It’s all over Canadian news: Franklin Graham isn’t being welcomed to evangelize Vancouver. And not just by some fringe folks who like to raise a stink whenever religious people dare speak publicly about Jesus. No, it’s actually Christians who are opposing Franklin Graham as the evangelism headliner.
And this is important to note: this is not some form of persecution. Rather, this is internal opposition, voiced by Christians themselves, ringing across the spectrum of evangelical, mainline and Catholic churches. And a mighty impressive group at that, with leaders representing over half of metro Vancouver’s Christians not often caught hand-holding in public.
Now why would they do that? Well, the simple, stated reasons are that Franklin’s public statements about Islam, the LGBTQ community, the election, and the use of weapons of mass destruction, among other things, has compromised his ability to speak authentically about the good news of our crucified and risen Messiah. Church leadership is worried that his political alignments will detract from our central message, even though he says he wouldn’t be making any political statements during his time in Vancouver. He’s become too aligned with worldly powers of our day to effectively witness to the One who died at the hands of the religious and political powers in his.
As the pastor of a local church far away from Vancouver, I am sympathetic to the opposition. Without attempting to argue about what Franklin Graham did or did not say, the fact remains that he has become more known as of late for his political statements than the good news message. Somewhere along the way, he chose to make headlines with messages other than the central truth of Jesus’ love for the world and his death to make things right.
The great apostle Paul, even when given ample opportunity to do otherwise, kept the good news of Jesus central to his life and mission. He chose not to critique nor align with the political powers of his day, even when it may have been favourable to do so. When visiting Athens, Paul spoke respectfully and knowledgeably about their religious practices and texts, not because he did not think them wrong but because he knew overt criticism would bear no gospel fruit. You can’t win people over by smacking them around. In order to win them, he needed to keep the lines of communication open. And when he was done sharing about Jesus and the resurrection, some laughed at him but others wanted to hear more. Imagine if he’d decided to take his 5 minute opportunity to tell them what a disaster their religion was to Roman society. And while there will be times when we must speak truth to power, we must never lose our central, good news message of Jesus in the process.
Tasked with the responsibility of equipping local bands of Christians to represent Jesus in their lives and words, Christian pastors and leaders want to support events and speakers who will keep the main thing, the main thing–or more accurately, the Main Person, the Main Person. And whether he intended to or not, Franklin is now known less as a spokesman for Jesus and more of a mouthpiece of hate. Fair? Maybe, maybe not. But as a local pastor doing everything he can to make the gospel offensive only where it truly is offensive (the fact that we are sinners and need Jesus to save us), I would hate to bring someone in who would further ostracize some of the very people we are trying to win over with love.
In some ways, this isn’t even about parsing through the things Graham said, as I’m sure you’d find Christians opposed to his Vancouver gig who privately agree with at least some of his sentiments. Instead, this is a practical decision. Do you want to support an event with a speaker who will help people hear the good news of Jesus without extra distraction, or a speaker who could potentially alienate people from hearing the good news at all? And when put that way, I think the decision, though painful, is clear. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association should send someone else in Franklin Graham’s place, someone who has stayed closer to his father and their founder’s vision to preach nothing “except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2 ESV).