One of the highlights of my ministry in my hometown is also one of the most painful experiences. In the summer of 2012, the City of Mound celebrated its 100th birthday during our annual City Days festival in July.
A group of pastors I met with regularly began to coordinate with city leaders to organize a Centennial Worship Service in the park to cap off the weekend festivities. Since this was a historical event celebrating our city’s past, we thought it would be appropriate to tip our hat to the big tent revival meetings Billy Graham had famously held in Mound in 1950 at the Baptist Assembly Grounds (now Highland Park).
“Let’s invite the entire town to an old-time revival styled service under a big tent in the park,” we thought. We even reached out to Billy Graham’s grandson, Tullian Tchividjian, himself a well-known preacher, to see if he would be willing to come preach at the service. He declined.
We pondered other possible well-known local preachers who might help draw a crowd, but came up empty. Then to my surprise, the group of pastors turned to me and said, “Jeremy, you’re about to launch a new church in town, you have deep roots in this city, and you’ve been passionately studying Mound’s spiritual history this past year — why don’t YOU preach on this special occasion?”
To say I was honored and humbled by this offer is a huge understatement. I was also thrilled and terrified! But I accepted and we proceeded with the plans for the service.
This is when the story gets more complicated. We soon discovered there was disagreement between me and the other pastors in the planning group over which pastors and churches should be invited to participate in the service.
I was stunned. If our aim was to follow in the footsteps of Billy Graham and get as many people as possible to the park that Sunday morning to hear the gospel preached, then I wanted every pastor and church involved. I wanted every church represented at this historic celebration of our city’s religious heritage. Nobody should be excluded.
Practically speaking, if we want to get the members of each church to attend, then we need to invite their pastor to participate. So, I envisioned asking the Methodist pastor to give the Call to Worship, the Pentecostal church to lead the worship music, the Catholic priest to read the Scripture, the Lutheran pastor to give the benediction, and so on. I envisioned all their congregants packed under a big tent, and the power of the gospel pricking and awakening many sleeping souls at Surfside Beach that day.
My fellow pastor’s convictions would not allow them to “share a platform” with some leaders due to certain theological differences. For me, what ultimately mattered was that we made sure the message was deeply Biblical and gospel-centered.
Meanwhile, some of the other pastors (not part of the planning group) started to get wind of the event, and that they might not be invited to participate. I was horrified and deeply grieved. The vision I had for the city park being packed with folks from every church coming to hear the gospel proclaimed in July was slipping away.
I felt totally alone and abandoned. I was at odds with my fellow pastors on the planning team, as well as the other church pastors who were feeling rejected and distancing themselves from me and the event. In my deep discouragement and loneliness, where did I turn for advice and wisdom? Yes, Billy Graham.
Billy Graham had experienced this pain many times! He was criticized by liberal church leaders for being a “fundamentalist” and having too simplistic a message. He was criticized by fundamentalists for working alongside Roman Catholics and more liberal mainline organizations in his crusades. He won many friends when he took on racism and segregation in the 60s, but won many enemies as well when he refused to hold segregated events. Billy Graham was a model for keeping the gospel of Christ at the center of his focus, and not letting theological differences distract from sharing that universal message.
I drew incredible courage from Billy Graham as I tried to bring the rest of the pastors on the planning team around. I told them something like, “If we don’t invite every church and their pastor to attend, then we’re going to find ourselves having a nice little “evangelical” service with just the folks from our 3 churches, while the rest of the town stays home or worships back at their regular church. We will have missed an epic opportunity to share the gospel with all these folks.”
For me, in this instance, an “ecumenical service” was the most evangelistically strategic approach because it would attract the largest crowd to hear a biblical gospel message. (I assume there are many religious people like Nicodemus sitting in the pews of many churches who are not yet born again, who maybe haven’t heard a clear call to make a decision, and I wanted them at this service.)
Then I said, “We are making a mockery of Billy Graham by organizing an old-time revival meeting to celebrate his legacy, but going against his evangelistic strategy regarding working with other churches and leaders. The following motto from Graham gave me a foundation to stand on as I held to my own convictions regarding this event. In 1957, after facing similar push back as me, Graham said,
“I intend to go anywhere, sponsored by anybody, to preach the Gospel of Christ.”
Boom! Those were the words I clung to as this event hung up in the air. If the gospel message goes forth unfettered, I can overlook all sorts of theological differences that may exist between the pastors involved in the service. Since I myself was bringing the message, I knew the good news would be declared and so I was determined to get all the other churches involved.
After a difficult week of discussion and prayer, the other pastors on the planning team decided to back out of the event entirely and let me pursue the more ecumenical vision I had for it. They were very gracious how they did it.
Unfortunately, now the event was only a few weeks away, and I was largely on my own planning it. I reached out the rest of the local churches to invite them in but some were miffed by now for being sidelined the preceding couple months of planning.
I felt very alone in that moment.
But not entirely.
I had Billy Graham in my corner, cheering me on. I was inspired by his example and drawing strength from his legacy — a legacy that had even touched this city — as I started over in the planning.
So, what happened that July 22?
God salvaged the event. No, he blessed it! I was contacted out of the blue by a Christian recording artist who had graduated from Mound. She was going to be visiting family in Mound that July and was curious about the churches and spiritual climate of her childhood town. I invited her to come sing at the Centennial Service that July. She accepted!
Then Freshwater Community Church got on board and brought their amazing worship band! Six local churches and their pastors participated — both evangelical and mainline, protestant and Catholic. A couple hundred people showed up to hear a young hometown pastor tell stories of the rich spiritual legacy of this city, celebrating some of the giants who have ministered here including famous Swedish Revivalist Erik August Skogsberg, Billy Graham and Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ who wrote the well-known “4 Spiritual Laws.”
My message decried the ways we’ve turned these waters of Lake Minnetonka into a place of debauchery and materialism. I lamented the emptiness that resides in the souls of many living in the mansions around this lake. I then invited the crowd to commit ourselves to “reclaiming these waters for God’s re-creational activity” in the years to come.
This city that once drew crowds to hear the gospel from the likes of Billy Graham, is now most famous for either the Tonka Toys that were once manufactured here, or else the scandalous Minnesota Vikings “sex cruise” on an Al & Alma’s Dinner boat some years ago.
I said things like, “May we be a city that sets its heart to manufacture more than just toy trucks that ultimately rust away, but build up godly families and children of Christlike character instead.”
Then I did something something that even Billy Graham wouldn’t have ever done: I invited an ecumenical crowd to get out of their seats and come to the water’s edge of the beach. I had this mixed crowd from all backgrounds extend their hand out over the water, and we prayed God’s blessings upon these shores. “May we remember our baptism today as we go forth to show our town a better way to live!”
Then a young woman came forward with her parents and asked if I would baptize her right then and there.
I did. MainStreet gained a new family that day at the beach.
Preaching at that Centennial service was truly a highlight of my ministry in Mound. But I don’t think it would have ever happened if not for the encouragement and inspiration of Billy Graham and his commitment to “go anywhere, sponsored by anybody, to preach the gospel of Christ.”
Thank you, Billy!