Using the thrill of extreme sports, evangelist Luis Palau and actor Stephen Baldwin are reaching American teenagers with the gospel.
Under the Burnside Bridge in Portland, Oregon, a Hollywood actor, a son of a well-known Christian evangelist, and a handful of world-class, core-sports athletes are mingling with a crowd of regulars at a skate park that is buzzing with more activity than usual.
Some of the local skaters appear mesmerized by a boom camera that’s swinging wide above the expansive drawbridge and then under it to capture a slice of the action and interaction going on here. Others are grumbling that “intruders” are invading their territory. All, however, are curious about the “goin’ Hollywood” scene unfolding beneath this architectural landmark that has spanned the local Willamette River since 1926.
Filming is a new thing at Burnside Bridge skate park–for those watching and those filming.
“We want to show kids that there are kids like them doing fun and exciting things–only with the Spirit,” says Stephen Baldwin, the actor who is directing and co-producing Livin’ It, the project being filmed. Soon to be released on DVD, Livin’ It is a creation of the Luis Palau Evangelistic Association and is expected to reach hundreds of thousands of youth worldwide with the simple message that Jesus is real.
What’s surprising to many who have followed Baldwin, 37, during his career–from his role as a criminal in The Usual Suspects to his participation in ABC’s reality show Celebrity Mole–is that he is a born-again Christian. He is putting his newfound faith to work on Livin’ It, which is the Palau organization’s first product in a series of evangelistic tools and TV specials for youth and youth leaders.
Filmed over a two-week period in October at several Portland-area skate parks, Livin’ It promises to be a 30-minute, reality-style outreach film. Baldwin will host the DVD, and he and actor Judge Reinhold will share their testimonies. The DVD mixes action footage of six top Christian skaters and four top BMX bikers demonstrating their skills with a behind-the-scenes look at how they live out their faith day by day.
On the roster are BMX riders Rich Hirsch, John Greer and Vic Murphy, and skateboarders Anthony Carney and Tim Byrne as well as team members of Boise, Idaho-based King of Kings Skateboard Ministries.
“Core sports [or, extreme sports] greatly influence youth culture,” states Kevin Palau, a son of evangelist Luis Palau and the executive vice president of his father’s ministry. He is co-producing Livin’ It with Baldwin at a cost of almost $200,000.
Luis Palau’s Beaverton, Oregon-based ministry has for four decades reached thousands of people for Christ worldwide using traditional evangelistic methods. Luis Palau says, however, that his style of ministry is changing.
“We’re willing to shift directions,” the elder Palau says. He believes that jumping out of the mold evangelists have long relied on is carrying his organization to the cutting edge of evangelism.
Adds Kevin Palau: “We’re a lot more willing to take risks to reach out to young people.”
Although it’s been more than 40 years since he arrived in the United States from his native Argentina, Luis Palau continues to spread the Christian message by keeping “an ages-old religion fresh and alive” for those who come to hear him, he says.
His goal in ministry is to show people how “the Word of Jesus Christ can bring peace and fulfillment” amid worldly chaos and strife.
“We want to reach as many people as possible with the Good News of Jesus Christ, both nationally and internationally,” he says. “Secondly, we want to train young people who are called by God to the ministry of mass evangelism and help them get on their way to really reaching the nations.”
Currently, the Palau evangelistic organization holds about a half dozen music-evangelism festivals a year. Incorporating BMX riding and skateboarding demonstrations into the festivals has catapulted the ministry into “a fresh, edgy outreach to today’s youth,” Kevin says.
At each festival, 10,000-square-foot skate parks are built so professional Christian skateboarders and BMX riders can demonstrate their skills while sharing their testimonies. Kevin says capturing this type of outreach on film was inevitable.
Building on the success of its worldwide music festivals, the Palau ministry launched PalauFest Productions to produce videos for further outreach. This new arm of ministry provides high-impact, contemporary DVDs that share the gospel through the language and culture of Generation Y.
Before Livin’ It, the ministry produced a one-hour encapsulation of its Beachfest Fort Lauderdale event that was held last year. Thousands came to the South Florida beach city during spring break to hear Christian music headliners Third Day, TobyMac, Mary Mary, Jump5, Avalon and The Katinas. The event also included skating demonstrations, testimonies from those who attended and a gospel message from Luis Palau.
Palau believes that because of the Christian community’s failure to share effectively about the person and works of Jesus Christ more than half the United States has become what he calls a “seedless generation.”
“They don’t have the seeds of knowledge or the fundamentals,” he points out. “They think Adam and Eve is a rock group; the Virgin Birth, a song by Madonna. They have no idea what the cross means, so we’ve got to get back to the basics.”
Discovering the Edge
Preaching “the basics” has been a hallmark of Luis Palau’s ministry during the years. Yet his evangelistic endeavors of today were literally a world away when, as a child, the evangelist-to-be came to Christ while living with his parents in South America. He studied in Argentina at private, British-sponsored schools and came to the United States in 1962 to study at Multnomah Biblical Seminary in Portland, where he met Pat, now his wife.
His work with such well-known evangelists as Billy Graham influenced the direction he would take. In the 1970s, he began preaching across Europe and in other parts of the world.
In the late 1990s, Palau turned his focus back to the United States. By 1996 he had led evangelistic events in 15 cities, but he and his team were restless for change.
“The crusades weren’t attracting the unbeliever, and our goal was to reach those who did not know Jesus,” he says. “That’s what an evangelist is supposed to do. We moved to the festival model when we realized we could reach up to 10 times more people than we ever did before in one day.”
He calls the festivals “city and family friendly,” adding that they let people know “what we followers of Jesus are for–not against.”
Changing directions took a lot of faith but a lot more prayer, he adds. “We weren’t sure if the pastors would be interested. We wondered if more traditional Christians would be turned off by the whole musical, casual, cheerful, relaxed approach.”
The Palau team spent long hours discussing festival details–what bands to hire, how to reach the children, even what food to provide. Says Palau: “We’re still expanding, still adding, still subtracting a thing or two. But mostly adding.”
Palau credits the success of the festivals in part to the financial partnering of hundreds of area churches and businesses located where each festival is held. In addition, he notes that “thousands of humble believers do what they can to help put on these free festivals.” He and his supporters are adamant that “the Good News should be free to everyone.”
In all his years of spreading the gospel, he says he has never lacked for anything he truly needed. He views downswings in support as God’s disciplining of the ministry and as times for introspection. He believes they are meant to keep the ministry in sync with God’s will.
“We’ve had hard times, and we’ve gone through them with God’s wisdom, we feel–but we’ve never gone through them with debt that was wrong or [that we] had to be ashamed of,” he says. “We thank God for His provision and the opportunity to minister.”
Palau’s passion is “to rescue as many perishing from the drowning into an eternal ocean from which they can never come back.”
“It’s very hard to keep me down, keep me quiet when there are people out there who are going to a Christless eternity, without hope,” he says. He considers himself “blessed and encouraged” to have sons who share his passion.
“They showed a great seriousness about serving Jesus Christ,” he says of twins Kevin and Keith–born first– son Andrew. His fourth son, Steven, is a teacher in Beaverton. “They showed ability and gifts of the Holy Spirit and a humility that’s necessary to lead God’s people. I’ve been wonderfully amazed to watch them in action.”
‘A Quantum Leap Forward’
Kevin Palau never intended to become a part of the ministry. He enrolled at Wheaton College in 1985 to explore what life could offer. Within a year, he had met and married his wife, Michelle. After a brief stint in seminary he decided that working for his father might be what he had been searching to do all along.
“Once I got in the ministry, it became clear it was the Lord’s leading,” says Kevin, now 40 and the father of three. He has been in his current role for five years.
“We came to the growing realization that the crusades weren’t really working anymore in the U.S. It was like we were speaking to the choir, so to speak. We weren’t reaching out enough to people who don’t believe,” he says.
In August 2000, the ministry launched its new music festival approach at Portland’s Waterfront Park, about a 15-minute drive from the Beaverton headquarters. The event provided a free concert with Christian-music headliners, a VeggieTales area for children and a complete food court.
And, most important, skateboarders attended.
“Immediately, we knew it was a quantum leap forward,” Kevin says. “No crusade we had ever done had the impact of the festival.”
Combining Christian evangelism with skateboarding is nothing new in Portland. The city is home to Central Bible Church’s Skatechurch, a ministry that each week trades 30 minutes of Bible study with about 175 skaters for skating privileges at its 11,000-square-foot warehouse and indoor street course.
A team of Skatechurch staff members constructed the skate ramp for the festival. Despite some injuries to several skaters, the skateboard demo with its positive spin–the message of Jesus Christ–was declared a success. Skatechurch’s team of professionals–who come from across the country–has performed at seven Palau festivals to date.
“Out of the crusades came a whole new way to reach out,” Kevin says. “Now the [Livin’ It] video offers us another whole way to reach out. We want every Christian in junior high, senior high or college in the country to be challenged by it. We’re realistic enough to know evangelism comes along relational lines. We want youths and their leaders to use this tool to help them share their faith.”
The DVD as well as Kevin’s growing relationship with Baldwin, who he says is “burning white-hot” spiritually, have rekindled his own passion for evangelism. “This experience has challenged me to think about the hundreds of opportunities to share Christ that might walk right by me,” he says.
The DVD itself, after being distributed to other evangelistic groups, will likely close that gap by providing many opportunities to share Christ.
Darren Wells, head of King of Kings Skateboard Ministries, believes the DVD is God’s way of getting the word out about King of Kings.
The ministry is devoted to reaching kids for Christ with a team of hard-core skaters who have a heart to minister. Some of the ministry’s skaters, including Luke Braddock, Chris Weigele, Shawn Plimmer and Elijah Moore, participated in making the DVD.
“I’m a skateboarder and I’m for Jesus,” says Moore, 24, a King of Kings skater from Garland, Texas. At every skate park where the crew filmed, Moore sported a T-shirt that proclaimed his affiliation with the skating group, giving him an opening to share his faith.
“Hey man, Christ is the only way,” he told a young boy at a filming in Beaverton. He says sharing Christ opens the door for a seed to be planted and that “God can take it from there.”
When the film debuts, Moore will be back in Texas, working at a skate shop that carries King of Kings products. Sponsored by Axis Shoes, Reliance Skateboards and other companies, he will continue to give skating demonstrations to kids–and he says he will always tell them about Jesus.
“It’s the best decision I’ve ever made,” he says about his faith.
Livin’ the Real Life
For Stephen Baldwin, Livin’ It was exactly the evangelistic outlet he had been looking for. “I’ve been to MTV and all of that worldly stuff. It’s death. It’s meaningless.
“All of this is Christian–modern–edgy,” he says.
The venture cemented a growing relationship between Baldwin and Kevin Palau that started two years ago when the actor attended a festival in Syracuse, New York, put on by the Palau evangelistic association.
“Stephen had the passion and fire of a new believer, and his whole focus was to reach out,” Kevin says. “He was so inspired, he came to the Beachfest in Florida last March.”
The youngest of four actor brothers (the other three are Alec, Daniel and Billy), Stephen has been in film and television since the 1980s.
He has more than 65 films and numerous notable TV guest appearances to his credit. Current projects he will be appearing in include the movies Fly Boys and Target, both in post-production and scheduled for release next year.
Kevin says the actor, who is not a “goody-goody Christian,” draws the very crowd the Palau ministry is trying to reach. And, he adds, it doesn’t hurt that BMX rider Bruce Crisman and skateboarding phenom Jud Heald also are on board with the ministry.
Crisman, 24, of Tigard, Oregon, says God reached him for Christ through a skateboarder. That was Heald, 26, from Joplin, Missouri, who helps build the ramps at the Palau fests.
A gold medal cyclist in the 2001 Summer X Games in Philadelphia and the 2003 Latin X Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Crisman was with Heald at the Woodward Camp for extreme bikers and skaters in Pennsylvania. Heald planted a seed in Crisman’s then 18-year-old mind that came to fruition a year later.
“Who knows what God might do for someone else?” the cyclist proposes.
When completed, Livin’ It will equip believers for relational evangelism and follow-up, Palau and Baldwin say. Products expected to accompany the DVD are new-believer Bible studies and Scripture passages with notes written for the extreme-sports culture, as well as “special youth apologetics materials,” which Palau and Baldwin claim will answer tough questions.
The DVD is scheduled to launch April 2-3 at the Acquire the Fire event in Indianapolis. Baldwin plans to address the 50,000 youth predicted to attend, and skaters and cyclists featured in the film will perform demos.
“We’ll lead a special session with about 2,000 youth pastors and leaders to share our vision for the Livin’ It ministry,” Kevin notes. Livin’ It will also be showcased during 2004 at youth-ministry events around the country.
Luis Palau, explaining why his organization’s free festivals have attracted millions of young people and families of all races and denominations, says that “a nation will not be moved by timid measures.” He believes the current youth generation “doesn’t understand the concept of the traditional Christian” and that the DVD shows Christianity is contemporary.
“Christ is alive,” Luis Palau says. “He knows what’s going on, and He really cares.”
An Unlike Evangelist
Actor Stephen Baldwin says he set new priorities after he gave his life to Christ in 2001.
Stephen Baldwin takes a sip from his coffee, then leans forward and proclaims enthusiastically, “I’m at a very new and exciting turning point in my life.” The 37-year-old actor has just put in a day filming Livin’ It, an extreme-sports video he is co-producing with Kevin Palau for PalauFest Productions to reach youth worldwide with the gospel.
Wearing camouflage pants, a T-shirt that proclaims “Army of the Lord,” and a baseball cap turned backward with “Jesus” embroidered on one side and “God is good” on the other, Baldwin doesn’t have to explain his enthusiasm for the Lord. He too is “livin’ it.”
But his faith didn’t reach its current boiling point until more than 10 years after his Brazilian housekeeper first fanned a flame of interest in him.
“I was working on the TV show Young Riders,” says Baldwin, who played Buffalo Bill Cody on the popular show about Pony Express riders. Baldwin and his Brazilian-born wife, Kennya, were then living in Tucson, Arizona, where the series was filmed.
“We had just had our first child, Alaia,” he says of his daughter, now 11. The couple has a second daughter, Hailey, 7. “Kennya needed some all-round help, so we found this older gal–very sweet, very humble–to come and work for us. She was from Brazil, like my wife, and would sing in Portuguese. One word would always come shining through–Jesus.”
When asked about her motivation for singing, the housekeeper replied: “Your curiosity is very charming, but do you think that I’m here just to clean your house?”
“She told us that before she accepted the job she got a word of prophecy from someone in her church who said the family she worked for would come to know the Lord and have their own ministry,” Baldwin explains.
After the series ended, the Baldwins moved to New York, near where Stephen was born and they both were raised. Kennya originally came to New York with her family from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as a toddler. When she and Stephen returned, she found a charismatic Brazilian church in the city and became deeply involved in a Bible study there.
“My wife accepted the Lord and began praying for [me] intensely,” Baldwin says, a smile curling and his eyes lighting up. “I was curious, but I never thought I’d become as passionate as she was.”
Baldwin’s interest grew slowly, but mushroomed after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
“The most curious thing happened,” he says of that day in 2001. “It was one of the most absolutely spiritually awakening moments for me.”
The couple started attending another church in upstate New York, closer to home. In March 2002, Stephen was baptized.
“I gave my life to the Lord,” he says of the commitment that had simmered since his introduction to “born again” life 10 years before. “Now I only allow myself to be guided by the Spirit of God in every aspect of my life.”
Baldwin, who has more than 65 films to his credit and numerous TV roles, began to envision a new future.
“I began to question how big Christ was in the secular marketplace,” he says. “There’s not a lot of Christian content out there.”
For the next two years, he connected with many media moguls, asking such questions as: “Why can’t a kid be channel-surfing on television and see a TobyMac video? Why isn’t there a 24-hour Christian music channel?”
With most of his questions unanswered, Baldwin became convinced his “legacy” was to start a company that allows youth to choose from among secular and Christian music, films, and other offerings.
His connection with PalauFest Productions, which followed a Palau festival in New York, kindled his interest even further. “It was exactly what I was looking for,” he says. “All of it is Christian, in a modern, sort of edgy way.”
With Livin’ It, Baldwin hopes to show today’s youth generation that “kids like them are doing exciting and fun things, only with the Spirit.”
“In the next decade, there will be an incredible movement of the Holy Spirit in the media,” he predicts, a cause he is committed to spending his time and his money on. The center of his life today is his newfound, born-again faith and a personal walk with Christ that he shares with his wife of 14 years.
“That’s absolutely a miracle when you’re married to me,” he says jokingly. “Especially when she really got my interest to fire up in the Lord. By example, her faith changed me and the Spirit did the rest.”
Raised a Catholic, he hopes his “on fire” attitude will reach out to the rest of his family, including his three other acting brothers–Alec, Daniel and Billy. The actor doesn’t plan to leave out his friends, with whom he shares a few laughs when his time allows. But he does plan to say no to any future professional endeavors that aren’t of God’s leading.
“What’s going to happen in the world will happen in the world,” he says with conviction. “But what I can do in the world for the kingdom–that’s what I want to do.”
Ramping for the Lord
Who says you can’t have church in the parking lot? That’s where skaters find Jesus in Portland.
When Paul Anderson and Clint Bidleman became best friends in eighth grade, they had no idea their relationship would birth one of the nation’s top skate churches. Growing up in San Luis Obispo, California, in the ’70s and early ’80s, the boys joined the Central Coast Surfboards skate team and emerged as top freestyle competitors. At age 17, the two gave their lives to Christ, turning away from a destructive package of skating, using drugs and alcohol, and stealing wood to build skateboard ramps.
In 1987, the 23-year-olds were sponsored, amateur freestyle skaters while attending Multnomah Bible College in Portland, Oregon. They decided to start a skate church in the parking lot of Central Bible Church.
Tragically, Bidleman died in 1993 from AIDS, which he had contracted 10 years before from a blood transfusion he was given while being treated for a near-fatal motorcycle accident. Anderson kept the ministry alive.
Today, Skatechurch reaches out to Portland-area youth through five weekly outreaches that comprise groups from fifth-graders and under to 19 and older. About 175 skaters hear about Jesus from Anderson, pastor Ben Thomas, four interns and some 30 volunteers.
“We’ve had a lot of skaters become active attendees of our church or other churches,” Anderson says. Central Bible Church integrates about 10 percent of the skaters into their services.
In 2002, 69 skaters professed new faith in Christ, Anderson says. By November 2003 the numbers had dropped to 25.
“The rate of all youth-group kids in the nation darkening the door of a church within one year of high school graduation is now only about 20 percent,” he says. “That means about 80 percent bail on the church after youth group. Skatechurch is a youth ministry and no exception to the rule.”
Skaters are even harder to get into a Bible study, according to Anderson.
Most churches seem foreign to skaters, he says. “The majority come from broken homes, dress like skaters, aren’t used to singing in groups and such.”
Despite the odds, the outreach has led close to 1,000 locals to Christianity, with 132 students baptized at Central Bible Church as a result of Skatechurch.
Phil Trotter, an ex-Mormon, found Christ at Skatechurch and is a sponsored amateur skater, Anderson says. Trotter is now serving on the church staff and attending Multnomah Bible College, where he won the Joe Aldrich evangelistic student award.
Trotter also skated with other Skatechurch skaters in Livin’ It, the reality-style outreach film from Luis Palau Evangelistic Association that mixes action footage of top Christian skaters and BMX riders with portraits of the athletes living out their faith.
Partnering with the Palau festivals provides Trotter and the others a great opportunity to preach the gospel through skateboarding. To date, the ministry has partnered with Palau’s ministry at seven festivals, helping to set up the skate ramps and organizing teams of professional Christian skaters.
Skatechurch has produced its own 29-minute video to help others start and run a ministry to skaters, with about 400 copies distributed worldwide, according to Anderson.
He and his Skatechurch partners have reached out to more than 9,600 Portland-area skaters since the ministry’s inception. They believe prayer is the backbone of spiritual ministry and that one plants, another waters, but God causes the increase (see 1 Cor. 3:5-7).
“When [members of] our congregation hear the testimonies of skaters or see them getting baptized in our services, they are overjoyed,” Anderson says.
Mary Owen is an Oregon-based writer who has served on a Youth With A Mission team. She interviewed Stephen Baldwin and Luis Palau last fall.