Billy Graham touched the lives of millions through a long life of evangelistic service – an estimated 215 million, according to some counts.
Many of these came to faith through his radio and literature ministries, but a good number experienced first-hand the power of his preaching. Surprisingly free of showmanship or appeals to emotion, it relied on clarity of exposition and the force of conviction to reach its audiences in concert halls and football stadiums.
Those who attended often had previous connections with church, but might never have reached the point of making a decision for Christ – often because they had never been asked. As time went by and lessons were learned, the 'crusades' became more and more organised. Not only was follow-up literature prepared, but counsellors were trained and local churches engaged to provide a spiritual home for those who came forward.
Billy Graham crossed the Atlantic in 1984 for Mission England, a multi-stadium tour that was to be his last great effort for a country he had first visited in the late '50s. In the city of Bristol in the west of England, meetings took place at Ashton Gate Stadium, home of Bristol City football club. Tens of thousands attended over four nights; thousands came forward in response to Graham's appeals.
Owen Green lived 40 miles away in Swindon and was only 13 at the time. Telling his story to Christian Today, he says his parents had taken him to church 'from as early as I can remember and probably before that'.
He vividly recalls making a child's commitment at the age of seven or eight.
'I don't know what the theology is on this, but I think I became a Christian twice. We had a much-loved minister who left the church, but I remember thinking at his last service that I wanted to be a friend of Jesus. I don't want to deny anything of that experience; it never stopped being a thing I did,' he says.
However: 'There was a Christian Union at school that I never went to because it was for square people, and they got tickets to Billy Graham. I went along; I have no idea what he said and no phrases have stuck in my mind. But it made me realise that I needed to respond to what Christ had already done for me. I was too scared to go forward that night; the second was the same, and the third, and each time I thought I'd missed out.
'On the last night I went again, with an older friend who used to child-mind for me – she was a counsellor there but this was her night off and she went just to be part of it.
'She sat next to me and when I'd counted down from 10 she went forward with me. So I would say that it was then that I realised something of the cost of following Jesus and not going my own way. I felt it was a different thing from just being a friend of Jesus.'
And what of the experience of listening to Billy Graham?
'When he got up to speak it felt as though everything that had gone before was a warm-up and this was the main event. When he spoke, it was real in a way that what had gone before wasn't. It was the main meal after the starter.
'It wasn't emotional – if it had been my radar would have picked it up. Anything showy or pretend would have irked me. This was just the honest truth. He wasn't trying to make a name for himself; with Billy Graham you never had that sense. He had a deep integrity.'
The friend with whom he went was to have a further part to play in his journey of faith. Because Owen is now a Baptist minister at The Stowe Church, Wichelstowe, and she was part of the group that helped form him during his ministerial training.
Owen's story is one of hundreds of thousands, if not millions. It shows the power of a Christian upbringing – though many of those who came to faith had no Christian background at all; the power of Christian friendship, and the power of a call to decide, once and for all.
And it shows the power of a godly and anointed servant of God to speak with such grace and conviction that thousands of lives were changed. As Owen says: 'When he spoke, it was real.'