Church Membership and the Strange Case of Billy Graham

I’m a big fan of Billy Graham in lots of ways. I especially appreciate what seems to be a deep and determinative commitment to doing what he thinks God wants him to do, even if he doesn’t always seem like the right man for the job. Obviously he is a gifted evangelist: It can be raining in sheets, Billy can have a throat-rasping cold, his notes can blow off the pulpit, and yet when he invites people to come forward to make a decision for Christ, down they come. I’ve watched it on video a hundred times (I did some research on Graham and his crusades some years ago) and it’s amazing to me every time.

But I also admire his willingness to innovate, to start things that needed to be started, whether Christianity Today magazine, or the Evangelical Council on Financial Accountability, or the Lausanne Conferences, each of them highly significant institutions.

Yet I know he’s not a plaster saint and I don’t agree with some of the decisions he has made in his career. Most recently, Brother Graham decided to transfer his church membership from First Baptist Church of Dallas to First Baptist Church of Spartanburg, South Carolina. And this strikes me as multiply weird.

First weird thing: Graham joined First Baptist Church in 1953, during his first crusade in that city at the Cotton Bowl. What’s weird about that? Graham has never lived in Dallas, and has attended the church only sporadically through the years. His home has been in Montreat, North Carolina, for decades, and his organization’s headquarters, until recently, was in Minneapolis. So how can he be a member of a church he almost never even visits, let alone plays any other part in?

Second weird thing: First Baptist Church was pastored by W. A. Criswell and was the largest church in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), and probably in the whole United States, at the time. Criswell is godfather to the conservative/fundamentalist takeover of the SBC a few decades later. Why would Graham, whose disposition is far from the militant, separatistic, and hardnosed attitude evident in many of the leaders of that movement, identify with it via First Baptist Dallas until now?

Third weirdity: Graham, 90, is mostly housebound, and so doesn’t get out to church much. Fair enough, of course. And he enjoys the televised services of First Baptist Spartanburg, so that he calls its pastor his “TV pastor.” Now, that’s maybe a little strange: To be “shepherded” by someone you only see on TV sounds like a contradiction in terms. That’s like me claiming that Canadian folksinger Gordon Lightfoot taught me to finger-pick my guitar because I listened to his records and followed the instructions in his songbooks, isn’t it?

Stranger still, however, is the fact that Spartanburg is more than 85 miles away from Montreat. To what extent can someone function as a member of a church while living more than 90 minutes away and being more than 90 years old? Who can care for that person? How can that person care for others? Wouldn’t it make sense to join a nearby church, to serve and be served as best one can?

My wife and I belonged to a Southern Baptist church for a couple of years. It was an atypical Southern Baptist church, to be sure: small, mixed-race, in the north (in Chicago), with a median educational level of a master’s degree (it was near the University of Chicago), and with a woman as pastor (exceedingly rare then; impossible now). But many of even those very unusual Southern Baptists retained the custom of “keeping” their “church membership” elsewhere—at some place that held sentimental value for them: where they grew up, where their folks lived, where they got married, etc.

This custom struck me as contradictory both to Baptist/believer’s church principles and also to the teaching and practice of the New Testament. Membership is as membership does. To say that one of the Apostle’s metaphorical feet or hands can “belong” to another body “officially” while functioning in this one seemed bizarre to me then, and does to me now.

Commitment is a problem in our society today. Perhaps you’ve heard that. Retaining church membership in a place long ago and far away is a custom that can only exacerbate the widespread resistance to step right into this fellowship, to put all our eggs in one basket, to find our place in this new place as our place.

So, Brother Billy, I love you and admire you from afar. But this recent decision to change the one made in 1953 (and every year since then) I’m going to have to put in the category of “Decisions I Would Have Made Differently Had I Been Billy Graham.” Now, of course, we can all thank God that I have not been Billy Graham! But I still have to disagree and instead understand and practice church membership in the straightforwardly functional sense that the New Testament does.

Among whom do you worship? To whom do you contribute time, money, and giftedness? Who cares for you? That’s where you belong.

0 Responses to “Church Membership and the Strange Case of Billy Graham”

  1. Tullian Tchividjian

    Professor Stackhouse,

    Thanks for the post. I am a grandson of Billy Graham and a Presbyterian minister in South Florida. I agree with your post. But the First Baptist Dallas thing is stranger than the First Baptist Spartanburg thing. I don’t know why he would join First Baptist Dallas (although when I asked him this once he told me with a smile on his face that Dr. Criswell was a very persuasive salesman.) But the pastor at First Baptist Spartanburg (a friend of mine) visits him once a week for a few hours, serves him communion, and takes care of him the same way he would take care of another member who was house bound. For me, my granddad’s transfer of membership makes sense because although he has been being cared for in numerous ways by First Baptist Spartanburg for years, he hasn’t been a member. He’s fixed that now.

    Happy New Year, brother.


  2. E.G.

    Church membership, as it is normally practiced, is a weird thing anyhow… for any number of reasons.

    I am all for some form of church membership. But, it should be something meaningful and it should incorporate regular (annual?) reminders of the responsibilities to the fellowship.

    As it currently stands, it would be easy enough to gain membership at many churches after only attending for a few weeks (at most). My background would be of minimal, if of any, importance. And then, once membership was obtained, it would also be easy enough to sit back and do nothing – other than attend on occasion – ever again.

    There are probably numerous better models than the standard practice. One that I can imagine would entail an adherent being invited into membership (not requesting membership, as is current practice). After that, all members would be required to renew their membership on a regular basis, or the membership would automatically lapse.

    That would not be perfect either, but it would address some of the issues that I have outlined above.

  3. Paul+

    I have often struggled with how my Episcopal tradition deals with the question of membership. Anglicans do “take” membership in local congregations, but not in the way that one would do so in Congregationalist polities. For Anglicans, we take membership in a local congregation as we choose to regularly “take and eat…and drink” at the Lord’s Table in said congregation. Though some local congregations may create additional criteria for membership (for we are a diverse bunch, we Reformed Catholics) our traditional Anglican ecclesiology would know no other criteria than that a person be “in Communion” with that congregation. And what is the requirement to take Holy Communion in Anglican congregations? To have been baptized with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Depending on the diocese (i.e. a regional grouping of congregations under the authority of a bishop), the additional requirement may be the rite of Confirmation. Being a habitual “communicant” is what separates a member from a non-member. Now, how one defines “habitual” is one of the inherent challenges here. But another challenge is the extent of privileges extended to these members. These communicants have the right to vote at the Annual Meeting (and at any other “All-Member-Meetings”) and to stand for elected office in the congregation. All this, because of a little bread and wine! No signature on a statement of faith or expectation of moral living. And, because of this, at times, I am truly frustrated with my polity.

    Yet, in those moments, thankfully my Prayerbook (ie. Book of Common Prayer) falls off my bookshelf and smacks me on the head. To take and eat and drink at the Lord’s Table is perfectly fine criteria for membership…IF we do so with a more complete understanding of the Sacrament. As the priest says every Sunday (if using the Prayerbook), sounding a lot like 1 Corinthians 11: “Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead the new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort; and make your humble confession to Almighty God, meekly kneeling upon your knees.” The problem is not my polity’s membership criteria. The problem is the watering down of my Church’s catechesis regarding the meaning and practice of receiving the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

  4. John Stackhouse

    Many thanks, friends, for these insightful remarks. Brother Tchividjian fills in some gaps in my knowledge in a gracious and helpful way. I have long admired Billy Graham, in fact, for his insistence that he work with local churches (rather than the classic “revivalist” style of breezing into town, condemning all the local pastors as lukewarm at best and apostate at worst, and then leaving with one’s take–spiritual and financial). And, in the same vein, I appreciate his concern to link those who register “decisions” at his crusades with local churches for “follow-up.” Thus the question of his own church membership actually seems stranger still—except now, thanks to Brother T, the Spartanburg connection makes much more sense.

    E.G. and Pastor Paul enrich our thinking about membership in creative ways. Thanks to you both. How much richer our church lives would be if either set of suggestions, let alone both, could be practiced in our local fellowships.

    More reflections, friends?

  5. rogueminister

    I have always found the concept of church membership a little strange. Maybe it is because I have spent most of my life in a fellowship that doesn’t put any emphasis on it. I learned in China that a fluid understanding of church membership might be a good thing because it prevents us from getting caught up in just the teachings of one church. It provides for some accountability about our beliefs and it gives us the opportunity to see a variety of perspectives.

    I always did think it was strange for a guy from NC to have membership at a congregation in TX. If I remember correctly he even used to fly out there from time to time just to attend services. Weird.


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