A spiritual nonchalance runs through this historic town, where the hush puppies are sweet and seafood is served on a bed of grits. Known for its church steeples, Charleston is called “the holy city,” but, by many accounts, evangelism hasn’t gained a foothold.
“When you go to downtown Charleston, you see a lot of very famous, very old historic church steeples,” says Paul Everett, a member of Charleston Baptist. “But I think the church in Charleston has really lost its influence in many ways. We have a hard time reaching people. We’re so busy; we’re so affluent, and our prosperity gets in the way of relying on the good Lord to provide for us.”
But Christians in Charleston and surrounding towns say the faith community here has been renewed, having experienced a move of God during the Lowcountry Franklin Graham Festival Sept. 19-21. More than 34,000 people attended the three-day event, which some have said was one of the largest evangelistic meetings here in decades.
More than 300 churches came together to sponsor the Festival, which featured contemporary Christian bands, praise music, a special appearance by George Beverly Shea and Cliff Barrows, and nightly Gospel messages by Franklin Graham. Almost 1,300 people came forward to inquire about a relationship with Jesus Christ.
“The months and months of praying paid off,” said Helena Dunn, who took the pre-Festival training to counsel those coming forward at the meetings. “Three people on my Operation Andrew list rededicated their lives to Christ: my daughter, daughter-in-law and my daughter-in-law’s sister. There’s no way to describe the feeling of knowing that someone has come back to the Lord, and that you had a part in it.”
The Festival was nine months in the making and, like an expectant mother preparing for the birth of her child, Christians had prayed consistently for their friends, families and neighbors–and for each other.
“We, the church, have been pregnant with something new that God is wanting to do in this city,” said Christine Washington, the Festival’s prayer chair. “And I think that is to break down barriers that are hindering us from coming to this next level of evangelism. God wants to bring souls into a church where members have love one for another.”
Charleston is a stubborn city, residents say. It has survived two wars, six major fires, an earthquake and Hurricane Hugo. It is a proud city: The Constitution was ratified here. The Declaration of Independence was read from the steps of the Exchange Building. South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union. Families here go back nine and 10 generations.
Such historical prominence tends to give the city an air of sophistication, says Dave Patterson, pastor of Ashley River Baptist Church.
“I’m not saying that in a negative sense,” Patterson said, “but what I am saying is that sometimes it’s hard to adhere to a faith of humility and brokenness when you come from a place of pride and prestige. Many times the practice of faith is looked at as ‘a nice thing,’ but not something to be pursued with sacrificial humility.”
And like many other communities, Charleston struggles with poor race relations. During the slave trade, about half of the slaves entering the states came through the Charleston Port, and many remained here to work on rice, indigo and sugar cane plantations.
“The Bible says that where brothers dwell in unity God commands a blessing,” said Gordon Cashwell, a white pastor who leads the predominantly African American Hope Assembly of God in the inner city. “I really feel like that’s one of the reasons that some of the blessings spiritually haven’t come to our city–because the Body of Christ is not as united as it should be.”
At the Friday night Festival meeting, Franklin laid out the Gospel message: how all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23); how Jesus Christ died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins and rose again on the third day so we could have eternal life.
Franklin stated the Bible’s position on reconciliation.
“This is not a white man’s Gospel,” he said. “Jesus died for everyone–black and white, rich or poor, Baptist or Methodist.”
Some Christians began to see answered prayer even before the Festival began. After coming back from a counselor’s briefing session, Larry Lambert, a substitute teacher, felt the urge to call Viet, a student he had been praying for for seven years.
When Viet answered the phone, Larry could tell something was wrong. Viet, who had gone to church several times with a friend, related some issues he’d been struggling with. Larry asked him: “Is there anything you need to settle with Jesus?”
Tearfully, Viet indicated his need for change.
“I prayed with him to accept Christ right there on the telephone,” Larry said. “This has been seven years in the making, but it only took five minutes for him to accept Christ. I have been giddy with excitement ever since.”
On the second night of the Festival, the Holy Spirit drew 20-year-old Eric Walker back to Christ.
“I had already been saved, when I was younger,” said Eric, whose young teenage Christian friend Dakota came forward with him. “But tonight I rededicated myself to God. Life is pretty impossible without Him, and the need to come back to Him has been eating at me. When Franklin said that God loves me, that was something I needed to hear.”
When the invitation was given on Sunday, the crowd made an opening for an elderly woman who was hobbling forward with the help of her family.
“Someone practically had to carry her all the way down,” said counselor Helena Dunn. “They said they didn’t know if she would talk to me because she has difficulty talking. I asked her if she came to accept Christ. She said, ‘Yes,’ and she repeated the sinner’s prayer. You could tell it was from her heart.”
Through the Festival, the Holy Spirit brought healing to the faith community, said A.J. Robinson, pastor of Mount Moriah Baptist Church. “Other evangelists had come, but at the 11th hour they had pulled out,” Robinson said. “So there was a lot of despondence. But we prayed and God began to move again. We are so glad that we obeyed the Holy Spirt. This has transformed us. We will never be the same.”
Counselor Jack Moore, pastor of Charleston Baptist Church, said his church did not want to sit idle during such an evangelistic event.
“I did not want to stand before the Lord on Judgment Day and have Him say, ‘I gave you an opportunity to do something for the city and you sat on the sidelines and didn’t do anything.'”
One of Moore’s greatest blessings came at the final meeting on Sunday.
During the service, he had noticed a woman sitting in front of him with her little boy, who looked to be about 10 or 11. When the invitation was given, the mother walked forward with her son.
Moore approached the boy.
“Son, have you come forward to accept Christ today?” he asked.
“Oh no!” the boy exclaimed exuberantly. “I did that yesterday at Kidzfest. Today, I’m bringing my mom.”