Party Hearty Luis Palau Festivals Create New Evangelism Model
BY: Judith Cebula
Religion News Service
April Lundholm, 16, showed up for the bands. The skateboarders were great. And the best part?
"It didn't," she says, "feel like church."
The suburban Minneapolis teenager is describing a Luis Palau Festival, an evangelistic outreach that is attempting to recast the revival experience for a world in which music and sports are the currency of communication.
The 86-year-old Billy Graham has defined large-event Christian evangelism with a fabled career that presents the gospel in stadium crusades. Palau -- a youthful 70 -- has reached more than 4.4 million people with a party approach to evangelism featuring a slogan of "Great Music. Good News." It has been so successful in attracting young people that some see it defining evangelism in the early part of this century as Graham shaped it in the latter part of the last century.
Gone is the term "crusade" and the series of testimonials leading to a single climax -- an altar call from the featured evangelist. In fact, even though Palau, a native of Argentina, draws tens of thousands to revivals in Latin America, Eastern Europe and Asia, he's not at all troubled when teenagers like Lundholm don't picture him when they think of his festivals.
"I caught the end of him, I think," said Lundholm, who attended an August 2004 festival in the Twin Cities. "But I really came to hear (the Christian band) Third Day."
Future festivals are scheduled for June 24-25 in Madrid, Spain; July 23 in Bend, Ore.; and Oct. 8-9 in Washington, on the National Mall.
The Luis Palau Evangelistic Association, based in Portland, Ore., doesn't rely on celebrity to carry the Christian message to people across the United States, says Kevin Palau, executive vice president of the organization and Palau's son.
"You know, a Billy Graham Crusade is an event. A happening. No matter what the generation," Kevin Palau said. "We are not Billy Graham. But we do share the passion to reach the unchurched, so we had to change."
A Palau Festival looks more like a fair or street party than a traditional revival. In a few blocks around the statehouse in St. Paul, Minn., organizers erected food booths, small venues for professional athletes and their sports franchises and a space for the family-oriented Veggie Tales characters. There was a main stage for bands.
Festival bands have included Toby Mac, Third Day and Point of Grace. Since 1999, when Kevin Palau first advocated for this festival approach, there has always been a professional-sized skate park, a place where national champions of the once grunge sport of skateboarding perform. The same concept will be in place in Madrid, when Palau's ministry takes on one of the most secular cities in Europe.
Four times each day -- at the skate park, on the music stage, in the Veggie Tales area -- Palau's people pitch the Christian message. It's not simply up to Palau to spread the word, though his preaching remains a highlight of the events.
"The festival is outside. People come for a few hours, check out what interests them. They bring their kids and, hopefully, some friends or neighbors who are unchurched," said Kevin Palau, 42. "It looks and smells like a totally normal weekend event for a city."
This is not your parent's crusade.
The contrast will be evident June 24-26 in New York, where Graham is scheduled to lead a crusade. A series of professional athletes, civic leaders and musicians will offer their own Christian testimonials before Graham takes the stage each night at Flushing Meadows Corona Park. His message comes down to a simple request -- accept Jesus as your personal savior.
Essentially, it has been this way for nearly 50 years, ever since Graham made national headlines with an eight-week revival in 1957 in New York's Madison Square Garden. The arenas are bigger now. The musicians and other celebrities have changed with the currents of popular culture. And Graham, now frail, can no longer lead week-long revivals.
But the formula still works, said A. Larry Ross, a spokesman for Graham.
"Throughout his ministry, Mr. Graham has been very progressive to use every means possible to reach as many people as possible," Ross said, noting that at one time he used horses on stage at Youth for Christ rallies in the 1940s and moved on to using satellite technology in recent years.
Graham "youth nights" began as a "one-time deal initially in Cleveland in 1994" and continue today, said Ross.
Local Christian and civic leaders decide whether to invite Graham to town. Volunteers from a coalition of congregations spread the word, sing in a mass choir and counsel those who answer yes to Graham's call to conversion. They also agree to mentor the newly converted in the weeks and months following the big event.
In truth, Palau festivals are rooted in an approach that builds on Graham's legacy. After all, Palau got his start in U.S. evangelism in the 1960s when he worked with Graham in California. A decade later, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association helped Palau start his own organization.
"Everything we do is based squarely on the Billy Graham model," said Kevin Palau. "And that means, too, that we're always looking for new and interesting ways to present the message of the Good News."
Palau's organization is now packaging its Christian message with a sports-themed DVD, "Livin' It." Released in March, the disc has its own national tour, which began May 5. Actor-turned-evangelist Stephen Baldwin stars in the film, but skateboarders Lance Mountain, Christian Hosoi and Ray Barbee are taking the message to mini-festivals in 25 cities across the U.S., including Atlanta, Chicago, Little Rock, Dallas, Omaha and Los Vegas.
All of this innovation makes sense within the history of Christian outreach in America, according to Bill J. Leonard, dean of the divinity school at Wake Forest University. He's an expert on American evangelism.
Palau is doing what preachers did in this country from the late 18th century well into the early 20th century, he said. "They're bringing the Christian message out of the church and into the culture."
Leonard is talking about George Whitefield, Charles Finney, D.L. Moody and Billy Sunday as well as Graham -- evangelists that spanned three centuries, preaching in camp grounds and town squares. They invited people who were unable to attend church or uninterested in congregational life to become Christian.
"They all had a kind of ecumenism, where the boundaries of denominations that were once so strong just didn't matter to them, just as they don't matter to Graham and Palau," Leonard said.
"And as with these preachers today, there was a willingness to use popular media, including music, and in particular the drinking songs of the day that were transformed with Christian lyrics."
In a sense, Leonard contends, Palau's new-concept festivals are at their core rooted in 200 years of revival history in America. The trappings are different -- sports, Christian pop music as outreach, and the street festival approach.
But because of Palau's willingness to change and embrace new ways to spread his faith beyond sanctuaries, he, like his mentor Graham, is in fact spreading a kind of old-time religion.
According to Lundholm, the teenager from the Twin Cities, it still works.
"It didn't feel like church and I liked that," she said.
"It felt more relaxed, and the music and sports stuff, it was relevant, which it has to be. You have to find ways to bring people in or no one is going to hear the message."