OWENSBORO, Ky. (Christian Examiner) – More than 400 people made decisions to follow Jesus Christ after listening to Will Graham, the son of Franklin Graham and the grandson of Billy Graham, speak four times – once specifically to children – April 24-26 at the Ohio Valley Will Graham Celebration.
It took three years to get Will Graham to the Owensboro Convention Center, and organizers say the scheduling-related delays were God's timing.
"Evangelism works," Theresa Rowe, an executive team member, told the Christian Examiner. "Especially listening to Will just share his heart. He's the real deal; you can tell."
About 120 churches took an active part in preparation for and participation in the Celebration, Rowe said. This included regular prayer gatherings even as the event was rescheduled three times in as many years, fundraising, training and the logistical process.
As unity built within the churches, a praise team emerged that consisted of worship leaders from a dozen denominations. They performed at various churches in the months leading up to the Will Graham Celebration, at a major pre-event Concert of Prayer, and at the Sunday evening closing session.
Rowe credited the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's advance team for their guidance and training. They led Christian Life and Witness classes in several churches, to prepare counselors but which also was a "such an excellent refresher course," Rowe said. "It's incredible the training they give you and all the materials and resources they provide you with."
Tyndale House author Denise Hidreth Jones spoke at a women's event last fall to prepare her listeners for the Celebration by "Reclaiming Hearts," since with an "alive heart" God could use them to pray for their family, friends, neighbors and coworkers, and then invite them to hear Graham present a clear Gospel message.
"Will brings the message in the way everyone can understand, and speaks to our heart," Rowe told the Examiner.
A pastors conference last fall for senior pastors only was led by Ron Hutchcraft, who frequently is tapped by BGEA for pre-event pastors' gatherings.
"The purpose of it was to encourage and challenge and connect with other senior pastors from across the Ohio Valley," Rowe said. Everyone was invited to hear Hutchcraft's message that evening, on the subject of A Life that Matters: Making the Greatest Possible Difference with the Rest of your Life. "Ron is a passionate contemporary evangelist," Rowe added.
The Christian Life and Witness Course "was a great way for people to re-ignite their faith in Jesus Christ and find power to live a life that radiates His love," Rowe told the Examiner. "The three-session training helped equip everyone to apply God's Word to everyday life, develop a devotional quiet time, pursue spiritual maturity, share your faith with others, and serve as counselors at the Celebration."
Teens had a similar course, called FM419 – from Matthew 4:19 – to help youth "get down to the basics of what they believe, find power to live what they say, and learn how to share it with friends," Rowe explained.
KidzFest took place Saturday morning. Threatening weather held off while hundreds of youngsters participated in outdoor games, petting zoo, bounce houses and cotton candy. Inside the Convention Center amidst music and drama -- Will Graham told the youngsters of God's love for them.
In the months preceding the Will Graham Celebration, 200 youngsters practiced songs they performed during the KidzFest worship time.
"The purpose of the celebration in our community was to mobilize the Christian community to gather as many uncommitted people as possible to hear the message that Jesus Christ is 'the way, the truth, and the life,'" Rowe said, referring to John 14:6. "It was to give uncommitted people an opportunity to make a personal commitment to Jesus Christ and to strengthen the local church.
"All the Grahams have the most incredible reputation for bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to people," Rowe continued. "We were excited to have one of them in our city."
One of the intended consequences of the Will Graham Celebration was the greater unity among Christians in that part of northern Kentucky, Rowe said.
"We wanted to support the churches in their efforts to save the lost," the Celebration executive team member said. "It's not about a certain denomination; it's coming alongside the church and making it stronger."
The BGEA team, on site for much of the last year, will remain in Owensboro until June, to ensure follow-up is done for all those who made decisions at the Celebration, Rowe said.
"What makes this work is that all these people and churches wanted to be involved, so they come together," Rowe explained. "They're all on the same page, no competition, everyone working as a healthy body of believers wanting to bring the good news to everyone in the community.
"They want to help people understand the message of the Gospel," she added.
"It was amazing; it was wonderful," Erik Ogren told the Christian Examiner. Ogren is Will Graham's public relations specialist. "The Holy Spirit was at work.
"Will really spoke to the fact that we can be religious without knowing Jesus as our Savior," Ogren said. "We had so many people say to us that it was the perfect message at the perfect time, that it really hit home."
Will Graham, led to the Lord by his father Franklin when Will was 7, and to the Gospel ministry when he was 15 – he thought perhaps as a missionary pilot – has been in ministry since 1997. His first Celebration was in 2004.
His next Celebration in the United States is set for Nov. 6-8 in Huntington, West Virginia.