Billy Graham at Fuller

The Legacy of Billy Graham at Fuller Seminary

Mark LabbertonThe Power of the Disruptive Gospel

Mark Labberton, President

My Uncle John and Aunt Maud would watch Billy Graham on their black and white TV. I didn’t really know as a little boy what to make of Billy or of these meetings—but there was no doubting that to him and to many, many others, this was passionate business. It did not yet seem like good news to me, but clearly it was for many. Later, as a junior in high school, still without Christian faith or understanding, I mimicked Billy in a school assembly skit. The laughs indicated I got the form of Billy’s speech and gestures just right; I just didn’t get the message.

In fact, when I later came to faith in Christ, I felt I had to overcome what seemed like the negative and problematic echo of Billy’s voice and the religious subculture of stadium revivalism. Did being a follower of Jesus require that I embrace what I found culturally unattractive and foreign? It was disorienting when I eventually had to face that the gospel that so unexpectedly found me was the same gospel that made Billy my brother. I had so much to unlearn, to dismantle. That work was just starting.

Years later, after college and eventually seminary, I found myself in London working as John Stott’s study assistant. In the midst of a meeting with John one day, he said to me in a matter of fact way, “I would like you to check with Billy on that.” It was a head-spinning moment as I realized that this brilliant and nuanced John knew and would defer to that plain and simpler Billy. John literally marked time daily with a watch that had been a gift from Billy; both men were committed to redeeming time. The hope they shared in the gospel of Jesus Christ was the same, even though their exposition of it was so dramatically contrasting. To this day, the Lausanne Movement and the Lausanne Covenant are manifestations of the gifts and the friendship of these two remarkable, if quite different, men.

Many more years passed until one day, not long after I began as president of Fuller, I traveled with Lloyd Ogilvie on a pilgrimage to meet his close friend, Billy, at his home in North Carolina. These two men, again unalike, had long since found their hearts knit together by the gospel of Jesus Christ. On this day, though Billy was incapacitated by various health issues, the three of us had a memorable visit as we talked about the early days of Fuller when Billy served as a Fuller trustee, about Billy’s appreciation of Fuller’s distinct contribution to the evangelical faith, and about the global ministry of the church. My Uncle John and Aunt Maud would have been so very glad for this day. So was I.

The gospel to me has never been so much comforting as it has been disquieting. Jesus was and is a disrupter. The gospel puts our ordinary lives on edge as we follow Someone who calls us beyond ourselves and into a new kingdom. This gospel only ever comes to us in our own historical and cultural context, yet the kingdom of God endlessly stretches and re-sorts us into a new family meant to reflect the unsettling love and justice of God more than merely the unavoidable sociology of our birth.

God has used these three men as gospel-disrupters and they, along with many others, have changed my life. Even though all three of them share the same generation, and all are men, and all are white, they managed to enlarge my vision of God and of God’s world far beyond those common categories. They lived as we all do, inside their own generation, and out of their own social and racial frames, but the gospel cracked open the horizons of their compassion and love and drew them much further out toward the heart of God. None of them simply settled for self-serving lives, for a world bent in on themselves, or for boundaries that kept people out rather than welcomed them in.

It is the prerogative—though perhaps a near-sighted one—for members of the generation following these mentors to wish that they had been even more disrupted themselves, that they had been more radicalized and seen the limits of their social, racial, gendered horizons and risked far more than they did. But if their mark on me and on so many like me has done anything, it has been to stoke that longing for such greater disruption to change my life—so that we, and the generations behind us, can let the gospel of new creation take us still greater degrees toward the kingdom to which each of them has borne such profound and passionate witness. To catch the gospel that caught them is to catch the transformative love that is making all things new.

Mark Labberton has served as Fuller Seminary’s fifth president since 2013. His experience includes 30 years of pastoral ministry, 16 of those as senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, California.