Onward, Christian Soldiers

Look out, evil Madison Avenue, these Jesus warriors have a battle plan for you

Conversion isn't easy these days, Luce says. It takes more than Bible-thumping and good preaching to capture the attention of today's youths. Now, he says, there is a very important question to be asked:What's happening to these kids that's never happened to any other generation?

The answer he came up with was mass marketing and media indoctrination. A 24-hour, nonstop flood of seductive immorality. That means Battle Cry will fight fire with fire. If he has to hire guys who used to sell beauty products to image-conflicted teens, so be it. If that means spending millions on media equipment and hiring a former VH1 producer—a Christian—to head up the department, so be it.

"We try to use tools that help [teens] receive information the way they're used to receiving information," Luce says. "The message hasn't changed. The medium of communicating it has."

A teenager prays on his knees during a Teen Mania worship service. Passionate displays of faith are encouraged at the Honor Academy.
Eric Mackintosh & Jason White
A teenager prays on his knees during a Teen Mania worship service. Passionate displays of faith are encouraged at the Honor Academy.

Viacom's strategy is just one way The Man is making big bucks off giving teens the salacious content they crave, Luce says. Starting with cable television channel Nick Jr. and moving on through Nickelodeon and up to MTV and VH1, each channel grooms the audience's brains for the next. The Kids' Choice Awards on Nick feature the celebrities whose videos they'll watch on MTV, and so on. It's so obvious, Luce says, "I don't have to convince [teens] of one thing" when he tells them how they've been brainwashed.

Lead them a little way down the path of righteousness, Luce says, and they'll walk the rest of the way on their own. Give him one weekend for an Acquire the Fire rally, and the Battle Cry will have sounded. In cities across the country, youth groups from churches big and small assemble by the thousands at these events, punctuated by pyrotechnics, anti-branding sermons and a little godly rock 'n' roll. Teens go in as plain old Christians, but they come out as soldiers. And it's about 700 teenagers and young adults in Garden Valley that work together to make that experience happen.

The Center for Creative Media at the Teen Mania Honor Academy campus used to be a barn. Today, it's broken down into green rooms, editing bays, a video library and sound stages. Class is just wrapping up, and it's clear this is where the "artsy" kids go. Trendily bespectacled guys wheel sets to and fro across the main floor as Doug Rittenhouse, a former writer and producer for the Behind the Music television series, weaves between state-of-the-art computer systems to a back room.

"Show her Crack the Code," the media instructor commands a guy at a corner computer station. He gives me a wry smile to indicate I'm really in for a treat.

It's a takeoff on The Da Vinci Code meant to educate evolution-believing folks on the preposterousness of their position. With carefully selected quotes from Nobel Prize winner George Wald, evolutionary biologist and anti-creationist Stephen Gould and Darwin himself, the video starts with, ahem, a big bang: We haven't found the missing link yet, so how can evolution possibly be true? Rittenhouse gives me a meaningful look as stylized, Photoshop-filtered photos of Nebraska Man, a falsely classified hominid discovered in the Midwest in 1922, and Lucy, a 3.2-million-year-old skeleton discovered in Africa in 1974, flash across the screen. Neither turned out to be that pesky missing link and are overlaid with big, red "FALSE" stamps in the video.

The clip trudges on, ending in a rather cleverly played character attack on Darwin himself. It spotlights the infrequently quoted subtitle to his 1859 masterwork, Origin of Species: "Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life." Ghostly neon green highlights hover over the words "Favoured Races." Remember, kids: A vote for Darwin is a vote for racism.

Rittenhouse, who says he tried to be "salt and light" at the secular media outlets he once worked for, outlines the media center's philosophy: "We do not want to be simply good enough for a Christian bookstore." That means no "flaky, cheesy" stuff. Academic quarrels aside, the Crack the Code video is visually edgy enough to hold the attention of any 15-year-old who sits down to an episode of Pimp My Ride after school—probably because it was created by a team of kids not much older than that.

Fifty interns, ages about 18 to 20, work at the center under the supervision of Rittenhouse and his staff. Having discerning teenage eyes following every step of the Battle Cry media output is one of Luce's most powerful weapons against the MTV enemy. He could spend millions conducting market research on pre-fab materials created by a bunch of middle-aged media professionals, or he could get kids to volunteer to do it themselves. Anyone who's talked to a teen lately can testify: The difference between why "this sucks" and "this doesn't suck" is often little more than a bored shrug. Better to give the kids the tools they need and let 'em loose.

Teen Mania's other departments are also staffed mostly by teens, from the Global Expeditions department to day-to-day administration to the group that organizes the Acquire the Fire rallies. These departments are housed in a series of brown buildings with brick exteriors masking the hive of intern activity within. Each intern pays tuition of $650 per month, which covers room, board and school fees for classes on theology and leadership. They spend an unpaid 20 to 30 hours a week in their assigned volunteer position.

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