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Will Graham: Keeping the Faith

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Onstage in New Jersey in jeans and black boots, Will Graham looks out over the thousands of faces. He lays his Bible down and shuts his eyes. This is what Graham, 36, a grandson of legendary evangelical preacher Rev. Billy Graham, describes as “the invitation,” a call for people to walk onstage and take him up on a promise that he says will transform their lives. An electric guitar playing “Everlasting God” echoes over the crowd as people file up. By the time Will opens his eyes, hundreds have left their seats. Many are crying, shaking. “I never get tired of it,” he later explains in Gainesville, Texas, where he is meeting with 150 pastors. “Even if just one person comes forward.”

In fact, Graham is reaching hundreds of thousands. The Southern Baptist minister travels the world for more than two-thirds of each year (after returning from India and Canada, he’s back in Texas March 16-25, then off to Australia), preaching as his granddad did for decades. Though Will loathes the term family business-“You can inherit a car business, but a ministry is not mine to inherit,” he says-the three generations of Grahams have produced no fewer than seven preachers. But Will, 37, recently promoted to Executive Director of the Billy Graham Training Center in Asheville, N.C., is the one most often compared to the man who has prayed with every U.S. President since Truman. “No one is probably going to ever replace Billy Graham,” says Kurt Fredrickson, a professor at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. “But Will has that same charisma and an ability to connect the Gospel to 21st-century culture.”

At a time when Southern Baptist church attendance is falling (baptism rates are “anemic,” he says), Graham is fighting to keep his teachings relevant. He’s come up with a Billy Graham iPhone app (which plays Billy’s old TV specials and radio programs, along with Will’s past sermons), and when preaching, “I try to weave in illustrations people can relate to: a line from Seinfeld or a pop song,” he says in a slow western North Carolina drawl. It is working. When he began in 2004, he could draw a few hundred; now a gathering tops 18,000. Gainesville pastor James Egan puts it this way: “Will keeps his cookies on the bottom shelf. His words are accessible to everyone.”

The religious revivals that Billy Graham, now 93, called “crusades,” Will more gently calls “celebrations.” The two men live just 10 minutes apart, and Will visits at least once a week when he’s home. It was “Daddy Bill,” as Will calls him, whom he sought out when he wanted to join the organization. “My grandson is a deeply spiritual man,” Billy said in 2006. “It’s a wonderful thing he is following in the steps of his father and grandfather.”

He doesn’t mind the travel, but it has caused Will to miss some milestones with wife Kendra, 38, a nurse, and their kids: CJ, 10, Rachel, 9, and Quinn, 6. While Will was in London putting others in touch with Jesus, Quinn made that leap on his own. “I started talking to him [on the phone], and I could tell he was about to cry. He said, ‘I asked Jesus into my heart.’ I started to cry. It was something I wanted to be there for, but I got so busy.”

Unlike his father, Rev. Franklin Graham, who has called Islam a “religion of hate” and questioned whether President Obama is a Christian, Will shies away from controversy. “Politics can be so divisive,” he says. “It detracts from the message.” And he has learned from watching how important it is to this family to get out the message. Despite failing eyesight and hearing, Billy had, until recently, held out hope of preaching one last sermon. “People have very fond memories of my grandfather,” Will acknowledges, careful not to suggest himself as a substitute. “None of what we’re doing is about Billy Graham or Will Graham,” he offers. “It’s about people coming to know Christ.”