Christian Events to Take Center Stage

Times Staff Writer

Sumo wrestling for Jesus, religious motocross stunts and a dose of Christian testosterone.

That’s a sampling of the lineup this weekend as a trio of large-scale Christian events descends upon Anaheim and Los Angeles.

The harmonic convergence of rallies -- the three-day Harvest Crusade at Angel Stadium, a two-day Promise Keepers conference at Arrowhead Pond and the daylong Festival Bajo el Sol at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum -- will showcase some of Christianity’s top preachers and musicians.

The gatherings also highlight a gnawing problem for modern evangelists: how to keep things fresh and relevant in the face of shrinking attention spans and competition from secular entertainment.


At Saturday’s Latino-oriented Festival Bajo el Sol, teens and young adults can enter break-dancing contests, fling themselves against a Velcro wall, wrestle with friends wearing inflatable sumo costumes and respond to an altar call profession of faith led by a minister named T-Bone.

Other headliners at the event include evangelist Luis Palau and singers Marcos Witt, El Trio de Hoy, Annette Moreno and Funky. While Palau and Co. speak and perform, carnival rides and booths will operate outside the arena.

Organizers say they expect about 25,000 for the festival.

Meanwhile, in Orange County, the 16th annual Harvest Crusade kicks off with Christian concerts and motorcycle daredevils as the lead-in to Riverside Pastor Greg Laurie’s 25-minute sermons and altar calls.

Musicians will include Jars of Clay, Steven Curtis Chapman, Crystal Lewis and Toby Mac.

The use of motocross riders and sumo wrestling as ministry tools doesn’t surprise Ron Kernaghan, who teaches pastoral theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

The idea is to “think outside the box and try to reach people who wouldn’t ordinarily go to church,” said Kernaghan, who has also heard of tattoo parlors and skateboard demonstrations at evangelism events.

Such tactics also signal that Christians “are not a bunch of uptight folks; we can have fun too,” he said.

John Collins, director of planning for the Harvest Crusade, said his team is constantly tinkering with formats, technology and staging to keep the crusades from getting stale.

“It’s a challenge,” he said. “We attempt to mix it up every year.”

Past programs have included Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade-style balloons, athlete testimonials, Internet broadcasts and a litany of musical performers.

Laurie, 52, also sprinkles his sermons with pop culture references, news stories and celebrity quotes he stores in a laptop computer.

Backed by jumbo TV screens, videos and elaborate sets, the presentation is in some ways a far cry from Laurie’s 1990 debut, when he stood on a plain platform next to a row of yellow daisies.

But other aspects haven’t changed much. At his inaugural crusade, held at the Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa, Laurie talked about whether the Second Coming of Christ was imminent. He plans to tackle the same subject one night this weekend.

Armageddon is a hugely popular topic in evangelical circles. When Hal Lindsey published “The Late Great Planet Earth” in 1970, it sparked a wave of end-times speculation that continues, although Lindsey and other prognosticators have repeatedly had to revise their timetables for Christ’s return.

In 1978, Laurie’s mentor, Pastor Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, penned “Future Survival,” in which Smith said he was “convinced that the Lord is coming for His church before the end of 1981.” He later backtracked, saying the end could happen “at any time, hopefully within our lifetime but maybe not.”

Competing for attention with the 2005 Harvest Crusade is a Promise Keepers convention for Christian men at the Arrowhead Pond. Although the testosterone-charged ministry is roughly the same age as Harvest Crusades, it hasn’t fared as well in recent years.

At its peak in 1996 and 1997, more than a million men attended Promise Keepers’ outdoor rallies.

Last year’s conferences drew 176,000. Some observers suggest that the concept has run its course; others blame the decline on budget and staffing cuts that occurred after the group dropped its $60 admission fee in 1998. (Admission this year is $89 for men and $69 for those younger than 18.)

The theme for this year’s confab is “The Awakening: An Unpredictable Adventure.” Speakers include Van Nuys pastor Jack Hayford, comedian Brad Stine and Vietnam veteran and motivational guru Dave Roever.

Having three Christian rallies at once could be a harbinger, said Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Barnard College in New York City: “What we’re seeing is the development of niche evangelism.”

Because nobody has the broad appeal of Billy Graham, they’re targeting smaller constituencies, he explained.

The weekend convergence of Christian rallies figures to cause some highway headaches, especially Friday and Saturday in Anaheim, where -- virtually across the street from one another -- Promise Keepers and Harvest Crusade go head-to-head.

But don’t rule out the idea of a traffic miracle.

Last Saturday, in preparation for the Festival Bajo el Sol, several hundred pastors boarded chartered airplanes, boats and cars to traverse Los Angeles “by air, land and sea,” praying for blessings on the area, said Izzy Vega of the Bible League, a festival co-sponsor.