In Hobart, capital of the state of Tasmania, few of its 200,000 people attend church on a given Sunday. In the state of Victoria, where Melbourne is located, less than 2 percent of children attend Sunday school. The need for evangelism–on both a personal and a national level–has become urgent.
Christians, praying that God would stir up a new generation of believers to carry the message of Christ, invited Franklin Graham to hold Festivals in Hobart and Melbourne. Based on outward appearance, Hobart–a small, laid-back city–and Melbourne–a large, sophisticated one–couldn’t have been more different. But in both locales, Christians believe that God used the Festivals to bring the Church together, to bring renewal to Christians and to spark a fire of evangelism.
“Wouldn’t It Be Great?”
From the outside, Tasmania seems an idyllic place. The people are friendly. The lumber and fishing industries provide a good living. Hobart only recently has become an attraction for mainlanders from the Australian continent. It feels more like a small town than a state capital. The weather listing in the newspaper on any given day will likely read “mainly fine and warm.”
But behind the comfortable façade, local Christians sense a spiritual vacuum. Church attendance in many denominations is declining or stagnant. In fact, only 4,000 people–2 percent of the population–attend church. And it has been years since the Church in Hobart came together across denominations for evangelism, as they did in 1959 when Billy Graham preached across Australia.
One morning, the Reverend John Tongue, rector at Hobart’s Holy Trinity Anglican Church, was talking with his administrative assistant. “Wouldn’t it be great,” they agreed, “if we had some big evangelistic event that would pull the city together?” Only hours later, John Harrower, Anglican bishop of Tasmania, called to say that Franklin Graham was coming to Melbourne for a Festival. Would Tongue be willing to pull some pastors together to talk about inviting Franklin to Hobart?
After meeting with several local pastors from various denominations, Tongue joined Pastors John Smith, of City Gate Baptist Church, and David LeRossignol, of St. John’s Anglican Church, to issue an invitation to Franklin Graham on behalf of local churches. Then the real work began.
“You Are Invited”
For Christians, the next task was to personally invite as many people as possible to Festival Tasmania 2005, held March 11-13 at the Derwent Entertainment Centre (DEC). Tongue and Smith said that many people in Tasmania have seen hypocrisy in churches, especially because of recent clergy abuse scandals. The media have been especially hostile toward Christians, and it seemed that Christians needed a nonthreatening way to invite people to the Festival.
Visitation Chair Siebrand Petrusma believed that personal contact with Christians could overcome mistrust. So the visitation committee developed the “You Are Invited” campaign. The committee asked churches to send members to each home in their neighborhoods with a doorknob-hanger invitation and the simple words “You are invited.” The church members briefly explained the details of the Festival, mentioned which church they attended and moved on to the next home. By the week of the Festival, more than 35,000 people had been personally invited and had met a member of a local church.
Owen Muskett, a sawmiller in the lumber industry, was one of many who put the names of unsaved friends and family on an Operation Andrew prayer list. Several months before the Festival, he and his wife wrote down the names of a couple they had met by chance about 15 years ago while riding go-carts through the neighborhood with their kids. The Musketts had prayed for their friends’ salvation for years. But Owen Muskett said, “I believe the moment you start considering whom you should write on your Operation Andrew card, something absolutely incredible happens in the heavenlies, and God honors your desire for folk to come to know the Lord.”
Something incredible did happen in the couple’s lives. As they observed the Musketts, they saw peace and joy–something they wanted but did not have. About eight or 10 months before Festival Tasmania, they began attending church with the Musketts. They committed their lives to Christ and were baptized.
“The harvest is the Lord’s,” Muskett said, “and we give it all to Him. To be a part of that wonderful harvest is a great thing.”
Christians from some 90 Tasmanian churches prepared in several ways for the Festival. Smith, the counseling and follow-up chair, was pleasantly surprised that some 1,100 people attended Christian Life and Witness classes and that about 400 of them became counselors at the Festival. One woman put her counselor training to use before the Festival when she used the “Steps to Peace With God” booklet to explain the Gospel both to her 12-year-old grandson and to an 86-year-old man. Both made public commitments to Christ at a Bible study in her home. During the Festival, God also answered her prayers for the salvation of her granddaughter and daughter.
Just before the Festival, Prayer Chair LeRossignol said, “[The prayer committee’s] prayers will be answered on the floor of the arena when people respond to Christ.”
And the prayers were answered. Nearly 600 of the 10,500 attendees made commitments to Christ. More than 400 made first-time decisions for Christ–more than 10 percent of the usual church-attendance figure prior to the Festival.
Festival Executive Chair Kevin Towns watched as the crowd at the DEC dispersed for the last time on March 13. “We must not wait another 40 years–or even 10 years–to come together again,” he said. Towns, who also is overseer of Tasmania’s Energizer Life Churches, concluded, “We need to continue the ministry of the Gospel.”
Sparking a Fire in Melbourne
On March 9, 2000, the Reverend C. Bob Thomas attended the first game ever played at Melbourne’s new state-of-the-art Australian Rules football stadium, the Telstra Dome. “The stadium was comfortably filled with about 48,000 people,” he said. “And I looked around and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could fill this place for Jesus?'”
Thomas was editor of the New Life Christian newspaper and would later become the moderator general for the Presbyterian Church in Australia. He wrote an editorial in New Life about the idea of filling the Dome for Jesus. A few other church leaders caught that vision and asked Thomas to help get people involved. He also was asked to be executive chair of Festival Victoria 2005, held March 18-20 at the Telstra Dome.
Even though Billy Graham’s Australian Crusades were remembered fondly, bringing a Franklin Graham Festival to Melbourne took several years. Some church leaders thought that God would use a large evangelistic event to spark a fire of evangelism in Australia; others wondered if mass evangelism such as the 1959 Crusade really had long-term results.
Thomas answered those doubts simply: “In 1959 two young brothers called Peter and Philip Jensen went forward to make their decision for Christ. I went forward, and a man called Ian Hamilton went forward. Today they are the archbishop of Sydney, the dean of Sydney, the moderator general of the Presbyterian Church and the territorial commander of The Salvation Army.”
City of Renewal
Melbourne, the capital of the state of Victoria, is a city in the midst of renewal and movement. The Melbourne Cricket Ground, where Billy Graham still holds the attendance record set during the final meeting of the 1959 Melbourne Crusade, is just one of the many structures surrounded by construction cranes. Standing downtown one hears trams zip down the center lane of the streets, stopping to pick up people who seem to be from every corner of the world. Cars speed along the highways–except at rush hour, when thousands upon thousands of the city’s approximately four million residents battle to drive to and from work.
Melbourne is experiencing spiritual renewal and movement as well. Although the Church in Melbourne had not come together for a large evangelistic event in decades, more than 800 churches in Victoria came together for Festival Victoria, and 9,000 people attended Christian Life and Witness classes. The 486 people who made first-time commitments to Christ and the 453 who rededicated their lives to Christ during those classes were an early sign of God’s movement in Victoria.
Thomas and many others believed that Festivals in Melbourne and Hobart would be the beginning of a new season of evangelism and an opportunity to raise up the next generation of Christians in Australia.
“I saw some young teen-age boys [going forward in Hobart], and I thought to myself, ‘Well, kids, maybe in 35 years’ time you’ll be chairing a meeting,'” Thomas said.
The desire to hand the torch of evangelism to the youth of Australia resonated with Andrew Shepherd, children’s pastor at Crossway Baptist Church and chair of Festival Victoria’s children’s committee.
Children’s ministry has been neglected in Australia’s churches, according to Shepherd. “Surveys tell us that only about 4 percent of Aussie children have had any contact with the church,” he said. “In 1953, about 35 percent of all children went to Sunday school. So, there’s a great need for a rising profile. It’s a great opportunity right now to do something significant.”
In an effort to “do something significant,” the children’s committee members not only planned a high-energy, multi-media Saturday morning “Kidfest” for Festival Victoria–they also mobilized children’s workers across Victoria, encouraged children to fill out their own Operation Andy prayer cards and developed a four-week discipleship course available online for churches to follow up with children who made commitments to Christ at Kidfest.
It seemed that Christian children picked up the vision as well. Brittany Mazzei, 10, who joins with 12 other students for a prayer meeting during recess every Monday, invited all 500 students at her primary school to Kidfest. “I want to see God move through their lives,” she said. “I want to see something in them change.”
Bjorn Walker, only 7 years old, stood in front of his class of 16 and invited them to Kidfest. He brought his Operation Andy card to Kidfest. Two of the three friends on his list were coming with their parents. “It would be cool if their parents came forward, too!” he said when he talked about how he’d like to see his friends accept Jesus.
More than 1,600 people younger than 18 came forward at Kidfest, and some adults also prayed to receive Christ after they heard a counselor explain the Gospel to their children.
That evening the Festival continued to reach youth as more than 37,000 people filled the Telstra Dome for youth night. After Franklin spoke about the prodigal son, more than 2,500 responded including some 2,000 people younger than 25.
Invitation to Life
Christians in Melbourne found opportunities to invite both friends and strangers to the Festival.
Proudly wearing her counselor badge, Liz, a Festival counselor, rode a train to downtown Melbourne on Friday evening. A 29-year-old man named Greg sat down across from her. Thinking that she had forgotten to remove her nametag after work, he asked, “Are you going to take that off?”
“No,” Liz answered, “I’m on my way to the Franklin Graham Festival.” She gave him a Festival invitation. Greg fired back with all kinds of intellectual reasons for not going to the Festival.
“Listen, I know that God can change your life,” Liz said. “He changed mine.” Then she told him about how God delivered her from a $300-a-day heroin addiction after she put her faith in Christ.
Taken aback, Greg told her that he was trying to kick a heroin habit–but he was having horrible withdrawal pains. Liz said, “I have faith that God will take away your withdrawal pains.”
Greg responded, “Maybe God could heal me spiritually or emotionally, but not physically.”
By the time they reached the stop for the stadium, Liz had convinced Greg at least to come into the Telstra Dome, where he sat and listened carefully to Franklin’s message.
Franklin talked about some of the earliest settlers in Australia–prisoners exiled from Britain, sometimes for serious crimes but often for things as simple as petty theft. He told the story of a boy who was given a seven-year sentence for merely stealing an umbrella and likened the punishment to the condition of mankind.
“Breaking just one of God’s laws banishes us from His presence for eternity,” Franklin said. “But He’ll cleanse you and set you free. … But you’ve got to be willing to repent and receive Christ by faith.”
Franklin continued, “God has devised a way for you to come to Him: ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life’ (John 3:16, KJV). … Friends, are you willing to believe? Are you willing to trust God tonight?”
Greg was willing to believe. He joined more than 6,500 others who responded to the invitation during the weekend. To his amazement, all of his withdrawal symptoms vanished: “I’ve only felt this once before,” he said. “I was 15 and prayed for salvation at a youth camp. It felt like freedom.” But after camp, Greg thought he could do it all on his own and eventually fell away. He said of his decision to return to Christ on Friday evening, “I had no direction in my life. I knew it was time to change.”
Fanning the Flames
More than 92,000 people attended Festival Victoria’s four meetings, making the Festival the largest evangelistic gathering in Melbourne in this generation.
As Festival Coordinator Paul Molyneux watched hundreds of people being counseled at the final service Sunday evening, he said, “There’s no doubt that this will grow and overflow into other states in Australia. We haven’t seen this in Australia for so many years.”