Musical expressions spanning from southern-fried rock, to smooth soul, to explosive hip-hop swirl through a crowd of over 150,000 Seattle residents nestled within the spacious Marymoor Park on a beautiful summer afternoon. Opposite the stage, professional skaters perform death-defying stunts in front of teens accented by multiple piercings and an arsenal of tattoos. Add a vintage car show, roaming illusionists and costumed cartoon characters to the fold and either Washington state is throwing the year’s biggest bash, or a high-priced, multi-artist concert overtook the park. Surprisingly, neither is the case. The Luis Palau Evangelistic Association is the culprit, using this activity cavalcade in its latest outreach plan.
A Brief Background
From Monterrey, Mexico, to Rosario, Argentina, to Sheffield, England and most recently Seattle, Palau has incorporated such mammoth, free festivals into his always expanding ministry repertoire, which from his humble beginnings of preaching on street corners to hosting daylong stadium crusades has spanned 37 years in 70 nations, with over 790,000 making faith commitments. While this résumé looks impressive, by the turn of the new millennium, American audiences were growing less receptive to Palau’s stadium-styled method, expressing interest, instead, in a more cutting-edge approach. “In 1998 we were invited to host an outreach in Portland [Ore.], but by then our original crusade model just wasn’t working in the States,” recalls Palau with his distinct accent. “We started to get the feeling that setting up in a stadium with one or two contemporary bands and having me give a message was becoming passé, and [that realization] caused us to re-evaluate the way we did things.”
Keeping Up with the Times
For this energetic 69-year-old preacher from Argentina, adapting with the times to be more effective and culturally relevant for young people is something he embraces willfully. Along with the staff of the L.P.E.A., Palau carefully researches the needs of each region that’s invited the newly formatted festival-styled crusade to their neck of the woods, crafting each experience to break down non-believers’ stereotypes of Christians.
“This generation has so many hindrances when it comes to their opinion of believers, preachers and the church in general,” confirms college pastor D.J. Vick at Eastside Foursquare Church in Bothell, Wash., who participated in last summer’s event, dubbed the Puget Sound Festival. “That’s why the Palau organization literally throws a free party as a chance for them to hear and potentially accept the salvation message.”
The Role of Local Churches
Once a festival city is booked by the L.P.E.A., the organization tag teams with local churches to not only ensure an appropriate setting but also pool volunteers to assist with the event’s coordination and operation. Besides encouraging parishioner involvement, much of the festival’s success hinges upon the participation and unification of local churches, regardless of their varied backgrounds. “I’ve noticed that in every festival city that I’ve been involved with, there is always an overwhelming display of cross-denominational unity,” observes tobyMac, a frequent festival performer. “We have to acknowledge that it’s not only the Palau team that raises awareness, but it’s the churches that get their people excited about it.”
Besides the common ground the festival provides, overall audience turnout is based largely on those churches’ ability to invite non-believing friends and family members. “It’s all about encouraging believers to reach out to the unchurched [for] relational evangelism,” notes Luis’ son Kevin Palau, executive vice president of the L.P.E.A. “No matter how much someone is moved by the festival, nonbelievers won’t experience the follow-up they need without a body of believers around them."
Diversity and Relevance
Regardless of how many attend as a result of the churchgoers’ grassroots approach, L.P.E.A. organizers also understand that musicians, skaters and speakers need to maintain a level of the utmost quality and diversity, with their commitment to excellence serving as an equally viable Christian witness. “Knowing what people are into and making sure to cover all the bases is key because you want to bring out the entire city,” confirms Rob Beckley of festival mainstay act Pillar. “If people are walking by and hang out for a few minutes, they may not like what they hear initially; but if they walk by again 20 minutes later, they may hear something they like, decide to stay and be impacted by the message of that music.”
Another important element that makes these events so seeker-friendly is that artists, skaters and speakers don’t just try to act culturally relevant, they maintain an actual presence within that culture. “We try to get [entertainers] that are in the culture, part of it… not just pretending to be there,” explains Matt Wilson, director of Manchester, England’s upcoming festival. “It’s much more than [the non-believers thinking], ‘These people speak my language.’ [Non-believers] need to know that these [performers] know where they’re at.”
On the Same Level
Enter Paul Anderson, founder of Skatechurch based in Central Bible Church in Portland, Ore., who’s been leading kids to Christ through his seemingly alternative ministry since 1987. Anderson has been asked on a number of occasions to build skate parks in many of the festival zones and contact various performance professionals with a Christian worldview to perform demos
“For the most part, skaters are individualistic,” he says. “They’re used to being bold and expressive, so they’re usually pretty open to hearing a testimony from a pro skater they’ve always admired. They’re able to connect with someone who will meet them where they’re at and tell them what Jesus has done in their lives.”
And if it weren’t for various skaters’ ability to present a message on the level of attendees,
25-year-old Jesse Arneson might not have a story to share about one afternoon in a skate park that led to his eternal redemption.
Prior to attending the Washington-area Palau festival, this Tacoma resident was entangled in a labyrinth of problems, including physical abuse from his stepfather, substance abuse and suicidal tendencies. “I went to the festival that day because a friend told me there was going to be a skate park in town,” admits Arneson, an avid skater. “When I stuck around for the message, everything the speaker said sounded like it was directed right at me. I had a pretty crazy life and was really on the last straw, but it was right there that I decided to ask Jesus into my life.”
Varying Spiritual Climates
As such stories of salvation are becoming more and more common as a result of the festivals, much of the success rate stems from the pre-existing spiritual climate in the community prior to the L.P.E.A.’s visit, which, in ideal situations, only adds fuel to a pre-existing faith fire.
“If the spiritual climate is measured by the desire within young people to reach for something other than what the world is offering, then it is definitely getting hotter!” says Wilson in terms of the U.K.’s temperature. “A growing number of young people are opting out of the mainstream material world and forming their own ‘tribes’… with a vision of revival burning in their eyes.”
The second spiritual climate category is the less receptive regions of the world, from the overtly liberal Santa Cruz, Calif., to the spiritual opposition running rampant throughout Madrid, Spain, a city which has ironically expressed interest in hosting an upcoming Palau festival.
“Spain, like most of Western Europe, has been traditionally resistant to the gospel with few and mostly small churches,” explains Dr. James M. Williams, vice president of the L.P.E.A.’s Spanish-speaking ministries. “However, there is a feeling that is shared by many leaders that Spain is on the verge of something really significant for the progress of the gospel.”
The final type of climate exists in the destitute regions of the world that have nearly given up all hope and are desperately searching for anything that can remedy their situation. “For example, [Argentina is] literally financially bankrupt, and people have lost hope in all human institutions,” adds Williams, who’s praying that events like Palau’s Festival of Hope that took place last month will perpetuate their upswing. “There has been a movement of God in recent years in Argentina, and there is great expectancy among the believers for this festival.”
Besides their appearance in Buenos Aires, Argentina, last month, the 2003 schedule includes trips to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for Beachfest March 22-23, a jaunt in Manchester, England, Aug. 30-31 and a trip to Charleston, S.C., scheduled for the fall, only furthering the L.P.E.A.’s locational versatility and ingenuity.
“Our goal over the next year is to simply serve these communities the best we can,” adds Palau. “We’re planning on meeting each area where they are at and simply showing them the love of Jesus in the hope it will make a radical impact on their lives.”
For more information on the organization, log onto palau.org. In addition to all of the aforementioned attractions, Beachfest will feature musical performances by tobyMac, Third Day, Pillar, Jump5, Jaci Velasquez and Mary Mary. For more information, visit the Beachfest Web site at www.beachfestusa.org.
Used by permission. CCM Magazine © 2003 Click here to subscribe.