It will go down as one of the defining moments of my life. The kind where you feel like you are walking on air—where no other experience in the world could compare to it. I could feel its significance as it unfolded. But I knew I’d never quite be able to explain it to others. I could never do it justice. Typically, it’s best to keep an experience like that to yourself, where its magnitude will never tarnish. But frankly, I can’t resist sharing it with you here.
The slow descent down the winding mountain driveway in Montreat, North Carolina was an ironic counterpart for my rising anticipation. I was going to meet with Billy Graham in his storied log cabin home nestled in the Blue Ridge mountains. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, to converse with one of the most sought-after, respected and revered leaders of the twentieth century. Our time together didn’t disappoint.
In the moments leading up to meeting him, I couldn’t help considering the countless accolades assigned to his life. He had audience with the world’s most powerful leaders, having provided spiritual counsel to seven U.S. Presidents. His generous tone and compelling life have marked everyone who’s known him. He shaped our world very personally by leading tens of millions of everyday people to Christ. I was a bit overwhelmed at the chance to sit across from him to listen and learn.
It was a cool autumn day. The leaves were changing color—from green to brown, yellow, orange and red—they were nearing their peak on this cloudy September day.
After passing through the entry gate protecting his mountaintop home, we were greeted by an older woman, a caretaker of sorts. Today, she had taken it up on herself to care for us as well. She served up my favorite—chocolate chip cookies and an old-fashioned bottle of coke. It felt surprisingly warm and hospitable, like a trip to grandma’s house. While waiting to be led back to Mr. Graham’s study, we sat in old rocking chairs on the back porch. I later learned these chairs had been gifts from President Lyndon Johnson’s ranch in Texas.
Taking in the picturesque scene, I could understand why Montreat had been the place this man chose to call home for over fifty years. The quiet, pastoral view of the mountains was splendid. With no other man-made structure in sight—it was an ideal place of respite for the family of a world figure. The simplicity of his log cabin, meadow-like back yard, worn-in antique furniture and pictures of family and friends playing together gave me a glimpse into this beloved saint’s humanity.
As we walked back to his study, his best friends—five dogs that kept him company day and night—greeted us. Though his body was undeniably old, his mind was sharp. Hearing had become a chore, so we raised our voices to introduce ourselves.
I sat down in front of Mr. Graham in a chair whose previous occupants included world leaders, famous entertainers, and – just two weeks prior – a presidential candidate hoping to gain support.
I came prepared to listen. I had no intention of saying much, planning instead to glean his wisdom. For what must have been thirty minutes or so, I quietly listened as my friend Greg kept the conversation adequately stoked. Finally, I gained the courage to speak up. Mr. Graham had asked about my work and seemed genuinely curious to know what it was I did.
I carefully explained in terms an 89 year old man could relate to—our work to educate and expose church and cultural leaders to the changes in our world. And more importantly, what opportunities lay ahead. I continued by telling him about some of the leaders our organization convened regularly; innovators within every different sphere of society. From the arts, to medicine, and education, I explained that they were young, and the best at what they did. I described how these leaders were leveraging their talent for the benefit of others – creating microfinance banks that were loaning hundreds of millions to the poor, building wells throughout the third world, developing media campaigns to increase awareness about adoption and so forth—these leaders were serious about finding cultural breakdowns, and reviving them.
He seemed sincerely intrigued and encouraged.
As we spoke, I painted a picture for him of Christians engaging major global issues creatively and fighting injustices with ingenuity in every channel of culture. From business, to science, media, entertainment, politics and the academy—he was elated to learn about a new generation of Christians with a different perspective on the responsibilities that come with their faith.
At one point, he interrupted excitedly. I will never forget the spirited fervor with which he uttered these words:
“Back when we did these big, large crusades in football stadiums and arenas, the Holy Spirit was really moving—and people were coming to Christ by hearing the Word of God preached.”
Then he went on to make a profound observation.
“But today, I sense something different is happening. I see evidence that the Holy Spirit is working in a new way. He’s moving through people in their work, those who are doing good—through one on one friendships with people. They are demonstrating God’s love to those around them, not just with words, but in deed.”
As he spoke, something crystallized inside me. It was as if all the observations I’d collected over a decade were being summed up in the sage words of this iconic figure. He had seen it all, but was in tune with something new. Like an aging prophet passing down a mantle to his people —this message had great relevance to my generation. I felt renewed inspiration to continue cultivating this mindset throughout the body of believers across our emerging landscape.
Something new was on the rise, and if we could better understand how it was playing itself out in our world today, Christians could revolutionize a movement that was in decline in the West.