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Billy Graham & Youthfront

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By Mike King, President & CEO

I’m writing this as I watch the funeral of Billy Graham. Billy Graham has been an important part of my life because Billy Graham has been an important part of the history of Youthfront, aka Kansas City Youth for Christ. This year, Youthfront is celebrating its 75th Anniversary. How interesting that in the midst of observing our 75th Anniversary we are also experiencing the death of Billy Graham.

Our founder, Al Metsker and his wife Vidy, started a uniquely focused ministry to young people in 1943. Before long they connected with other youth ministry leaders around the country doing something very similar. They began meeting together and started Youth for Christ. Within a couple of years they hired a passionate young evangelist named Billy Graham to help spread the message of Jesus Christ and Youth for Christ around the country. Billy Graham became a fan of our ministry here in Kansas City.

My first encounter with Billy Graham was in 1967 when he held a crusade at Municipal Stadium in Kansas City. My parents, although not consistent churchgoers at the time, took my three sisters and me to the crusade. I was absolutely thrilled. I wish I could tell you that my enthusiasm, as a ten-year-old boy, was for the spiritual experience I was having. My memory is so clear on that experience of a Billy Graham Crusade because I actually got to sit on the field were my beloved Kansas City Athletics played baseball.

Seven years later, partly through the ministry of Kansas City Youth for Christ, I had decided to surrender my life to Jesus Christ and serve him. I started working part-time at KCYFC while going to college and I never quit. I soon learned of Billy Graham’s connection to our organization and in 1978, when Billy returned to hold another crusade in Kansas City, my mentor, Al Metsker took me to meet him. I admired Billy Graham because of his passion for Jesus Christ. I share that passion and obsession for Jesus. For 75 years Youthfront has carried on the mission to bring youth into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ. Billy’s core message focused on Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Him. In Him is the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Undoubtedly, Billy Graham played a big role in shaping Youthfront’s DNA.

In 2004, a year after I became President/CEO of Youthfront, Billy returned to Kansas City for one of his last Crusades. He chose Kansas City because of his fondness of our city, largely initiated through his historical connection with Youthfront, aka Kansas City Youth for Christ. I was so happy that I was able to bring my family to the Crusade, held at Arrowhead Stadium, much like my parents had brought my sisters and me to experience Billy Graham. It was amazing to hear Billy preach again in public and share testimony of his relationship to KCYFC (Youthfront) and our founders Al and Vidy Metsker.

What I have most deeply admired about Billy was his willingness to change, adapt and grow throughout his life. I admired that he was willing to face criticism from his fellow Evangelicals for standing up for Dr. Martin Luther King, even bailing King out of jail after he had been jailed for a demonstration. Billy insisted on racial integration at his crusades at a time when most other religious leaders were still silent on these issues. I admired Billy because he invited Catholic leaders, a broad variety of Protestant leaders and Eastern Orthodox leaders to participate in ministry together. Once again, some of his biggest critiques were other evangelical leaders. Billy declared, “The number one problem in our world is alienation, rich versus poor, black versus white, labor versus management, conservative versus liberal, East versus West . . . But Christ came to bring about reconciliation and peace.”

I also believe that if Billy were able to speak his own opinions to us today he would have much to say about what is happening in our country today. The mixture of Christianity with political agendas of either the left or right, which adds to the overall divisiveness among people in our culture, is a big mistake. In a 1993 article in Time Magazine entitled “God’s Billy Pulpit,” Billy declared that Jesus did not have a political party. Jonathan Merritt wrote an article for the New York Times, after Billy’s death, remembering his visit with Billy several years ago. Merritt asked him about his ability to connect with all people by avoiding partisan politics. Graham declared, “Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people, right and left. I haven’t been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will be in the future.”

Youthfront desires to stay true to the message of Jesus, being gracious to all and avoiding an unhealthy mix of Christianity and partisan politics. Our first allegiance is to God’s Kingdom and the desire to focus on what it means to follow God in the way of Jesus Christ.

I have also admired the reality that Billy Graham, while acknowledging that he made many mistakes in his life, lived a life without even the hint of a scandal. Billy loved Jesus. Billy loved people, all people, reminding us that God loved Chinese people, African people, etc. as much as he loved American people.

Although Billy is known for leading millions of people to make a decision to follow Jesus Christ, he reminded us, “Being a Christian is more than just an instantaneous conversion – it is a daily process whereby you grow to be more and more like Christ” This affirms our mission here at Youthfront to bring youth into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ. We are thankful for our heritage and will continue to faithfully embrace the legacy of youth ministry that God has given us.

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