Thoughts on Billy Graham’s Visit to Poland

Billy Graham came to Poland for what was officially termed an "evangelistic campaign from October 6-16, 1978.  It was Graham’s second visit to a Warsaw­Pact country, the initial one being to Hungary in September 1977. Graham came at the invitation of the Polish Baptists with the cooperation of the local ecumenical council. He was accompanied by a team of 15-20 co-workers, many of whom had speaking engagements in Poland prior to and following Graham's visit.


I must in all fairness mention a positive aspect of this visit: Graham’s visit was a significant in fostering ecumenical cooperation in this country. Poland has long been known for its poor relations between the all-powerful Catholic church and the tiny, diasporic Protestant denominations. Yet Graham spoke for the first time in his career in a Catholic church right here in this country. The concern for evangelism appears to be a common gathering ground for otherwise diverse and competing church denominations.


I personally was not overjoyed with the traditional, privatistic "joy, peace and happiness" thrust of Graham's preaching, nor with the shallowness of his eulogies. He played well the role of America's good-will diplomat, passing out oral bouquets to all local dignitaries worthy of mention. Graham told his audiences that "some of the best Christians he knows are Poles", that he has never been so busy as here in Poland and that these days belong to the best of his entire career. Is there any foreign country in which Graham would feel free to refrain from such platitudes?


Graham stated repeatedly, that he had "never seen people stand and wait so long to hear the Gospel, as here in Poland”. I would like to assure Graham that the Polish believers were not waiting on the Gospel. Graham is the outright hero of the vast majority of Polish evangelicals, and they expect from him the same vicarious glory that one would expect from the passing of Queen Elizabeth.


A special booklet released by the Baptist press on the occasion of Graham's visit reported on his prior visit to Hungary. This article mentioned in which famous Budapest hotel Graham had slept, the car models in which he was chauffeured and the names of the important dignitaries which he there met. Perhaps hero worship rules out serious public discussion about the meaning of the Gospel in present-day Poland.


I rather doubt whether Graham and his team reiterated the sincere, passionate, all-forgiving love of Polish evangelicals. Team members (for ex. singer Myrtle Hall) spoke of the "wonderful, lovely Polish people", but I very rarely saw them mixing with audiences, administering that affection. Like a bride at her wedding, Graham would arrive after the start of festivities and disappear again (along with most of his entourage) before they closed. The Graham team spent most of its time in very select society. In Warsaw, they resided and enjoyed a church reception in "Hotel Victoria", probably Poland's most expensive hotel.


Criticism General in Nature

I do not desire to direct my more serious criticisms solely at the "Billy Graham Evangelistic Association". Rather, I prefer to address myself to what I call the “American Evangelical Establishment". Do "right and center evangelicals" (Richard Quebedeaux's terminology) have the kind of gospel that the East European church needs? Yes, it is obvious that evangelicals here like the AEE's theology, but that is quite another matter. (For a fuller description of the same problematic in another setting see Marc Olson's article in "The Other Side", Jan. 1978.)


If it is true, as the Liberation theologian José Bonino claims, that all theologies are created and exist in a specific cultural context, then it must follow that the AEE's gospel is the gospel of America 's evangelical wealthy. Nowhere does this "apolitical" privatistic gospel call their power into question.


A quote from Lewis Drummond, a member of Graham's team: "Accept Jesus. He'll give you happiness and joy and then bring you home to spend eternity with him." This is apparently a gospel for consumers, not disciples, for its main thrust is in getting, rather than in serving. Of course, the AEE and Graham are very certain that they preach a simple, truly transcultural gospel sterilized of all ties to the interests of America's wealthy.


Yet, I grant that evangelical East European church functionaries usually possess a theology most agreeable to the AEE, but this doesn't lift my spirits any. In terms of missiological progress, Eastern Europe is way behind. Colonialistic missions, who have been shown the door by churches in Africa or by governments in socialist Asia, can still enjoy a rousing welcome among Christians in Eastern Europe. Perhaps an era of colonialistic missions is only now since Helsinki building up steam in non-Western Europe.


I'm very much concerned that evangelicals in power blocks other than the Western one develop a non-American theology palatable to Marxists and other social revolutionaries. Are they to be won with a gospel custom-tailored to factory owners? More importantly, neither does the Madison-Ave Jesus reflect the real Jesus. Evangelical theology should incorporate those laudable, constructive ideals of Marxism (equality, anti-racism, self-help, present-orientation) congruent with the teachings of Jesus. East European evangelicals haven't progressed very far on this point and a doubt greatly whether the AEE will be of any significant help. Perhaps certain churches here can only make progress down this road once they achieve sufficient self-awareness to break loose from their present master-servant bondage to the AEE.


Future Strategies

The law of diminishing returns is in effect in Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Rumania and elsewhere. Once foreign financial help has passed beyond a certain necessary minimum, it becomes more damaging than helpful to local church groups. The more one puts in, the less comes out. This threshold was crossed in Poland a half-generation ago. The insincere may now join an evangelical church in hopes of seeing the world, obtaining hard currency, etc.


Also, the "Billy Graham Evangelistic Association" is eager to expand its East European ministry. A department under the direction of the Hungarian émigré Alexander Haraszti has been created to coordinate such activities. Plans are in the making for bringing in further BGEA-spokesmen to Poland for evangelistic campaigns. Honestly, I really cannot imagine anything which Polish evangelicals need less than more globe-trotting evangelists. The Baptist church in Warsaw is inundated with visiting speakers from the USA, Scandinavia, West Germany and England. I would venture to guess that the 2,500-member Polish Baptist church may soon host more visitors annually that it has members. The local talent of churches in strategic locations is being stifled by the influx of Western competition. It would be an initial step for mission-minded American groups to become involved with a wider scope of denominations beyond the tiny minority of evangelicals. A few already have good Catholic contacts here.


So the BGEA expended thousands on its grand 10-day stay here in Poland. The AEE is prepared to spend millions more in the coming years to achieve cent gains in Eastern Europe. Nothing sells as well in the USA as mission work in communist countries, so the AEE has long ceased needing to worry about spending its money wisely here. (Witness all the choirs and speakers dropping by.) In fact, the dollar flood may negate the chance of cent gains. As in the Vietnam War (excuse the inapt example) rodents in the middle of the machine fatten and grow until they become capable of eating most of the grain coming in. More destructive are the changes that occur in people's minds, resulting in responses from locals such as: ''My, I wish I could live like that! America must be just great!” Americans respond with feelings of pity for the East Europeans. This is of course the opposite of encouraging believers to find the way of Jesus in and for their own socialist societies.


Perhaps it is a reverse colonialism if I in the name of "anti-colonialism" demand that my Polish brothers and sisters remove themselves from the embrace of the AEE. I too must accept them without too many prior solutions in mind. Otherwise, I am hardly less guilty of the above-mentioned sins.


Bill Yoder

Lodz/Poland, December 23, 1978


I do not believe this article was ever published in North America, 1,353 words.


Notes from February 2022:

Today, I regard the (somewhat different) German version of this article (see 20 October 1978 under "Polen") as essentially a historical document - I was then 28 years old. I would express many concerns differently today. The response to the German version of this article was nearly unique in my “career” – probably no other article had the same level of positive – and negative – responses.


The evangelist Billy Graham lived from (1918-2018).

Myrtle Hall (1946-2018) from Greenville SC sang for 25 years for the BGEA. Later in life, she descended into drug addiction, but was able to recover.

Lewis A. Drummond (1944-2022) was Professor of Evangelism at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY from 1973-88.

Pastor and physician Alexander Haraszti (1920-1998) fled from Hungary in 1956 and later became Graham’s original architect for his forays into Eastern Europe.

The well-known church specialist and author Richard Quebedeaux from California (1944-1995) later converted to the Unification church, married a Japanese Unificationist, then died and was buried in Japan.