Wednesday, April 5, 2017

We Go to Church in a Parking Lot

Fresno CityFest (Good News in the Valley), Save Mart Center Parking Lot
“Come on, Church! Sing with me on this one,” Lincoln Brewster urged the crowd. Though he got his start working with Steve Perry in the nineties, Brewster is now a big name in the Christian music scene, getting plenty of play on K-Love and other Christian music stations. He is also a worship pastor at Bayside Church in Granite Bay, so calling the audience “Church” is a habit. The event was CityFest in Fresno (which was also billed as Good News in the Valley). The strange thing is, CityFest was billed as an evangelistic outreach. Instead of talking to the “Church” should he have been saying, “Come on, you questioners!” or “Hey all of you seekers!” or even, “Hey pagans?”

I should begin by saying that CityFest was an impressive event. According to their website the campaign reached “more than 45,000 people with a message of hope and Good News.” Planning began two years ago, and 277 churches and organizations in the area worked with Luis Palau Association for a series of events that culminated with the large gatherings on the Save Mart Center grounds in Fresno. (Those events included 17 prison outreaches, a women’s luncheon, a luncheon for business and civic leaders, a college outreach, and a Spanish language festival in nearby Reedley. There were 585 service projects in the area --  trees planted, graffiti cleared, sack lunches and hot meals served (800,000 pounds of food were distributed).

Before we arrived late in the afternoon (after five) a number of events had already taken place on Saturday. There were a number of children’s and sporting events. Rich Froning, champion of CrossFit Games staged events during the day, and winners of various competitions were announced at the evening meetings. During the Saturday evening meeting Froning was interviewed by a local ABC affiliate reporter, Liz Harrison, when he shared his faith in Jesus.

After arriving, I went to a meeting for “Friends of the Festival” (counselors for those who might make a decision for Christ in the meeting). We were told that Instead of going forward as was the tradition at Billy Graham Crusades, those who responded to the message were to raise their hands and we “Friends” were to talk to those people. Men were to approach men and women were to approach women. The first question we were to ask (which was stressed again and again) was “Why did you raise your hand?” We were to fill out a card that had three options for those questions, “Receiving Christ,” “Recommitting Life to Christ,” or “Have Questions.”

We were told it was most important to get the contact information from the people who raised their hands because “We don’t want a newborn baby left out to die of exposure, we want to get these spiritual babies into a church.” In order to help us “Friends” stand out, we were given bright orange t-shirts to wear.

A number of food trucks were on the grounds, including (not surprisingly), Chick-fil-A, one of the sponsors of the event. There were a were a number of Mexican food trucks, corn dogs and several places were serving tri-tip sandwiches. (We bought tri-tip from the Dog Pound, supporting someone or other at Fresno State. We hope the Chick-fil-A cow didn’t see us with our beef sandwiches.)

There were also a number of booths for Christian organizations like Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree Project, Affirm Films and Provident Films promoting the film All Saints, and Compassion International (which had a promotional video on the main stage encouraging child sponsorship). There were also booths selling t-shirts and CDs for the artists (like Lecrae and For King and Country) appearing during the weekend.

Marisol Park, a Spanish language Gospel singer, opened the evening's program. Then the mayors of Fresno (Lee Brand) and Clovis (Bob Whalen) were introduced to give their endorsement of the event. Brand said, “My personal conviction of about faith is that it is the key to to making Fresno a better place.”  

Whalen said that through this event and the events leading up to it, “We see the hands and feet of Christ. The Cities of Clovis and Fresno are limited, but we serve a God of unlimited power.” Seeing local mayors at an evangelistic event reminded me that I was living in a very different place than I’ve lived in before. I can’t imagine a Bay Area mayor standing on the stage at such an event. But the Valley is a different place.

Luis Palau came on the stage with the mayors. This is the third time Palau has come to the Fresno -- he came for crusades in 1962 and 1982. Luis Palau is perhaps the second most popular living activist after Billy Graham, so the most popular active living evangelist.  He has preached in over 75 countries to over 30 million people. Palau praised the mayors, “You have the best mayors in the country,” and praised the people of the San Joaquin Valley as “super nice.”

A local group, Break the Barriers, who celebrate “awareness and victories of all abilities, ethnicities and ages through exceptional programs, outreach and inclusion education” presented a show of music, dance, art, and gymnastics. It was fun how they included wheelchairs in the dance numbers and young people with missing limbs in the gymnastics.

When Lincoln Brewster took the stage, he introduced his first number (a rewritten version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”) by saying, “Some of you might know this song from the movie Shrek. We’ve pulled this song from the darkness and redeemed it for kingdom purposes.” (It is no longer a “broken Hallelujah” in this version; it also leaves out the messiness of King David and adultery. I am glad the Bible leaves the messy stuff in.)

Palau then introduced another singer as his adopted son. Matt Redman came to Christ at a Luis Palau crusade at a soccer stadium in England. Redman wrote one of the today’s most popular worship songs, “10,000 Reasons/Bless the Lord,” which we’ve sung in many different churches the last two years. It was fun to hear the writer of the song lead the crowd in worship.

Palau also introduced the speaker of the evening, one of his biological sons, Andrew Palau. He said his son gave him and his mother “H-E-L-L” (yes, he did spell it out) for the first 27 years of life. But his life turned around -- and he let Andrew tell his story.

Andrew told about how drinking and drugs took over his life. Though the son of a great evangelist, he lived a life quite contrary to his father’s values, but when he was 27 years old, his father had asked him to come to a Festival (like this one). Andrew went because it was held in Jamaica, and he’d been in the middle of a cold Boston winter.

At that Festival, he gave his life to Christ, and he then dealt with his addictions to drugs and alcohol. Jamaica continued to play an important part of his life after he met a woman there whom he later married. A few years ago, when Andrew was flying with his wife and kids to visit her family in Jamaica, the plane crashed on the beach. Everyone on the flight survived, but it served as a reminder to Andrew that God never promises us tomorrow.

Andrew went on to preach about the abundant life in Christ. He said he would speak “briefly” (a word always open to interpretation). He spoke of the benefits of the abundant life in the past, with the forgiveness of sin; in the present, with power to live; and the future, with the promise of Heaven.

Andrew then invited people to receive Christ as Lord and Savior. He said a prayer and invited people to repeat his words. Then he invited people to raise their hands. I looked around a bit and was directed by someone else to go to a couple who raised their hands together. A woman “Friend” spoke with the woman, and I spoke with the man. The man said he was recommitting his life to Christ. I asked how he heard about the event, and he said his church had encouraged him to go. He attends a large church in town, so I wrote the name of the church on the card along with the man’s contact information and turned the card in.

Reports say that over 3,000 people made commitments to Christ over the course of the Festival, but the report doesn’t say how many of those commitments were “first time” commitments.

I keep going back to Lincoln Brewster calling out to the “church.” It seems that the majority of the people attending the evening events probably were Christians. I’m sure some Christians invited friends who wouldn’t call themselves Christians to the event (Mindy prayed at work for opportunities to invite people, even if someone just asked, “What are you doing this weekend?” but no one asked).

Frankly, it’s hard to imagine many people who weren’t already interested coming to an event just because they’d seen a poster that read, “Good News in the Valley - A Free Event.” But churches came together and served the community. And some people did respond to the call of the Gospel. These are good things.
Fresno CityFest 2017 Good News in the Valley