"It's like going to the fair, but with Christ."
I heard that from a teenage girl in passing as I was wading through the thousands of people who filled the Cuddy Family Midtown Park for the "Love Alaska" festival -- an event brought to Alaska by Luis Palau, an Argentinian who has been a resident of Oregon and American citizen since the 1960s.
A good friend of mine invited to me a luncheon last Thursday. He said it was part of the "Love Alaska" festival, which happened last weekend. Palau, a protege of Billy Graham, brought with him to Alaska a very impressive lineup of Christian musicians, headlined by Toby Mac -- the former front man for DC Talk, a Grammy-winning trio.
Thursday's event was a business and civic luncheon at which Luis Palau spoke and Norm Miller, the chairman of Interstate Batteries, gave his powerful Christian testimony.
A criticism that many people have about evangelism is that the messengers are often judgmental hypocrites with their hands out begging for cash. That impression of evangelism is perfectly fair. We all remember Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard and other supposed messengers of God who turned out to be frauds.
But even on the less extreme side of the scale, the face of evangelism to most people has been preachers warning of fire and brimstone and then asking for money.
That's not what Christ is all about.
The message Luis Palau brought to the luncheon and event last weekend was much different. Palau brought a refreshing look to the world of Christ. His message wasn't a pitch for religion -- he didn't even mention religion -- his message was about Jesus.
Palau was pleasingly conversational. While he showed some of the characteristics of typical preachers -- he held up the Bible as he quoted scripture, interrupted for prayer and encouraged people to welcome Jesus in to their lives -- he spoke with the crowd, told jokes, was self-deprecating and relatable. He told stories of struggle and success. He told stories of love and life and death.
He spoke, he didn't preach.
Anchorage Daily News reporter Nathaniel Herz interviewed Palau for a pre-event article in which Palau explained why the marketing of the weekend event left many people wondering what it was all about. "If you say, 'Hey, come out and be converted to Christ,' people will say, 'Are you nuts?,' " Palau said. "What you're trying to do with the public is hopefully awaken people's interest, and hopefully whet their appetites to come."
Palau didn't come with his hat in hand asking for cash from the crowd of thousands of Alaskans. He didn't come with a message of fear, telling people to change their lives or suffer the consequence of eternal damnation.
He brought a message of love.
Miller, head of Interstate Batteries, said during the Thursday luncheon, "I can look out around this crowd and honestly say, I love all of you." He said that the fulfillment he gets from this lifestyle is better than any of the enjoyment he got from his lifestyle of excess.
His message was his own. The experiences, feelings, stories and decisions were his. He didn't point his finger into the crowd proclaiming that we should do what he did. He didn't threaten anything or ask anything except that we listen.
Palau came with his pocketbook open, rather than his hands out. The event, which was completely free, had a budget of $750,000 according to Herz's article. Palau asked nothing from the crowds attending the festival or the luncheon. Levi Park, Director of the Love Alaska Festival, told me in an email interview that 60 percent of the budget was contributed by individuals, 25-30 percent came from churches and 10-15 percent came from corporate sponsors.
Even though I have a personal relationship with Christ, I have always resisted organized religion. For me, I've never felt like I need a mediator for my connection with my creator. However, I've also never enjoyed the idea of being preached to and told how to live.
One of my favorite Metallica lyrics comes from the song "Holier Than Thou," and it sums up my basic philosophy on life and religion: "Before you judge me take a look at you, can't you find something better to do, point the finger, slow to understand, arrogance and ignorance go hand in hand."
The sentence "Judge not, that you will not be judged" from the Book of Matthew has become cliche. However, the Bible is riddled with discussions of judgment with one central message -- leave judgment to God -- he's got that covered.
Evangelism has fallen into the same trap that many messengers who don't know how to reach out to people fall into -- fear-mongering and extremism. They abandon discussion and reason for hyperbole. They demand that you change your life now or suffer the most extreme consequences possible.
Luis Palau simply asked that we join the discussion.
Evangelists in the past have been losing the fight for Christ by scaring or driving people away with hypocrisy and hyperbole. The face of what most of us know as evangelism is doing more harm than good. True messengers of God should abandon these judgmental and fear-mongering tactics for a more reasoned and understanding discussion.
For one weekend, Luis Palau brought that style of religious discussion to Anchorage.
Mike Dingman, a fifth-generation Alaskan born and raised in Anchorage, is a former UAA student body president and has worked, studied and volunteered in Alaska politics since the late '90s. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.