Presbyterians in Houston, Texas, were instrumental in staging one of the largest faith celebrations ever in the Lone Star state, where the gospel of Jesus Christ came in the form of BMX bikers, skateboarders and concerts.
Luis Palau’s CityFest Houston mixed evangelism with elements of a music festival, extreme sports and celebrity appearances to draw in a total of some 225,000 people to the modern-day open-air Christian revival, which was held Oct. 7-8.
Memorial Drive Church (see stories in pages 3 and 4) took the lead in organizing the $3.7 million multimedia outreach that was supported with volunteers and donations from about 600 Houston-area churches, including a throng of Presbyterian congregations.
The family-friendly event was also backed by scores of high-profile city leaders, businesses and professional sports franchises like the Houston Astros baseball team and the Houston Texans NFL football team.
Dave Peterson, pastor of Memorial Drive church, served as festival co-chair along with his wife Terri. Memorial Drive member Bob McNair, who owns the Houston Texans, also co-chaired the weekend event with his wife Janice.
Peterson also serves as steering committee co-chair for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Mission Initiative: Joining Hearts and Hands campaign, which is an effort to raise $40 million for church growth and international mission personnel.
Presbyterian Rachel Quan, who worships at Memorial Drive, was director of the Houston festival held in a downtown park free of charge for those attending.
“This was a historic moment in Houston,” Peterson said of CityFest, which was two years in the making. “Nothing like this had ever happened before for Christians. I’m not even sure there’s been a non-Christian gathering of this size over a weekend in Houston. This was really a first for the city.”
Seven years ago Palau, who was born in Argentina and has preached in 70 countries, began employing extreme means and extreme sports to reach an MTV-bred generation of kids who haven’t heard about Jesus Christ before.
The approach of combining music, extreme sports, fun, and faith has particular appeal to young people who might otherwise turn away from a religious event, organizers said.
“It’s a first step in building a relationship with someone by inviting them to the festival and then seeing if they want to come and be part of the body of the church,” Quan said.
She said Grace Church, Windwood Church, and First Church in Houston were among local Presbyterian congregations supporting the event, which drew sponsors from a range of Protestant and Roman Catholic churches of all sizes and all ethnic groups.
Other Presbyterian churches in Houston signing on included Pines Presbyterian Church, Heritage Presbyterian Church and Northwoods Presbyterian Church.
“I think the thing that really has exceeded my expectations is how the Body of Christ across denominational lines, across social and economic and ethnic lines, came together to do one thing for the city,” Quan said. “I think that’s what was so impressive to me.”
Quan said invitations to accept Jesus were extended at several festival venues, and more than 4,000 decisions for Christ were made during the weekend. She said the festival brought together a very broad coalition of ministries and drew thousands of lay volunteers.
There were well known names attending, such as born-again actor Stephen Baldwin, the youngest of the acting Baldwin brothers, who is a supporter of Palau’s extreme sports activities.
There was also Michelle Williams, once a member of the best-selling female trio Destiny’s Child.
Williams, a vocalist/songwriter/performer who has released two gospel albums and has toured with legend Shirley Caesar, was part of the artist line-up for CityFest that included Gospel Music Association’s Artist of the Year Chris Tomlin, whose songs are sung in churches worldwide. There was pop-punk band Hawk Nelson; Grammy award-winning Kirk Franklin; critically-acclaimed Catholic artist Matt Maher; country singer Wynonna Judd; BarlowGirl who has received numerous GMA nominations; and Latin artists Marcos Witt and “El Puma” Rodriguez.
For the first time, Palau conducted a segment entirely in Spanish. Other festival highlights included a Kids’ Block Party with games and activities; skaters and BMX bikers in a live demo along with motocross; and a Sports Zone.
“Many of the best skateboarders or motocross motorcyclists are strong believers,” Peterson said. “Those guys will do their skateboard thing and their motorcycle thing and then there’s a very strong message given by them. They’re strong believers and they use the Sports Zone as their pulpit.”
He said planning for CityFest Houston included a food drive for the hungry and “compassion projects” in 26 public schools across Greater Houston. Memorial Drive church donated school supplies and replaced air conditioning units at one school while re-landscaping the campus.
“The last 10 months of the project there were continuous activities going on in local churches,” Peterson said. “It was a lot more than just a weekend.”
The 71-year-old Palau is known globally for his outdoor CityFest-like events. His most recent festival in Orlando, Fla., drew a crowd of more than 85,000.
His books and writings on matters of faith have been published in dozens of languages. Palau’s broadcasts in English and Spanish are heard daily on more than 2,100 radio stations in 42 countries.
Palau’s next major U.S. festival is set for early March in Tampa, Fla., followed by Omaha, Neb.; Dallas, Texas; and Nashville, Tenn. He recently completed trips to China and Western Europe and is planning international festivals in Mexico, Spain, and South America.
“We were blessed by Houston in so many ways,” Palau said. “From major sponsors like the Texans and Astros to the city’s beautiful park to the thousands of volunteers who worked so hard, CityFest was truly a project bathed in love and purpose.”