A Sept. 29 article on DC Festival incorrectly said that former Navy secretary John H. Dalton is the event's fundraising chairman. He is the festival chairman. The fundraising co-chairmen are Vince Sedmak and Bob Woody. (Published 10/3/2005)
The Mall soon will be suited up for another showcase event. This time, the trappings are a skateboard park, a food court, dozens of volunteer stations, two huge tents for hundreds of celebrity guests, three JumboTron screens to project onstage musical performances, and banners bearing the names of such corporate sponsors as Amtrak and the Washington Capitals.
What those watching the preparations will not see is any clue -- not even a simple cross -- to suggest the real nature of the gathering: broadcasting the message of Jesus Christ.
DC Festival, on Oct. 8-9, is the latest production of Oregon-based Christian evangelist Luis Palau, who has been drawing large crowds since introducing his concept of "festival evangelism" six years ago.
The event, in the making for two years, is being supported by nearly 900 Washington area churches. Organizers hope to draw as many as 200,000 people over the two days, which would make the $3.4 million affair the largest religious assembly on the Mall since an estimated half-million attended a Promise Keepers rally in 1997.
Palau's goal is to attract the secular-minded and unchurched, particularly young people. In what might be called stealth evangelism, his festivals offer no displays of religious symbols, no robed choirs, no clergy onstage, no solemn Bible readings or long-winded prayers.
Instead, DC Festival will feature top-flight Christian contemporary musical acts. Stars of extreme sports will demonstrate their skateboarding and biking skills, as well as talk about their Christian faith. Faith-based "VeggieTales" actors will entertain children.
"There will be something for everybody," Palau spokesman Craig Chastain said. "We want the community to see that the church can throw a good party."
But the party will have a point. In the late afternoon both days, Palau will deliver his evangelical message, which will climax with an invitation to listeners to commit their lives to Jesus. He will ask those who want to do that to raise their hands, which will be a signal to the 3,500 trained "counselors" stationed in the crowd to approach them and answer questions.
The event -- which has the slogan "Great Music! Good News!" -- will be the Washington debut for Palau, who has held more than a dozen such festivals in other U.S., European and South American cities. Long known as a top preacher in the Latino world, the Argentine native has become widely recognized in Anglo evangelical circles with the success of his festival approach.
Scott Kisker, professor of evangelism at Washington's Wesley Theological Seminary, calls Palau "the person who is arguably, in mass evangelism, the successor to Billy Graham."
Palau, 71, who worked for Graham before stepping out on his own, comes out of the same evangelical tradition "where people are invited by friends to hear a presentation of the gospel where they don't have to go to a church," Kisker said.
But while Graham's crusades have been held in stadiums and have offered one style of music and one preacher, Palau's events are in more-open venues and feature various musical styles and gospel presentations by actors, singers and athletes.
"It's the difference between a telephone call and the Internet," Kisker said. "You're not controlling people, they're wandering around. . . . It's appealing to that sort of given within our culture today."
Unlike some Christian evangelical figures, Palau steers clear of hot-button issues. "My own calling is [as] an evangelist, a proclaimer of good news, and so I stay away from issues that are politicized," he said in a recent interview.
Asked for his views on gay marriage, for example, Palau replied: "I don't talk about it. Of course, I have an opinion like every other rational person; and if persons want to know what does God say, okay, read the Bible. But I was invited by these [Washington area] churches to come and proclaim positively what we are for, not what we're against."
Like his mentor Graham, however, Palau visits the White House. This week, he led a Bible study for the staff there. And President Bush invited him to give the closing prayer at the recent service for Katrina victims at Washington National Cathedral.
Something else deliberately missing from Palau's evangelical festivals is the offering.
"Money is one of the biggest bugaboos people have. They think, 'Oh this preacher is just trying to get his hand in my pocket,'" said Kevin Palau, the evangelist's son and executive vice president of the Portland-based Luis Palau Evangelistic Association. So the festivals instead are financed with donations from individuals, churches and -- in a significant break with evangelical custom -- secular corporations.
"When people see names of companies they know and recognize, it gives them a comfort level," said former Navy secretary John H. Dalton, fundraising chairman for DC Festival.
Palau officials said they have raised about 97 percent of the festival's expected $3.4 million cost. The corporate sponsors include Pepsi, BB&T Mortgage, James Monroe Bank and Trust Title. Some sponsors have said they want to reach the festival's expected audience, and others have said they support the event because they like its message.
Because DC Festival will be on the Mall, corporate advertising will be more restricted than at other Palau festivals. For example, the size and placement of corporate logos on signs and banners must comply with National Park Service rules.
Palau's use of secular sponsors worries some Christian scholars. Bryan Stone, a Boston University professor of evangelism, said he finds the practice "troubling" because "when the church starts to take on a marketing orientation, it begins to shade out those parts of its message that aren't marketable," such as "justice for the poor."
Palau officials said that since they changed their gatherings in 1999, attendance has risen almost tenfold. Recent festivals have drawn 200,000 in the Twin Cities, 300,000 in Fort Lauderdale and a million in Palau's hometown of Buenos Aires. Before committing to a city, Palau's team makes it a point to secure local grass-roots support for a festival. In Washington, Palau said, he particularly wanted -- and got -- the backing of area African American churches.
His operation, working for more than a year out of donated office space in Springfield, has offered training courses to an estimated 7,500 people in recent months. About 4,000 took a course in "Friendship Evangelism," which teaches how to talk about Christ to friends and acquaintances. The others have received training to be festival counselors.
Navy employee Mark Dronfield, 47, who plans to attend the festival with his wife and children, recently took the counselor training at Arlington's Cherrydale Baptist Church. Dronfield anticipates that the festival will be "like a little slice of heaven," where it will be possible to see "God change people's lives."
Several pre-festival events are planned, including visits Saturday to 10 D.C. public schools by several hundred volunteers who will paint, clean and landscape.
Despite his success, Palau acknowledged that there is a risk that things will not go well when he gives his spiritual message.
"I always think they're going to run to the bathroom, buy Cokes and hamburgers and disappear till the next musical group shows up," he said. "Amazingly, they don't. I'm as amazed as the next guy.
"I think we don't give credit to people that their spiritual interest is as high as it is."
But the Palau method is at work here too, he added.
"We keep the best [musical] act for after my preaching," he said. "We're not stupid."