Luis Palau: A Faithful Legacy—Part 2

“God gave you your ministry to take care of it for him. It is more than a job. It is a calling, and a grand one.”

Don’t miss Part 1 of our interview, where Luis Palau tempers the alarmism about the next generation, shares what he’s learned about speaking to people with different backgrounds, talks about building bridges to Latin American dictators and everyday people, and discusses overcoming the No. 1 barrier to sharing our faith.

What have you learned about how great Bible teaching supports evangelistic work?

It’s natural. It’s childish to think that theology and rich Bible teaching are somehow separate from evangelistic proclamation. They are naturally connected.

I’m not sure why, but it’s relatively rare to hear excellent Bible teachers speak well of evangelism. In part I think that’s because many pastors and teachers of the Bible and theology don’t have rich personal lives of sharing the good news themselves. It’s hard to honestly promote what you don’t live.

I’ll never forget during one campaign in Aberdeen, Scotland, seeing a well-known professor at Aberdeen Theological College attending one of our classes for counselors at the campaign—paying careful attention on the basics of how to introduce someone to Christ. Here’s a man who’s written books on theology, participating heartily to learn the basics. All of us, no matter how smart, faithful or well trained, need to be guided gently and practically in how to lead another to Jesus.

While your sons are sharing preaching, leadership and networking duties of your organization, the Luis Palau Association has been quietly building the Next Generation Alliance (NGA) since 1998—a global network of evangelists that it trains and equips. How do you feel about the legacy of those men and women?

My sons are doing incredible work. The association is in excellent hands and a strong position to encourage the good news for a long time to come. But we recognize that we can’t and shouldn’t be trying to do everything everywhere—we need to use our experience and resources to support others gifted for sharing the good news in every part of the world.

There is a special place in my heart, not just for those who evangelize (that should be all Christians), but for those whose primary ministry calling is evangelism. That call can be isolating. The idea behind the Next Generation Alliance is to give the kind of relationship and support evangelists need without creating a relationship of dependence. Multiplication by example is the best way. It’s in watching that one learns the most. I was shown this personally by Billy Graham, whose relational investment in me was practical and inspiring.

NGA evangelists are responsible for key aspects of their ministry, including raising support. The network connects, trains, encourages and grounds their evangelistic ministry in the local churches it supports. It’s a 2 Timothy 2:2 idea—teaching others who will teach others.

Through the decades you’ve been adamant about the importance of local churches and their pastors. What would you say to leaders reading this about the relationship between evangelism and community?

The local church is the only institution the Lord left on planet earth. There’s no other. No nation, no nonprofit, no Bible society, no denomination. There’s just the body of Christ. All Christians, particularly if they are working to spread the good news, must respect the local church, for all its flaws, and appreciate how hard it is to lead a church well.

But good relationships must be built and maintained between congregations and other ministries. They can never be taken for granted. Historically, evangelists have had fractured relationships—sometimes even bitter ones—with local pastors. George Whitefield is a classic example. Local pastors, as a rule, had little love for him, and he censured them on a routine basis in his preaching, sometimes unfairly.

An evangelistic preacher should see their ministry supporting the church. The evangelist is there for local pastors, not the other way around. Evangelists need to be trustworthy, servant-hearted, respectful. They need to take their God-given passion, which is part of the gifted evangelist’s calling, and channel it to pull with the best of the local church, not against it. Yes, sometimes there will be friction—a need for exhortation or a gentle kick in the pants to pastoral complacency. But it is always in humility and love, with a teachable spirit that learns from the experience too. An evangelist should never see their work like some heroic gunslinger who rides in to clean up town. That’s not the calling.

The church is all we have. If the body can’t work together, we have nothing.

We get caught up in the specifics of our tradition and lose primary things among secondary points. Baptism, for example. I’m a die-hard baptism-by-immersion guy, and will be to the day I die. But if that holds me back from doing real work and ministry with Christians whose tradition is to sprinkle new converts? The body of Christ has been divided over a secondary issue. Baptism is primary, not the how. I am convinced my way is right, but that conviction is secondary. Losing sight of those distinctions is what divides us and keeps the good news from going out in unity and strength.

What would it take to see a modern revival?

I have seen them. Cali, Colombia, just as one example of quite a few. One revival I saw happened in the Skagit Valley up near Bellingham, Washington. A powerful touch of God. No one wrote about it; it wasn’t a flare-up that went national, but it was real.

The principles for how they happen are usually the same. It starts in the church (“revival” implies this—something that was dying is fired up again), it centers on a movement of heartfelt holiness, it contains an awesome reverence for the Word of God, and, somewhere in the revival process, there is an intense community experience of confession and repentance. It is incredible to see.

That last element—repentance and genuine reconciliation between people—is a marker that the revival is real. That desperate humility doesn’t happen on its own. Only the Holy Spirit can lead people en masse to a place of such deep conviction that they are willing to spill their secret sins, open their hearts and bond in in the blood of Jesus.

If you want to see a revival, it isn’t going to happen with a snap of your fingers. Like that old joke about a preacher praying, “Lord, I beg you to send a revival! But I need you to do it in (looks at watch) 20 minutes.” There is no recipe for revival. It takes time and prayer and sustained, powerful preaching—usually about a week—to get things started. These days, it’s hard for churches to think about taking that kind of time together. Too bad. It holds us back from the possibilities of the Christian life: holiness, joy, happiness.

But the benefits aren’t just the conversions. Revival impacts the whole community, the congregation. It’s easy to lead a revived church. You don’t need a ton of programs or systems—people are motivated to grow, to encourage each other, to really live in the good news. If we could see this, it would transform church life and leadership. You couldn’t hold people back from growing and sharing Christ with their neighbors if you tried. People would be on fire with joy. They would want to open the Bible, to be among God’s people every chance they got.

As the next generation of preachers, pastors and leaders continues to rise, what do you want to tell them about serving the church in our complicated time?

One of my most treasured legacies is our work to serve pastors—so many of them—in Latin America and around the world. I want to remind all leaders of a phrase I dearly love: “the grandeur of the ministry.” We need to remember that every chance we get. It is so easy to lose sight of it.

I see many men and women who have forgotten, as they aged, what it felt like to be called by God. Most of us made our decision to serve the Lord while we were young. Years have passed. Pain and hurt has come. Exhaustion. Discouragement. No matter your background, your education, your situation; your hope to serve God and win souls has been hit by the realities of life.

The words of Jesus to Peter echo in my mind: “Feed my sheep.” If we love Jesus, that’s what we must and shall do. The majority of Christian workers struggle. But their work is an honorable thing. It serves the Lord, people and society. It is too bad that they are so often underappreciated—and undervalue themselves too.

Don’t compare yourself with a “bigger” or “more successful” pastor. Some were born to take care of only a few sheep. There is not less honor or grandeur in that. If that’s you, then take great care of those few.

Part of the grandeur is the real influence you have through ministry. Your influence lies in helping people live godly lives, and that is often overlooked. It is like salt and light—both of which share the quality of being quiet. There is no noise in a lightbulb, no grandstanding in a shaker of salt. They simply do their job. If it’s really working, you rarely notice it. The attention falls on what’s illuminated, on what has been flavored. You don’t usually get to see the real benefit of your work. It’s often hidden.

And this makes the ministry grand in its sacredness. God gave you your ministry to take care of it for him. It is more than a job. It is a calling, and a grand one. Our role as ambassadors helps us see ourselves carrying a joyful authority. We must not take things out of proportion, but there is weight to being God’s representative. Do we see ourselves with dignity or dismiss ourselves? There is no arrogance to this kind of authority, only genuine humility.

If you don’t have a passion for the lost, you need to search your heart. You really do. Ask yourself, How come I don’t care? Then, if you care, do something about it.

Since your cancer diagnosis, you’ve wrestled with your own mortality and found renewed (and hard-won) hope. What verse or passage keeps returning to you during this time?

The old promises still stand, but there’s freshness too. Through the months since that terminal cancer diagnosis different emphases have come, based on what I was going through at the time—something for that month, that week, that day, that hour, sometimes that minute. I go into detail about my own process of finding peace in this season in the new book—and that peace was elusive for a while. Satan really attacked. But one verse that has kept coming back—and felt almost like a new one to me—was Psalm 18:30: “As for God, his way is perfect. The word of the Lord is flawless.”

These days, I keep searching my soul, asking about the state of my own faith. I know many are praying for my healing in this time. Many of them write to me, convinced that the Lord is going to heal me. I’d sure like that—to be able to tell people that story. But on the other hand, I’m 84 and have lived a full life. I’m thankful for it. I’m sure I made mistakes along the way, but I feel I did what I was told to do. And in that place, the psalmist’s words speak to me: “His way is perfect.”

I’ve searched my heart for unconfessed sin. I’m working to not grow weary of what the Lord is teaching me during this unique time. The lessons he teaches aren’t always easy, but they are always loving. The Lord is showing me a lot of love these days. He is with me. That’s plenty.

I can’t think of a better way to lead in to my next question. After 84 years, what’s one word to sum up your life?

Blessing.

Day by day I look back, because I have time in this season to look back. Goal-oriented people like me who’ve been pushing forward their whole lives often neglect reflection. I’m catching up! I never wanted things to go to my head—I was afraid of thinking I was a hotshot, which I think was part of why I kept my head down, driving, driving, driving. I purposely chose to look forward.

But looking back now, I keep saying to the Lord, Wow, you’ve been so good. It’s incredible. With only minor exceptions—and you never know how you might have been spared by not getting everything you wished—the Lord has given me the desires of my heart. I am not worthy, believe me. If you knew my heart, my thoughts, you would agree. I am a sinner, as are we all.

I felt that if I stuck with the Word, the Lord would do whatever he wanted—and much more than I could expect. We’ve been in countries where, essentially, the entire nation heard the gospel because we were there. That’s the kind of thing a young preacher dreams of. But did I do that? Did I make it happen? No. It was the blessing of God.

My only ministry regret is that I wish we could have done more. I’m told there are 192 countries—I wish I could have preached in all of them. But to be honest, even that desire is probably egotistical. [Laughs]

At the end of life, you consider many little things—ways you might have been more kind, more loving. It is all too easy to become self-focused and begin to believe it is about you. That temptation presents itself in every season of life. The more that we take the Word seriously, the more God can bless us the way he has promised. I often wonder—was there anything I could have done to have been more holy? If so, could God have used me in greater ways? More freely?

But then the idea returns. My life wasn’t just about me. I praise God for those who taught me from the time I was a little boy that the Word of God is everything. And so I ask how we can pass that impulse on. How can we persuade the next generation? That’s the thought that haunts me. How can we show them the goodness of God so clearly that they cannot help but run to Jesus in true love? He has made us so many promises. And he will fulfill them.

Blessing—that encompasses it all: provision, abundance, opportunities, protection, my super wife, my four sons who walk with the Lord, the love of dear teammates and friends. My whole life—blessing. It has been a dream life, despite all the struggle along the way. Superb. Unworthily so.

My whole life.

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