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Annual Harvest Yields Freshly Converted Souls

3-Day Anaheim Crusade Gets Faithful in Churchgoing Mode Without Delay

July 12, 2002|WILLIAM LOBDELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The transformation of more than 10,000 new believers into churchgoing Christians at the three-day evangelical bash known as the Harvest Crusade begins tonight, moments after many of them make a profession of faith on the outfield grass at Anaheim's Edison Field.

With nearly the efficiency of a cardiac surgical team, Harvest organizers will immediately pair each fledgling Christian with a friendly crusade veteran, who will give the convert a beginner's Bible and an MP3 or compact disc with a narration of the entire New Testament. Volunteers from 120 churches, working at computers under the right field bleachers, will process information cards to link the new believers to a church near them.

For those battling severe problems such as addiction, marital breakup or depression, trained pastors will be standing by on the baseball field's dirt warning track for impromptu counseling.

Within a week, letters and telephone calls will welcome the novices into the body of Christ and address their questions.

Those quick steps will propel about 50% of the people who step forward during the crusade into a church within a month, organizers say. And those "saved souls" are the ultimate product of a modern-day revival that will draw an estimated 110,000 to hear Christian rock, hold hands in prayer and hear messages from the event's founder, Greg Laurie, and the Rev. Franklin Graham, who recently took over the ministry started by his father, Billy Graham. An estimated 30,000 more will view the event on the Internet (www.harvest.org).

The well-oiled follow-up machinery has been refined over the crusade's 13 years, but retention of converts is a concern at any major evangelical event, where promises made in an evening's fervor can fade with the next day's sunrise.

"We want to help them in the decision that they made," said Rick Doucette, a Harvest Crusade director, adding that volunteers are trained in the soft sell. "We don't force anything on them. It's all done with care and compassion."

Niki Curry, 41, of Long Beach still calls the evening nine years ago when she professed her belief at the Harvest Crusade "the best night of my life." Since then, she has served as a volunteer. This year, she'll be one of 5,000 follow-up counselors to those pouring onto the field each night following Laurie's message, now translated into Spanish, Korean, Arabic, Vietnamese and sign language.

"I love to pray with the folks, just like people did for me," she said. She's befriended converts who were drug addicts, people struggling with divorce and, last year, a 10-year-old boy whose mother was dying of cancer.

The talks often continue in the parking lot, long after Edison Field closes for the night. "We walk them to their cars," she said. "They just need to talk sometimes. They need someone to listen. These are people who are just broken."

Each night of the crusade, Laurie says, he usually gets about 10% of the crowd to profess faith in Jesus. That means about 233,000 such declarations during his crusades in the United States and abroad, which have drawn crowds totaling 2.5 million, organizers say.

While follow-up techniques have evolved over years, Laurie's basic formula for reaching the unchurched hasn't changed from his first crusade in Orange County in 1990: Provide the hippest Christian entertainment (this year's bands at Edison Field include Delirious?, Switchfoot and the Katinas), in a nonthreatening environment (a stadium), then give people who normally wouldn't darken a church door a healthy dose of the Gospel.

"We bring the message of Jesus Christ into a nontraditional setting so a skeptic or a downright nonbeliever" will hear the words unfiltered by a popular culture that Laurie says has stereotyped Christians and skewed the message.

"Some people think Christians aren't normal," Doucette said. "We show them Christians can be cool, and we have something to offer that everyone is seeking."

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