Summer 2001, Vol. 4, No. 2

Summer 2001

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Related Articles
Left Behind at the Box Office, Religion in the News, Spring 2001

The McCaughey Babies, Religion in the News, Summer 1998

Promise Keepers and Culture Wars, Religion in the News, Summer 1998

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Other articles
in this issue

From the Editor: The Minister, the Rabbi, and the Baccalaureate

Idol Threats

Purging Ourselves of Timothy McVeigh

The Pope Among the Orthodox

Faith-Based Update: Bipartisan Breakdown

The Perils of Polling

The Rael Deal.

Superceding the Jews

Jamming the Jews

Correspondence: Palestinians and Israelis


Evangelism in a Chilly Climate
by William K. Piotrowski

These days Connecticut is stony ground for Protestant revivalism. Its population is two-thirds Roman Catholic and its largest Protestant denomination, the United Church of Christ, has been lukewarm about revivals for 100 years.

So it was not very surprising that when the Argentine revivalist Luis Palau, whom The Wall Street Journal has called Luis Palau "the Billy Graham of everywhere," and who, through his Luis Palau Evangelistic Association, is estimated to have preached in nearly 70 countries to more than 14 million people," showed up in May for a statewide campaign, the Connecticut news media were pretty lukewarm themselves.

Newspapers from New London to Danbury dutifully reported the extent of local involvement in the campaign and what Palau had to say when he came to town. "Palau was in Stamford as part of a three-week tour through the state that he said was an effort to inspire people to let God into their lives," wrote the Stamford Advocateís James OíKeefe in a standard human interest story of testimonials.

Around 200 core churches, predominantly Evangelical, Church of Christ, Baptist and Pentecostal, organized and supported the Palau mission in Connecticut. Predictably, local papers focused on the visible signs of Palauís effect on their communities, albeit in a conventionally unenthusiastic manner.

Frances Grandy Taylor of the Hartford Courant described Palau as a man "who was little known in these parts before his name turned up on stadium billboards, commuter buses and lawn signs throughout state" on June 4, 2001.

Nanci G. Hutson of the Danbury News-Times added, "Certainly, though, his supporters and evangelism team members have spared no effort to make this festival a happening; nowhere can one drive without noticing billboards and signs. Churches have been mailed kits of information; and clergy from different denominations and area business people have been given opportunities to meet and greet the charismatic speaker," on May 31, 2001.

The 500-pound journalistic gorillaóthe New York Timesótook a wider perspective. In the Timesí weekly Connecticut section, Adam Bowles ranged back to the Great Awakening of the 1730s, when the English evangelist George Whitefield set New England on its ear with his hellfire and damnation preaching. Bowles also Jonathan Edwards and Charles Grandison Finney, who were born in Connecticut, and Timothy Dwight, the Yale professor whose weekly sermons were the catalyst for the conversion of half of the student body and the momentum for the Second Great Awakening.

But that was ancient history. The last time a big time evangelist had made the Connecticut scene was when Billy Graham preached to 98,000 in Hartford in 1985.

Bowles quoted Palau saying, "New England is a tough place. They tend to keep to themselves. Atheism, or at least agnosticism, has a tremendous foothold here. In New England, when you say ĎChristianí they think Ďthose maniacs on the right.í I feel a challenge in Connecticut."

In fact, Luis Palau has a history of targeting the un-evangelized. Take his headquarters for instance, located in Portland, Oregon, Palau has chosen a home base which lays in what is widely recognized as the least "religious" region in the United States. Not to mention the Festivals he has held in Portland, one in 1999 and the other in the year 2000. In 1998 Palau held the Border Cities Campaign out of Laredo, Texas, which by a Palauís website estimate identifies only 10 percent of its populace as churchgoers. Palauís Uruguay Campaign in 1998 set its sights on what Palau claims to be the "most secular nation." So the religious makeup of his only three full state campaigns: Maine in 1999, North Dakota in 2000 and finally, Connecticut in 2001, would seem to continue Palauís trend of targeting the un-evangelized.

Peter Scalzo, who coordinates Palauís association in Connecticut, conceptualized Mission Connecticut. In 1996 Palau proposed a Connecticut campaign to Scalzo on the way home from a Promise Keepers event. Three years later Palau announced that he would be coming to Connecticut. Palauís modus operandi for all of his festivals function in a similar manner, a host must invite him to a specific location, organize and gain the resources of churches within that region and then submit that information to Palau. Palauís organization ultimately decides the worthiness and logistic compatibility of a crusade in a particular area. His pattern seems to draw him to the un-churched.

After the announcement in 1999 that Palau would be coming to Connecticut, the wheels were set in motion for the planning and preparation for his arrival. Ultimately eight Connecticut cities would host the Palau festival culminating at the Meadows Music Theater in Hartford on June 9.

So in the form of great revivalists of the past like Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield and Charles Finney, Palau precipitated his coming by a media blitz in order to spread his name like seed in stony ground and hopefully, fill the stadiums that are his garden. That blitz came in the way of a $2.5 million campaign. "The money is spent mostly on media, including lawn signs and newspaper advertisements, production costs for the concerts and rental fees for the sites where they are held" wrote Bowles.

The lack of passion on the part of the media had something to do with Palauís own laid-back style. "Although he talked about the need for people to confess Jesus,í Palau preached gently to the crowd of couples, families and teen-agers," wrote Lisa McGinley of the New London Day in some of the most insightful reporting of the campaign. "People already feel unworthy, he said; his mission is to make them feel happy." McGinley quoted Palau saying, "The evangelistís call is to invite people to come back to believe and to follow Jesus. My role is to be cheerful."

The festival itself is not your great grandfatherís revival. Music did play a role in revivals past, but the Palau festival resembled something more akin to a rock concert. The festival subtitle "Great music! Good news!" is telling. "Christian rock bands that praise Jesus have crowds of teens jumping at the foot of the stage," wrote Taylor of Kirk Franklin, Jaci Valasquez and DC Talk. Palau sums the festival, "music, music, music, then sermon and some more music" in Tony Carnesí special report for Palauís website on April 26, 2001.

Thatís not to say that Palau was uninterested in having an impact. His website said, "Dozens of newspaper articles not only invited people to the free events, but also communicated the heart of the Gospel to hundreds of thousands of readers" in "Connecticut Christians Get a Jump Start" on June 11, 2001.

Bowles said that organizers of the Palau festival expected 100,000 to attend. Palauís website reported that including brief stops in Rhode Island and Springfield, MA., Mission Connecticut had 120,000 attendees with at least 8,200 of them making a decision for Christ.

But that seemed exaggerated, by a factor of at least one-third, judging by the reporting of police estimates of crowd attendance. For example, while Daniel Tepfer of the Bridgeport Post cited a police estimate of 10,000 who heard Palau at Seaside Park, the Palau website estimate was 15,000. All in all, it seems highly unlikely that in the course of nearly a month Palau managed to reach more than 80,000 Connecticut soulsóworth a one Saturday night rally for Billy Graham in a good-sized Bible-Belt football stadium.

Once upon a time, big American revivals inspired newspapers to pose long rhetorical questions about whether such an event could have a long-lasting effect on the religious lives of attendees. For Luis Palauís 2001 Mission Connecticut, not one journalist even bothered to ask.

Related Articles:

Left Behind at the Box Office, Religion in the News, Spring 2001

The McCaughey Babies, Religion in the News, Summer 1998

Promise Keepers and Culture Wars, Religion in the News, Summer 1998