Mystery Worshipper: Mystery Worshipper
Church: Greater New York Billy Graham Crusade
Location: Queens, New York, USA
Date of visit: Friday, 24 June 2005, 6:00pm
Not a building, actually – the crusade was held in a large open field in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens. A concert-type stage had been set up, behind which were bleachers for the choir. To the right were more bleachers, equipped with assisted listening devices for the hearing-impaired. Directly in front of the stage was reserved seating, with general admission seating behind that. Large video screens were placed on either side of the stage.
How does one begin to describe the most famous itinerant preacher in the world next to our Blessed Lord himself? I leave it to the reader to browse the Association's website and to read the many excellent biographical sketches of Dr Graham to be found elsewhere on the web.
Queens is one of the five boroughs comprising New York City. Flushing Meadows Corona Park is one and one-half times the size of Central Park and features lakes, golf courses, picnic areas, playing fields, and bicycle and hiking paths. The park was the original meeting place of the United Nations; Dr Graham reminded us that the state of Israel was established in this very park. The park was also the site of two World's Fairs, first in 1938 and again in 1964-65. A few structures from the latter fair still stand.
The Revd Billy Graham. Dr Graham was assisted by various officers and staff members of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, as well as guest clergymen and the contemporary Christian singer, Steven Curtis Chapman, the musical group Salvador, and a choir advertised to be 1200 voices strong (I was too far away to count them but I'd say their number approached that). A special guest was the 97-year-old gospel singer George Beverly Shea, who sounded as good as many a man half his age.
What was the name of the service?Friday Evening Crusade.
How full was the building?
Thousands – couldn't count 'em. There was a mix of people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds, with many small children and teenagers in groups.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Was your pew comfortable?
Metal folding chairs with plastic seats, fastened together with plastic tie loops. They were a bit cramped but basically comfortable to sit on.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I arrived two hours early but already there was a throng of people making their way from the subway stop toward the park. It was a very long walk, and the way was lined with fanatics handing out pamphlets and waving posters proclaiming "Billy Graham hates God," "God hates fags," "God causes tsunamis," etc. Inside the park, a large crowd had formed at the gate to the area where the crusade was to take place, and when the gate was finally opened we trickled in slowly but steadily. Our bags were searched. Once inside, people found seats quickly. There was lots of visiting and the overall mood was quite festive.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good evening, and welcome to the first night of the Greater New York Billy Graham Crusade."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Ushers handed out a pamphlet containing a schedule of the crusade, short bios of the participants, and the text of some hymns.
What musical instruments were played?
Piano and various rock-band instruments used by the guest musicians.
Did anything distract you?
Some small children were cavorting about and blowing bubbles. This was cute until it extended into Dr Graham's sermon, at which point it became a major distraction.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very happy clappy. After the welcome, a short video was shown on "Christmas Child," a program that delivers Christmas gifts to impoverished children worldwide. A woman then led the opening song, a jaunty number that had everybody on their feet clapping. After that it was basically a hymn sandwich – both modern and traditional musical numbers by guest musicians and the choir, alternating with remarks from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association staff and guest clergy. Music and speeches alike were received with much clapping, hand waving, applauding, and "praise the Lord."
Exactly how long was the sermon?
22 minutes, or 37 minutes if you include the altar call with the sermon.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 — Dr Graham needed no introduction when he stepped up to the podium. He spoke quietly and intimately, including many personal remarks and anecdotes in his talk as well as some pretty good jokes. He said that his sermons don't last as long as they used to, and recalled that his first sermon ever was sprung on him by surprise. He hadn't expected to be preaching that night, but nevertheless happened to have four sermon outlines in his pocket and ended up preaching all four of them. He said that tonight's sermon, which may well be his last, felt like his first.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Dr Graham spoke on Jesus' advice to Nicodemus that he must be born again. Nicodemus was a well educated and privileged man – he "had it all" but still there was a void in his life. It is indeed possible to start life all over again. The greatest need in the world is for the transformation of human nature from hate to love. Hate defiles man, country, and world. We may call ourselves churchgoing Christians, but we need Jesus. We can do as many good deeds as we want, but without Jesus all is for naught. Christ came into this world to die a horrible death on the cross – an ordeal during which God the Father turned his back on his Son as he prayed. God did this because Jesus took all the sin of the world upon himself in atonement. If we will open ourselves up to Jesus, God will fill our hearts with peace and joy. And here Dr Graham issued an altar call.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Dr Graham was visibly moved to the point of tears by the response to his altar call.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Before the offering was received, the chief financial officer (I think he was) of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association spoke about the importance of giving, making such remarks as, "Give as your will prompts you to give," and "God loves a cheerful giver," but also, "Your gift should be over and beyond your gift to your local church." He could well have added, "And if you don't give, you'll be taken into custody," as the ushers were accompanied by uniformed, gun-toting New York City police officers as they passed the buckets down the aisles.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I went forward for the altar call, but only in the hope of getting some better photos. I was approached by a "counselor" who took down my name and address and gave me some literature. I wanted to start heading for the subway to try to beat the rush, but didn't want to be rude to him. I felt like a traffic officer was writing up a ticket to hand me. When I was finally able to break away, I joined the throng that had started the long walk back to the subway station.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none per se. Outside the crusade area, various and sundry fast food vendors had set up tents and were doing a brisk business, but I didn't sample any of their wares.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 — This manner of worship is not for me. A remark made by one of the musicians sums it up: "Regardless of your skin color or what you eat at your house, we're all God's people." If this is what brings these people to God, then so be it. But there are other styles of worship, music and liturgy that bring me to God.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I felt blessed to have witnessed what will probably be the last Billy Graham crusade ever.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The collection being taken up under the watchful eye of New York City's finest.