Five thousand teens are on their feet in the Memorial Coliseum as their host, Joel Johnson, a preacher in blue jeans and tennis shoes, talks about the necessity of endurance. In doing so, he's used the word "endurance" about 60 times in the past four minutes. Johnson is in his late 20s, and looks like a darker-haired version of Zach from Saved by the Bell. The teenagers have just watched a fast-paced, heart-pounding film about Jesus' experiences with endurance. The film looks like a Ridley Scott production: enormous crowd scenes of bloodthirsty Philistines, a pounding gothic synth score, and clips of Jesus getting the full Passion of the Christ bloodbath treatment. To underscore the film's message, Johnson has the teenagers stand, and leads them in steady, overhead claps.
"Keep 'em slow. Don't speed up," Johnson admonishes the crowd. "There's that temptation. Don't give in to that temptation." He has them clap for several minutes, then extend their arms to their sides and move them vigorously, like a high-speed PE warm-up drill. After several minutes, Johnson tells them to quit, and they collapse into their seats, laughing.
"Here's the point. We don't even start to endure until it gets hard," Johnson says. "We don't even start to endure until we feel pain. Enduring like a good soldier for God means that even though it's painful, even though our friends mock us, even though the enemy may try to come and tempt us, we will endure.
"Even if we have this deep desire to wake up in the middle of the night and go on the internet and look at pornography, we're gonna say, 'Nope, not gonna do that.'" For a moment I picture the entire audience turning to look at me knowingly, but they continue to focus on Johnson, apparently unable to detect the sinner in their midst. Welcome to Acquire the Fire (ATF), the evangelical Christians' traveling multimedia outreach program and lifesaver for teens adrift in an increasingly secular world.
Doug Rittenhouse, ATF's producer, gives me the lay of the land. ATF is part of Teen Mania, a Texas-based ministry that has been "providing a way for youth to contact a living God" since 1986. In addition to the traveling ATF events, Teen Mania organizes "extreme" summer camps, missionary expeditions, a post-high school character building center, and a media production school, where young Christians learn how to serve the Lord through music videos and pyrotechnics.
ATF is Teen Mania's traveling ministry, which criss-crosses the country, spreading the word with evangelical speakers, concerts, and multimedia extravaganzas. To engage young audiences, Rittenhouse tells me, they know they've got to keep it fast-moving, high-tech, and hip. Rittenhouse, a self-described "LA guy," was a producer for VH1's Behind the Music before the Lord called him to Garden Valley, TX. There, he has helped ATF develop their media-savvy, high-tech presence, while running Teen Mania's film school, Center for Creative Media. (A promotional video for the school shows Christian teens making music videos and setting up pyro, with voiceovers encouraging the young Christians, "Instead of complaining about Hollywood—let's change it.") Rittenhouse tells me that the "tube wall" (an impressive tubular LED unit) that I'm about to see on stage is "the same kind Coldplay used in their last video."
Back inside the coliseum, a hiphop band is welcoming the teens back from their lunch, and although I can't decipher most of their lyrics, I distinctly hear them say they were giving out T-shirts to whoever was "crunkest for Christ." After they finish their set, the cast of an ongoing episodic live theater drama whose first installment was performed yesterday takes the stage to resume their plot thread. Rittenhouse, thankfully, has brought me up to date on what I'd missed so far:
"It's set in 2025, right? There's this thing called the I-2, which is the new internet that's run by a global media empire. The Christ Warriors use the old internet, but one day two Christ Warriors, who you'll see, hack into the I-2 and tell the public that they're being fed lies. They get arrested and put on trial. The trial is like a cross between The People's Court and American Idol. People text in whether they live or die."
Onstage, the teen actors all wear Bobby Brown-style headset microphones (because it's the future, presumably) and pound through their lines with all the over-enunciated gusto of high-school thespians. The two Christ Warrior hackers bicker in their jail cell.
"You think you're so strong!"
"No—but God is!"
Their lawyer, Kirkland, is a "cultural Christian." (This is explained to me as someone who professes to be a Christian, but won't go to church if it's raining for fear of mussing his or her hair.) One hacker rhetorically asks the other, "Do you know how hard it is to find anyone with legal knowledge to help a follower of Christ?" I wonder why, exactly, teens need to ponder this. The two brothers eventually gang up on their legal counsel.
"Just love Jesus, Kirkland!"
"Then love Him more!"
Finally, when the hackers are at their wits' end, they remember to pray. As they do so, and as the audience prays along with them, their secular persecutor writhes in pain and anger on the overhead screen as only a teen actor can. End... scene!
The theme of the play, and by extension, the whole weekend, is twofold: (1) The world is becoming more secular by the minute, and only you can reverse the tide, and (2) You will be persecuted to the limits of your faith for these beliefs, but this only makes you a better Christian.
Rittenhouse tells me that right now, 35 percent of Americans identify themselves as evangelical Christians, but that in 20 years, that number will be only four percent.
A video, as slick as any on MTV, is the next segment of the program, one that wonders what just such a future, secular world will look like. As it turns out, they don't envision it as an era touched by medical advances made through stem-cell research, a world of improved intercultural tolerance, or a peaceful social setting in which seeing Janet Jackson's titty on TV isn't cause for mass hysteria. No, according to this video, it will be a world of (in no particular order): school shootings, spiders, binge drinking, abortions, pentagrams, and suicide. And apparently, all the music will sound like it was composed by Rob Zombie.
A subsequent video (Rittenhouse and company fully understand how much teens enjoy staring at monitors) enlists the teens' services in an amped-up, Red Bull-y recruitment of their peers into the fold of evangelical Christianity, which is of course essentially the point of the evangelical denomination. "We're on a mission... This is a battle." The audience applauds wildly after each pronouncement.
Teens are warned, however, that signing up for the lifelong mission of spreading the world of God guarantees they will be in for plenty of persecution and tribulation. "People who you thought were your friends will mock you," Johnson says. Suffering, according to this doctrine, is the ultimate form of prayer. When you suffer you are most like Christ, the lesson goes. The teens around me watch Johnson speak with wide eyes.
"What does it look like to endure in the real world?" Johnson asks. "Let me give you an example. Ladies—one of the things that the world wants you to do is to dress a certain way, and they want you to buy their clothes. And they want you to show off your bodies so that men will no longer look at you with respect. You've got to say, 'I'm going to represent Christ, because I'm a follower.' I'm not saying you can't dress beautifully, because God wants you to be beautiful. You can dress ravishingly gorgeous. But here's the difference between someone who's in the world and someone who's a follower of Jesus Christ: Someone in the world dresses trashy, a follower of Christ dresses classy." The audience goes wild. Several teen girls write this down.
Johnson continues. "God says love yourself. Love God, love yourself, love others. Let God love you. He loves you so much. He wants you to know you are the best thing. God sacrifices for you, so don't you think you could sacrifice for Him? When God wanted to send the world His message, did He send it in a podcast? No. He sent His only son. That's how much He loves you. You must endure for Him."
After six hours, I'd had enough. It was like watching somebody shoot fish in a barrel. I have never met a teenager that didn't feel persecuted, or who didn't want to be part of something bigger and cooler than themselves. And whether it's cheerleading, hardcore veganism, or evangelical prostheletyzing, they have their own dress codes, soundtracks, and reasons for feeling like the world's ganging up on them. But ATF doesn't recognize that this version of self-pity is a youthful phase that most healthy adults grow out off in adulthood. The evangelical position is that their self-righteousness is a divine order, and that any time their faith or practices are questioned, they are somehow repaying Jesus for an eternal debt they can never fulfill. This creates a mindset of ultra-sensitive, self-righteous teens who are taught to reject self-reflection, and after an entire day with thousands of people following this mentality, I couldn't endure any more.
The Mercury only loves you enough to send a podcast, but we promise it's a good one. Check out this week's Pod 'n' Vod at portlandmercury.com for exclusive Acquire the Fire audio and additional thoughts from Chas Bowie.