Rain fell on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday before Portland, Oregon's CityFest, an open-air, family-friendly evangelistic festival in downtown Waterfront Park. On Friday, August 22, skies cleared and temperatures rose into the 80s. An estimated 180,000 people thronged the park over two days, listening to Christian music and preaching, and enjoying a variety of activities.
Such attendance at an evangelistic event was notable in one of America's most liberal and least-churched cities; more surprising was the support of openly gay Mayor-elect Sam Adams, who offered warm greetings from the platform. "Regardless of our differences, we have come together," Adams said. Corporate sponsors had signed up too: Wells Fargo, KeyBank, and the Portland Trailblazers, among others.
At a Friday press conference, Adams noted the "odd combination" of a liberal city with evangelist Luis Palau and the faith community. "Here's to odd combinations. May they continue perennially." He said that the physical and social problems of Greater Portland were beyond the resources of city government alone.
The impetus for this odd harmony had been happening all summer. Season of Service united Portland-area churches around five community concerns: homelessness, the medically uninsured, public schools, hunger, and the environment. It drew 25,000 volunteers for projects civic leaders had selected. The two-pronged approach to witness—service matched with proclamation—united churches all over the area and prompted unprecedented support from community leaders.
The festival celebrated Season of Service by offering a potpourri of food, music, and youth-oriented activities for a racially diverse crowd. Christian musicians Kirk Franklin and Chris Tomlin attracted eager fans. Young men crowded demonstrations by X-Games medalists Kyle Loza and Greg Hartman and skateboarder Christian Hosoi. In the Family Fun Zone, inflatable bounce tents, games, crafts, and VeggieTales characters entertained children. Over a thousand homeless people attended the city-sponsored Homeless Connect, receiving haircuts, meals, housing assistance, and a variety of other services from volunteer groups.
The centerpiece came both Friday and Saturday evenings, when evangelist Palau preached from the big stage and invited listeners to follow Jesus Christ. Some 2,000 talked to counselors afterward. Palau Association staffers were reluctant to compare the response with other festivals', noting that at a festival it's hard to reach all those who raise their hands to indicate commitment—nobody "goes forward." Kevin Palau, son of the evangelist, said, "The emphasis isn't how many people got saved. We never know how many people got saved. Only time will tell."
Reversal of Trend
American Christians have been moving away from mass evangelism, stressing church planting and friendship as the best ways to introduce people to the gospel. With Billy Graham no longer conducting crusades, big-splash evangelistic events are more rare. Yet the Portland experience suggests a place remains for large, public evangelism, even in a city as far from the Bible Belt as Portland.
Battered by years of controversy over political and social issues, Portland churches seemed eager for a way to witness in public and still be in harmony with the city. The Luis Palau Association, headquartered in the area, spearheaded an approach called "Festival 2.0."
Palau, an energetic 73-year-old who grew up in Argentina, has preached in both English and Spanish at stadium crusades all over the world. But U.S. crowds were meager. Kevin, one of three Palau brothers who work with their father's association, realized even he didn't want to invite his neighbors to a Palau crusade. "So we said, 'Let's do something that at least the believers will want to do.' " Stadiums felt restrictive, whereas a festival takes place in public space, usually a park or some blocked-off central streets. It's an all-day event with multiple activities. At the first Palau festival, in Portland in 1999, attendance jumped to 90,000. A second festival the next year drew 140,000.