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Luis Palau on the Power of Simple Outreach

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Q: How has your experience as an Argentine-born international evangelist affected your perspective on the American church and its outreach?


A: My wife, who is American, tells me I see the American church through rose-colored glasses. But I have seen in America the best. I’ve met godly pastors and amazing businessmen who really make money for the kingdom of God. The Lord has answered prayers for me through American Christians. I wouldn’t be in this ministry if it wasn’t for the Americans.

Of course, I know there are weaknesses. I’m an elder in my church, and we had our meeting until 12:30 last night, so I know about weaknesses in the church.

You know, Americans don’t tend to insult one another; they ignore one another. Which is the better of two evils? If you’re going to be independent-minded, at least don’t cuss the other guy out. In other countries, people literally attack each other. But I often remember Jesus prayer, just hours before his death, “Father, may they be one that the world will know that you sent me.”


Over the years, one of the most gratifying things we’ve heard again and again is this: “If you left nothing else behind when you came to our town, you brought us together.” That gives me great joy, because we are concerned about the unity of the Church.


Another concern is evangelism. If you compare America with other nations, I would have to say, evangelistically, the church in America has let down. Not totally, but let down. In many other countries, evangelism is up-front. In Africa, Latin America, Asia–just about everywhere except in Europe, Canada and the U.S. And in other countries, evangelism is primary, but social action follows closely. More than we realize. Even very poor churches often help even poorer people. It’s amazing.


Despite the weaknesses though, I do see more holiness in the American church than in many countries. As you travel internationally, you see dishonorable financial practices, bribery (which is very hard to deal with), the habit of not speaking the truth–and the whole truth. I think the church in America is less prone to these weaknesses. That does not mean, however, that we don’t need an awakening of holiness. There is definitely a need in America, as well as everywhere else, for much more holiness.


Q: You’ve been an early pioneer in multiethnic outreach. How can the church do a better job reflecting the diversity of the community around us?


First, don’t be afraid. I’m convinced that true believers will embrace people of another culture, another color of skin. But there is a natural apprehension that simply comes from our unfamiliarity. We have different habits, different ways of expressing our joy, different ways of worshipping in the Spirit. And worship is a good example–an illustration of our difference.


To some, our worship appears too flighty; to others, too solemn. Too quiet or too noisy. Some dance in the aisles; others are on their knees and don’t say a word. These are just outward trappings. Jesus said we worship in spirit and in truth.

So whether it’s worship or other cultural differences, we should not judge by outward things–it’s a childish thing to do. When you really know people, you’re going to search for their spirit, not outward cultural trappings.


In the local church—in public meetings particularly—we should pray for churches in the greater community that are from other denominations, cultures, races and languages. Pray for them. And I encourage leaders from different cultures and races to each make the first step to befriend one another. Generally the other person is as hungry for friendship as you are. I wish I would have found this out earlier–and I started pretty young!


Sometimes I think we are afraid that we will offend each other by some unintentional idiotic statement—some cultural mistake. But don’t worry about mistakes. We all know that we make mistakes, and the other person makes them too. So be proactive.


Q: I’ve appreciated the concept behind your book, A Friendly Dialogue between an Atheist and a Christian. I read it as a book about advancing the faith through respectful listening. Did that experience in China affect the way you view your ministry elsewhere?


A: It certainly confirmed what we’ve seen in other countries. For example, when Mikhail Gorbachev was still president of the Soviet Union, we were welcomed in 12 different Soviet republics. We saw then that there was more openness than was generally known. But sometimes we are too confrontational, and it limits our opportunities. It doesn’t work in dealing with nations, and it doesn’t work dealing with individuals.


I may be more sensitive to this because I grew up in a confrontational church. It was a good biblical church in many ways, but it was a fighting church. Some of the preachers hurled insults at “the other side.” As a child, I would sit there and say to myself, They’re going to come and chop our heads off—and we’re asking for it. But we were safe because there were no unbelievers present. Few ever came in, and for years the church did not grow—probably because the attitudes were not loving.


Spurgeon used to say, “The pulpit is the coward’s castle.” You can hurl insults from the pulpit that you would never say over a cup of coffee at the local restaurant. You wouldn’t sit in the restaurant with a pagan, atheist, Marxist and start insulting him, his intellect, his mother. First, he might throw the coffee at you. Secondly, he’d get up and walk out.


So I’m not going to blast a fellow like China’s Zhao Qizheng, who gives me his hand and says, “Dr. Palau, welcome to China. I’m a Marxist. I’m an atheist. I’m a communist. But I’ve read the Bible three times.” Am I going to insult his intellect? He’s an atomic scientist, an architect, a brilliant man—and he showed signs of sincere humility.


If you really do one-on-one conversations about faith, you learn to respect the person, understand that in his mind, he’s sincere about his nonbelief. At the same time, you believe in the power of the Holy Spirit. He’s the one who really does the converting.


Q: Some Christians feel they are losing their grip on America’s shared values. They feel it’s “us against them.” The mainstream culture often feels the same way about the Church. We may be better known for what we are against than what we are for. The book models “a friendly dialogue.” Apply that to the church: How can we build bridges rather than barriers?


A: There’s no question that there is a great cultural shift—it is breaking down because we are a diverse culture. The big question is, How do you then respond to the challenge.


I grew up in a country and a time when we were consistently and constantly confronted by attacks, insults, put-downs and offensive language. I was brought up in a culture when, as a believer, I was in the minority and we were treated like dogs.


Every insulting term you could use, we heard.


What has changed? We have now seen the blessing of God in Latin America. Africans have experienced a similar shift. The public, persistent, positive proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ has made a difference. That will bring better results if you give it time than attacking the other side and demeaning them for their convictions.


If you want to see change—and who doesn’t—do something revolutionary: Love your neighbor as yourself. Pray for your enemies. Don’t curse those who mistreat you. No, pray for them. How often do we hear a church praying for its enemies?


And or course, continue to faithfully preach the Good News.

This interview is excerpted from the March/April 2009 issue of Outreach magazine. Learn more about this issue. Each issue of Outreach is designed to bring you the ideas, innovations and resources that will help you reach your community and change the world.