[I am working on a project that may become a book on the most influential evangelicals leaders of our generation, since 1976, and the impact they’ve had on the church and their times. I will introduce them briefly on this blog from time to time. Who should be on this list?]
#16 Luis Palau. Innovator. b.1934
Portland’s downtown waterfront on a summer afternoon in 2000 was ablaze with sound, action, and color; rock music screaming, skateboarders and BMX riders strutting their stuff, and the mostly young crowd in prime form, enjoying the sun drenched festival atmosphere. This was not a concert, sports event, or political rally, but a Luis Palau street festival drawing some 140,000 people; an updated version of an evangelistic crusade that brought new prominence to the longtime efforts of the Argentina-born evangelist.
It is unlikely that anyone in the crowd was saying: “This Palau guy seems like the next Billy Graham,” which is a relief to both the Palau and Graham organizations, neither of which was comfortable with this moniker that was heard from time to time early in Palau’s ministry. Now, it is the Graham organization and others who are playing catch-up to Palau’s dynamic outreach to the next generation through dynamic large-crowd street festivals.
In fact, as Franklin Graham began to pick up more speaking responsibilities from his aging father, he had the instinct to do something different but, using the same teams that at times seem robotically steeped in Graham’s 50-year old crusade methodology, the Franklin Graham Festivals were little different than Billy Graham’s events, except in name and the inclusion of some contemporary musicians on-stage.
Indeed, because of his openness to innovation, Palau has regenerated the mass evangelism genre and demonstrated that the methodology—while needing a generational facelift–is not quite ready to be retired.
While Palau’s street festivals have been a great success and put some distance between he and the Grahams, the two organizations do have the same succession plan: both Billy Graham and Luis Palau have knighted their sons (Franklin Graham and Kevin Palau) to take the reins of the organizations and assume the evangelistic speaking mantle from their fathers.
[Nepotism is alive and well within evangelical organizations headed by their entrepreneurial founders. Leadership is shifting to the sons at BGEA and LPEA; and when the board at Focus on the Family nixed the idea of a stronger role for Ryan Dobson at Focus on the Family, James Dobson left and started a new radio program with Ryan. Jerry Falwell was succeeded by his sons at his university and church; Pat Robertson’s likely successor is his son Gordon; Joel Osteen took over Lakewood church from his father. Some other father-to-son hand-offs that didn’t work out so well: Oral Roberts to Richard and Robert Schuller to Robert Jr .]
It was in the 1990s that Palau’s ministry focus moved toward the United States—the majority of his crusades had been overseas—and by the end of the decade he had refined the unique festival evangelism outreach. Embracing contemporary life and culture, these festivals combine popular Christian music artists, a massive skate park featuring top Christian athletes of action sports like skate boarding, BMX and motocross, and even Veggie Tales for the children. The central feature, though, remains an evangelistic message inviting an on-the-spot response to the Gospel.
It was Kevin Palau who realized that extreme sports greatly influence the youth culture and incorporated BMX riding and skateboarding demonstrations into the festivals. This has given the ministry an additional edge to its outreach to youth. Recently, Kevin and actor Stephen Baldwin co-produced Livin It, a 40-minute documentary that includes extraordinary sports action and compelling face-to-face, street-style evangelism.
Born and raised in a wealthy Argentinean family, Luis Palau became a Christian at an early age. He became successful in the family banking business before moving to Portland, where he attended Multnomah Biblical Seminary. While in Bible school he met his wife, Patricia, and after completing their studies, they began traveling as missionaries in Latin America. This led to involvement in evangelistic ministries, developing teams and helping evangelists.
Palau first heard Billy Graham on a radio broadcast while still living in Argentina in 1950, and he drew inspiration from him. He later worked for Graham as a Spanish translator and as an evangelist. In 1970, Graham contributed the seed money for Palau to start his own outreach, which he initially modeled after Graham’s. Doors continued to open through international invitations and by the early 1980s Palau was having a big impact in Western Europe and throughout the world.
Palau has authored 50 books and has preached in person to 25 million people in 70 nations. The organization says more than a billion people worldwide have heard Palau when you also account for radio, television, and the Internet. His radio program is heard in both English and Spanish in 42 countries. The Palau ministry employs 70 people in Beaverton, Oregon, and another 25 around the world.
A recent addition to the festival package came about when Portland Mayor Tom Potter approached Palau at a 2005 Portland appearance by First Lady Laura Bush and asked for Palau’s assistance in getting other evangelical leaders to address Portland’s homelessness problems. Palau contacted fellow evangelicals and cooperated with Potter and other area officials to include in the 2008 area festival a focus on volunteerism in support of the homeless, which he called the Season of Service.
Today, the Palau’s have four sons and 10 grandchildren and make their home near Portland.