amsterdam in the 1980s, this event is its most ambitious. More than 70% of the participants were chosen from poor, developing countries where Christianity has been spreading fastest. And radio and Internet transmissions will allow people around the world to monitor the conference from home.

Graham, however, will not be there. He announced last week that he was not well enough to attend in person. Instead, he will greet participants via satellite from Rochester, Minn., where he has been receiving outpatient therapy at the Mayo Clinic for a condition in which fluid collects on the brain. When he speaks, he will likely repeat what has become his vision for world Christianity after he is gone.

"It seems the older I get the more I am asked who will succeed me," Graham said recently. "Well, the fact is that I am just one of many thousands who have been called to be an evangelist. I don't need a successor, only willing hands to accept the torch I have been carrying."

As researchers survey the Christian world today, they say the center of gravity has shifted. In 1900, Europeans and North Americans accounted for more than 80% of the Christian world community. Today, they account for less than 40%.

Graham and his organization have been at the forefront of a movement to help mobilize and train these new converts.

"One of the things he learned is that the Christian church is bigger than the categories he grew up with," said Larry Eskridge, the associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College in Illinois. "Christendom is no longer a white man's religion. It's been claimed by others."

In Africa and Asia, the growth of Christianity has been spectacular. In 1900, there were 8.7 million Christians in Africa. Today, there are an estimated 335 million, nearly 50% of the continent's population. The story is similar in Asia, where the number of Christians has risen from 20 million a century ago to about 307 million.

Today, there are almost twice as many Presbyterians in Korea as in the United States. And there are six times as many Anglicans in Nigeria as there are Episcopalians in this country.

It is these people, many of whom converted at the risk of losing their jobs and alienating their families, for whom Graham feels a particular affinity.

William Martin, a sociologist at Rice University in Houston and the author of a "A Prophet with Honor," a Graham biography, said: "My clear sense is that deep inside him there is a feeling that people who face hardship and persecution are the real heroes of the faith.

"He has a genuine feeling for people working in difficult circumstances. This thrills him more than anything he does."

Graham first realized the potential for expanding his ministry beyond the English-speaking world when he attended a conference of young Christian leaders in Switzerland in 1948. Though still relatively unknown in the United States, he was already thinking of ways he might expand his mission to the entire world.

By 1966, Graham's crusades across Europe, Africa and South America had become so popular he was able to summon world theologians to a conference. The Berlin Congress, as it was called, was devoted to raising the profile of evangelicals and creating a doctrinal platform for the worldwide ecumenical movement of conservative, Bible-believing Christians.

In 1974, he summoned evangelicals once again--this time to Lausanne, Switzerland, where he held a conference intended to help Christian leaders forge alliances and build seminaries.

But those conferences still left him restless, said John Corts, the president and chief operating officer of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. What he really wanted to do was to "reach out to the little guys in the bushes," as he was once quoted as saying. The Amsterdam conferences, in 1983 and 1986, focused on those aims.

This year, he wanted to go beyond the scope of the previous conferences and combine their various elements into one grand affair.

The organization spent two years looking for emerging Christian leaders all over the world. Each of the 10,000 participants chosen was screened, interviewed and asked to write six to eight pages of answers to essay questions. The goal has been to identify people who have had success in their ministry but few professional growth opportunities.

The Netherlands was chosen for its neutrality and easy access. Since many of the participants cannot afford the trip, the Graham organization has provided scholarships of up to $3,500. It has remodeled an exposition center in nearby Utrecht to serve as a dormitory for 7,000 evangelists. The organization has installed 3,500 bunk beds, 289 toilets and 432 portable showers.

Graham's son, Franklin, the president of Samaritan's Purse in Boone, N.C., will take a medical clinic to the conference and provide each participant with white button-down dress shirts. The men will be given ties; the women scarves.

"My father realizes the leadership position he has and the responsibility that goes with that leadership," said Franklin Graham. "It's very important for him to share with another generation what God has taught him."

As a boy, Graham once took a cat and shut it in the doghouse overnight with the family collie. The next day, the dog and cat came out friends forever.

In his autobiography, "Just As I Am," Graham joked the incident may have sowed the seeds of his ecumenical convictions.

One thing is certain: A signature attribute for which Graham will be remembered is his ability to bring sparring Christians under one roof.

Although he grew up a Presbyterian and was ordained a Southern Baptist, Graham has never gotten involved in doctrinal debates or denominational squabbles. Throughout his career, he extended a hand to Christians of all stripes, including Roman Catholics and Pentecostals.

That may also be the reason so many evangelists have jumped at the opportunity to attend the Amsterdam conference. To them, Graham's name is above reproach, precisely because he has stayed above the fray.

"They trust him and respect him, and know if he puts something on like this it will be valid," said Anne Graham Lotz, Graham's daughter, and an evangelist in her own right. She will lead one of the plenary sessions.

Organizers say the conference will offer plenty of practical information--how to preach to a multicultural audience, how to make Bible passages relevant--but they insist there's no specific Graham method. Different cultural contexts require different approaches. Organizers say they want people to use whatever method works.

And that may be the ultimate Graham method.

"Graham's contributions haven't come from intellectual breakthroughs or theological sophistication but from a remarkable vision for what might be done and how to do it," said Martin, his biographer. "He's always willing to use whatever means are available. Early on, he developed a desire to do some great thing for God. He's been pretty single-minded."

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