"I jump into a sand pit for a living"
Billy Graham and sportBilly Graham died on 21 February 2018. The following is an article I wrote for Decision magazine in 2004.
Billy Graham has been analysed over the years from almost every imaginable perspective, but perhaps never in relation to sport and his role in the development of what is now known as sports ministry.
The church has always had an ambivalent attitude to sport. There has been a lot of negativity in the church’s attitude often based on a fear of the peripherals of sport – that it often takes places on Sunday, can become an obsession or is associated with drinking – rather than the activity itself.
Even the great Christian sporting heroes of the past confirm this ambivalence. CT Studd’s biography is called “CT Studd: cricketer and missionary” but he gave up cricket well before his prime to serve as a missionary in China. Eric Liddell won a gold medal in the 1924 Olympics yet the first thought we have on him is that he not run on Sunday rather than that he did run on a Friday and win a gold medal. He did not defend his title as he too was already engaged in missionary work in China.
When Billy Graham was to speak at a Youth for Christ rally in North Carolina in 1947, he was keen to ensure that he did not speak in his home state to an empty auditorium. As the venue for the rally was a sports stadium, he had the idea of asking America’s best miler, Gil Dodds, to race against a local runner, Jimmy Miller, and then to talk to the crowd about his faith. The meeting was an outstanding success.
Grady Wilson said of it, “I sat there that Saturday night watching the thing, the whole audience quiet with those boys just streakin’ around and around and I remember it came to me, This is awfully silly. This is really absurd. But you know, when we gave the invitation that night we had an incredible number of young people to come forward. That just showed us, God can use just about anything”.
Billy had had the vision to see how sport could engage the hearts of people. It was a lesson he was not to forget for the rest of his life. Throughout his life sportspeople were regularly sharing their experience of Jesus in his crusades. It became more sophisticated than the way he once described it, “we used every modern means to catch the attention of the unconverted.. then we punched them right between the eyes with the gospel.”
Someone said that the partnership between Graham and Dodds worked well because in Dodds was an athlete who wanted to be a preacher and Billy was a preacher who in his heart of hearts who have loved to have been a sportsman.
During his crusades in the UK, the same approach was used successfully. At Earl’s Court in 1966, England cricket captain, Colin Cowdrey read a lesson. When the 1989 Mission to London took place, the author was appointed to the mission executive committee to represent sport. Sportspeople were an official target group of the mission.
That three of the 4 venues – Crystal Palace, West Ham, Wembley (and Earl’s Court) -were sporting venues certainly helped. At Crystal Palace we held a special VIP reception for sportspeople before the crusade meeting. Professional footballers chatted with athletes. An Olympic gold-medallist sat with a pro golfer. As it was during Wimbledon we were told to expect some tennis players. They were easy to sport – they had come straight from Wimbledon and were still carrying their racquets!
A dinner was held at Fulham Football Club, an official mission fringe event, which was aimed at Fulham players past and present as well as all those involved in the club administratively. They heard the gospel at the dinner and were invited to the crusade for good measure.
Olympic 400 metres runner, Kriss Akabusi spoke, concluding with these words, "I want to say to anyone who is not a Christian that you are faced with the biggest decision of your life. I just pray that you will open your eyes and ears and that Christ will bless us with his gift of eternal life. Friends, I tell you I had a good time before I was Christian but I've had a better time since."
When Billy was in Scotland in 1991, Brian Irvine, was a platform speaker at two of the Mission Scotland meetings. With the meetings being at football stadia, Brian was quite at home. He said, “It was particularly exciting for me to have the chance to share my faith with thousands on the pitch at Pittodrie [home of Aberdeen FC], my place of work”. Brian played at Pittodrie over 200 times in his career, but that night was a bit special.
He may have felt slightly less at home at Celtic Park, Glasgow. The previous year he had scored the winning penalty in the Scottish Cup Final – for Aberdeen against Celtic!
For Billy Graham sport was an excellent partner for his crusades. He once said, “The Bible reveals that St Paul was an avid sports fan because he used so many illustrations from the Olympics in his letters”. In his autobiography he refers to Michael Chang, Gary Player, Bernhard Langer and Tom Landry as “role models in our society” and “friends of mine”.
A regular golfer who once said, “God seems to answer my prayers everywhere except on the golf course!” Billy thought that sport was a force for good. This comes out in the following quote. “The bible says leisure and lying around are morally dangerous for us. Sports keeps us busy; athletes you notice, don’t take drugs”. The last six words have an odd ring to them in 2018 but would not have raised an eyebrow 40 years ago.
The church has made many mistakes with high profile sportspeople over the years, often using them but not serving them, wanting them to speak but not helping them to grow in Christ. On the other hand many have been pleased to share their faith at crusades or a smaller events. When the history of sport and Christianity comes to be written, Billy Graham’s initiative in inviting Gil Dodds to run in 1947 will be seen as a defining moment.