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Evangelist unafraid to go to extremes

(ran PC edition)

Professional BMXer Bruce Crisman swoops up a concrete slope of Portland's Burnside Skate Park, hanging airborne for a moment before rushing down again.

Looking on, Christian evangelist Luis Palau is full of admiration for their skill. "Wow," he says. "Have you watched these guys? It's just amazing."

The dim skate park under the rumbling Burnside Bridge in Portland's industrial district seems an odd place to find Palau, one of the nation's better-known evangelists after the legendary Billy Graham.

But the 68-year-old preacher is at the forefront of efforts to make evangelism more active, contemporary and accessible to a younger audience. The Luis Palau Evangelical Association, based in Beaverton, Ore., hosts faith-centered festivals throughout the nation and the world.

"Jesus Christ really cares for every subgroup in the area, not just the churchy people," Palau says. That includes skateboarders, bicycle motocross riders and other aficionados of extreme sports.

To reach that group, the Palau organization is filming Livin' It, a DVD featuring stunts and testimonies by Christian athletes such as Crisman and pro skater Jud Heald. The DVD, directed by actor Stephen Baldwin, will be used as a recruiting tool by church youth groups across the nation and is set for an April release date.

Four years ago, Palau switched from traditional rallies dominated by sermons and singing to huge outdoor festivals featuring Christian rock music, skate parks, children's activities and corporate sponsors.

According to Palau, the multidenominational "Great Music! Good News!" festivals draw an average of 67,000 people a night, and take up to three years and $2.5-million to plan and execute.

"It's an awesome way to lead people to Christ," says the 24-year-old Crisman, who performs bicycle stunts and shares his testimony at Palau festivals. "Whether three people are saved, or 3,000, God's stoked either way."

Born in Buenos Aires, Palau studied at Multnomah Biblical Seminary in Portland and spent six months interning at the 1962 Billy Graham Crusade in Fresno, Calif. He served as a Spanish interpreter for Graham in South America during the 1960s.

That experience has colored Palau's ministry for almost 40 years. But the waning effectiveness of Graham-style meetings convinced him that festivals were the best way to reach Christians and non-Christians.

"It revolutionized everything we do," Palau says. "I'd never go back to the old model unless God held a gun to my head."

The new events' appeal is simple, said Wayne Huizenga Jr., whose company, Huizenga Holdings, sponsored this spring's Beachfest festival in Fort Lauderdale. They present a contemporary Christian message combined with fun, family-oriented activities in a non-threatening environment, he said.

"People are thinking, "Yeah, these are normal people who have something in common with me,' " says Huizenga, whose family owns the Miami Dolphins, the Florida Panthers, Alamo Car Rental and other companies.

Corporate sponsorship helps make the festivals more familiar to non-Christian crowds, who are used to seeing brand names at events, Huizenga says. The businesses get benefits too, including access to loyal Christian consumers.

Still, John Collins, who coordinates outreach efforts for Harvest Community Church in Riverside, Calif., says there is a place for smaller gatherings.

Harvest Ministries, which draws 15,000 people to church every Sunday, hosts its own version of the Billy Graham revival meetings, with speakers and contemporary Christian music.

"It's more focused on bringing the audience to a point of hearing the message and making a decision," Collins says.

Last summer, Harvest Ministries held its first festival-style event. Two days of music, food and extreme sports exhibitions drew 60,000 people to California's Anaheim Stadium.

Other events have targeted fans of classic cars and Harley Davidson motorcycles, Collins says. The only concern is that the festival format's emphasis on entertainment will eclipse the message.

"If you're not careful, the cart can start driving the horse," he says.

Traditional revival meetings still work outside the United States, Luis Palau says, especially in Central and South America. But people in this country need something more, he says.

"They need media. They need big lights and flashy colors," says Russ Heppner, 21, who leads a skateboarding ministry at Cedar Park Church in Seattle.

Palau's approach succeeds because it appeals to young people's interests, and on their own level, says 18-year-old Zack Spiger, who helped build a skate park used in a Palau festival in Seattle.

"A skateboarder is going to be able to communicate to a skateboarder," says Spiger, who attends Pierce College in Lakewood, Wash. "They just have the same sort of mind-set, the same outlook on life."

On the Web

To find out more, Palau's Web site is