By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"Followers of Christ!"
"WE ARE THE WARRIORS!"
Filtered through the crackling sanctuary sound system and again through the straining TV speakers comes the Battle Cry theme song, a Christian alt-rock jam by a group called Pillar. Marching in time, a line of teenagers comes up the center aisle, fists raised in salute to the Lord.
Once they are all established behind the pulpit, somebody abruptly cuts off the rock 'n' roll. These are 11 souls fresh from the 2006 Acquire the Fire rally at Reunion Arena. These are 11 kids on fire for Jesus. Taking turns at the lectern, each one recounts his or her experience, frequently through tears, of being saved or reclaimed for the Lord. If one falters, the group rushes to his or her side, laying on hands of comfort.
When the video is shut off after a brief technical difficulty and the lights brought back up, the first to speak is their spiky-haired youth minister, Bud Dromgoll.
"What happened to y'all?" he asks, frowning. He inclines his head toward the TV screen. "What happened to those kids?"
Peaches, a 15-year-old freshman at O.D. Wyatt High School, cannot help but blurt out her answer.
"We just split up into popular, middle and unpopular again."
The guys start fooling with the DVD player, pressing the open/close button and fiddling with the TV. The other girls shout suggestions about blowing into the open changer. But Dromgoll won't let them edge around this one.
"Y'all avoided that question big-time."
This is the other fight. While Luce's battle rages between self-loathing, drug-using, suicidal teenagers and the mass-media culture that he says made them that way, the Everyman youth minister out in the trenches is fighting to keep the fire alive in his own group of kids already sold on the whole Christianity thing.
When the nerdy kid cried on the pulpit in the video, everyone was there to lift his spirits. They were all in the war against secularism together then. But that sense of companionship fell away, and the Avenue L kids split back up into their old cliques. Sure, they said, they still avoided MTV and didn't drink or party, but they weren't all buddies like they were before. Dromgoll wants them to reconnect. After all, Proverbs 27:17 reads, "Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend."
What happened to the Avenue L Baptist youth group is the same thing that happens in churches across the country. God-fueled weekend retreats filled with Bible study, Christian rock concerts and late-night theology discussions among tens, hundreds or even thousands of kids can make them feel like they're not alone in their faith, excited to be defying the secular world in the name of Christ. But when they come home, back to families that may not be on the God bandwagon and peers who certainly aren't, the spiritual high wanes.
That's why Dromgoll called this Battle Cry meeting on a warm Saturday night in November. His group is already gearing up to head to next year's rally, and he wants the kids to be ready. "We need to get back to where we were," he told me during our first phone conversation. "We need to find out if we've met those goals we set back in May" at the 2006 rally.
Today, Dromgoll says, Avenue L has 18 regular members of the youth group, with 23 on the roster. For a church that seats 100 every Sunday morning, he says, it's a pretty good ratio, and it's six more kids than they had before the Acquire the Fire rally. Slowly but surely, Avenue L is helping Battle Cry inch toward expanding that 4 percent. If it weren't for the Battle Cry resources, Dromgoll says, a small, independent church such as Avenue L might not be able to make it happen.
Nestled in the center of one of Fort Worth's poorest neighborhoods and without a giant, overseeing parent denomination funneling money and resources into the ministry, Avenue L Baptist can't afford to organize faith-building mission trips or winter retreats. Dromgoll is a volunteer, working a day job and spending his nights and weekends with the teens. Teen Mania is one-stop shopping for everything Avenue L needs but cannot easily afford.
"The help they give small churches is great," says Dromgoll, who can send his kids on Teen Mania mission trips, buy Acquire the Fire DVDs and Battle Cry books that give focus to ministries that might lack cohesion under the direction of overstressed volunteers. From the bowels of the Teen Mania campus in Garden Valley come all these things, churned out day after day by the hundreds of volunteers at the Honor Academy.
In an effort to bring everyone together, Dromgoll tries to get the kids to air their dirty laundry. Peaches pipes up again with her concerns about the popular crowd. Though this group is smaller than the one I grew up with, I hear them talk about the same struggles, Battle Cry or no. The pressure is on to have sex, they say. And to party. And to smoke.
Stephanie, a senior at Pascal High School who first told her youth group about Acquire the Fire and who will attend her third rally in 2007, has more personal concerns. She starts crying halfway through her confession.