Does the Passing of Billy Graham Signal the Death of Christianity?


When I came to Wheaton College, I began to serve as the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair.

That role, and the role at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton, came with a key responsibility. Eventually, I was given a card that I was told I needed to carry on my person at all times.

Printed on the card were step-by-step directions to follow when Billy Graham died: the people I needed to call, the e-mails I needed to write, and the flights I needed to book. We knew that when this news finally broke, there would be a frenzy of activity. Arrangements would need to be made, interviews given, and articles published. This wasn’t hype; we understood that the opportunity to celebrate the life of Billy Graham was going to be a major platform to continue the work to which he devoted his life: preaching the gospel to the world. His funeral was, in a sense, his last crusade, and millions tuned in.

Non-Christians and even younger Christians today may have difficulty understanding the impact and importance of Billy Graham. After all, thousands of preachers today have their own followings, YouTube videos, and podcasts. Ask ten Christians who their favorite Christian preacher or leader is, and you will likely get ten different answers.

During the second half of the twentieth century, however, the vast majority of Christians gave the same answer: Billy Graham.

When obituary after obituary called Graham “America’s pastor,” it wasn’t an exaggeration. To many Americans, including presidents, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, and award-winning actors, Graham was their only connection to Christianity. He was their pastor.

Graham seemingly walked effortlessly across the cultural divisions that proved insurmountable to so many other leaders, and in doing so he proved to be one of the most unifying forces in American life.

For almost the past seventy years, Graham has been the living embodiment of the West’s religious consensus. Even those who did not believe recognized in Graham a model of Christian virtue and ethics. He won begrudging respect from those we might classify as his cultural or theological opponents—a situation that seems almost impossible today.

One of the major causes for the age of outrage is that this religious and cultural consensus has evaporated. Graham’s death in February 2018 was not the beginning of this change but serves as an appropriate bookend to a past age. Out of the spotlight for many years, Graham’s declining presence in American life parallels the decline of the consensus he forged throughout his life. Thus, the incessant need of many Christians to find “the next Billy Graham” speaks to a recognition that we have lost a unifying force within a culture that was already splintering.     

Most Americans, who identify as loosely Christian, are becoming less so—they are more frequently choosing “none of the above” rather than “Christian” when surveyed about their beliefs. In fact, each year about an additional one percent of Americans no longer identify as Christian.

Put another way, the nominals are becoming the nones. And as they become nones, their mind-set is more aligned with secular-minded people and they have less affinity with the avowedly religious. At the same time, the percentage of the devout has remained relatively stable.

The effect of this trend is that American culture is incrementally polarizing along religious lines. People are either becoming more secular or staying devout, though the biggest group is becoming more secular. This is where we meet the fork in the road: How do we engage with our faith in a culture now polarized along faith lines rather than being at least nominally Christian?

It is useful to think about culture as a river, flowing in the direction of our collective beliefs and values. Within this river, there were once three primary streams, each of which included about a quarter of the population. These three groups are:

Cultural Christians: People who self-identify as Christian because they are not something else and were born in a historically Christian country. They are Christians, in their minds, because that was part of their heritage.

Congregational Christians: People at church on Christmas Eve, and maybe for the occasional wedding or funeral. Although they may not have a vibrant faith, they retain some connection to a local congregation, probably going back on Easter, for example. As a result, over the last few decades, most churches have tried to reach these people.

Convictional Christians: People who identify as Christians are decidedly more religious. They probably go to church regularly, live values that aligned with Christianity, and chose their spouses based on their faith. 

While historically there have been divergences and reunions in our cultural river, the overall consensus among Americans was shaped by a common Judeo-Christian belief system. Even though there was significant disparity when it came to the importance they attached to religion, all three streams shared an underlying commitment to Christian beliefs and values. In essence, each group moved in the same direction. While there was a fourth stream defined by other religious traditions and/or secularism, those beliefs were outside the mainstream.

Today, we are witnessing a shift in this model. About 25 percent of Americans identify as non-Christians, either because they are another religion or because they are secular. That stream continues to expand.

At the same time, the percentage of Convictional Christians in the US population has remained generally stable. What have changed are the number and beliefs of Cultural and Congregational Christians. As a result of the collapse of mainline Protestantism and the growth of secularism, Convictional Christianity has incrementally moved outside the American cultural mainstream. In fact, even as the number of Cultural and Congregational Christians decrease, the worldview and values of these Americans have shifted toward the secular stream and away from that of Convictional Christians.

However, the percentage who say they regularly attend church has remained relatively steady, so Convictional Christianity and regular church participation by its members have not substantially declined.

However, and this is key, Convictional Christianity has incrementally split from the mainstream of Western culture. This has provoked anger among some Christians. Since their values and practices shaped culture for so long, they had the impression that they owned the culture in some sense. In essence, some Christians want their country back, and by that they mean they want their cultural power back. This anger can lead to hostility against those they believe have taken it, fear that this trend will continue and lead to their marginalization, and confusion as to what to do about it.

In other words, people are divided, motivated to pick fights, and consistently talk past one another. This cultural forking has fueled the age of outrage, breeding anger by polarizing communities and teaching us to yell past one another rather than engage. 

Christians can either try to reclaim a cultural norm that is dying if not already dead. Or we can grasp the central truth of the moment in which we live, consider both the moment we are in and the mission we are on, take a page out of Billy Graham’s book, and actively engage society with the Gospel.

Adapted from Christians in the Age of Outrage: How to Bring Our Best When the World Is at Its Worst by Ed Stetzer. Copyright © 2018. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.

Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair for Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, where he also serves as executive director of the Billy Graham Center. Stetzer has two earned doctorates and two master’s degrees, and has written or cowritten more than a dozen books and hundreds of articles. He is the director for Lausanne North America and is on the board of the National Association of Evangelicals. Stetzer is a contributing editor for Christianity Today and is the executive editor of The Gospel Project, a Bible study curriculum used by more than one million people each week.

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