Evangelist Luis Palau over five decades has introduced Christ to millions—and at age 79 he’s moving down from 70 percent of his time on the road to only 45-50 percent. He and his sons Kevin and Andrew are pioneering new approaches.
Luis, for a long time you did crusades like Billy Graham’s, but 15 years ago you moved toward “festivals.” How did that start, and what’s the difference? Portland invited us. We were going to call it a crusade and go to the football or baseball stadium, but my sons said, “Why don’t we go to the riverfront park? And let’s not have a choir full of clergy wearing ties. Let’s dress casual. Let’s bring contemporary bands.” I thought, “Oh, here goes the end of my ministry. What are the old-timers going to think?” I was afraid it would be a disaster, that the clergy would be upset at the bang-bang, the noise and the music, and the smoke.
What happened? It was a wonderful victory. Before I even finished the second day the ministers were saying, “You’ve got to do it again next year.” God opened doors. We added things as we went along. I didn’t even know what a skateboarder was, but these fellows put on a great show and then give their witness for Christ. Some come and hear the good news for the first time in their lives. The city of Portland was nervous about it at first: Our mayor was Jewish, but then she said, “Palau, do it every year. This is so good for Portland.” We were proclaiming the good news, and the gospel was exactly the same, except we don’t call it a crusade.
Kevin, tell me about the ministry’s relationships with City Hall and the schools. Many people in Portland have very negative stereotypes about what it means to be a committed Christ-follower. We were known unintentionally for being against things, and not so much for being for things. We realized that one way to build a relationship with our city leaders was to go humbly and say, “We don’t want to be known primarily for opposing things. Mayor, if we could mobilize 15,000 followers of Christ from these churches to love and serve the city, what would you have us do?” The mayor came up with some obvious focus areas: hunger, homelessness, healthcare, the environment, partnering with public schools.
Did you get the 15,000? It worked much better than we anticipated: 25,000 came up out of the pews. South Lake Church, with a couple of thousand people, did a makeover of Roosevelt High School, the toughest inner city school in Portland. Roosevelt, built in the 1920s for 2,000 students, had only 400 students left, with no football team because the grandstands had been condemned. It was a very discouraging environment. But 1,000 persons came, did a great job fixing up the school, and fell in love with that neighborhood and that school.
Then what happened? They began volunteering to the point where about six months later the principal said to the outreach pastor of the church, “Christine, you’re here every day of the week with volunteers. Why don’t you have an office here?” So now for five years, a full-time staff member of the church has an office at Roosevelt. We are mentoring every kid in the freshman class. The graduate rate’s climbed 15 percentage points.
Did other schools want in on this? Our school superintendent, who happens to be a very prominent member of the gay and lesbian community, came and said, “We want you to find a church partner for every school in Portland public schools.” So we now have 252 public schools with an evangelical church partner simply asking the question, “How can we serve?” It’s been a revolution in relationships.
Don’t you have to compromise on biblical teaching? We are not compromising: We are clear on what is an evangelical and how we interpret Scripture. There are times and places where we have to oppose things, but we didn’t want that to be the primary way we’re known. Our openly gay mayor would now say, “Nobody has helped the city of Portland more than the evangelical community.” His understanding of what Christians are like has totally turned around.
What effect has this had on evangelism? We’re beginning to see churches grow and new churches planted, because we’ve demolished that straw man argument of “Oh, you’re just anti-this and anti-that.” South Lake, for example, has planted a church in the Roosevelt neighborhood with 150 people coming. We invite the whole city to come to our festival, our mayor gives a welcome, and the gospel is proclaimed.
Kevin, I’m sure folks have said that Christians should concentrate on strengthening Christian schools and homeschools. Yeah, but we’re simply saying, “The majority of the kids that we’re trying to reach and families we’re trying to reach are in public schools. That’s where the people are.” If we’re trying to demonstrate the love of Christ to people where they’re at, that’s an obvious place.
When you see kids or families in desperate spiritual need, are you allowed to talk about Jesus? With our city leaders in Portland we’ve always been clear: We genuinely ask, “How can we serve?” No strings attached. At the same time we always say, “As evangelicals, our joy is to share the Good News, and we’re looking for chances to do that.” In public schools during school hours it’s not the time to hand out tracts and preach, but we build relationships and open doors.
How do you communicate with homosexuals who are looking not just for toleration but for affirmation? We simply say, “Let’s find where we can work together for the good of the city.” We’ve had gatherings where the mayor brought members of the gay community, we brought evangelical pastors, and the mayor said, “This is not a meeting where we”—meaning the gay community—“try to convince the evangelicals to stand with us on gay marriage. That’s not going to happen. Let’s simply get to know one another, because we think it’s good for our community not to accuse each other of things without even knowing who we are.” In a sense it’s no different than with anyone who doesn’t know Jesus Christ.
Luis, I take it that in meeting with anyone you say not, “you sinners” but “we sinners”? Yes, we all have a sin nature. On television shows interviewers would ask, “Do you think all Jews are going to hell?” And I would say, “I beg your pardon, why are you singling out the Jews. Are you anti-Semitic? No! We’re all sinners. I’m going to hell if I don’t repent. The Jews happen to be part of the human race. They also must repent.” All of us are sinners by birth because we inherited a sinful nature, therefore all of us need to repent. We’re all in the same boat, sinking unless a Savior saves us.