EVANGELIST Luis Palau
ON THE INTERNET cityfesthouston.org
“MAKE SOME NOISE, YOU GUYS. It’s all about the Kiiiinnnngggg!”
The King was King Jesus, and the liturgist sounding the call to worship was the emcee for the King of Kings Skateboarding Ministry. The group was serving as the opening act in the “Livin It” extreme-sports segment of CityFest Houston, an extravagant example of festival evangelism that drew an estimated 225,000 people to Eleanor Tinsley Park over two 10-hour days in October. As the skateboarders hurtled up and down steeply banked ramps and soared over a central platform of inclines and rails, the emcee assured us that these skate ministers didn’t have to be doing this. “They could be working at a skate shop,” he said. “But God told us to come out here and use our gifts to bless you guys and to deliver a message that is more exciting than the tricks.” The skaters were followed by the Chaos on Wheels stunt bicyclists and a breathtaking performance by Riders 4 Christ, dirt bikers whose acrobatics, which rocketed them 75 feet in the air, caused an older woman standing behind me to comment, not unreasonably, “That looks dangerous.”
Before that last act in the ninety-minute program, performed twice each day of the festival, the thousands of mostly young people crowded around the area heard a classic testimony of renown, ruin, and redemption from former skateboarding star Jay “Alabamy” Haslip. Speaking with the desperate, pleading style of a country evangelist, Haslip told of having descended from the heights of appearances on the covers of skateboarding magazines to the dead end of the cocaine road, where in his desperation and brokenness he searched for and found God. “Jesus Christ gave me back the ability to skateboard,” he said to enthusiastic cheers. “We serve an awesome and mighty God!” He asked those who wanted to be saved to lift their hands while he counted to three—“Every head bowed, every eye closed”—then demonstrate their faith by coming to the platform. “It will take courage and guts,” he admitted, “but if these guys up here can do what they do, then you can certainly do what I’m asking you to do.” The response was not overwhelming, but the dozens who answered the call received the symbolic laying on of hundreds of hands that happily applauded their decision.
Not exactly traditional, but the impetus to evangelize has often led to innovation. Luis Palau, the headliner for CityFest, who is well-known in evangelical circles as a gifted preacher who once worked with Billy Graham, grew up in Argentina and now lives in Portland, Oregon. He told me that Graham himself warned him that the days of holding traditional revivals in stadiums and coliseums were numbered and that he should consider ideas better suited to a high-speed, high-tech culture. Palau’s sons, Andrew, Keith, and Kevin, agreed, and they worked with him to develop the festival approach, which has attracted 4.5 million people to the four to six events around the world he has held each year since 1999.
Palau organizes large-scale multimedia productions that feature a jam-packed mix of family-friendly entertainment and upbeat evangelism, with an ambience that is more Christian carnival and concert than crusade or camp meeting. Crowds at the Houston event could hear Texans quarterback David Carr and Astros phenom Luke Scott talk about their faith, watch a ventriloquist and the A.D. Players perform on the Kids’ Block Party stage, or listen to such popular singers as Wynonna Judd; Michelle Williams, of Destiny’s Child; and Latin Grammy winner Marcos Witt on the main stage at the west end of the 1,300-yard span. And those who hungered and thirsted after more than righteousness could satisfy their longing at an extensive food court that offered a wide range of stand-up foods, from Philly cheesesteaks to funnel cakes.
Obviously, a production of this size is expensive, but no entrance fee was charged and no collection was taken. Instead, individual and corporate sponsors picked up the $3.75 million tab. Major bankrollers included Texans owner Bob McNair, Astros owner Drayton McLane, and homebuilder David Weekley, along with H-E-B, the Houston Chronicle (which provided extensive coverage), and PDQ portable toilets, bless their hearts. Additional funding and seven thousand volunteers came from approximately 550 local churches, including major congregations of mainline denominations as well as evangelical and Pentecostal bodies of varied size and type.
As CityFest’s prime minister, Palau preached twice a day, at a Spanish-language service in the afternoon and at the all-comers event in the evening. At the Saturday night service, attended by more than 100,000 people of all colors, the musicians included Kirk Franklin, an African American dynamo who proclaimed the multiethnic mass to be “what heaven’s going to look like” and challenged his audience to tell three people in the crowd they loved them. “Brothers who are my color, don’t talk to someone named T-Dog, Ray-Ray, or Little Ricky,” Franklin said. “You find somebody named Josh, Brad, or Austin.”
When Palau took the stage after Franklin’s high-powered set, he asked for silence and, to my surprise, got it. A handsome man, casually dressed in cream-colored trousers and a long-sleeved blue shirt, he appeared considerably younger than his 72 years, with energy to match. He said he wanted to make three points: God is a good God, a forgiving God, and a life-giving God. It was a simple sermon, delivered enthusiastically but not bombastically, and with an encouraging spirit. Much of it centered on sex, fitting for a crowd heavily weighted with young folk whose loins had been vibrating to industrial-strength rock and hip-hop music for several hours. “To those who might be thinking, ‘He’s an old grandpa who doesn’t even remember sex,’” he said, with feeling, “Sex is the greatest thing God made, as far as I’m concerned.” But it should be restricted to the only foolproof form of safe sex: “Inside marriage, between one man and one woman.”
He concluded with the assurance that whatever sins they had already committed, God would forgive them and that the time to accept that gracious offer of salvation was right then. “You will be a new person,” he said. “You will go home floating. You will point to this park as the place where you became alive to God, under a full moon, with a simple prayer.” Noting that the miracle of grace had cost Jesus his life, Palau continued, “He is alive and in the park tonight. Behold, he stands at the door and knocks. Open and he will come in.”
The results of revivals are notoriously difficult to interpret. Which decisions made in the midst of a teeming crowd stirred by celebrity musicians and a persuasive preacher will stand the test of years, or even weeks or days, and what understanding comes with them? Conversions do happen, lives do change, but seeds planted in shallow soil can shrivel, and the born again can backslide. Any gauge of the long-term effects of the four thousand “decisions for Christ” made at CityFest Houston is sure to be imprecise, but those involved in it are likely to agree with one participant who called it “a glorious weekend that was totally worth it.”