Could pastors of yesterday reach the religious 'nones' of today? (2024)

A statue of one of America’s most powerful preachers was unveiled at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., earlier this month. This same preacher is reaching millions of people on his 24-hour satellite radio station.

This preacher is not Joel Osteen or some other modern celebrity pastor who captivates thousands at services each week.

It’s the Rev. Billy Graham — born 1918, died 2018 — who is having a moment.

Graham, who started his professional life as a door-to-door salesman (and once had a bucket of water dumped on him after he rang a doorbell), went on to be a world-famous evangelist who could draw hundreds of thousands of people to a single crusade. He was a spiritual counselor and friend to 12 U.S. presidents.

Graham became known as “America’s pastor,” which was not hyperbole. It’s estimated that more than 2 billion people heard him preach, and that more than 2 million responded to his famous altar calls in person; there’s no way of knowing how many lives he changed through his “Hour of Decision” television show and crusades broadcast on network TV.

With an increasing number of young Americans turning their backs on organized religion, could Graham’s decades-old preaching, distributed through new mediums, help to ignite another Great Awakening in America?

The people at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Charlotte think so. “Mr. Graham’s messages are timeless, because the gospel is timeless,” David Bruce, executive vice president of the Billy Graham Archives & Research Center and Billy Graham Library told me. “Of course, he’s preaching from the books of Bible, which are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old, and yet the message is relevant because the human heart remains the same.”

Bruce said that the Billy Graham Channel on SiriusXM is reaching a new generation with the evangelist’s messages, which go back to the 1940s. “In fact, if you listen to them often enough, you’ll think, why, that’s right from the pages of today’s newspaper,” Bruce added. More than 1,500 audio and video messages are archived on the organization’s website, and eventually all of them will be available.

Could pastors of yesterday reach the religious 'nones' of today? (1)

The Billy Graham Station

The station debuted in 2017 as a “pop-up,” or periodic, station on SiriusXM, which has a number of religious offerings, including The Catholic Channel and the Joel Osteen Channel. In 2018, it became a regular station, airing nonstop, on channel 460. Listening last week, I heard Graham preaching in Las Vegas in 1980, the day after a fire killed 85 people at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino; in Boston, in 1982; in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1971; and in Anaheim, California, in 1985.

There are also occasional messages from Graham’s son and successor, the Rev. Franklin Graham, and Graham’s grandson, the Rev. Will Graham, as well as other preachers who were influential in Graham’s life, to include Chuck Smith, Adrian Rogers, Charles Stanley, Vance Havner and Oswald Smith.

It’s much different from some of the preaching one commonly hears through the media today. For one thing, Graham’s messages are heavily grounded in the Bible, and not in select verses promising God’s blessings. He talks about sin, judgment and a living, malevolent devil, and calls on people to repent and live holy, godly lives.

The outdated cultural references are both jarring and charming in turn. In one sermon, he talks about the Vietnam War in present tense; in another, he mentions having a television that takes a few minutes to turn on. (He said he was looking forward to having a TV that powered up “instantly.”) At a crusade in Albany, New York, in 1990, he talked about “peace breaking out” all over the world as communist regimes in Eastern Europe were collapsing. It’s part evangelism, part History Channel, but no one would ever classify a Graham sermon as entertainment. He’s more Jonathan Edwards than Osteen.

Then there’s Graham’s deep and distinctive voice — a broadcaster’s dream, heavily suffused with a Carolina accent. “As soon as you hear it, you’re driven to listen to this voice,” Bruce said.

It is a voice that is instantly recognizable as belonging to a preacher — a voice that would command respect in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, though not much in 2024, since men of the cloth with that sort of voice have become a villainous Hollywood trope.

Graham stands outside that stereotype, however, and on May 16, a 7-foot bronzed statue depicting him holding a BIble was unveiled in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol. The statue, one of two representing North Carolina, replaces one of Charles Ayco*ck, the late former North Carolina governor who has come under fire for racist views. While the removal of statues and monuments from the past has been controversial, there was little outcry over this replacement, in part because Graham is so widely beloved. He died at age 99 with a reputation untarnished, no personal or professional scandals attached to his name, and he was buried in a pine casket made by prisoners in Louisiana.

Bruce said Graham would be embarrassed by the attention. “He never quite understood his persona; he was quite naive about his fame.” In fact, Graham didn’t think it was his words that converted people, or drew hundreds of thousands of people to his crusades. He believed it was the Holy Spirit at work.


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A new Billy Graham?

Those concerned about the dechurching of America might yearn for a new Billy Graham to lead Americans back to church en masse. But could such a universal spiritual leader arise in America today?

Ryan Burge thinks not. Burge, a pastor, professor and highly regarded researcher of religious trends, told me that Graham “hit the peak of his powers at the time that Americans were most receptive to religion.”

“There will be no replacement for Graham,” Burge said. “The evangelical landscape is way too fragmented to find a unifying voice. And I think that the younger generations are just so cynical that a single preacher — no matter how charismatic — could move so many people as Graham did.”

Similarly, Thomas S. Kidd, the Yeats Chair of Baptist Studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in an email that he doesn’t think even Billy Graham himself could have the same effect if he were starting his ministry today because “ours is a more secular culture.”

“I don’t believe that there is any pastor or evangelist who has the same kind of near-universal recognition that Graham did,” Kidd said. In fact, in our “diffuse and fractured media culture,” it’s difficult for any one person to achieve that sort of stature in any field, he explained. “There are very few figures in music, for instance, who approach the level of celebrity that Elvis or The Beatles had during the same time as Graham had his greatest impact.”

That said, Kidd believes America could have another Great Awakening or national revival; it would just look different from those that occurred in the past. Graham was preaching to an America that predominantly identified as Christian and people who were, for the most part, familiar with the Bible. “Effective evangelists today will need to put more emphasis on fundamental questions like whether Christianity is even plausible. Is the resurrection true? If true, it demands a response.”

‘Beyond my imagination’

While there may or may not be another Billy Graham, there is a Franklin Graham and a Will Graham — Graham’s son and grandson, respectively — who are preaching the gospel in much the same way that Graham did. Pastors like Benny Hinn, John MacArthur and Rick Warren command huge social media followings. The late Timothy Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, who died a year ago this month, still speaks powerfully from YouTube.

And of course, there’s Osteen, who just delivered his 1,000th sermon at Lakewood Church in Houston. Osteen, too, has a SiriusXM channel; he draws about 50,000 people to Lakewood services each week and has preached at Yankee Stadium — although Osteen’s messages about finding favor with God are markedly different from Graham’s messages about sin and judgment.

Graham, too, preached at Yankee Stadium — as part of a 16-week New York crusade in 1957 that drew more than 2.3 million people (including then-Vice President Richard Nixon). As Graham wrote in his memoir, “Just As I Am,” organizers were turning people away every night, and when they had to extend the crusade by three weeks to accommodate the demand, he ran out of sermons to deliver.

As Graham wrote, “The final service in Yankee Stadium on July 20 was truly unforgettable. The stadium was jammed with a record crowd of 100,000 people, with another 20,000 outside who could not get in. The heat was fierce — 93 degrees outside and 105 degrees on the platform — and how anyone (including me) managed to concentrate is still beyond my imagination.” He credited God with giving him the stamina to continue and new words to preach each night.

That same God, the people at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association believe, is more than capable of raising up another Billy Graham. In fact, Bruce said, right now, “There are faithful men and women all over the country preaching the word of God, week in and week out,” with ways of reaching audiences that the apostle Paul would have envied.

“It’s God’s business if he chooses another one. God does the choosing. It’s not man’s choice,” Bruce told me. “So yes, I believe somewhere down the line will come other Billy Grahams.”

Could pastors of yesterday reach the religious 'nones' of today? (2024)


Are religious nones now the largest? ›

The number of individuals in the United States who do not identify as being part of any religion has grown dramatically in recent years, and “the nones” are now larger than any single religious group.

What is the religion of the nones? ›

Religious “nones” are people who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” when asked about their religious affiliation in our surveys.

What percentage of the US is non religious? ›

According to the new set of data, 28% of Americans classify themselves as "nones," 17% of whom identify as atheist, 20% as agnostic and 63% as "nothing in particular." Most "nones" said they were raised to be religious, and the majority were raised in Christian households.

Are people with no religion now the single largest group in the United States? ›

Religiously unaffiliated people now make up 28% of U.S. adults, according to a new study from Pew Research.

Which religion is declining the fastest? ›

According to the same study Christianity, is expected to lose a net of 66 million adherents (40 million converts versus 106 million apostate) mostly to religiously unaffiliated category between 2010 and 2050. It is also expected that Christianity may have the largest net losses in terms of religious conversion.

What is the fastest growing religion right now? ›

World. The six fastest-growing religions in the world are estimated to be Islam (1.84%), the Baháʼí Faith (1.70%), Sikhism (1.62%), Jainism (1.57%), Hinduism (1.52%), and Christianity (1.38%), with high birth rates being cited as the major reason.

What is it called when you believe in God but not religious? ›

A belief in God but not religion falls under the category of agnostic theism. The belief in God exists, but there may be a rejection of the institutional orthodoxy and orthopraxy of the religion.

What is the new atheist religion? ›

The term New Atheism describes the positions of some atheist academics, writers, scientists, and philosophers of the 20th and 21st centuries. New Atheism advocates the view that superstition, religion, and irrationalism should not simply be tolerated.

What is the name of the religion that doesn't believe in God? ›

Atheism is one thing: A lack of belief in gods.

It is simply a rejection of the assertion that there are gods. Atheism is too often defined incorrectly as a belief system.

Which US state has the most atheists? ›

On a state level, it is not clear whether the least religious state resides in New England or the Western United States, as the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) ranked Vermont as the state with the highest percentage of residents claiming no religion at 34%, but a 2009 Gallup poll ranked Oregon as ...

What is the most religious state in the United States? ›

Little surprise here: Utah was found to have the largest share of religious adherents out of every other state in the nation. Research found that 76.1% of Utahns adhere to a religious affiliation, which has been steadily increasing over the last decade.

What is the declining religion in the US? ›

Americans have grown less likely to attend church services over the past decade. In 2023, nearly one-quarter of Americans (24%) attend religious services either virtually or in person at least once a week, a 7 percentage point decline from 31% in 2013.

What is the most religious community in the United States? ›

Roughly 48.9% of Americans are Protestants, 23.0% are Catholics, 1.8% are Mormons (members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). Christianity was introduced during the period of European colonization. The United States has the world's largest Christian population.

What is the largest religious affiliation in the United States? ›

Christianity is the predominant religion in all U.S. states and territories.

How many people do not believe in God? ›

Atheists make up 4% of U.S. adults, according to our 2023 National Public Opinion Reference Survey.

What is considered the largest religious population in the world today? ›

The Four Largest Religions in the World

While there are around 10,000 distinct religions in the world, over three-quarters of the global population adheres to one of these four – Christianity (31%), Islam (24%), Hinduism (15%), and Buddhism (7%).

Is religiously unaffiliated increasing? ›

“Unaffiliated” is the only major religious category experiencing growth. Around one-quarter of Americans (26%) identify as religiously unaffiliated in 2023, a 5 percentage point increase from 21% in 2013.

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