At age 80, Christian evangelist Luis Palau of Oregon has preached in more than 75 nations to vast crowds but until this summer, not in New York City. He picked the Big Apple as the site of his “CityFest,” a monthslong initiative that included concerts, service projects and evangelism and that is expected to culminate at Central Park on Saturday (July 11) with a crowd of 60,000. He talked about the New York events and his plans beyond CityFest in New York. The Q & A interview was edited for length and clarity.
Q: You’ve been an evangelist for five decades and preached all over the world. Why did you choose New York as your focus now?
A: Since I was a pretty young guy, I felt the Lord called me to the big cities. New York has always been on the radar but it always seemed so daunting and large and complicated. But we got an invitation. It came from a group of youth pastors. It started with the Hispanics but it spread to the major ethnic groups, or language groups, and churches.
Q: What was “complicated” or different about this city compared to others where you’ve preached?
A: It’s very complicated to bring the whole body of Christ together. There are no united alliances of pastors. In fact, to try and get the name of even half the churches in New York was an impossible task. Nobody seems to have it. It’s a very interesting experiment and it’s gone well and the Lord has blessed.
Q: Your sons are involved in this gathering — Kevin is president of your Portland, Ore.-based ministry and Andrew is an evangelist. Are you preparing to retire or do you have more plans ahead?
A: I still think I’ll carry on some but I think I’m going to slow down quite a bit. They’re very gifted and the Lord’s hand is on them. We work in pretty good harmony. I plan to continue. God has given me very good health. I feel good. I do get tired a little more than before. But nevertheless if the Lord opens doors, we’ll keep going. I can’t imagine just sitting around doing nothing.
Q: You have long put a different spin on what were once called crusades — including extreme sports events on the National Mall, for example. Do you think this festival model will continue to work in a digital age?
A: You have to keep constantly renovating yourself, rethinking, reapplying. Digital is just fine and I think we’re all using it — we certainly are, as are many others. Look, rock concerts still draw people. People still want to get together in parks. It may become smaller but I think events attract young people and often many adults too. I don’t think it will ever be quite through.
Q: What is the range of denominations that are represented by the more than 1,700 tri-state churches working with you on this event?
A: Every imaginable group is represented at some level or another. There are Anglican churches. There are Presbyterian, there are Assemblies of God, a high percentage Southern Baptist and some Methodist churches. Any denomination you can think of, they are each one in his own corner of the city and working together.
Some are very small churches. There are hundreds upon hundreds of tiny churches; the congregations are not that numerous and their income is not that significant that they can support a full-time pastor, let alone a secretary. We have to adjust. You can’t gather with pastors, as in suburban America or some other states where you can have a 10 o’clock meeting and have lunch. These fellows are out there working at their vocation.
Q: How much did the preparation and New York-area events cost and who’s paying for them?
A: Probably 40 percent of the budget has been covered by local Christians, some churches, individuals. The budget is about $12 million. The other 60 percent: friends of ours for many, many decades from all over the country who have a passion for New York and have given generously — many, many people.
Q: You used the phrase “Good News” in ads on buses and in subways. Was that a way to draw in people who might not know that your “good news” is the gospel?
A. “The gospel” in Greek in the Bible is “good news.” I wish we would call it that all the time because it would make it easier to share the gospel, if we called it like God calls it — the good news of God about his Son.