Rhythms of the Saints

by Michael Bowen

They've been working since January on a series of events that doesn't peak until late August and doesn't conclude altogether until October. In some cases, they have temporarily moved to Spokane. Clearly, the staff of the Inland Northwest Festival 2002 with Franklin Graham is devoted to making the August 23-25 event a success.

But the core of the festival isn't all the administrative work that precedes it -- or even the three nights of large-scale fellowship. Instead, the real focus is on the training program for counselors that will culminate in a frenzy of Christian witnessing this summer. From May 13-June 15, festival personnel will offer five weekly classes, taught on weeknights at more than a dozen local churches. With a progression of titles -- "The Effective Christian Life," "The Victorious Christian Life," "Christian Witnessing," "New Testament Follow-Up" and "Bible Discovery Group" -- instructors intend to instill in their charges the ability to go forth and win over some souls for Christ.

Danny Little, a representative from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association who is overseeing the Spokane effort, says that "the course is designed to lay a foundation for why we believe what we believe." Little hopes to train "as many as 2,500" interviewers and counselors to witness to individuals about their Christian faith -- right there on the Albi Stadium field during the three nights of the Franklin Graham Festival.

All of this is part of the buildup to the Inland Northwest Festival 2002, to be held on August 23-25, from 7-9 pm each night, at Joe Albi Stadium. Franklin Graham, the fourth child of his famous father, Billy, is coming off comparable festivals at the University of Florida (which drew nearly 36,000 people over three days in mid-April) and Texas A & amp;M (42,000 over four days in early May). Yet in March, at a three-day rally in San Salvador, Graham drew more than 151,000. Albi Stadium has a capacity of 22,000, so even with a three-day sellout, the festivals in Florida, Texas and Washington combined will not match the attendance figures in El Salvador. Franklin Graham has clearly developed a huge following in South America. Can he do the same south of the other, Canadian border?

He can, if the stars of contemporary Christian music have anything to say about it. Already, almost as if they were harbingers of the August revival, headline Christian musical acts (Michael W. Smith, Jars of Clay, Jennifer Knapp and others) have been showing up on the Spokane scene. Christian alt rock, Christian pop, Christian hip-hop -- they're all effective in luring the target audience for the festival, which skews young.

Says Little, "Yes, we're aiming our efforts primarily at teens and young adults, because we've found that we have had great success with them in drawing them to the Lord." Little adds that his organization has worked quite closely with local Young Life leaders to reach the high school and college crowd. The music, which affords young Christians an identity separate from some of the nastier secular excesses of rock 'n' roll, is integral to the evangelistic effort. Maybe his dad had a hard time competing with the Beatles for some kids' attention, but Franklin Graham sees the benefits of speaking to young people in a way they can connect with.

Jaci Velasquez and Third Day will launch the musical festivities on Friday night (Aug. 23). A true crossover phenom, Velasquez has successfully blended Latin pop with gospel music ever since her first album, produced five years ago when she was all of 16. She has earned Grammy nominations in both the Latin Pop and Contemporary Gospel categories. Since their debut album in 1995, Third Day has generated 14 No. 1 singles and garnered three Grammy nominations. But don't pigeonhole the quintet under the Christian label alone; Billboard magazine calls them "the best rock band, period." Saturday night, "Student Night," will feature Kirk Franklin, the first gospel artist to sell more than one million copies of a debut album. Nicole C. Mullin ("My Redeemer Lives") and the group known as All Over will conclude the festival on Sunday night.

For the elementary school crowd, Saturday morning will bring Willie Aames as "Bibleman," a sort of spiritual superhero who, compared with other superheroes, does less swinging from skyscrapers and more quoting from Jeremiah.

The leading man of this three-day pageant, Franklin, prodigal son of the famous preacher Billy, has a life story that coincides nicely with the mass-conversion goals of this 21st-century revival meeting. In the past, Franklin projected a bad-boy image -- drinking, motorcycles, marijuana and expulsion from schools were all part of his youth. But he overcame those temptations because of a heart-to-heart with his father and an epiphany in a Jerusalem hotel room. Now he speaks at only a half-dozen big rallies each year, mostly because 90 percent of his time is spent running Samaritan's Purse, a $130 million-a-year operation that's heavily involved in international relief efforts. Graham was just credited with helping persuade President George W. Bush (who had a rediscovery of religion similar to Graham's) to spend even more money on fighting the spread of AIDS in Africa.

Franklin Graham clearly dances to the beat of a Christian drummer. This August, he hopes to sway thousands of youngsters with more contemporary rhythms, as played by some of the saints of contemporary Christian music.