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Songs I Love to Sing: The Billy Graham Crusades and the Shaping of Modern Worship

Songs I Love to Sing: The Billy Graham Crusades and the Shaping of Modern Worship

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Billy Graham Crusades | Shaping Modern Worship Through Music

Excerpted from Songs I Love to Sing: The Billy Graham Crusades and the Shaping of Modern Worship by Edith L. Blumhofer ©2023

But as time passed, some people in the larger Graham organization urged that changing times required a more drastic break with the past. They proposed a youth night that would be half concert, half sermon, and invitation. The familiar trappings of Graham crusades—Cliff Barrows’s genial greetings and firm control over the presermon program, prayers by visiting dignitaries, the mass choir, Bev Shea’s solos, and “Just as I Am”—would be jettisoned. The idea was broached to Barrows in the latter part of the 1980s by crusade director Rick Marshall, with strong support from pianist Tedd Smith. The proposed change seemed so drastic that Barrows felt he needed to consult Graham. After mulling over the proposal, Graham agreed to “dress up the crusade” for youth. Yet, what seemed like a drastic change within the context of the forty-year crusade tradition was, in reality, much less novel in the larger scheme of Graham’s long involvement with youth.

By the late 1980s, the rapidity of change and generational turnover had helped many church people to overcome early prejudices against CCM. Although it may not have been their own choice, the raucous sounds of pop no longer seemed so off-putting. Music shaped youth culture, and reaching youth appeared to demand flexibility in its idiom. Debates about music morphed into discussions about translation.

The proposal for changes in the 1990s faced several hurdles. First was the music itself. As “Jesus Music” became “Contemporary Christian Music,” there were new subgenres of youth-oriented music—heavy metal, grunge, rap, and hip-hop—that continued to fuel detractors who associated anything smacking of rock music with drugs, sex, and rebellion. A second hurdle was the long tradition of evangelistic crusades. For over forty years, Graham crusades had followed a pattern, and each component of every crusade fulfilled a purpose. Graham crusades resembled the crusades of earlier evangelists reaching back to the earliest days of American history. Turning a crusade service into a rock concert followed by a brief sermon eliminated or minimized the traditional roles of local clergy, congregational singing, the choir, the longtime soloist (Shea had a perfect attendance record at domestic crusades), the accompanists, and the platform director, whose vision for the whole service kept things moving toward the sermon and its climax in the invitation. These items were not merely components of a program. From the 1940s, Barrows expressed strong convictions about each. Would tampering with the usual flow of a service by removing elements long deemed essential have unanticipated negative implications? How might it ultimately influence the impact of crusades as a whole? Graham often expressed his preference for a Shea solo immediately preceding his sermon to quiet crowds and prepare his own heart for ministry. Could a rock band fill that role? With Graham’s support, the team made plans to see. Neither Barrows nor Shea participated in the call for change. Both had reservations, but once a decision was made within the larger planning team, they presented a united front with Graham. As he had done in many different situations over the years, Barrows stepped up to help a new format succeed. The longtime platform trio agreed that a clear presentation of a biblical message mattered most, and Barrows made it his business to be sure that happened.

The new format for crusade youth nights debuted in Cleveland in June 1994. The crusade itself ran from Wednesday to Sunday, June 8 to 12, at the cavernous Cleveland Stadium, the site of Graham’s 1972 Cleveland crusade, with Saturday the eleventh set aside for a morning children’s rally and an evening youth concert. Ads promoted a free concert with the hottest Christian band at the time—dc Talk—along with successful crossover artist Michael W. Smith, and a featured testimony from Cleveland Cavaliers’ all-pro point guard Mark Price. The new format touched all aspects of crusade preparation. Planning for the concert included area church youth groups, who gathered at Cleveland Stadium ahead of the crusade for two evenings of Christian bands and motivational talks from nationally known youth speaker Ron Hutchcraft. Holding hands, they formed an enormous prayer chain and followed Graham’s twenty-four-year-old grandson, Jonathan Lotz, in a prayer that the stadium would be “filled with the Holy Spirit.” “This is not entertainment,” Lotz reminded them, “but an effort to reach youths with the gospel.” Advertising targeted the area’s rock stations (they heavily promoted the concert) and local spots embedded within MTV programming. Ads promoted the event as “The First Concert to Benefit Its Own Audience.” Print ads featured the music over the speaker: “dc Talk and Michael W. Smith with Mark Price and Billy Graham.”

While crusade platforms typically measured 60 feet, a rock concert for a venue the size of Cleveland Stadium required a 100-foot stage, this one centered near the 50-yard-line of the football field. Trucks brought in the equipment for a huge light show, and crusade organizers rented three of the four Jumbotrons then available in the United States. Not surprisingly, the flow of the service had to be adjusted. Barrows would be nowhere in sight. He and Shea sat the event out in the press box. Before the service, though, Barrows reviewed with the musicians the lyrics of every song they planned to sing, arranged for their reading of Scripture, and made sure all participants knew their place in the flow of the proceedings. The plan included having dc Talk introduce Graham as a friend who had something to say to the crowd. Graham would be introduced as a grandfatherly figure, a wise older man with good advice, someone the band trusted and commended to their fans.

At the time, the interracial pop/rap/hip-hop/rock trio dc Talk enjoyed phenomenal popularity. Formed by Liberty University students Toby McKeehan (“Toby Mac”), Michael Tait, and Kevin Max Smith (“Kevin Max”), dc Talk had reinvented CCM by fusing elements of rap and a heavy, danceable beat with Christian lyrics. The band’s 1992 album Free at Last catapulted them to fame with six chart singles, a Grammy for Best Rock Gospel Album, and double platinum sales (two million copies sold). For a record thirty-four weeks, it topped Billboard magazine’s Christian charts. In 1991 and 1993, dc Talk had been the opening act for Grammy and Dove Award–winning Michael W. Smith, who had recently scored a certified gold record for the song “Place in This World” that had “crossed over” into the pop charts. While Smith’s brand of upbeat pop and anthemic ballads was broadly mainstream, dc Talk’s music was much closer to the cutting edge of the emerging rap and alternative rock norms of the ’90s. Nonetheless, the group’s lyrics, like most of Smith’s, were emphatically Christian.

When the heavily promoted day arrived, the prospects of a free concert by the country’s top Christian band and a celebrated solo artist drew sixty-five thousand young people to Cleveland Stadium, the largest crowd of the crusade. Opening the evening extravaganza was the Maranatha Praise Band—part of Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa’s music label—with songs like “Let the Walls Fall Down,” “I Will Celebrate,” and Rick Founds’s newly popular “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High.” The crowd went wild when hometown basketball hero Mark Price appeared on the screens, and then began jumping, screaming, and swirling when dc Talk took the stage. Michael Tait’s braided hair, along with the trio’s ripped jeans and gyrating stage antics, a local paper reported, made the group seem “like clones of any other MTV act.” Their part of the evening was noisy and energetic with beach ball–tossing and teenagers screaming and jumping. The singers leaped and climbed about the stage while performing such recent hits as “Luv Is a Verb” and a remake of the 1960s’ hit “Jesus Is Just Alright” from their platinum-selling album, Free at Last. “There’s a lot of people who say Jesus is all wrong,” rapper Toby Mac belted into the microphone. “But I’m here to tell you JESUS. IS. STILL. ALL. RIGHT!” After six high-energy numbers, dc Talk yielded the stage to Michael W. Smith, who opened with a music video, “Secret Ambition,” from his 1988 platinum album I 2 (Eye), accompanied by a video on a giant screen behind the stage projecting New Testament scenes. He had the stadium on its feet with “Place in This World” and “the ever-so-popular tear-jerker, ‘Friends.’” Smith, whose wife was a graduate of Graham’s alma mater, Wheaton College, had participated in an earlier crusade as pianist for Amy Grant and was on his way to developing a personal friendship with the Grahams.

As darkness fell over Cleveland Stadium, a golf cart drove quietly across the field bringing Graham to center stage, and “a palpable change” came over the raucous crowd. The audience welcomed him with a rousing standing ovation, and he joked that he was “the anticlimax” of the party. His sermon was shorter than usual and billed as “a straight talk from a caring adult.” It even commended the music—“You’ve heard the gospel through what they sang.” Graham mentioned the recent suicide of rocker Kurt Cobain and segued into his message on John 3:16 with a reference to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mega-hit Terminator 2: Judgment Day. “They listened all the way,” Graham told a press conference. “It was quiet enough to hear a pin drop.” The Maranatha Singers provided musical support for Graham’s invitation with a heartfelt rendering of “I Need You,” as over 6,500 youths flocked to the stage in response. The number caught organizers off guard, and counselors were in short supply. Earlier that Saturday, in the morning, more than 3,000 children had responded to the gospel as told by Psalty the Singing Songbook, the Doughnut Man, and Charity Church Mouse from a stage decorated to resemble a Saturday morning children’s television set. The evening event brought the total number of decisions for Saturday, June 11, to just shy of 10,000, while the day’s attendance at both events approached 90,000.

Graham’s Northeast Ohio Crusade had unquestionably found a responsive youthful audience. One concertgoer told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “I love the music. I think this is what heaven is going to be like. I think heaven will be jammin’ and kickin’.” Journalists applauded Graham’s “revamped gospel delivery” that tuned in to the sensibilities of a new generation, while religious leaders acknowledged the risk he took when many considered rock ’n’ roll “an area of Christian compromise.” Graham himself admitted: “Personally, I didn’t understand a word of those songs [as they were being sung]. But I had all the lyrics written down, and they were straight Bible, great lyrics.”

Although the crowds that jammed the lakefront stadium for the concert never saw him, Barrows was very much there, and he saw to it that all those lyrics Graham had been following were printed and distributed to each concertgoer. He had spent much of Saturday afternoon with the evening’s performers, planning the service and praying with them for the event. Whether onstage or off, he took seriously his responsibility for assuring that the audience heard the gospel through every crusade presentation. Being the sponsor of a rock concert brought him an unexpected new chore, too. Left to themselves, singers ran, jumped, climbed, did handstands, and moved constantly and quickly about the stage and the props. The next week, Barrows took calls from crusade insurers, and at future concerts he curtailed musicians’ more rambunctious moves.

Excerpted from Songs I Love to Sing: The Billy Graham Crusades and the Shaping of Modern Worship by Edith L. Blumhofer ©2023 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.



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