Journalists and religion scholars started talking -- seriously -- about the retirement of the Rev. Billy Graham back in the mid-1980s.
I remember that when the evangelist's 1987 Rocky Mountain Crusade was announced, people were already preparing lists of where he could go "for the last time" to do full-scale crusades before semi-retirement. It wasn't a long list.
In the 1990s, a news hook for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was its efforts to extend the reach of crusades by using satellite signals to other locations -- multi-site events. That way, more people could hear Graham preach live, in real time, since he was really starting to limit the number of boots-on-the-ground events.
Of course, people were already asking the question: "Who is the next Billy Graham?"
Some of the nominees on those early lists are now approaching retirement.
I bring this up because of an interesting piece that ran the other day in The Charlotte Observer that, I imagine, gives us a hint of what that newspaper is planning for its memorial edition for the pulpit legend, who is currently 98 years old.
How many pages will there be in that special edition? How many new and pre-written stories will they run on the day after his death? Can you imagine receiving this assignment from your editor: Sum up the life of Billy Graham in one story. You have about 2,000 words. (Actually, I can imagine that. I already know that I will have 750 words, because that's the assigned length for my syndicated "On Religion" columns.)
You can see hints of what is to come in the current Observer feature's overture:
Who will be the next Billy Graham?
The Charlotte-born Graham is now 98, lives quietly in his mountain home in Montreat, N.C., and hasn't preached to a packed-stadium crusade in 12 years.
Yet no "next Billy Graham" has emerged -- that is, no American religious figure who commands as much fame, impact, and respect as Graham did.
For decades, as Graham grew older, those in religious circles wondered if some worthy successor would emerge.
Ask Graham biographers and religion scholars today who will be the next Billy Graham, here's their answer:
Among the many Graham experts available, William Martin gets the first quote -- speaking as author of "A Prophet with Honor," which the Observer notes has long been "considered the definitive biography of Graham." Martin is an emeritus professor of religion and public policy in the sociology department of Rice University. He has also spent some time in a pulpit.
Martin's key point is simple:
"I don't think any single person will be 'the next Billy Graham,' " says William Martin, author of "A Prophet with Honor," long considered the definitive biography of Graham. "That's in part because evangelical Christianity has become so large and multifaceted -- in significant measure because of what Graham did -- that no one person can dominate it, regardless of talent or dedication. It's just not going to happen."
You need to read all of this story, if you have any interest in Graham and his legacy. The best thing about religion-beat reporter Tim Funk's work here is that he spends as much ink, or more, on Graham as a preacher and religious figure as on Graham as a semi-political figure in public life.
Yes, you just know that there are journalists who, when Graham dies, are going to assume -- just as they did throughout most of his career -- that what really mattered was his impact on political polls or something like that. As always: Politics is what is really real.
I would stress one other thing about Graham's giant, sprawling life. This is an idea that I first heard articulated in the early 1980s by the Rev. Leighton Ford of Charlotte, a long-time Graham associate who is married to Jean Graham, one of Billy's sisters. (I covered religion at The Charlotte News and then the Observer before moving to Denver.)
Ford's key point: As time rushed by, Billy Graham began to realize that the future of Christianity was centered -- not in America -- but in the Third World, in the Global South and in the work of evangelists working behind the scenes in China. In the second half of his career, Graham knew that the Lausanne World Evangelization Congress and other related efforts would be at the heart of his true legacy.
Thus, the Observer piece contains this crucial passage, containing a quote that journalists everywhere should note and put near the top of their Graham finale research files.
You see, Billy has -- many times -- offered his own answer to the question: Who will be the next Billy Graham?
Graham himself sensed way back in 1974 that the times were changing even then and that the evangelical message would be carried forward not by just one religious superstar but by armies of preachers -- in the United States and around the globe.
At the time, he was attending the International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland. Someone asked him The Question: Who will be the next Billy Graham?
He answered by pointing to the gathering before him of 2,300 Christian leaders from 150 countries. "They will," he said.