For years Luis Palau was known solely as an evangelist, famous for preaching the gospel to packed stadiums around the world. But in recent years he's also been working with his sons, Kevin and Andrew, to help churches meet the needs of their cities. The Luis Palau Association is based in Portland, Oregon, where they pioneered the new model. The association coordinates a "Season of Service" with local churches which culminates in a large evangelistic festival. Leadership Journal talked with the Palaus about their unique partnership with the city and how they combine social action and evangelism.
How did you come to work with local government to serve the city?
Luis: When we first got involved in social action our mayor was Tom Potter. He approached us and said, "We have 1,200 single homeless moms. You have 1,200 evangelical churches. Can you connect one homeless mother with one mentoring church?" We said, "Sure." Later Mayor Potter told us, "I figured you guys were like everybody else. They come. They make promises. A year later nothing's happened and nothing will happen." That comment challenged us even more. We decided to prove that we could sustain our commitment.
We invited 50 pastors from the area to lunch and explained the idea. We said, "What do you think?" They all jumped at the chance to help. Every pastor said, "Yes, let's do it. This is what we've been waiting for." These churches were more than willing. They were chomping at the bit.
Kevin: But we didn't have to reinvent the wheel. This kind of service has been the DNA of Portland churches like Imago Dei from the very beginning. Imago Dei pastor, Rick McKinley, is such a good friend now, but at the beginning it was kind of embarrassing. Even though we were leading this new initiative, we were the latecomers to the table. Imago Dei and many other churches were already doing what we wanted to do, but on a smaller scale. Our contribution was the collaboration.
So we decided to learn from them. The mayor and city council weren't aware of what these churches were doing. So we promoted awareness of existing initiatives and connected them in partnership. Our staff helps with some of the community service projects, but we're mostly the cheerleaders on the sidelines. We pull the pieces together. We tell these churches, "You don't have to do everything on your own. Partner with other churches that already have structures in place." That's how we developed the Season of Service. Now, there's a strong relationship among these key churches.
What are the major challenges of running your ministry in Portland? Are there challenges in taking this concept to another city, such as Sacramento or Phoenix?
Andrew: One of the ultimate challenges in Portland is finding the right leadership. Finding a leader that everybody respects and has a measure of outsider authority is absolutely crucial. Sometimes the people that surface and say, "I know God has called me to this ministry," are the least likely to make it happen. Then the leadership has to sort that out.
Kevin: Season of Service has worked very well in Little Rock, San Diego, and Phoenix—three larger cities in which we've worked—and a small town in Yakima, Washington, because we didn't invent anything new. There are churches in these cities that already have a desire to do the work, so we come in as outside organizers to give them better opportunities to do it.
For a festival to happen, the key pastors of the city have to be on board. The mayor and city leaders have to support it. And the key CEOs of the town have to make it happen. During this year-long preparation, we give these cities examples from Portland and other cities that have been successful. But we also have to recruit the right leaders. We can't assume we've culled out the cream-of-the-crop leadership, but as long as they genuinely understand what we're trying to do, and they agree to work together post-festival, all four of these cities are continuing. We have a conference call every month with the leaders from these cities to keep learning from each other and compare what's been working and what's been a challenge.