Unlikely: Setting Aside Our Differences to Live Out the Gospel

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9781476797267: Unlikely: Setting Aside Our Differences to Live Out the Gospel
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The inspiring story of an unlikely partnership between a band of churches and the openly gay mayor of Portland that led to unprecedented change throughout the city and launched a nationwide movement called CityServe.

Our dream is to help change the mindset of the city about the church, and the mindset of the church about the city.

Portland is among the most unchurched and politically progressive cities in the nation. It’s a European-type city with a unique edge, a television show called Portlandia that emphasizes its weirdness, and the country’s largest naked bike ride. You wouldn’t expect Portland to be home to one of the most successful partnerships between local government and area churches. But it is.

In 2007, Kevin Palau and a few dozen pastors approached Portland’s mayor and asked the question: How can we serve you with no strings attached? City officials identified five initial areas of need—hunger, homelessness, healthcare, the environment, and public schools—and so began a partnership, CityServe, between the city and a band of churches seeking to live out the gospel message. Since then, the CityServe model has spread like wildfire, inspiring communities across the country to take up the cause in their own cities.

Unlikely not only tells the story of the inception of CityServe, but also challenges readers to evaluate their understanding of the gospel. Today’s church finds itself torn between social justice and direct proclamation. Unlikely proposes a both/and scenario, showing how the gospel can truly penetrate a region—through word and deed.

CityServe is proof that when differences can be put aside for a worthy cause, real change can be attained, and unlikely beauty is born.

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About the Author:

Kevin Palau is the son of international evangelist Luis Palau. He joined the family business, The Luis Palau Association, in 1985 and began directing the day-to-day operation of the ministry in the late 1990s. Under his leadership, LPA has produced some of the largest Christian events ever staged, created a worldwide network of hundreds of partner evangelists, and developed new models for citywide outreach that integrate major community service initiatives along with open-air evangelistic gatherings. Kevin is also the founding editor of GospelMovements.org. He holds a degree in religious studies from Wheaton College and lives in Beaverton, Oregon, with his wife, Michelle, and their three children.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Unlikely Chapter One

Something Old, Something New:

An Unlikely Background


“For I am about to do something new.

See, I have already begun! Do you not see it?”

—Isaiah 43:19 NLT

There Dad stood, more than forty years ago, in the middle of the bullring with his black slacks, black suit coat, white shirt, and black tie. Black Ray-Ban sunglasses to shield his eyes from the blazing sun. He stood, looking a little like Johnny Cash, only he wasn’t growling out “Ring of Fire.” He was holding up his Bible in one hand, the other hand raised to the sky. The sun beat down as his voice rang out to the captivated audience in Quito, Ecuador.

To Dad, bullring or flatbed truck or packed arena, it didn’t matter. His love was Jesus Christ and the life-changing Good News he brings. All these years later when I think about the early days—before we moved back to Beaverton, a western suburb of Portland; when we were living in Costa Rica, Colombia, and Mexico—I think about the bullring. I think about the big posters all over town with my dad’s smiling face on them. He was a big deal to some, but he was always just “Dad” to us. He was a husband, a father, a man who loved Jesus and wanted to tell as many people about him as possible. It was as simple as that.

From the time he was a kid, raised in a small village just outside Buenos Aires, Argentina, Dad had a heart to share the Good News he and his family had experienced.

Dad was only ten when his father died. Grandpa was thirty-four. He came down with bronchial pneumonia right in the midst of World War II (which meant there was no penicillin). Dad remembers getting the call from his aunt, telling him to rush home from the British boarding school he attended as soon as possible. His father didn’t have much time left. The fever was eating him up.

By the time he got there, though, Grandpa was already gone, but the story Dad heard became seared into his mind. As Grandpa lay dying in bed, burning up from the fever, barely hanging on to life, he suddenly sat up and sang a Salvation Army song as he clapped his hands: “There’s crowns up there, bright crowns for you and me.” Then his head hit the pillow, and he pointed up to heaven and quoted St. Paul, saying, “I’m going to be with Jesus, which is better by far.” Those were his final words.

That was it for Dad. Even at a young age, he knew. “I’m going to tell people about Jesus,” he said. “I want everyone to have the hope my dad had, even in the midst of death.”

Dad was relentless in his ministry. It started with small neighborhood meetings. Then he and his buddies bought a tent. They traveled the region during the summer, putting on outreach campaigns and gatherings. As soon as he gained momentum in the 1960s, he was off and running. People often called Dad the Billy Graham of Latin America. Their ministries were similar. After all, Dad had the greatest respect for Mr. Graham and had spent years learning from him. It was Mr. Graham who gave the seed money for Dad to start his own ministry. It was Mr. Graham who opened doors for him in many places around the world. It was Mr. Graham who was always ready to give insight, encouragement, and wisdom when needed.

Adopting Billy Graham’s crusade model, Dad introduced this style of mass evangelism to Latin America and was one of the first evangelists to develop a radio ministry across the continent. Today he continues his strong radio presence on over 2,600 stations throughout the region. It’s one of the reasons he’s so known and loved by millions down there. In fact, Dad will sometimes have leaders, even presidents, pull him aside and tell him, “You know, Palau, my mom made me listen to you every morning when I was a kid.”

Dad was also one of the first to try live television. In cities where we hosted crusades, he would appear on television and open up the phone lines to counsel people about family problems, faith, you name it.

I remember going with him to the TV studios at HCJB in Quito, Ecuador. My twin brother, Keith, and I got to go in front of the cameras to invite the audience to come to the crusade each evening. We were two little blond boys, which in itself created a certain level of interest. In a place where everyone had jet-black hair, people would routinely come over to touch our white-blond hair. It’s amazing what you get used to.

I never doubted Dad’s methods. In fact, I felt proud of him and his commitment to God when I watched him in the bullring—the Johnny Cash evangelist—passionately imploring folks to come forward to receive Christ. It was Dad’s desire to introduce all people to the Jesus he loved, and to whom he’d given his life and family and ministry.

Dad was not only a great dad; he provided a never-ending opportunity to travel around the globe, mostly around Latin America when we were kids and in Europe during our teen years. I remember the first time Dad took Keith and me to a crusade with him. It was in San José, Costa Rica. We must have been eight or so.

Those being simpler and safer times, Dad didn’t seem to think it was much of a risk to leave us alone for parts of each day at the hotel to explore and swim while he’d be off meeting with the president, speaking to local business leaders, or preparing for that evening’s rally in the local soccer stadium.

It was a thrill to attend the crusades in the evenings. I loved seeing thousands of people gathering each night, joyful to be together with brothers and sisters in Christ from many different churches, proud to be able to express their devotion, and eager to share the Good News with others.

The highlight of those nights was always when Dad would give the “invitation.” It was the climax of the whole gathering, the time when everyone would be led in a simple prayer, opening their hearts to Christ in response to the biblical message. Following the prayer, Dad would issue a challenge for folks to leave their seats and make their way down to the front of the stage. The people who came forward were joined by local counselors, believers who’d been specially trained to answer questions and pray with those who were responding either for the first time or perhaps recommitting their lives to Christ after having drifted away over the years.

It was stunning to see God move in such a tangible way, seeing hundreds stream forward. And this is what the whole program was geared toward: the invitation.

When I look back on those times from my youth, I am filled with feelings of pride—pride for my dad and what he accomplished, but even more, how strong his heart was to do something few were doing—something so difficult—because he felt called by God.
Growing Up Palau


People sometimes ask me what it was like growing up as the son of such a well-known man—whether I felt the pressure to measure up or struggled living in the bright lights. In reality, it was a pretty normal life. For the most part, no one knew Luis Palau in Beaverton, Oregon. My childhood—aside from the occasional trip to Latin America for a crusade—involved the normal experiences of any suburban family.

Just because I grew up Palau didn’t mean I inherited a faith in Christ. On the one hand, I’m guessing few people heard a clear expression of the gospel as often as my brothers and I did. I was one of those kids who prayed to receive Christ countless times, just to be safe. I can’t point to any one time that I first committed my life to Christ. It was something I reconfirmed over and over in Sunday school classes in Mexico City and at Vacation Bible School.

For me, personally, I look back to when I was sixteen years old as the time when I made a more mature commitment to follow Jesus for the rest of my life. It was at a Christian camp and conference center called Hume Lake near Fresno, California. A speaker named Bill McKee challenged us to stand up in front of everyone if we were willing to share our faith and not be “lukewarm.” As simple as it may seem now, it was a powerful moment for me. I felt convicted about certain things I was doing, music I was listening to, habits I was forming. I stood up in front of several hundred other kids, hands sweating, looking down at the ground, and felt a sense of relief that I was clear on my life’s purpose: to do what I could to help lead people to Jesus.

It was a pivotal moment for me. I returned home with clarity and excitement. My brother and I became far more active in our church’s high school group than we had been before. We even led Bible studies and prayer times at Sunset High School.

Just recently at one of my high school reunions (I won’t tell you which one), Keith and I were surprised by the number of people who came up to us to tell us how much our actions played a role in their lives. One old friend told us, “You didn’t know this at the time, but I saw you guys praying in the school library on a regular basis. God used that to plant some seeds in my life. I came to trust God in my twenties, and my wife and I now attend Village Baptist.”

It is such a privilege even now to see how those personally monumental moments of childlike faith can be used by God in other people’s lives.
The Winds of Change


During those early years of my commitment to Christ, I devoured books like Shadow of the Almighty by Elisabeth Elliot (as well as The Lord of the Rings, but that’s another story). It was that book—a book about a missionary from Wheaton College who was martyred in Ecuador in the 1950s—that pushed me to attend Wheaton myself. (It didn’t hurt that Billy Graham had gone there as well—Dad never let us forget that!) I loved my years as a Wheaton student. God used my time there to develop my Christian worldview and kindle the dream of how to live out the school’s motto: “For Christ and his kingdom.” I felt sure God wanted me to serve him in some way related to missions; I just wasn’t sure exactly how.

The August after finishing my studies, Michelle and I got married. (We met in the youth group at Cedar Mill Bible Church, where we’d both grown up.) I started working for my dad that same month. It was only supposed to be for a year, just as we got settled into married life. A chance to pay off some student loans and get ready for Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. I’d already been accepted. Seemed to have my trajectory figured out. But a funny thing happened in those first six months. I fell in love with the work, the joy of seeing dozens, even hundreds, of churches, working together to try to impact their cities. That resonated with me. I was hooked.

Plans quickly changed. Michelle and I knew we needed to stay on longer with the team. We bagged the Fuller Seminary plans and decided to dig our roots into Portland—the place we both loved.

I became the guy whose job it was to fly out to various U.S. and international cities to meet with pastors who wanted to have a Luis Palau Crusade. It was up to me to cast the vision of what this effort would do for their community and why it was worth the significant investment of time and money. I knew the routine. After all, I’d grown up in the midst of these crusades. I knew what they could do, and I believed in them wholeheartedly.

Some of the selling points, for lack of a better term, remain the same today: the value of uniting churches across denominations and ethnicities, equipping folks from those churches in sharing their faith in a visible, large-scale way. I was a pretty naïve twenty-two-year-old, fresh out of Wheaton College, when I started flying around to places like Kingston, Jamaica, and Manhattan—Kansas, that is—trying to lay the foundation for a successful crusade. I loved it, but bit by bit, I became aware of critiques of the crusade approach. Not everyone was as excited and convinced as I was. The pushback usually ran along certain lines:

· Are the crusades reaching those who need to hear the gospel, or are we preaching to the choir?

· Do the people who respond to the gospel message end up in local churches?

· What’s left a year or even six months after you guys leave?

I had never really thought about the crusade approach in this way, this critically. For me, what made these critiques tough to stomach was that they came from the very people I was supposed to convince.

I developed my answers to these questions and critiques, but, over time, doubts began to gnaw away at me, especially when attendance at our U.S. events started to decline and costs climbed. Were there better ways to do this? If so, what were they, and where were the examples of these better approaches?

We, as a family and a team, felt the clear conviction that the best way to change a person’s life for the better was to help them see and experience God’s love by sharing the Good News with them. If there was a better way to impact a city and share the gospel, what was it?
Harder than I Thought


When I was thirty-two, “Say Yes, Chicago” came along. Michelle and I had started our family. David was four, and Daniel was just eighteen months old. Dad had long dreamed of tackling this big, tough city—“my kind of town,” according to Frank Sinatra. We had a lot of good relationships from Wheaton College and Moody Bible Institute, and Dad had preached in Chicago many times over the years.

We thought this time we’d try something new. So, we embarked on a fresh (for us) approach. Really, it was an older approach: taking on a city for much longer than just a week. What evolved was the idea of doing what Billy Graham had done effectively in the 1950s, where, for example, he filled New York’s Madison Square Garden for (if you can believe this) four months straight. That was in the summer of 1957. For Dad, as a twenty-three-year-old just getting geared up to move to the United States for further theological studies in Portland, Oregon, hearing and reading about that marathon crusade at Madison Square Garden was one of the primary things that cultivated his vision for this sort of big-city effort.

It wasn’t completely new to us. In the past, we had tried it in other cities with varying success. “Mission to London” in 1984 was sixteen weeks long. It was challenging at times, but the fruit was clearly visible. Even today, many church leaders (like worship leader Matt Redman) look back to that campaign as the beginning of their walks with Christ.

Dad wanted to tackle Chicago by taking one venue and staying there for several months, but I felt that approach would lead to disaster. If we were struggling to fill an arena in the United States for five or eight days, how were we going to survive two months? We eventually compromised. I moved to Chicago with Michelle and the boys to settle in for a two-year time of preparing. It was grueling, traveling all over the Chicago area, visiting pastors from the North Shore to the South Side. Some loved our idea; more were unsure but polite. It takes something out of you to try to sell a vision day after day after day, knowing many people aren’t buying it.

In the end, we pulled together a schedule that included two months of outreaches, ranging from women’s luncheons to rallies in suburban arenas, to two weeks at the UIC (University of Illinois at Chicago) Pavilion. Over the course of those months, tens of thousands of people heard the Good News, and thousands committed or recommitted their lives to Christ. I truly am grateful to have been part of it all. But I had this sinking feeling that the ambivalence from many churches that had been masked fairly well in the suburbs would be uncovered in a very public way wh...

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