Will Graham – God's great storyteller – is back Down Under
Billy Graham’s grandson on the Bible and his family
If Will Graham had his way, he would be the pastor of a small, countryside church. There, he would relish slowly teaching the Bible – preaching a chapter of God’s word each week – and growing gospel seeds in people’s lives.
But, as the grandson of world-famous evangelist Billy Graham, Will has chosen God’s way rather than his own.
“I have a burden in my heart to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If that’s to an arena full of people or one person on the street, I will do whatever God is calling me to do,” says Will.
And so he has followed in the steps of his late grandfather – who preached to 215 million people at over 400 crusades – as well as his own evangelist father, Franklin Graham, president of Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) – where Will is vice president and associate evangelist.
“God’s word is what’s got power. It’s not Will Graham, it’s not the preacher.” – Will Graham
Over the past 16 years, Will Graham (now 47) has shared the gospel with more than one million people at large outreach events across six continents. One of those continents is, of course, Australia. The last time Will was here, almost 6000 people flocked to hear him preach in Kalgoorlie, in WA’s Goldfields region. This week, after two years of pandemic restrictions, Will is back Down Under – this time to preach in Tasmania.
A ‘Tasmania Celebration with Will Graham‘ will be held in Hobart on May 21, preceded by a kids event and a youth event. Following this, Will heads to Launceston for a three-day celebration, from May 27-29, that includes kids, youth and prayer events, as well as live music by Christian artists CASS, The Afters and Planetboom. The theme of Will’s talks is particularly relevant in the midst of COVID: “There is Hope”.
But despite the pandemic and whichever side of the world he is preaching on – at home in the US, here in Australia or elsewhere – Will says the message is always the same.
“Same needs, same burdens – from the country to inside the city, they’re all the same. Whether you’re in Dubbo or Launceston or Toowoomba, Wollongong, it doesn’t matter. All these places have the same needs. You’ve just gotta preach God’s word. God’s word is what’s got power. It’s not Will Graham, it’s not the preacher. It’s God’s word – that’s what changes lives,” he tells Eternity.
The grandson and son of a preacher man
Will lights up as he discusses his true passion and calling – Bible teaching. It’s a calling that began when he committed to following Jesus at age five, and was fuelled during his teenage years, and then at Bible college.
Of course, preaching is in his genes and played a major part in his childhood as his family travelled with his dad Franklin to rallies all over the world. But Will says he never felt any pressure to do what his grandfather and father did. Will’s assertion is evidenced by his two brothers and sister, who all chose not to go into ministry (although they now work for their father’s organisations in various roles).
Will’s love of teaching God’s word was fanned into flames during his eight years in church ministry – six of which he spent as pastor of a new church plant, Wakefield Baptist in North Carolina.
“I never wanted to be a pastor, and it’s extremely hard work. But I really enjoyed it. It was nice because I could just keep preaching and preaching.
“I wish God would let me go back to it,” says Will about church ministry, adding, “I’m not sure if God ever will. I think God has other plans, and I’m fine with it. It’s just that I really love that part of my life. I still love going to the local church and preaching. And doing that on a consistent basis and going through the books of the Bible.
“You see people come to know Christ and their lives change, marriages change, and you see that over time as you do life together. When I come to Tasmania or Hobart or any other city for that matter, I’m only down there for a short amount of time and I don’t get to see that progress.”
“Most of the time, you lead people to Christ, but you never see the progress or the end result.” – Will Graham
He diverts the conversation to share one instance where he witnessed the fruits of a commitment to Christ made at one of his events.
“A couple of years ago, when I went to Kalgoorlie, I met this young guy. I said, ‘Where are you from?’ He said, ‘Canada.’ I was like, ‘Canada! How did a Canadian get all the way out here in the middle of the bush?’ He said, ‘Actually, I gave my life to Christ at your event at Lethbridge [in Alberta, Canada, where Will preached in 2010].
“I was like, ‘I remember that real well,'” Will continues. “His whole family had come forward that night [to make a commitment to Christ]. Now he was in ministry as a youth pastor out there in Kalgoorlie.
“Most of the time, you lead people to Christ, but you never see the progress or the end result. Here I got a little bit of a taste of it in Kalgoorlie of all places – I got to see this one kid on the mission field.
“Thank you, Lord,” says Will, “That was just a good way of encouraging me.”
It should be noted that the BGEA does consider the need for discipleship of new converts post-events. However, it leaves this work – “of prayer, training, outreach, and followup that takes place over a 12-month period” – up to local churches.
Will likens his role as an evangelist to that of a “pinch hitter” in baseball – a substitute who comes in to bat for another player.
“That’s the guy that comes in for the pitcher that can’t hit or something like that. I feel like that’s what I am in America sometimes – I don’t get to preach all the time,” says Will.
“I’m not trying to be the next Billy Graham; I’m just Will Graham.”
To make up for this lack, he loves running devotion times for BGEA staff and multi-day seminars at the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove in North Carolina, where Will is executive director. Here, he’s spent the past nine years (yes, you read correctly) teaching from one book of the Bible: 1 Samuel. Two months ago, he began teaching through 2 Samuel – a book he will take five years to teach.
“I’m coming up on the end of second Samuel on my personal study,” says Will. “So [in the Cove seminars], I’m about five years behind where I am personally.
“The next book of the Bible, I think I’m going to go to Revelation – with the pandemic going on, how the world is going to end and all that type of stuff.
“I was thinking about Genesis, but I was like that’s 50 chapters. I’m not sure I’ll be here long enough to finish it! … I try to do a chapter a teaching session. So 50 chapters would be 25 years. I don’t think I’m going to get that done!” he laughs.
This pace fits with his preaching style, which Will describes as “more like the older Billy Graham – a lot slower” than the rapid-fire sermons delivered by the young “Machine Gun Billy”. Of course, Will has been offered many suggestions about how to preach more like his grandfather and his father. But he’s firmly comfortable with his laid-back approach.
“I’ve had a lot of people say, try it this way, you need to get louder. But I’m just going to do it the way God’s gifted me. I’m not like that. If I change it, I’m not being authentic to who I am.”
In fact, in Will’s official biography, he states: “I’m not trying to be the next Billy Graham; I’m just Will Graham.”
At the same time, Will does share many similarities to his “granddaddy” and his dad – one of them being that he is a natural storyteller. That ability makes his sermons connect.
“I just try to find a story in the Bible and go through it. I think stories resonate with people. People love listening to stories, and it’s hard to find storytellers these days,” says Will.
He’s just preached at a luncheon in Sydney before the Eternity interview, and he shares the story of Hushai from 2 Samuel 16 again. The handful of verses about this man, described as “David’s confidant”, “really touched my heart”, says Will. It’s an Old Testament picture of our relationship with Jesus, he explains.
“I want to be like Hushai. I want to be a companion of the King. Hushai left everything behind for one reason: the king asked him. He didn’t count the cost …
“That’s what I want to be. If I want be known as something, I want to known as a companion of Jesus Christ.”
Will Graham preaches at a Logosdor luncheon in Sydney ahead of his Tasmania celebrations
Continuing the family business
Looking to the future, Will is aware that evangelistic preaching methods must change in order to reach young generations. Even before COVID hit, Will and his BGEA team had started planning online crusades.
“We’re still trying to figure out what this is going to look like in the next five years …
“We’re still seeing great ministry, but we realise we just can’t keep doing it the same way we’ve always done it. Are we always going to have crusades? Yes. So we’re going to have evangelists. But they may take on a different form and be more online.”
This is where Will’s 16-year-old son, William Franklin Graham V (Quinn), may even step into the family business when the time is right.
While his daughters Christine Jane (C.J., 21) and Rachel Austin (19) haven’t expressed an interest, Will says, “My son has at one time said he wanted to be a preacher. But I don’t know. Did that tug on my heart? Yeah. You want your son to do what you do if you think it’s a good thing, and I believe what I do is a good thing.
“But at the same time, I don’t want to put pressure on him,” he adds.
“God’s gifted him. He’s extremely smart. Computer programming is his thing. And so, man, there’s a lot of things God could use a computer programmer for in his kingdom. But we’ll have to wait and see what God has planned for him.”
In the meantime, as Will prepares for his celebrations in Tasmania, he can hear the words of his grandfather ringing in his ears: “He’d say to me, ‘Preach the cross. There’s power in the cross,'” says Will. “Whatever book of the Bible you are preaching from, you can jump off from alot of different stories, but you always make a beeline for the cross. And that’s what my granddaddy did.”
For more information about the Tasmania Celebrations with Will Graham, visit tasmania.billygraham.org.