Three huge TV screens loomed above the stage. A basso TV announcer voice boomed throughout the arena. Fireworks exploded, competitive stadium chants roared out, spotlights raked the ceiling as though this were an opening night in Hollywood. A worship leader exhorted the crowd to "Give it up for the Lord!" There was even a smoke machine working overtime.
Then a praise-and-worship band came out and rocked the place. Four thousand people were on their feet in seconds, waving their hands over their heads. Kids streamed down and surged against the stage. They didn't quite manage a faith-based mosh pit, but they came close.
No question, these kids came to meet God. But they also came to have a good time. One T-shirt proclaimed that it was time to "Party with Jesus!" Another announced: "I like Christian boys." When the bands were cooking, there were hundreds of kids dancing. And we're not talking about the waltz or the polka.
Praise choruses, as contemporary worship music is often called, let some Christians have their dose of pumped-up rock without the guilt associated with so-called secular bands. Gone are the days when rock and roll was forbidden as the devil's music. Gut-thumping bass and stinging guitar solos are now part of God's musical arsenal. Simple to learn and easy to memorize, praise choruses are first choice for people who want to shake some booty and raise their arms as they worship. And at the Blue Cross Arena last week, more than 4000 kids got a chance to let loose for the Lord.
The Joshua Revolution's founder, Mike Chorey, has been doing youth ministry for 17 years. In that time, Chorey has gained some useful knowledge about creating a youth convention. The music, lights, videos, and thunderous sermons all work together to create a feeling of unity. "We learned from others' mistakes too," he says. "They taught us to build a conference for an audience of one. If Jesus likes it, he will come."
Most folks who attended the conference would say that Jesus was definitely there. But what he wanted from the cranked-up throngs was perhaps not so obvious. I attended more than a dozen sessions and interviewed kids new to the event and some who had attended many times before. Still, the meaning of the revolution was not exactly clear.
"Jesus," says Wendy Menter, director of communications for the organization, "was the biggest revolutionary who ever lived." And her point is well-taken. Certainly Christ's call to love enemies, to cloth the naked and feed the hungry, his non-violent resistance to oppressive governmental power all fly in the face of mainstream American culture.
So I was optimistic when I heard that the Joshua Revolution would hit Rochester the day after Christmas. What a welcome relief, I hoped, from the trivialization of Jesus' true message.
Mike Chorey explains the name of his organization this way: "Joshua was a young warrior for the Lord. He obeyed God's command to be strong and courageous." More specifically, he led the Israelite people into the Promised Land, reducing cities to rubble and exterminating much of the population there.
The Joshua Revolution is upfront about its combative nature. Chorey explains that "Joshua was a man who God used to reach and conquer cities." Chorey's speech is full of military language. "Fight the good fight of faith... mobilization... prayer strategies." He even talks about "prayer coverage" as though God's power can be called in like an air strike on an enemy target.
The conference included "Revolution Training." Under the heading of "Four Ways to Disarm Strangers," the program guide, given to everyone who attended, instructs young Joshuas: "Always carry gospel tracts. They are bullets in your gun. If you don't have any bullets, you won't have any courage. You will probably be shot to pieces by the enemy."
The instructions go on: "Give the warm greeting. Then hold out the tract and ask, 'Did you get one of these?' The purpose of the 'bullet' is to get him to surrender to your will."
Featured speaker Ray Comfort carried the martial imagery even farther. The Bible is a "comprehensive war manual," he said. Evangelical Christians are an "army" equipped with "state of the art weapons." He exhorted his listeners to "know the enemy" and to "charge bayonets."
Yes, this is metaphor. No, there wasn't any evidence of violent or aggressive behavior at the conference. In fact, the comfortable mixing of races and cultures at JR 2004 was impressive. Blacks, Asians, whites, Spanish-speakers, kids from way out in the country and from the inner city seemed to get along well.
Still, all the warfare comparisons can have great power in shaping the way listeners, especially kids, see the world. A cynic might even say it's a good way to soften kids up for the draft.
Those who grew up reading the hugely popular Left Behind series and hearing George W. Bush touted as a model Christian might take these battle cries literally. The Sermon-on-the-Mount Jesus, who said that the meek and the peacemakers were the blessed, has been steadily supplanted in some Christian circles by a more two-fisted saviour. Some critics have even accused fundamentalists of being tainted by "Allah Envy." Forgiving one's enemy has been replaced by the injunction to (in Ray Comfort's words) "hang him up by the neck until the life is squeezed out of him."
In Glorious Appearing, part of the Left Behind series, when Christ returns, he's mad and he's not playing games: "Men and women, soldiers and horses seemed to explode where they stood. It was as if the very words of the Lord had superheated their blood, causing it to burst through their veins and skin."
Church historian Martin Marty, who's been studying the rise of world fundamentalism for decades, writes that "these days, because our opponents have an Allah, seen by Christian militants only as a warrior god who inspires jihad, we evidently need a warrior Jesus." In fact, Marty sees more similarity than difference between Christian and Islamic fundamentalists.
Not surprisingly, the 2000-year tradition of Christian pacifism didn't get much play at the Rochester Joshua Revolution. No Martin Luther King, no Menno Simons. No Dorothy Day, St. Francis, or Phil Berrigan.
At JR 2004, the enemy to be defeated was personal sin, not human suffering or institutional evil. Singled out for special condemnation were TV producers, evolutionary scientists, homosexuals, birth-control advocates, school nurses too quick to hand out condoms, as well "the world, the flesh, and the devil."
A number of the speakers warned the kids against "secular entertainment," which stirs up lust. Michelle Lenz, in particular, made a humane and heartfelt plea for kids to keep free of the culture of "everything is OK." Her analysis was right on the money. Kids do indeed live in a sea of imagery telling them that quick and easy gratification is their right. And though her presentation included the predictable mean-spirited dig at "Will and Grace," she generally made a thoughtful appeal to kids' higher nature.
How much of this actually reached her audience is unclear. When I asked kids at the event what the word "revolution" meant, the standard answer was, "that's a hard question." But those who tried to explain it often came back to the word "life-changing." And there's no doubt that for many of them, this is exactly the case.
Again and again, participants talked about the changes they experienced after attending a Joshua Revolution conference. "I'm on fire for God," a girl from Pennsylvania said. "It gives me strength to resist temptations."
Still, all the kids I asked about the event said their favorite part was the music. "It gets you pumped up," a girl from Buffalo said. "It's lots of fun," another added. "Party!" a third chimed in. Before the speakers and afterward, the praise-and-worship bands kept the place jumping.
In a seminar session, Harvey Carey told youth leaders to "move away from entertainment." But of all the speakers at JR 2004 he was by far the most entertaining. Fronting a good funk band, Carey might give James Brown some serious competition. If you grew up with an evangelical background, there'd be nothing new or surprising in his frantic performance at the arena. But for a person unfamiliar with charismatic styles of preaching, Carey's hour-long explosion of passion might prove overwhelming.
Within five minutes of hitting the stage, tears were running down his face. And by the time he made his altar call, he'd worked himself into a frenzy. Shouting, stamping his feet, pummelling the crowd with a non-stop emotional outpouring, Carey whipped the 4,000 teenagers into a state of willing hysteria.
The goal of his harangue was to get as many kids as possible to respond to the altar call. And when he was done screaming, he had perhaps 300 kids up front utterly transported with emotion.
This is nothing new. Since the great revival at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in 1801, Americans have gathered in huge numbers to feel the pouring out of religious ecstasy. Right here in Rochester, Charles Finney blasted Satan and drove local congregations wild. Aimee Semple McPherson hit Rochester in 1921 and had a similar soul-wrenching impact.
Again and again, inspired American preachers have flailed their audiences into a state beyond thought. Indeed, one of the last statements Carey made before leaving the stage was "something springs out of your belly that don't make sense to your brain."
I'm old enough to remember when Led Zeppelin played the same stage that Carey commanded. And recently reviewing film of old Zeppelin concerts, I was particularly struck by the expressions, gestures, and movements of the audience. What I saw in that 32-year-old footage was remarkably similar to what I saw at JR 2004.
The same outreaching hands, as though the performers on stage were radiating power, heat, and light, maybe even love. The same expressions of passionate longing. The same tidal ebb and flow --- thousands of teenaged bodies swept into the power of the performance.
There at the foot of the stage was evidence of raw, ecstatic emotion. Kids were collapsing, wailing, waving their hands, pogoing, screaming, hugging, weeping, flailing their bodies back and forth. As Harvey Carey bellowed "history is happening tonight!" new believers piled up before the altar like bodies washed up from a shipwreck. Some were speaking in tongues. A man off to the side of the stage blew moaning notes on a shofar. Ushers moved in to get kids who were hyperventilating. Hallelujahs were mixed with groans and abject cries.
Harvey Carey would tell you that this was the power of a forgiving God coming down. A cynic would say that Harvey Carey can work a crowd with amazing skill. I'm inclined to believe these two statements might both be true.
Brad Ringer, a featured speaker with 26 years in youth ministry, explains the explosion of emotion in straightforward language. "There is so much hurt, so much pain, so much pessimism, so much emptiness," he says, that when kids "understand that God loves them," the natural response can be overwhelming.
Ringer's Pure for God ministries is affiliated with the Joshua Revolution; however, he doesn't embrace all the sound and fury. "All religion does is try to control people, or indoctrinate them," he says. He compares this to a relationship with God, from which real healing can flow. And he can tell countless stories of kids who've been freed from drugs, pornography, occult practices, suicidal depression.
He makes a clear distinction between "coming to Christ" and going to "the culturized church." He points out that Jesus didn't have programs and institutional organization. Jesus didn't need a warm-up act. There was no "Power Store" selling posters, sweatshirts, and key chains when he preached. For many Americans, Ringer says, Christianity has become a "spectator experience." Perhaps a more apt phrase would be "consumer experience."
Ringer will be back, next year, when the Joshua Revolution again takes over the Convention Center in Rochester. But he said that he doesn't want to do any more big speaking events at the conference. "I'm not going to entertain kids," he says. "I want to challenge them. I want to meet kids where they're at and draw them into something deeper."
Even so, those who come back for the bands, the fireworks, the booming videos and shouting sermons, won't be disappointed either.
While the Joshua Revolution is concerned with saving souls, that's not the main reason the city and county welcomed the event so warmly. Quite simply, 4000 visitors bring in a lot of cash. The Greater Rochester Visitors Association estimates that the convention had a $3.2 million impact here. (That was using a formula based on adult conventioneers, however, and they typically spend plenty of cash on liquor and entertainment.) But whatever the figure, there was an impact.
"The particular message of the conference is wonderful," says Tracy Armstrong, director of communitywide convention marketing. But this "piece of business" also "generated new dollars." Area printers, transit services, radio stations, decorators, gas stations, and parking lots all got a slice of the pie. A smart marketer at Domino's Pizza even came up with a discounted "Joshua Revolution Special."
For the RochesterRiversideConvention Center, this is clearly a success story. "We pursued them for several years," Armstrong says. "We saw an opportunity to approach them with a user-friendly package." And so Buffalo lost the convention to Rochester.
According to TC Pellett at GRVA, "every single hotel room downtown was booked." Normally, the week between Christmas and New Year's Day is the very worst for the hospitality business, with a 2 percent occupancy rate. This year, area hotels got a welcome infusion of cash, renting not just individual rooms, but spaces for large gatherings also.