The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside still waters; He restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence
of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
The shepherd metaphor recurs throughout the Bible. It is used in Ezekiel 20 to describe God as one who inspects the quality of his flock. In Psalm 23 (above), the sheep that follows his shepherd (i.e. Jesus) enjoys a life of safety and satisfaction. The books of both Matthew and Luke recite Jesus’ Parable of the Lost Sheep—a story of divine salvation, in which a shepherd rejoices at the recovery of a stray.
“Everyone can relate to a story,” says Dwight Smith, a member of New City Church and an active volunteer in the Great Falls community. “Jesus was a wonderful storyteller. There’s no sense talking down to people. They listen when they can understand.”
In a time and region where civilizations were largely agrarian, the shepherd metaphor would have been both relevant and engaging. Jesus and the prophets recognized the power of evangelism through allegory; truth is made more accessible when demonstrated.
This is one of the guiding principles behind the Big Sky Celebration, a series of faith-based community gatherings in Montana. These events are designed to engage people of all backgrounds through music, fellowship, and messages of hope. They are communal experiences for all of God’s flock, shepherded by Christian leaders from across the country.
At the forefront is William Franklin Graham IV, the third generation of Grahams to proclaim the Gospel under the banner of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA). Since 2006, Graham has shared the hope of Jesus with more than one million people across six continents. While people come from very different walks of life, he’s found there are many cultural constants.
“We all want hope, peace, purpose, and love,” he says.
In 2018, Christian leaders in Hamilton reached out to the BGEA, inviting Graham to bring his message to the people of Montana. Through conversations, deliberation, and prayer, Graham felt the calling; churches from all over Montana reached out in support, and from there the Big Sky Celebration entered the planning stage.
“Will is always going to preach God’s Word. Our challenge is to decide where to send him with our limited resources,” explains John Cass, Executive Director of Celebrations for the BGEA.
For over a year, BGEA teams have worked with local churches to coordinate the logistics of the Big Sky Celebration, which will be hosted by Helena September 6-8 and Great Falls September 13-15. For the first time ever, there will also be a one-night event held in Hamilton on September 11.
“He’s never done this in 23 years,” says Cass, speculating tongue-in-cheek that Graham has a soft spot for Montana (the state he and his wife honeymooned in).
As the BGEA teams coordinate musicians, volunteer staff, and various event details, they are also working to prepare Montanans for the days and weeks following the Big Sky Celebration. Cass clarifies that this is not just an evangelistic event; it is a process of prayer, training, outreach, and follow-up that takes place over a 12-month period—one that begins and ends with the local church.
“Will’s grandfather started this. He always asked, ‘Where’s the church going to be afterward?’ There are a lot of people who are hurt. They’re looking for answers. We prepare volunteers to guide them,” says Cass.
Smith and his wife, Norma Ashby Smith, are on the communication committee preparing for the Big Sky Celebration in Great Falls. They, along with volunteers from (at least) seventy other congregations, are trained to direct people to churches and other resources within the community.
“A celebration like this can reach otherwise unreachable people,” explains Ashby Smith of the event. “We’ve been training since January to answer their questions. You don’t have to go to church to come. Just come.”
Cass notes that celebrations are held at community gathering places rather than churches to avoid denominational politics and to encourage more people to attend.
“This isn’t a church service. It’s a celebration at a neutral site. This is a safe environment to hear a message of hope,” explains Cass. “We’re not Sunday morning separatists; we’re coming together to show the community that we love Jesus.”
Smith, who has had the good fortune to listen to all three generations of Grahams speak, believes that Will Graham’s heart-felt straight-talk is exactly what Montanans need to hear in a time of uncertainty and fear.
“This message will resonate greatly with folks in our state,” he says. “We’re hungry to hear something positive.”
In John 21, Jesus commands Simon Peter, saying, “Feed my lambs.” Two millennia later and people still hunger for Christ’s teachings.
Shepherds walk among us, seeing them fed.