ANAHEIM, Calif. – An estimated 29,000 people were present for the opening night of the 19th annual Southern California Harvest Crusade in Anaheim, Calif., including some 2,750 people who made their first-time commitments or rededicated their lives to Christ.
Kicking off this year's three-night evangelistic event were musical artists including the Katinas, Leeland, and first-time Harvest performer Randy Travis. And despite the recent death of his 33-year-old son, pastor and evangelist Greg Laurie took to the stage to deliver the keynote sermon, proclaiming with boldness his persistent faith in the ever-present God and the place in Heaven that has been assured to those who believe.
"I've been preaching for – believe it or not – 35 years; I started when I was 3," Laurie said Friday night, drawing the laughter of the crowd. "And I've talked about Heaven my whole life. And I've given many messages on life after death. And I've counseled many people who have lost a loved one. And I thought I knew a little bit about it. But I have to say that when it happens to you it's a whole new world."
While Laurie confessed that he missed his son terribly, the evangelist reiterated the fact that he has had no doubt that the moment his son's life on earth ended, he was taken up to Heaven to be with the Lord.
"I've been studying Heaven," Laurie said, standing on the platform that his late son had designed. "And my desire to go there has even increased. And Heaven is more real to me now than it's ever before because I have an investment there, you see. And some of you do as well."
Despite what some newspapers had claimed following the departure of his son, Laurie emphasized that the headlines were not true.
"He's not dead," Laurie assured. "He's more alive than he's ever been before."
"I haven't lost my son because I know where he is," he also stated. " And I'll join him one day. And all believers will join loved ones.
"When you are a believer in Christ, you'll never die," he proclaimed.
Laurie's sincere and heartfelt message seemed to resonate in the hearts of the crowds more than previous years due to the deeply personal side of this year's sermon.
And Laurie's emphasis on the unpredictable nature of life – as evident in the sudden death of his son – brought many to take a look at their present state and wonder where they would be if their life came to an end sooner than expected.
"Death – it comes unexpectedly," the megachurch pastor said. "Now when you're old like me, you know it's coming. But when you're young, you think you're invincible. When you're young you think 'Oh, not now. Maybe in 50 years. Maybe in 60 years.' And that may be true, but death knocks at every door."
Laurie urged the attendants to thoroughly look at how they're living their lives and whether it's for Heaven or for the world – the latter of which he said was like wasting two hours in line for a one-and-a-half minute ride at the amusement park.
"What do you live for?" he asked, reiterating the sermon's title.
As Laurie invited attendants to stand up from their seats and make their way down to the field of Angel Stadium to commit or rededicate their lives to Christ, hundreds trickled down from the stands, greeted by dozens of volunteers who gave out Bibles, counseled, prayed for, and connected with those seeking for change in their lives.
Harvest Crusade continues for a second night Saturday with the special "Amplify" youth event, which will feature musical performances by P.O.D., Kutless and Lincoln Brewster.
The three-night event concludes Sunday with a first-time Harvest appearance by award-winning Christian music star Michael W. Smith among other musical guests.