Onward, Christian Soldiers
At the Honor Academy, a 400-acre evangelical, non-accredited Christian school just outside Tyler, serious questions of theology involving Jesus, hell and Walt Disney are being tossed around this morning. The last five minutes of David Hasz's "Making of a Leader" lecture are reserved for questions from the 500-student class.
A hand shoots up on the left side of the room. "Is it better to expect too much or too little of yourself?"
"Should you absolutely submit to your superiors even if you disagree with their decisions?"
If the leadership is godly.
"Did Jesus Christ visit hell?"
Cue the theological debate on Jesus' whereabouts during the three days between crucifixion and resurrection. Somebody quotes the book of Luke.
Next up: "Is heaven a real place?"
Yessirree, friend, and it's paved with streets of gold.
"Does God want me to learn to play an instrument?"
Don't see why not.
And finally, an item of the utmost concern: Is it OK to listen to Disney songs, since they're from the secular world? That's a personal judgment call, Professor Hasz says, but he's not a big fan, especially of that Little Mermaid kid. She disobeyed her father.
While most 18-year-olds are spending their freshman year in college trying to figure out how to get the most realistic fake ID and maximum amount of sleep per college hour, the kids of the Honor Academy are wrestling with moral conflicts over listening to the Aladdin soundtrack.
Each year, 500 new "interns" arrive at the Garden Valley campus, ready to spend a year serving Jesus Christ through a 20-year-old evangelical organization called Teen Mania Ministries. But this is no casual Bible college or mission camp. Ask anyone at Teen Mania, and they'll tell you: There are souls at stake. Millions of them.
But the magic number is four. That's the percentage of Americans who will be "Bible-believing" evangelical Christians in five years if today's generation of teens isn't rallied to Christ, according to the ministry's founder, Ron Luce. He gets his number from Christian researcher George Barna. Maybe 56 percent of Americans go to church and call themselves Christians, Luce says, but just 4 percent trust the Bible and everything it says without question. They also believe Satan is an entity as real as God and that salvation comes solely through grace, not works. Anything less than evangelical just won't do for Luce, but the prognosis isn't good.
If nothing changes, that 4 percent will only grow smaller, led into moral disarray by a Satan-guided army of mass media, advertising agencies and marketing groups whose sole purpose is the corruption of teens in the name of profits. But at the Honor Academy, Luce is teaching kids to educate themselves and their peers in the creation of a truly alternative lifestyle—sans MTV, premarital sex and secular music—that uses the same Internet technology and marketing schemes for precisely opposite ends: the dedication of today's youths to Christ.
Over the past several years, in the backwoods of East Texas, Luce has recruited thousands of anti-establishment youths into a highly organized, technologically advanced war against his worst nightmare: a post-Christian America.
And this morning, they are worried about Disney songs.
Singing and dancing animated characters are the least of Luce's problems, and he knows it. The real enemies are MTV, tobacco companies and alcohol distributors. Together with Internet pornography, safe-sex education, media conglomerates and a whole host of worldly organizations that aren't run by God-fearing members of the evangelical church, these entities work tirelessly—and successfully—to "seduce and enslave the souls of our youth."
That's the phrase Luce uses on the jacket of his 2005 manifesto Battle Cry for a Generation. After years of working with the youth-centered Teen Mania ministry he founded in the '80s, Luce realized that Bible-beating and stories of a living, loving God weren't going to bring the Millennium Generation to Christ. How exciting could the Gospels possibly be when Britney Spears was stripping down to a rhinestone-studded body stocking on the MTV Video Music Awards? How could the Word compete with Instant Messenger, slick booze commercials and teen mags plastered with young, sexy Hollywood bodies? Teen Mania was no match for the multibillion-dollar media and entertainment industry.
And then Luce created Battle Cry, and he saw that it was good.
The Battle Cry movement looks like MySpace. It sounds like MTV. It feels like a revolution. Complete with military terminology, fight songs and ultimatums for the baddies—the "virtue terrorists" who are hijacking modern teenage morality—the Battle Cry movement's portrayal of Christianity is the slickest Jesus Christ has looked in 2,000 years. Outfitted with a stark black, white and red color scheme and featuring photos of teenagers lined up at attention, fists pumping in the air, the Battle Cry aesthetic is more Hot Topic than Mardel. Gone are the rainbow-patterned Bible covers, cheesy synth-tracked videos and wannabe Christian rock bands pushing a watered-down version of "cool Jesus" on a churchgoing youth population too square to demand anything different. Today's kids are hip. With it. Yes, even the Christians.
While ad agencies are branding Abercrombie & Fitch, Budweiser and Grey's Anatomy for maximum youth-market potential, Battle Cry boldly commands teenagers to be "branded by God." Battle Cry youths boycott MTV, R-rated movies and violent videogames. At giant stadium events called "Acquire the Fire" rallies, many thousands of teens chant mantras against the secular media companies and advertisers that they believe have brainwashed their generation into becoming a pack of oversexed, demoralized zombies happy to buy whatever product or idea is pushed upon them between 50 Cent and My Chemical Romance videos. At the Honor Academy, a former VH1 producer oversees a multimillion-dollar "Center for Creative Media" that produces videos, television spots and, soon, feature films for the Battle Cry brand.
The main hub is BattleCry.com, a social networking site with the technological potential to rival MySpace. On it, kids create their own profiles and add "trench mates" in the fight for Jesus rather than "friends." They become part of online church coalitions. They can print out pages of statistics about sexually transmitted disease infection rates, availability of pornography and prevalence of violent crime that would strike fear into the heart of any warm-blooded human with a sense of decency.
The whole thing smells faintly of the average anti-capitalist, anti-corporate college movement, the kind of thing kids wake up to the first time they take a couple of political science or media classes at their liberal arts college of choice. The war theme gives Battle Cry a powerful front, appealing to the same sense of rebellion that makes beret-clad Che Guevara T-shirts so popular. In theory, at least, it is a long way from the kickball-pizza-God method of saving teenage souls, in which I'm something of an expert. It's time for full disclosure.
When I graduated into the youth group at my United Methodist church as a seventh-grader, I was sure I'd reached heaven on earth right then and there. I spent the next five years attending practically every mission trip, Sunday-night youth program and weekend retreat sponsored by my church. I preached morning services on youth Sundays. I toured with the youth choir. I knew the layout of our church camp better than that of my own backyard. I pledged that True Love would Wait. Eventually I made the ultimate sacrifice: the prime skin real estate on my lower back was dedicated on my 18th birthday not to an inked flower or a butterfly, but to the cross and flame, the symbol of my Methodist church.
Five years ago, I would have been Battle Cry's target audience, the kind of Bible-quoting, pro-life, Christ-filled teenager they could use to grow their flock against that dreaded 4 percent. As smoothly produced as any MTV news segment, Battle Cry videos preach to teens—without, of course, preaching to teens—about the indoctrination of their generation: the constant exposure to sex, drugs and subversive lyrics in popular music that eats away at morality. The premise is simple. If there's one thing that unites all teenagers, it's the need to rebel. It doesn't really matter against what, so long as there's something to contradict with mind, body, soul and black nail polish. Convince kids that the media is making their friends sick, stupid and submissive, and you've got the stuff of a cultural revolution.
So if the Casualties of War video on BattleCry.com had found its way to me way back then, I would have been incensed. One in four "of us" uses drugs? One in 10 "of us" has been raped? Half "of us" are no longer virgins? Screw The Man. I don't want my MTV.
But what happened to me is what happens to so many obedient, churchgoing kids who leave home for the big, wide world: college. When I graduated I had not only a bachelor's degree but a firm belief in gay marriage and a woman's right to choose and absolutely no faith in abstinence education. Today, I am one of those millions of Americans who practice what Luce calls "liberal theology," happily jumping into the hell-bound handbasket and bringing America with us.
The lax, inclusive views of what Luce and his group constantly refer to as "cultural Christians," the kind of folk who profess a belief in Christ but don't consider the Bible the final, literal truth on all matters of life, death and everything between, are the slippery slope down which American values are swiftly sliding, Luce says, and the consequences are dire. Not only might we slip into an amoral post-Christian America, but we could be suffering the same fate he sees for Europe: one nation, not under Yahweh or even My Super Sweet 16, but Allah.
"Something will come to fill the vacuum," he warns, when Christian values no longer hold families and cities and states together, and it might be Islam.
But for all Battle Cry's grassroots appeal and doom-filled threats about the future of our nation, it faces the same challenges confronting every movement, be it political revolution or Nike ad campaign: getting people moving in step on the ground.
Silicon Valley, Hollywood and Madison Avenue are powerful opponents. Despite Battle Cry's well-packaged trappings, the youth groups I met with are hardly teeming with culture-immune, Scripture-quoting Christian warriors. They're kids who like pop music, struggle with popularity and want to be prettier and thinner. They forget about the whole God thing sometimes, and honestly, they'd still really like it if their youth minister would get some pizza.
Luce believes that between teenagers and the marketers, advertisers and entertainment outlets that want their attention, "it's not even a fair fight." But Luce says the Battle Cry package, in the hands and hearts of a dedicated church, can even the playing field, taking the average kickball-and-pizza youth group to a whole new evangelical level...or else.
Lecturing at a giant, high-tech nondenominational church on Central Expressway, Luce has more than just PowerPoint holding his audience's attention. Flanked by projection screens playing videos of little girls doing their best Britney Spears sexy dance that give Luce a prime opportunity to look scornful and scandalized, he is backed by a display table full of Battle Cry paraphernalia. But Luce's real weapons are his sound bites. Every other sentence out of Luce's mouth is ready to be sampled on television news, and right now, he's riffing on pornographers.
"They're going after our babies!" he cries, painting a bleak, sex-obsessed picture of today's teenage generation sure to stick with the couple hundred senior pastors and youth ministers at the Battle Cry Leadership Summit.
"How about we just make it really hard for teenagers to go to hell?" Luce asks the nodding, grunting audience.
Now, he's winding down. Luce has already hit the high points, referencing everything that gets people stirred up about things these days: September 11, the divorce rate, penguins.
"These virtue terrorists are just as bad as Al-Qaeda!" Luce warns.
Luce rattles off a few numbers. Soft-core porn images appear on MTV 3,000 times a week, Luce says, and heads shake throughout the room. Each day, he adds, 8,000 teenagers contract a sexually transmitted disease. Teens who watch a lot of sexually oriented programming on television are twice as likely to engage in sexual activity, he says. It's not all fuzzy math. Luce's STD stats are backed up by similar findings from PBS and the RAND Corporation, though the soft-core porn numbers are all Luce's.
Then, of course, there's the Internet porn. "Point-and-click pornography," Luce calls it, wrecking marriage after future marriage for the teenagers who view it. But the clincher is the penguin metaphor. That's what will really get these adults thinking.
The clip on the projection screen is from March of the Penguins. A lone little chick waddles out into the cold, ignored not only by its peers but by Mama and Papa too. In no time at all, a bird of prey swoops down upon the helpless baby, and all is lost. At first, everyone laughs. But then, the room grows silent.
"It is time we learned a lesson from our penguin friends," Luce says. He bows his head in prayer. "Forgive us as adults for allowing this culture to build up around them," he says, softly. Then, even softer. "In Jesus' name we pray." Now, a whisper. "In Jesus' name we pray. Amen."
Then, it's back to banging the Battle Cry drum. After his suggestion about making it difficult for teens to suffer eternal damnation, Luce drives home his solution: the Battle Plan. Double your youth group size. He tells these church leaders, "Jesus didn't die for 10 quality people."
Get their parents involved in monitoring media consumption, he says, and get a TiVo while you're at it. That way, parents can lock out the nasty influences of shows such as Family Guy and the gay-friendly Will and Grace, recording only that which is wholesome. Battle Cry folks even get a special discount thanks to a partnership with the company. "To bless you," Luce tells the crowd.
And there is, of course, the "rocket-propelled grenade disguised as a book," Luce's own Battle Cry for a Generation, complete with a glowing endorsement from the fallen former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Ted Haggard, smack dab on the first page. But don't worry, Luce tells the audience about buying his book. "Nobody's making money off this." Of course, that might depend on how you define the phrase "making money."
According to Teen Mania's IRS reports, Luce paid himself $127,500 in 2004. His wife, the Teen Mania secretary, came away with just $35,000. The organization's chief operating officer, former marketing executive Rick Brenner, made more than both of them combined: $180,455.
Those numbers aren't unheard of in the nonprofit sphere, particularly considering Brenner's background, handling brand management for Noxzema skin care, Green Giant and Procter & Gamble. In the corporate world, he'd probably be making much more. And Luce does travel a lot, working nonstop hours as head of what claims to be the largest teen ministry in the United States.
Teen Mania cycled through almost $25 million in expenses in 2004 and took in more than $26 million in revenue, leaving a meager $1.5 million for a rainy day. For all his powerful rhetoric against the evils of making profit off teenagers, Luce draws a thick line between what he's doing and what the mass media do.
"It's not strictly anti-capitalist," Luce explains after the leadership summit lecture. "Capitalism's great, but capitalism with no morals whatsoever, that's the issue." Anyone's welcome to make as much money as they can, in Luce's view, so long as they're not doing what companies such as Viacom, MTV's parent corporation, do with "cradle to grave" strategies for luring in youth. "They're preying on our kids, making money. Laughing at them as they eat the poison candy they give them."
Now in his mid-40s, Luce says he was a hard-partying 16-year-old from a broken home in Fresno, California, when he got saved after visiting an evangelical church with a friend. Up until then, it was hymns and polite attention during sermons at the no-frills church he was raised in. The boisterous evangelical experience, says Luce, was like someone finally speaking English to him from the pulpit. At 25, he founded Teen Mania with his wife, Katie, and drove cross-country preaching to youth and building his ministry. He has bachelor's and master's degrees in psychology from Oral Roberts University and the University of Tulsa. Luce also attended the Owner/President Management program at the Harvard Business School, an "executive education" branch of the Ivy League university.
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."
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.
Rows of cubicles fill every available space. In the Battle Cry call center, where youth ministers can call in to order Battle Cry informational materials, some kids are focused on computer screens, chatting into headsets and taking down information. Others gather together in circles with their cube mates, joking around. Things are quieter in Global Expeditions, where teenagers pair mission-goers with sites, organizing everything from flights to financial arrangements. Over at Acquire the Fire, interns take calls about upcoming rallies, secure stadium venues for the events, hire speakers and make arrangements for the Teen Mania VIPs at each locale.
Though they're hard at work at their volunteer positions, three young women have been pre-approved to take breaks for interviews. Carefully cast by the media-savvy Teen Mania powers-that-be, each has her own unique approach to Honor Academy life.
First, there is Amanda Hughey, a 19-year-old former hip-hop lover who used to smoke a lot of dope and cut herself. "I probably should have been raped two or three times," she says of her former dangerous, drug-filled lifestyle. Church was always in the back of her mind, but she always went back to the temptations of the flesh.
Hughey says her all-time low was when she persuaded a friend who had always vowed never to snort coke to do it with her. "I made her do it," she says, staring at the tabletop in front of her. Then, when Hughey heard about the Honor Academy in high school, she decided "either this is my last chance, or my life is over." She's now in her second year at the school.
Then comes Tara Milburn, a 22-year-old second-year "graduate intern" who abandoned a promising college career at Kent State after a Global Expeditions trip to aid in the 2004 tsunami relief effort. She's older than most of the other interns and concedes that since she came to the Honor Academy already over the drinking age, it was "quite a paradigm shift" to the godly lifestyle. She used to grab a drink after Bible study at her old church in Ohio, but she says now she's learned better. "My actions affect others," Milburn says. She mentors younger interns this year as a small-group leader.
Finally, there is Beth Vanderpol, a sun-kissed, blond 20-year-old from South Dakota who decided boys and popularity would never be as important as Jesus. "I just wanted to be a part of something bigger," she says, unsatisfied with the lives she saw her friends living in their hometown. "I don't think I knew what I was getting myself into," she adds with a laugh. She exudes maturity and confidence, something she's developed in her job as Honor Academy director David Hasz's personal assistant. Vanderpol admits she doesn't really "feel like a kid anymore," but that's OK. Whatever personal sacrifices she might make, she says, "I know the Lord has a plan for my life."
The three challenge the sheltered stereotype associated with Bible-college kids. When I first drove through the security checkpoint outside the Honor Academy that morning, I'd half expected to see a bunch of girls in ankle-length skirts and long, blond braids traipsing across the campus. But my first glimpse into the "Making of a Leader" class proved me wrong. Spiky hair, tattoos and piercings filled the room. Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts competed with Aeropostale logos.
Sure, there's a dress code, though it mainly affects the girls: no skimpy strapped tops and no short skirts or shorts. There's also a curfew. Everyone has to be back in his or her bunk by around 1 a.m.; most interns will come home to three other people in their room who will hold them accountable for that. Also, first-year interns can't date. And, of course, no smoking or drinking. Everything's done on the honor system. There's no need to get heavy-handed with the rule enforcement. Guilty consciences usually catch up with the interns over time, anyway, and the truth comes out.
There's no television at the Honor Academy, and kids aren't allowed to listen to secular music in their first year. That includes, for many kids, Disney tunes and even innocuous light listening such as Josh Groban or Andrea Bocelli. For a year, they're immersed in an alternative universe filled with the Christian version of just about everything, be it pop music or science. But out in "the world," the youth groups who get their lifeblood from Teen Mania are filled with kids who face the challenges of Luce's dreaded "virtue terrorists" every day.
At Avenue L Baptist Church in the troubled Polytechnic neighborhood of Fort Worth, eight kids sit in the front pews of a small, whitewashed sanctuary. Daniel, the athlete waiting to hear about a football scholarship from East New Mexico State, is draped across the communion rail, gazing at the television screen in front of him. They're watching a video recorded in May.
Playing on DVD is that very same sanctuary, several months before. On it, a pot-bellied youth minister yells toward the back of the church, somewhere off-screen.
"Followers of Christ!"
Eleven voices echo back: "WE ARE THE WARRIORS!"
"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.
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.
"Am I better when I try to look like the pretty girls on TV?" she whispers, eyeing a couple of guys across the room. The well-endowed girl is sensitive about the constant references to her chest she hears at school, and now it's trickled into a few offhand remarks in the youth group. She can't help but worry about her body image, she says, but, "How come I don't feel like this when I'm all into God?"
It's that "all into God" feeling she wants to reclaim and struggles to keep up during the months between Acquire the Fire rallies. It's why Dromgoll has called the kids together this evening. "Birds of a feather," he says, and is joined by the group for "flock together." Stay in touch, he says. Be friendly. Play nice. This seems to satisfy everyone, and after a brief prayer, the kids are dismissed.
Daniel climbs down off the communion rail and looks at Dromgoll. Sure, he's the same kid that told his church congregation, after the Acquire the Fire rally, that he felt God physically hold his hand that day. But he's also a teenager, revolutionary Battle Cry movement or not.
"Hey," he says, "I thought we were supposed to have pizza?"
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