Evangelist Billy Graham has left the unique stage he built -- intricately organized and costly revival meetings -- and now Christians are wondering whether the style of crusade that he popularized will end with him.
Many evangelists, including Graham's son and successor Franklin, have successfully held similar gatherings on a smaller scale, generally calling them festivals instead of crusades. But researchers who study evangelism say building relationships one-on-one or in small groups may be more effective in reaching America's non-Christians.
"The bigger-is-better form of evangelism may have past," said Craig Detweiler, who teaches theology and popular culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. "The emerging generation has been so advertised, media-tised and oversold that the smaller, quieter and more authentic is the growing edge of their experience."
While crusades are booming in developing countries, where Christianity is spreading rapidly, there are several reasons the form could die out at home. For one, crusades are generally built around a superstar pastor and none of the high-profile churchmen coming up behind the man known as America's preacher has reached his level of prominence. Eighty-six and ailing, Graham held his final crusade in New York this June.
Another problem: The logistics of big meetings are staggering, and have only become more so as media and entertainment have developed.
In planning a Graham crusade, local church leaders created an organizing committee aided by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, contacted hundreds of congregations to participate, then enlisted thousands of volunteers, who underwent extensive training to prepare. Graham would spend several days or weeks in an area and it was mainly up to the local organizing committee to raise money to cover the costs of hosting hundreds of thousands of participants.
"It's so hard that it takes hundreds of volunteers and a few dozen staff to host 10,000 or 15,000 men," said Steve Chavis of Promise Keepers, the men's ministry that has moved its events from stadiums to arenas in the face of decreasing attendance. "Putting on the arena events costs in the hundreds of thousands. It's the constant effort to cut costs and not let it show."
Researchers say the trend in evangelism is moving away from supersized gatherings toward creating personal ties with non-Christians, either through service projects or in daily interactions.
In a 2004 survey on how Christians share their faith, The Barna Group found the most common approaches by far were offering to pray with a non-Christian during a time of need and engaging in "lifestyle evangelism," which means living in ways that could impress those of other faiths so they will inquire about it. Less than half of respondents said they would bring a non-Christian friend to an outreach event.
"In recent years, the small group approach has certainly come into more prominence," said Robert Coleman, professor of evangelism and discipleship at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Mass. However, Coleman is among those who contend the crusade will not be obsolete, if it can adapt in useful ways to a faith that considers missionary outreach an imperative.
One person who has already reworked the idea of the crusade is evangelist Luis Palau, who led Graham-style meetings until his organization sensed many Christians were attending out of a sense of duty.
Palau trimmed his festivals from several days to two, sought corporate sponsors instead of donations from participants, brought in Christian rock bands and extreme sports like skateboarding and BMX riding, and put up a food court in the middle of all the activity.
The altar call -- or invitation to accept Christ as savior -- is still part of the event. But as a result of the other changes, attendance has jumped from tens of thousands at the traditional crusades to hundreds of thousands at the new festivals, according to Palau's son, Kevin, who is executive vice president of the Luis Palau Association in Portland, Ore.
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