A few years ago someone asked Tom Potter, then mayor of Portland, Oregon, a surprising question: "If the churches came together, what would you want us to do?" More accustomed to hearing requests or complaints, Potter was struck by this offer. He reflected briefly on the growing number of people sleeping on the streets of Portland—about fourteen hundred every night—and replied, "Could you get the churches more involved with our homeless population?"
The initial question came from world-renowned Portland-based evangelist Luis Palau, who then suggested meeting to further discuss what could be done. Potter's second surprise came when Palau and some of his staff actually followed through and showed up at his office. That meeting led to several initiatives, including the creation of the Home Again Mentoring Program (HAMP), which connects homeless families with counselors and mentors from local churches.
BUILDING ON A SOLID FOUNDATION
HAMP is the centerpiece of Season of Service, launched in February 2008 as a new component to CityFest, an annual citywide family-oriented evangelism event first held in 1999. Last year the Luis Palau Association's (LPA) long-term vision to create a "sustainable, repeatable, and culturally relevant movement of God" gave birth to Season of Service and a new model for festival evangelism, labeled Festival 2.0. Although the service aspect of its ministry is still somewhat new for LPA, there is nothing revolutionary about this approach to evangelism, contends Palau. "Now we ask ourselves why we didn't start this earlier," he says. "We're trying to change the perception people have of Christians. We're doing this out of love and, when you do it in unison with tens of thousands of people, it reveals what the churches have been doing. It opens a city to understand what biblical Christianity really is, something particularly important in Western society."
In the past decade CityFest and similar international festivals have brought the gospel message to more than 25 million people in 72 countries and now incorporate civic service. "In Monterey, Mexico, the city was so excited about us bringing in two hundred doctors and dentists to set up mobile x-ray equipment and check poor people for tumors and cancers, that they said, 'We will loan you every unit we have in our facilities.' And they did." Palau says the mayor and governor were elated about the project and arranged buses to take thirty thousand children from poor neighborhoods to the festival so that they could be examined. Downtown Buenos Aires boasts the broadest avenue in the world—twenty-two car-lanes wide—and the LPA was given about five hundred yards of it for one of its festivals. "They also blocked side streets and set up tents," says Palau, who has seen similarly positive responses in Costa Rica and Manchester, England.
A BALANCED APPROACH
Palau's passion for helping those in need manifested itself at the age of eighteen, when he was still in his homeland, Argentina. Along with a dozen other teens from his church, he began an outreach ministry to widows. "We scrounged around for food and blankets to take to them," he recalls, adding that "Christianity has done this from the beginning, but now it's become a far more organized and penetrating movement."
LPA strategically balances evangelism with service because they believe Jesus set that example. Palau explains, "Jesus said that He didn't come to be served but rather to serve. The Bible also tells us that He gave His life as a ransom for many; that's where the gospel comes in."
Although Palau's ministry has a stronger emphasis on service than it used to, he is watchful of tipping too far to the side of a social gospel. "During some periods in history, the church practically abandoned basic Christian doctrine to do good deeds and take social action," he says. "I keep reminding my staff and the local clergy of that."
The LPA has made a point of telling churches that "we've not given up on John 3:16 and we're not hiding our light under a bushel," Palau says. "However, we've been surprised that most churches have been eager for leadership in the area of public service. In fact I feel we need to train people to do the social work as a service but also not to be unashamed to share the gospel."
On the flip side Palau strives to persuade politicians, educators, the media, and corporations that the Season of Service is not a gimmick, and that "the shoe won't drop and we'll suddenly have a preaching service in front of the school."
TOO PASSIONATE TO QUIT
Even with all that he has accomplished and in the midst of his busyness Palau never forgets the faithfulness of long-gone missionaries to South America who led millions to Christ, including his parents and grandparents. Palau himself trusted Christ at a young age, and today his organization has documented more than one million decisions for the Lord.
To stay focused on his mission, Palau holds three principles close to his heart. The first is winning souls to Jesus Christ, coupled with discipleship. "I'm an elder in my church, not just a floating evangelist, and I am involved in discipleship," he said. "Our theme for the Luis Palau Association is that we work with, through, and for the church."
Second, he places a priority on popularizing basic, sound doctrine. "We have thirty million listeners of Bible teaching in Spanish in twenty-five countries. We take what theologians teach and put it into popular terms so the average person can understand it."
His third emphasis is on training younger evangelists so that mass evangelism can continue beyond his own ministry. To this end the Next Generation Alliance was created in 1998. This global network works with two hundred evangelists and ministries around the world and has reached more than 17 million people—of whom nearly 800,000 have made public commitments to Christ.
At the age of seventy-four, Palau has relentless energy and passion, and he shows no signs of slowing down. "What keeps my fire going is the indwelling Holy Spirit," he says. "I try to impress this principle on other pastors: that we are partakers of the divine nature. I learned it at age twenty-five in seminary, and it gets better every decade! It keeps me motivated, excited, youthful—I wouldn't think of quitting until Christ yanks me out."
SIDEBAR: Luis Palau and Dallas Seminary
Luis Palau's initial introduction to Dallas Seminary came from pastor and Bible expositor Ray Stedman, under whose direction Palau did a church internship in California along with another intern—a young man named Charles Swindoll, then a DTS student.
Today Palau serves on the DTS Board and says that some of the best missionaries and Bible teachers he knows are DTS graduates. "When we were missionaries living in Central and South America, I was often called to address DTS students about missions and spiritual life," he says, noting that he appreciates DTS's doctrine with a strong emphasis on expository preaching. "I also like the emphasis on biblical prophecy, which is extremely important when dealing with government, military, and big businesses. They want to know [about prophecy] because they see major trends that even some theologians don't see."
Ann-Margret Hovsepian, author of The One Year Designer Genes Devo, is a freelance writer and editor in Montreal, Canada (www.annhovsepian.com).