03 October 2005

“We want the community to see that the church can throw a good party.”

By Michael Rose

Good News

According to a front page story in Thursday’s Washington Post, evangelist Luis Palau’s latest gathering, to be held on the National Mall on October 8 and 9, is going to “play up party instead of pulpit.” The ambiguously-named “DC Festival” has a budget of $3.4 million, and will feature extreme sports demonstrations, appearances by professional athletes, a skate park, food concessions, and all-day performances by contemporary Christian musical groups. The Washington Examiner reports that “Bumper stickers, fliers and lawn signs for the upcoming ‘DC Festival’ are everywhere in the metro area.”

But while the two articles both mention corporate sponsorships from major companies such as Pepsi, Amtrak, and the Washington Capitals, we also learn that neither God, Jesus, nor any other general religious concepts are explicitly mentioned in the promotional materials for the event. Although the festival carries a slogan of “Great Music! Good News!”, that’s about as religious as the advertising gets. For someone unfamiliar with the Christian meaning underlying the term “good news,” Palau’s festival could easily be mistaken for some other, feel-good yet non-religious gathering. Clearly Palau and his organization hope to draw people in by de-emphasizing religion.

But if the mainstream press focuses on the implications of Christian marketing, the Christian press all but ignores this angle of the story. The Christian Post’s report on the festival, headlined “Joint Effort of Nearly 900 Churches Prepares D.C. for Large-Scale Outreach,” emphasizes the role of local churches that are helping Palau with logistics and support, and omits any mention of extreme sports, corporate sponsorship, or the line-up of Christian music celebrities. From The Christian Post, we learn that Palau wants to “elevate the God-consciousness of the area,” and to “make Jesus famous.” But while the article mentions that “the festival is a ‘catalytic tool that allows us to capture the believers’ attention to go deeper,'” it doesn’t really describe how it will do so, namely, through music and other secular-style entertainment. Nor does the article mention the corporate sponsors. Meanwhile, Palau’s spokesman, Craig Chastain, told The Washington Post that “We want the community to see that the church can throw a good party,” and explained the festival to The Washington Examiner as therefore being, “90 percent entertainment and 10 percent evangelism.”

But if “throwing a good party,” along with preaching, is one of the aims of the event, doesn’t that deserve to be noted in the Christian media? Is The Christian Post leaving this out because, in the words of a sociologist contacted by The Washington Examiner, “Entertainment [at religious events] is notorious for creating fickle fans”? Are there people who are ashamed that Palau has to attract people only by semi-religious means, and that the preaching is somewhat de-emphasized?

The mainstream media certainly has its share of problems, but citizens who only read the religious press may really not get the full story either. The Christian media in this case seems to be ignoring some crucial elements of Palau’s brand of religion, leaving readers who aren’t familiar with him in the dark. And that can’t be good news.

Michael Rose is a graduate student at New York University.