“We all need to be met with the compassion that helps disarm us to accept that we have been loved by God to the point of the gracious, violent sacrifice of Jesus.”
Luis Palau is an iconic international evangelist who has spoken in person to more than 1 billion people and is a daily radio presence in dozens of nations around the world. His ministry, beginning with street preaching and radio broadcasts in his native Argentina, has had a profound influence on global Christianity.
The association that bears his name has worked with thousands of churches in hundreds of cities, including London, Hong Kong, Singapore, Chicago, Moscow, Madrid, Mexico City, Buenos Aires and Washington D.C., since Luis’ first large-scale campaign in 1966. It also has coordinated hundreds of citywide campaigns in dozens of nations, including major evangelistic festivals on five continents. Today, led by son Kevin with worldwide preaching from his son Andrew, the association shows little sign of letting up as Luis’ chapter of leadership draws to a close. The year 2020 will mark a milestone for an expansion of the association’s outreach efforts globally.
But what is the story behind the man? In his new spiritual memoir, Palau: A Life on Fire (Zondervan), Luis tells that story—but in a unique way. Focusing on the people who shaped his life and faith, he connects the dots between stories from every part of his life, from his birth into a well-off family, to their plunge into poverty after his father’s untimely death; from the life-changing mentorship with Billy Graham, to Luis’ 2017 diagnosis of terminal lung cancer. It is a global story, with the backdrop of many of the major events and people of the 20th century.
I had the privilege of working closely with Luis to write this new memoir. Hoping to share practical wisdom for church leaders in a more direct way than was natural for that book, Luis and I offer this interview. It’s our prayer that his earned wisdom and honest perspective will fuel your life on fire.
—Paul J. Pastor
Luis, some people seem to think we’re in bad days for the good news—people are leaving the church, cultural pressures seem to be increasing around Christians, and the global picture on evangelism is complicated. What’s your take?
I feel a great deal of hope. Every part of the world has its challenges, but God is faithful. In some ways we have more opportunity today than nearly any other time in history. The fields are white.
True, if the research we’re seeing now is accurate, younger generations are not responding to what their parents or grandparents did. That upsets some people. But you won’t hear any alarmist rhetoric from me. In fact, some of the recent research I’ve seen (Harvard did a major study published in 2017) is encouraging. America does not seem to be trending to become like Europe, which someone once called a continent of “baptized pagans.” While there’s still significant decline among mainstream denominations—and the need for us to get our house in order—people, including younger generations, are still flocking to churches that live with simplicity and conviction.
Even compared to the past?
Yes. I’ve spent a fair amount of time researching the history of revivals. Often, Christians idolize past generations as more faithful than ours. That’s not accurate. Other than the influence of the Great Awakenings, popular, heartfelt faith was rarely widespread. Just to speak to the idealized version of history that you often hear among evangelicals: The church in America throughout the 1800s was not a rosy place. Only about 25% of people even attended church in the 1880s. By the time D.L. Moody came on the scene, church life was low, and occultism and spiritualism were ragingly popular. Maybe today America isn’t declining, but rather returning to what it has been for most of its history: nominally Christian on the surface but quite dark.
No matter the past, our work remains unchanged. While many of the elite in our country look down their noses at faith, there is a vast population of quiet people who are dedicated to the Lord. Their work is quietly changing the world.
“Changing the world.” You’ve deftly managed to intersect political spaces at the highest levels—presidents, prime ministers, parliaments—but have been careful to never be a “political” voice. How have you balanced that?
I learned it by being born in Argentina. Meddling in politics there is physically dangerous. But it’s the biblical principle that gives this real importance. In my early years, I thought if I could convert presidents, generals and other leaders, we somehow would change nations. Then, through wider reading and personal experience, I let those dreams go. That’s not how the good news works. Real change comes from the bottom up, not from the top down. The top has influence, but it’s never as powerful as you think. Real movements are people’s movements.
I came to see that if I were given a chance to share the good news with anyone—including heads of state and the people around them—I had to honor that opportunity the same as I would honor an opportunity to share that good news with anyone, from the teller at my bank to a packed stadium in Hong Kong. It’s not about what I can do through those people—it’s about those people.
The church should be the church. If you want to get into politics, don’t become a pastor. In America, there is still a feeling that we are a Christian and even an evangelical Protestant nation. But preachers should not be spouting party politics. That appears to be aligning God with earthly power. That is misleading to weaker Christians, and a terrible witness to unbelievers. We need to see ourselves as ambassadors speaking for God, not self. I’m not in those spaces to advance my opinions—I’m there to tell people how to meet God.
I remember a moment I overstepped this boundary. I was preaching in one Latin American nation where there was a complicated fight over selling grain to a neighboring country. There was pressure on the president to keep farmers from exporting their harvest so they could instead sell it to their own countrymen, and I agreed.
I went into a meeting with their president, ready to go with the perfect verse: “People curse the one who hoards grain, but they pray God’s blessing on the one who is willing to sell.” I told him humbly but precisely what I thought he should do on this matter of policy. He listened politely, but I quickly regretted my meddling.
“Let me tell you something,” he replied. “If our farmers sell their grain here, they simply won’t make money. If they don’t make money, they won’t sow for next year. If they don’t sow for next year, there won’t be enough grain to sell anywhere. We’ve done the math: Exporting will get enough profit to cover their losses selling the remainder here.”
I immediately saw my opinion wasn’t based on the larger picture. This was not as simple as it looked from the outside. I need to shut my mouth, I thought. I don’t know what these guys know. It wasn’t my job. It wasn’t my calling. That’s true whether it’s the president or the local school board. Support, be humble and remember: You may have a big opinion with little perspective. There are times you must speak on behalf of the actively persecuted, but that’s not politics. That’s defending people.
A pastor preaching from Scripture should apply it to their context—neighborhood, city, state, nation. But never pretend God takes our political side. Never tell people how to vote. Reveal truth, and let it speak for itself.
You have preached to nearly every type of audience in nearly every part of the world, across more than six decades. What have you learned about speaking to people of different backgrounds?
Culture forces you to be thoughtful, to consider the many kinds of people who listen when you stand up to preach or teach. I had to learn this quickly in my early days on live television.
It dawned on me in front of the cameras—whole nations could be listening to me. In some cases they were. There was only a single national channel, so if a TV were on, I was on it at that moment. The weight of that impressed me, thinking of all the places that my voice was going to go. Could I speak in a way that made everyone feel as if the message of Jesus was for them? I have Christians listening to me, I thought. I have unbelievers, even outright enemies of the gospel. I’m speaking to all of them for the Lord. I had to see myself as a true ambassador for Christ. Diplomacy matters in that kind of setting—speaking the truth in a way that it will be most likely to be received well.
Out of that experience I learned a couple principles. First (I must repeat myself), stick to the message of Jesus. Don’t pretend to speak for God on political issues. Just don’t. Truth and principles don’t change, but the specific policy issues of our day are very complicated. Don’t spiritualize everything. Don’t treat everything as if it were easy—it’s not.
Also, speak with compassion. Since we’ve been on the topic of politicians, I’ll use them as an example. No matter where you are in the world, the political class is desperate. Many of them pretend to be big shots, but they’re just people. The tougher they act, usually the more out of control they feel. I’ve had outright dictators nearly weep, telling me they feel like a scared 12-year-old inside. Sure, now this guy’s in charge of the country, but he knows he can’t do it. Many of them privately say, “I need God,” even if they have an atheistic, blustering public persona.
Now, back to your original question: We all need to be met with the compassion that helps disarm us to accept that we have been loved by God to the point of the gracious, violent sacrifice of Jesus. Compassion is what we all are longing to hear from God and from other people. By asking questions, we draw them in. “Where do you stand spiritually? What do you think about these things?” An honest question opens many doors. It’s relational. People respond positively when you sincerely ask what they think. Respect elicits respect. In my life, this has been a tremendous way that God has opened doors for the good news, no matter the audience.
You’ve always been adamant about calling the gospel the good news. Remind us why that phrasing is important.
Because other than journalists, people like good news. [Laughs] It is good news. The point of our message is basic, the same message the angel carried to the shepherds: “I bring you good news of great joy that shall be to all people.”
The word “gospel” means nothing in English. But “good news” is a decent translation of euangelion in Greek. In general, Christians have spoiled some of our power by communicating messages in insider theological terms. Now, I am an avid student of theology. It’s vital. But why separate everyday people from the simplicity of Jesus? Why make saying yes to his invitation any harder than it needs to be? A good ambassador speaks a common language with those to whom they are sent.
Romans 1 impressed me ages ago. In the opening section, Paul goes on this long, convoluted paragraph, but the basic thing he references is the “gospel of God … about his Son.” It’s God’s gospel—good news from God—about Jesus. Most people won’t react badly if you say you have good news for them. But insider theological terms get mixed responses. It puts barriers up from the beginning.
It’s amazing that resistance to this simplicity always comes from the church. I’ve been criticized openly: “If you make salvation too easy, everyone will want it.” To which I ask, “Isn’t that the point?”
Why would we ever hold back from painting the message of Jesus in all its glory? It is glorious good news. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky, cheap grace or a false gospel or prosperity. It’s the biblical message, which is simple, free and good.
Many Christians seem to forget that salvation is the freely given gift—God’s gift. They act as if they’re above those outside the faith, above the sins those “other” people wrestle with. Really? Let me ask you a few nasty questions, and we’ll see just how much we all stand in need of the good news of God’s gift even after we believe. Especially after we believe. The good news never stops being good. It just gets better with age. Of course, we will have moments of difficulty, even persecution. But in the big picture those are typically relatively limited. We evangelicals have too much of a martyr complex.
We are calling people to the best news the world has ever heard.
What are other barriers to sharing the good news that we need to overcome?
The No. 1 barrier is in our own minds, our own Christian embarrassment about Jesus.
We are so quick to make assumptions. We think we know what the other person is thinking. We construct elaborate apologetics in our head, all based on what they might feel, words they might say, how they might react. We argue on their behalf against us, thinking they’ll dismiss us as an extremist nut or a fundamentalist or whatever. Come on. We don’t know our own minds most of the time, let alone someone else’s. These made-up arguments in our heads about all the reasons why the other person is uninterested or will reject us or whatever only paralyze us. It’s silly. And it’s because deep down, we’re embarrassed.
I struggle with this feeling in my own day-to-day witnessing. While I can preach to thousands with a steady voice, I still get butterflies sharing the gospel with someone I know. Here’s what we all need to remember: We never know what another person will think about the message. Who are we to kill a conversation about Christ before it begins? But many Christians are more worried about what the other person is thinking than what the Lord told you to tell them.
It’s a shame Christianity has been painted as extremist. It kills me that the Christians who get the press are those 15-person churches picketing and ranting. What about the real stories—the generosity, the sacrifice, the love in the name of Jesus? In response we can only do our best to demonstrate what real Christians are like—not get inside our heads all the time to try and prepare for fallout that may never come.
I don’t think there are that many barriers to evangelism. We imagine there are, but that’s on us. Many obstacles transform into gifts when you get close to them in faith.
One last thing based on my personal gifting: If someone is gifted to do mass campaigns—having the personality, the ability to fit in, the energy—it is still more than possible across the world to see incredible things happen. Doors are wide open. I have seen great things today, even in secular France where many would say mass preaching could never work. This is the principle: There are fewer external barriers to the gospel than we act like there are. We hold ourselves back.
In Part 2 of the interview, Luis Palau discusses how theology and evangelism go hand-in-hand, encouraging next-gen evangelists through the Next Generation Alliance, the relationships between evangelists and the local church, and wrestling with his terminal cancer diagnosis.