Karen Stiller • Faith Today • November 13, 2014
A Faith Today editor finds herself nervous - and moved - at a huge evangelistic event.
The DJ Opdiggy in a black knit cap bounces and bops on a raised podium on the floor of Toronto’s Air Canada Centre (ACC). He asks the crowd that fills the stadium how many Blue Jay fans are present. There are a few. How many Maple Leaf fans? Lots more.
He yells his next question. “How many Jesus fans are out there tonight?” And the crowd, as they say, goes wild.
This is night one of the Greater Toronto Festival of Hope that hit Canada’s largest city in September. There clearly are Jesus fans here tonight – and there will be more by the night’s end. Praise the Lord t-shirts are being sold in the hall of the stadium that in the months to come will welcome the likes of Cher, Ed Sheeran and Pitbull.
But tonight it’s Franklin Graham (pictured right) who will take the stage, the famous son of the world’s most famous evangelist, here to preach the gospel as he has done all over the world to millions of people. He has spent the afternoon in his hotel room in the nearby Royal York, studying, reading, praying, (one can only assume a nap), preparing for tonight.
“When I stand at the podium, it’s not Franklin Graham, it’s about the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s about communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ to the people who are there,” Graham says. “This can only be done through prayer. I try to be ready to stand to deliver the message the Lord has put on my heart.”
It is the gospel, served straight up, that the crowd will hear tonight, with no postmodern gravy to make things go down easy. “There is Holy-spirit-filled power in God’s Word and it doesn’t matter what generation you are speaking to,” says Graham. “When my father was here the first time [in 1955], there was a culture in Canada that understood a lot of the biblical principles, understood Bible stories, or were at least somewhat familiar with them. But you live in a society today of people who have no clue about the Bible. They haven’t read the Bible, haven’t touched the Bible, basically have been taught by secular education that God is a myth.”
At some point, says Graham, even the most cynical person will ask if there is a God – no matter the spirit of the age. “We are in a secular society, postmodern, whatever you want to call it. It’s no different than what you read in Scripture when Jesus lived in the Roman Empire. That was a pretty rough crowd.”
It feels like a bit of a home crowd tonight. There is a Christian family in front of me. Jackie Van Den Heuvel has brought her three kids and two of their friends from Scarborough. “I wanted them to experience this,” she says. “I wanted them to see and know they are a part of this large body of believers.”
A few rows back I notice an elderly couple, sitting quietly in this stadium with the rock concert vibe that grows stronger with each passing Christian song. They are dressed for church – crisp navy suit, red tie, dress, sensible shoes. They must be yearning for George Beverly Shea. So I go and ask what they think of how crowded and loud things are.
“I love it!” Neil Stark exclaims. “It’s beautiful.” Carol, his wife, concedes she prefers hymns, “but I like choruses too. I like the message. It’s an encouragement to see a lot of young people here,” she says. “This is what is needed.”
Graham would agree. “The need of the human heart has not changed. People still are searching. However, today people are searching and don’t know what they are searching for. But they realize they are not happy.”
I climb over another Christian family seated in my row and begin to pray. I am not praying for those who will accept Christ tonight. I am praying that Franklin Graham will come on before The Newsboys, because they are apparently doing a full concert, my feet hurt and I have to take the GO train home.
My prayer is answered.
“I love this city,” begins Graham from the silver cross-shaped podium, down where the Leafs normally play. “I love the people of this city.” And so does God. Graham does not waste time. He plunges straight into preaching the simple, unchanged gospel message. “Jesus Christ is not dead. He’s alive. He’s here tonight.” It is the path to salvation, front and centre, simple and clear. Graham talks about current world issues for a few moments – same-sex marriage, ISIS, the Middle East.
Then the invitation, hinted at again and again during the talk. “God wants to heal you. Come. Will you come? Will you come tonight?”
I feel awkward in my seat, just like I do at weddings when they ask if anyone has an objection. This is going to go wrong, for surely it can’t be that simple. What if this is the first Graham crusade ever where not a single person comes down? I’m worried for Franklin, who is so straightforward, so unwavering, his pleasant face the picture of calm patience on the giant video screens.
First it’s a trickle. Then a stream of people make their way down the stairs to the floor of the ACC. Then it really could be called a flood. Even the nice Christian kids in front of me stand up and go. I muse about how their mom feels, because they clearly already knew who Jesus is.
The next night our church’s youth group attends. It seems I am now a Festival of Hope junkie because I watch at home, live streaming on my iPhone. I scan the crowd on the ACC floor for the weird hat my son wears. As if I would see him. As if he would have gone down. But the next morning, when I find out he did, something inside me warms up, softens and overflows. My eyes fill up. And now I know exactly how the lady in front of me felt. /FT
Above: Volunteers meet and pray with hundreds of people who come forward following Graham's invitation.
For more information, visit the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website.