The accolades pouring in for Cliff Barrows are more than well deserved. Cliff is best known as being the music leader for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, but he was so much more. Upon Cliff’s death today at the age of 93, Billy Graham suggested that his and Cliff’s name should have had a hyphen between them. That’s how much Cliff meant to Dr. Graham and to their ministry. Leading music was just the tip of the iceberg of Cliff’s ministry at BGEA. He did an amazing amount of crucial work behind the scenes that helped make the ministry what it was and is. But he was so much more.
Cliff and his family were members of Taylors First Baptist Church where I served as Minister to Youth for five years and where Kathy and I continued to attend another six years after we started Concoxions.
As a boy I remember watching Cliff often on TV. He was a famous celebrity. Even as a college student I considered him a larger than life legend in ministry. When I started serving at TFBC toward the end of my senior year at Furman, all of a sudden he was the father of sons in our youth ministry and a fellow church member. Sometimes when you see “celebrities” and “legends” up close, they sadly lose some of their shine. With Cliff it was just the opposite.
I quickly learned that he was “Cliff”- never Rev. Barrows, Dr. Barrows, Brother Cliff or whatever. Though he was larger than life, he was also down to earth and had a wonderful warmth and humility that endeared him to most everyone. I remember him often wearing a vest and string bolo tie instead of a more traditional coat and tie. (As I’m writing this, I’m wondering if that’s where I started liking vests.) Simply put, I not only had the utmost respect for Cliff in every way - I just plain liked him a lot.
Cliff was a big encourager and supporter of our ministry at Taylors. My responsibilities included college ministry, and each fall Cliff and his family helped us launch the new school year by hosting an evening at their home on Paris Mountain for hundreds of students from Furman and North Greenville. One year our music for that event was led by a Furman freshman who was a part of our college ministry and who had just released a major Christian album that was getting a lot of attention. I confess that I had an ulterior motive in wanting Amy Grant to do music that night. We introduced her to Cliff and it wasn’t long before she was singing at Billy Graham crusades.
One of the things I knew and appreciated about Cliff was that he understood and supported the role of contemporary Christian music. He always had a love for young people and for music that appealed to them and not just to Billy Graham’s older supporters. Besides Amy, Cliff went out on a limb and featured many contemporary Christian musicians in crusades and other BGEA events. In my early years with the South Carolina Baptist Convention, I broke a lot of new ground in using contemporary Christian artists in our youth events. For at least a couple of years I had to do a lot of explaining and justifying to certain pastors as to why we were using music with electric guitars, drums, etc. that obviously meant it was “straight from hell.” Yes, that’s a direct quote I got more than once. In some of those conversations I mentioned that some of the very same artists we were being condemned for using were also singing at Billy Graham crusades. I’m sure with some people this young whippersnapper had very little credibility, but I don’t remember anyone suggesting that Cliff Barrows had been mislead. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to suggest that Cliff made more of a difference than anyone in helping the church accept styles of music that went beyond the sound of Bill Gaither.
Though he was probably the most well-known song leader in history, Cliff may have been an even better preacher. I and many others consider Billy Graham to be by far the greatest evangelist of our time but, at the risk of sounding heretical or crazy, I have long thought he was still the second best preacher on his team. That’s how much I enjoyed and appreciated Cliff’s preaching. But I have no doubt that both men were right where they needed to be, and together they made an unparalleled impact on our world.
When I started writing this I was baby-sitting two of my superhero obsessed grandsons and, under that influence, one of my first thoughts was to say that Cliff Barrows was to Billy Graham as Robin was to Batman. Not true. The first Robin eventually became Nightwing and left Batman. Other Robins followed. Cliff and Billy were together from beginning to end and the relationship never wavered. There was only one Cliff Barrows. It’s hard to imagine a more faithful or important superhero sidekick.
Over the years a special piece has hung in our home. It’s a hand-crafted coat rack with “Bill” engraved on the left side, “Kathy” on the right side, and a heart-shaped mirror in the middle. It’s a wedding present that Cliff made for us in his wood shop. I think about him every time I look at it. But even without it, it’s safe to say that I’ll never forget Cliff Barrows.