About 140,000 people filled a downtown park in Portland, Oregon, for two days this past summer for music, food, face-painting, miniature golf, skateboarding—and to hear international evangelist Luis Palau preach the gospel.
Portland Festival 2000, the second Palau outreach in the northwestern state's largest city in two years, broke park records. It may also signal a change in the methods of mass evangelism. "The day of the traditional crusade may be over," says Palau, whose organization is based in Portland. "The message is sacred. The dress it comes in is unimportant, as long as it fits the culture."
Palau, 66, has shown a willingness to experiment with his presentation to fit changing cultural expectations. His "Say Yes, Chicago!" outreach in April and May of 1996 presented the gospel to 129,000 people at 75 events across the greater Chicago area (CT, April 8, 1996, p. 96). Although the crusade attracted fewer people than expected, the Palau organization was able to try different ways to draw people in.
Changing places, changing names
Lon Allison, director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, says Palau has "tweaked" an existing model that moves away from "classic crusade" evangelism. "The day of the evangelist being able to attract crowds to hear him or her is over—other than Billy Graham," Allison says. He praised the festival model for its ability to attract large crowds, including families, with less effort from participating churches.
But evangelism strategists wonder whether the festival model's activity-driven approach will draw the people who need to hear the gospel. "We're not sure we're really getting that many lost people to attend," Allison says.
Lyle Dorsett, professor of evangelism at Wheaton College Graduate School, has heard reports that the Palau festivals are effective. "I'm always inclined to say that if a guy's leading people to Jesus, more power to him," Dorsett said.
"Great Music, Good News" was the theme of Festival 2000. Recording artists Steven Curtis Chapman, Kirk Franklin, Sixpence None the Richer, and Jaci Velasquez sang. Palau wove contemporary stories into 30-minute gospel presentations. After the invitation for a spiritual commitment, counselors distributed 2,500 booklets about Christianity. Leaders estimate that several thousand more people indicated commitments by raising their hands but could not reach counselors due to crowd congestion.
The festival's corporate sponsors included Interstate Batteries, La-Z-Boy Furniture Galleries, Pax TV, Standard TV & Appliance, and a rap radio station. About 600 churches were involved in promoting the festival and following up with inquirers. Local television reporter Kim Attridge gave her life to Christ at the 1999 festival and figured prominently this year.
Nearly all contemporary evangelists, including Palau, Billy Graham, Franklin Graham, and Greg Laurie, make significant use of pop culture and music in their evangelistic events. But in recent years, two changes in the methods of mass evangelism seem significant: Many of the events are now called festivals rather than crusades; and the location is shifting from sports arenas to downtown city parks.
Cultural awareness and contemporary Christian music augment the Christian message. "It's a party," says Allison, a practicing evangelist himself. Laurie's Harvest Jam youth events are major components of his Harvest Crusades. Franklin Graham's events have included a children's festival, a basketball tournament, and "extreme games" featuring obstacle courses. Gospel presentations, invitations, public response, counselors, follow-up, and multichurch participation, all staples of a more traditional evangelistic crusade, are present in modified form.
Most of Franklin Graham's and Greg Laurie's recent events occurred in stadiums, arenas, and churches, though Laurie did have an event at Disneyland. But Palau's Portland Festival took place in a city park, giving the event the profile of a community happening.
Other evangelistic organizations have combined sports and amusements with Christian witnessing. Campus Crusade's slow-motion football and 100-foot-long banana splits on campuses and at beach outreaches are two examples. Young Life and Youth For Christ are famous for evangelism that entertains. However, the Luis Palau Evangelistic Association's festivals use these strategies on a larger scale and in ways that challenge public perceptions.
Robert Coleman, director of the School of World Mission and Evangelism at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, says Palau's festivals do a particularly good job of reaching young people on a "neutral site."
"I affirm what Luis Palau is doing," says Coleman, author of the book The Master Plan of Evangelism. "He has updated the concept of mass evangelism and put it in a contemporary format."
Building on the success of the Portland Festival, Palau held a festival in Rosario, Argentina, in November, drawing up to 130,000 people. This year's festival schedule includes Connecticut (May and June); Boise, Idaho (August); and Irvine, California (September).
Visit the Luis Palau Evangelistic Association site.
Palau wrote "Which Part of the Great Commission Don't You Understand?" for Christianity Today in 1998.
Palau was also a member of the endorsing committee of "The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration."
View pictures from the Portland festival site.
Soon the schedule for the Connecticut festival will be posted at this Palau page.
Visit the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College.
Learn more about Greg Laurie's Harvest crusades.
Visit Trinity's School of World Mission and Evangelism.
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