2016-06-30
(RNS) WASHINGTON -- When evangelist Luis Palau enters the main stage at his "DC Festival" on the National Mall Oct. 8-9, he won't be the sole messenger of the gospel.

Instead, he will continue a team effort his ministry has successfully established in other American cities, moving away from the centuries-old crusade model made famous by Billy Graham.

Christian celebrities are part of the plan to combine fun and faith in a party-like atmosphere. They include actor-turned evangelist Stephen Baldwin, gospel artists CeCe Winans and Steven Curtis Chapman, skateboarder Christian Hosoi and surfer Bethany Hamilton.

"They're all giving short messages with an opportunity to surrender to Christ," Palau said in an interview. "The message is sacred. It never changes. ...The only difference is the delivery system for this generation."

The 86-year-old Graham has defined large-event Christian evangelism with a fabled career that presents the gospel in stadium crusades. Palau -- a youthful 70 -- has reached millions of people 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 April Lundholm don't even picture him when they think of his festivals.


"I caught the end of him, I think," said Lundholm, a teenager who attended the August 2004 Twin Cities Festival in Minnesota. "But I really came to hear (the Christian band) Third Day."

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, said Kevin Palau, executive vice president of the organization and the son of Palau, a man frequently called "The Billy Graham of Latin America."

"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.

The upcoming Washington event will feature sports demonstrations, a children's area, a food drive and a health fair. Bob and Larry, the popular characters from the VeggieTales children's series, and a family-friendly ventriloquist named Mark Thompson also are scheduled.

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.

More than 850 churches in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia are expected to spark a turnout for the latest version. Organizers expect a wide range of people to be drawn to the event, where they will likely spend much of their time walking around the lawn of the National Mall rather than sitting in the stationary seats of a stadium-based crusade.

_Related Features
  • Interview With Luis Palau
  • More on the DC Palau Festival
  • Interview With Stephen Baldwin
  • "It's both a strength and a weakness," acknowledged Luis Palau about the format. "The strength is that people feel free to come, hang out, move on if they want to. ...It's more normal, family-centered. It's easy to invite friends."

    But tallying up those who respond to the dozen or so invitations to "surrender their lives to Jesus Christ" is more difficult.

    "I would say that we only get to talk to 50 percent who actually said, 'I gave my life to Christ,'" the evangelist said.

    The festival concept has appealed to corporate and community leaders, Luis Palau said. He finds it's easier to get churches to cooperate with the festival idea. Corporate sponsors, who now fund about 15 percent to 20 percent of the costs, lend legitimacy.

    "It was not so much for funds but to make it a community festival, to let the community know, look, these are normal people," the evangelist said. "They're not weirdos with some extremist views hiding in a cave doing some mysterious religious rite or something. They're just regular people who eat at McDonald's and drink Coca-Colas and drive Chevrolets."

    Despite the changes, 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.


    "I follow in his steps with humility and gratitude and trying to pick up part of the mantle because his son Franklin has picked up the big one," the younger evangelist said. "Nevertheless, his model is an ideal model for a mass evangelist: integrity, the humility, the persistence, the sticking with the basics and not ever switching the message even one iota. That is what I hope to transmit to the next generation myself."

    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 concludes at the DC Festival. Baldwin stars in the film, but skateboarders Hosoi, Lance Mountain and Ray Barbee have taken the message to mini-festivals in cities across the U.S. A sequel DVD, "Livin It -- LA, is scheduled for release in March.

    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 in Winston-Salem, N.C. He's an expert on American evangelism.

    Palau is doing what preachers like George Whitefield, Charles Finney, D.L. Moody and Billy Sunday 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."

    _Related Features
  • Interview With Luis Palau
  • More on the DC Palau Festival
  • Interview With Stephen Baldwin
  • more from beliefnet and our partners