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.
Have you seen the churches working together in the Season of Service and festivals translate into greater receptivity to the gospel message?
Luis: The pendulum seems to swing between social action and evangelism, and right now I think the pendulum has swung to social action. I worry because right now people almost sneer at the concept of evangelism.
Andrew: Especially proclamation evangelism. They would say relational evangelism is fine, but proclamation evangelism is too much.
Luis: True. But I wonder how much real evangelism goes on in "relational evangelism." Is having a beer together at a bar and chatting for three hours about culture truly evangelism? When are they going to hear the gospel?
Kevin: I wish I could say, "Oh, my goodness. We held a service festival which fostered a ton of relational evangelism, and the number of people accepting Christ doubled." But we can't say that. At times I wonder, Has it taken all of this work just to keep anyone at all interested in hearing the gospel?
Andrew: Looking at the broader perspective, changing people's general sense of who a follower of Jesus Christ is opens the door for more relational and one-on-one evangelism. And just getting evangelism on the radar of some people inside the church is important. If we can't even do that because we're too focused on the festival model, they're going to keep it at arm's length. But we want to start breaking down the barriers that have kept people from even thinking about evangelism. At the end of the day, they look at the whole thing and say, "You know, this festival thing really wasn't that bad. The gospel was proclaimed. I brought my friend, and he came to the Lord. Or maybe he didn't come to the Lord, but we're still friends and now we have this new conversation."
Kevin: Over the years we've looked at the best way to measure the success of evangelism. Based on our understanding of biblical evangelism, we've tried to help the church move away from the short-term view of asking, "How many made a commitment to Christ? How much did my church grow?" For years we've said to churches, "If you're doing this because you're looking at short-term church growth, you should walk out right now." There are a few examples of it hitting the right church at the right time, but in most cases it's a sowing and reaping process. There's a value to mobilizing the body for unity. There's a value to service, and there's a value to training and equipping and evangelizing. There's a value to breaking down stereotypes. Our prayer is that over the longer haul we will see new churches planted. We saw churches revitalized. But it's not going to be a short-term project.
Luis: I think that after these festivals, it becomes much easier to be an evangelical Christian. People stop thinking we're rednecks that never read the local paper. They see that we're actually quite bright. We're normal people, and we actually have fun. In these cities, evangelical Christianity is looked at in a very different light than five or seven years ago. There's a newfound respect.
What was the process by which that unity coalesced? Is that process reproducible or was it just by the grace of God?
Kevin: With the festival there's always a desire to unite around a particular cause. But we're now more proactive, trying to find ways to build it for the long-term. From the churches' point of view they need a neutral convener. They see that we aren't a church. We're not competing with them. We have been here a long time and have earned the right to be heard. We're not pushy. We love all of the churches equally. For example, we have a pastors' family barbecue every year. The place we hold it has a big lake for swimming. There's no agenda. We just come together. Another time, we took the 12 guys on an overnight retreat to build their relationships with each other. It takes intentionality. And it takes the right person or group of people to do it.
Luis: There are people in every city who would like to think they play the role of "convener." I worry about the guys who use the phrase, "We're the gatekeepers." I don't see that idea in the Bible, and it's a damaging point of view. We aren't a gatekeeper. That would make us the Pope or the cardinal or the archbishop of a city. And that mentality shuts doors.
I was brought up first in the Episcopal Church and then in the Plymouth Brethren: two opposites. So I know what kind of diversity there is. We work with the church, through the church, for the church. We're not here to do our thing. But, like Kevin said, you need a neutral group that has no agenda or ax to grind, not even to get support from churches, though we hope against hope that they will support us. But we're not doing it for that. We just want to bless the city.
Kevin: We seek the shalom, the peace of the city. The point we focus on is the gospel penetrating Portland over the long haul. It's going to take evangelistic events. It's going to take church planting and loving and serving the city. In Portland there isn't the sense that we have a committee and I'm the chairman of it. Nobody wants a committee to officially represent the church and tell people what to do. People want genuine relationship. It's a delicate kind of dance: we try to let things happen naturally, and at the same time we unofficially guide things. It's not a committee, it's an earned authority.
I think any city could have our experience, but it takes humility and respect. So many people are thinking about the city of Portland. We want to be an example and offer our gift of catalyzing the body. We wait for cities to invite us to come.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
Click here for reprint information on Leadership Journal.