EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – By all appearances, it’s your average rock concert at the IZOD Center in New Jersey: a basketball arena packed with teenage girls screeching for their heartthrobs, guys head-bobbing to a series of loud bands, greasy fast food around every corner and vendors hawking all kinds of souvenirs.
But look closely and you'll see that the kids here are of a different breed. They're wearing t-shirts that read "Work Hard, Pray Hard," and "Faith Rocks." There's also no alcohol — nobody has even tried to sneak any in.
This is the Greater New York Battle Cry, and these people are here for Jesus.
Battle Cry, a kind of Lollapalooza of the Christian world, is a weekend event filled with Christian bands, Bible recreations and enough multimedia presentations to make anyone’s head explode.
Also known as Acquire the Fire, the concert event was started 23 years ago by Ron Luce, who “was called by the Lord to work with youth,” says Kayla Wright of Teen Mania Ministries, the organization that acts as the umbrella for all of Luce’s various youth-oriented, faith-focused groups.
In the beginning, Luce and his wife, Katie, would travel from city to city asking churches if they wanted to hold youth rallies. Since then, Luce’s vision has grown, and he's moved from church basements to packed arenas.
Luce, too, has grown. He's 47 now, with overgrown, gray-flecked brown hair and green eyes that look almost red, an apparent plea for extra sleep. He is an accredited author on at least 20 books. He attends as many ministry events as he can — and he truly believes in their message.
Explaining Acquire the Fire's beginnings, Luce said, “Seeing the plight of young people and how the media is destroying them just to make a buck, I wanted to help them see God and let them know that God has a message for them. Here, we try to tell the kids in a way they can understand that He can relate to your loneliness, your brokenness.”
Jacob Burgei, 31, a youth minister from New Jersey, said the importance of the event is “Getting the kids in a place where everyone else is getting into God and cheering. It shows them that they shouldn’t be afraid to stand up for Jesus.”
But does the message come across when it is delivered on jumbo screens, through live performances and computer-animated films?
“Stained glass and organs have their place," says event director Kemtal Glasgow, "but to reach this generation we have to use the cutting edge of technology to minister.”
“At this event," Luce says, "we use the tools that they understand.... We are determined to not look ‘Christian.’”
But not everyone is on board with Acquire the Fire's medium and message. While Luce is a warm and charismatic leader, his sermons preach total separation from mainstream American culture, and his vehement nature has been known to get a little out of hand. His message touches many young people, but others say it isn't a message of peace and love.
“What Luce preaches, with his emphasis on conflict, anger, and contempt, is a far cry from most of Christendom,” says Jeff Sharlet, a research scholar for New York University's Center for Religion and Media and a harsh critic of Luce and his doctrine.
The youth who attend the concerts are asked to help change American culture. At his Honor Academy, a program that offers internships for college credit in East Texas, Luce doesn’t allow any television, secular music or dancing with the opposite sex. He even tells parents to monitor their teens' cell phones, because he says “teachers going to jail for having sex with students start with a texting relationship.”
While many kids rebel from strong parental supervision, Sharlet thinks Luce's followers are drawn to Acquire the Fire because of their “dissatisfaction with the moral vacuum of consumer culture and a desire to be part of something bigger than themselves.
"And I think that those good intentions are twisted by one of the most militant fundamentalist youth movements in U.S history. It’s something, by Luce’s own boast, potentially dangerous.”
Geoffrey Pollick, a religious historian, believes that “the movement thrives on its ability to see itself as threatened by an impinging secular America, thus needing to bolster its membership in support of saving the nation for Christ.”
Besides being loud, the event is also overtly militaristic. According to the vocabulary of the event, attendees are engaged in a spiritual "battle," and anyone who doesn’t believe in their values is the "enemy."
“The Bible calls believers soldiers for Christ," Luce says. "You must have a backbone about your faith because if you don’t, you will be blown over.”
Sharlet sees the militaristic tones of the event as dangerous. “What Luce is bringing to the table is militance, an emphasis on ‘holy war,’ the most violent reading of scripture possible, open emulation of terrorist recruitment methods, and, perhaps most disturbing of all, an emphasis on what he’s called ‘infiltration’ of non-fundamentalist institutions.”
But Pastor Adam Durso, a youth minister from New York, hopes that this event is not the end of the excitement. “Christianity is alive, it breathes, and therefore it needs to inhale and exhale. This is the inhale, but the exhale should be in the schools and on the neighborhood streets. Life is lived on Monday, not here.”
Dr. Steve Vandegriff, Professor of Youth Ministries at Liberty University, also hopes that the young people in attendance will continue to connect with the faith outside of the concert.
“I’m sure Acquire the Fire does everything within their abilities to encourage students to continue in their faith, after the lights have diminished,” Vandegriff said.
That may be — but kids will always be . . . kids.
In truth, the gossip after the show wasn't about Jesus or faith; it was about who's dating whom and who's driving whom to IHOP.
But it was refreshing to be able to leave your purse behind on your seat while taking a bathroom break. The IZOD center, home of the NBA's New Jersey Nets and host so far to 44 Bruce Springsteen concerts, takes all the security concerns of any major urban arena.
But it had little to worry about on this particular weekend. After all ... who would steal a purse at Battle Cry?