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.