The battle over a proposed sale of American evangelism’s ‘Missions Pentagon’ raises questions of missionary strategy and nonprofit accountability. What responsibility do ministries have to their founder’s vision—and to those who sacrificed to fund it?
Interesting though her talk on drunk driving was, the guest police officer’s presentation melted to a background buzz as Josh Weidmann gazed out at the classroom window. It was only April, but as the Arapahoe High School junior drank in the azure sky that arced over a riotous Colorado spring, he was already dreaming of summer. For Josh, an affable, sandy-haired kid with a light-up smile, summer meant more than indolent poolside days; it also meant having more time to concentrate on his student-centered youth ministry, Revival Generation. A montage of ways he might spend 90-something sunny, unfettered days rolled through Josh’s mind. But his reverie imploded suddenly when a teacher burst into the classroom.
“Don’t freak out,” the teacher said, his face a mask of constrained fear, “but there’s been a shooting five miles up the road at Columbine High.”
“I began to go nuts inside,” Josh says. “I didn’t believe him at first, then he went on to explain that the shooters could be at our school any minute, so our school was going under lock-down.”
The guest police officer began to cry. Josh descended into shock.
“There was no way this could be happening,” he remembers thinking. “I started to think about what I could do. Should I go? Should I lie down because I was dizzy? Should I pray? Thoughts were flying around like crazy. I was trying to think of all my friends at Columbine, and trying to grasp what this would turn out to be.”
What it turned out to be was the worst link in a horrific chain of violent attacks against teenagers—the most recent occurring just last week at a Fort Gibson, Okla., middle school where a 13-year-old student opened fire on classmates, wounding five. After the Columbine shootings, in which two teens murdered 12 high-schoolers and a teacher, the media turned its spotlight on Christian teens. The story of 17-year-old Cassie Bernall’s courageous gunpoint proclamation of faith burned up the news wires. Media outlets also highlighted the death of Rachel Scott, a 17-year-old junior and visibly active Christian. At Rachel’s CNN-broadcast funeral, Bruce Porter, the evangelical pastor of Littleton’s Cellebration Christian Fellowship, attested to the faith of some of the slain, and delivered a crystalline gospel message that reached millions. Rachel’s younger brother Craig, who escaped the killers by feigning death in the library while lying in the blood of a dying friend, shared his faith on CNN, NBC’s Today, and other major news programs.
As the stories of present-day teen martyrs spread, the earth shook under Josh Weidmann’s worldview. The outlook that emerged—stark and galvanizing—was a version of a view formed simultaneously and nearly overnight by Christian teens across the country: “I had to realize that life was frail,” Josh says, “and in a second, in a place that I found safe, my life could end.”
That’s what 1999 was like for Christian teens, a group that might well be called “Generation WWJD.” Teen believers—perhaps for the first time en masse—were forced to ask themselves a question many never thought they’d have to as Americans: “If someone put a gun to my head and asked, ‘Do you believe in God?’ would I say yes?”
Today’s Christian teens face a more hostile cultural atmosphere than their predecessors did. Joe White—an author, Christian camp founder, and co-host of Focus on the Family’s Life on the Edge, a call-in radio program for youth—reaches and speaks with thousands of teens each year. He says the new climate is “unexpected, it’s sinister, it’s lethal. It’s like the American teen all of a sudden at age 13 finds himself in a war zone.”
The Columbine massacre occurred on April 20. Five months later, the killings were bookended when, on Sept. 15, Larry Ashbrook killed eight—including five teenagers—at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth. Once again, Christian teens had been murdered for their faith.
But, as in China and other countries, ill winds of persecution have fanned flames of revival. Teen outreach ministries like Youth on Fire, 180, and Teen Mania have exploded (for example, Teen Mania’s Day One Conference in Michigan’s Pontiac Silverdome drew 75,000 kids, the largest-ever gathering of Christian youth). Hundreds of student-led prayer groups—some aided by parachurch ministries like Josh Weidmann’s Revival Generation—have popped up at high schools across the country. More than 76,000 teens this year signed a Teen Bill of Rights, which includes a declaration of the right to behave morally without fear of retribution. Many high-schoolers—whether wearing the familiar WWJD gear or leading football prayers made controversial by a left-leaning judiciary—have become bolder about asserting their First Amendment right to on-campus religious expression.
At Wedgwood, at least two teens were willing to lay down their lives for their friends and their faith. As shooter Larry Ashbrook fired on Christian teens attending a youth rally there, 19-year-old Jeremiah Neitz fired back with the gospel, telling Ashbrook: “What you need is Jesus Christ.” A pew to the right, Marybeth Talley, 18, used her own body to shield her mentally handicapped friend from gunfire.
Many cultures throughout history have gained inspiration from visible, heroic martyrs. “Christian kids around the country have used Columbine as a battle cry,” Mr. White says. “It was like throwing gasoline on a small fire, and that small fire has become a forest fire. It’s brought out a sense of challenge in kids. Now they’re rebelling for the right, rather than for the wrong.”
Shortly after the shootings in Littleton, Christian teens staged a peaceful lunchroom rebellion at Sapulpa High School near Tulsa, Okla. That day, a Columbine copycat threat had surfaced at the school: At least one note, naming students who would be killed, had been found in a restroom. According to Sapulpa senior Julee DeLong, who is now president of the school’s Christian club, administrators approached the matter cautiously that day, not wanting to incite panic. But Ricky Watkins, 17, a lanky former drug dealer who had recently converted to Christ, decided it was time to tell his schoolmates about Jesus.
“He came to me after second hour,” remembers Julee, 17, an all-conference soccer goalie and this year’s Sapulpa homecoming queen. “He told me he felt like we should give an altar call in the cafeteria. I thought, ‘This is it, God! This is what I’ve been waiting for!’” The pair rounded up about a dozen other Christian classmates and convened an ad hoc prayer meeting in the school gym. The little band of prayer warriors then marched into the lunchroom.
“Ricky stood up and called for everyone’s attention,” says Julee, “but teachers came and immediately carried him out because we had had that threat and they didn’t know what he was going to do.”
Teachers may have removed Ricky from the lunchroom, but the gospel message remained. At least three other students—Caleb Howard, 15, Lizzie Cameron, 18, and Alex Kocheshnov, a Russian foreign-exchange student who could barely speak English—stood in Ricky’s place and declared the love of Christ. Some students jeered at the young evangelists, but according to Julee, most just listened. Teachers, administrators, and the school superintendent (present on campus because of the bathroom note) entered the cafeteria and watched from the periphery. At the end, five students declared faith in Christ.
Sapulpa administrators let last spring’s lunchroom mini-crusade unfold. But when Caleb tried again this fall, Sapulpa’s principal stopped him with a preemptive warning: One-to-one evangelism was fine, but commandeering the cafeteria would be disruptive and unfair to listeners who might feel captive. The principal’s action still chafes at Julee: “You look out and see 300 people you know are probably going to hell. How can eating lunch and not disturbing the peacefulness be more important than saving eternal souls?”
Her passionate response is typical of many teens, says Tom Gill, 20, a student at Victory Bible Institute in Tulsa who spent three years working with Teen Mania, one of America’s largest youth mission organizations. “Teenagers have something no other part of the church body does,” he says: “It’s something like Timothy had—they aren’t willing to believe there’s something they can’t do. Tell a teen he can’t dye his hair green and he’ll say, ‘Yeah, right.’ If there’s a Christian teen seeking the heart of God, there’s nothing that’s going to stop him.”
Christian researcher George Barna told WORLD he believes “teens are into spirituality, but they do not limit themselves to Christianity. They believe it is important to believe in some deity and to integrate that faith into their life, but they also believe that any faith will do. They are very much into inclusiveness and tolerance, and such pluralistic attitudes cover the faith realm.” Indeed, only 26 percent of teens surveyed by the Barna group said they are “absolutely committed to the Christian faith.”
Lindsay Beth Giolzetti, a 9th-grader with a “Got Milk?” grin, is a 26-percenter. A student at Scripps Ranch High School in San Diego, Lindsay Beth says she’s very open about her faith, and regularly drops breadcrumb-trail hints about church, youth group, and Sunday school for her unchurched friends. “All my friends know I’m a Christian,” she says. “There’s no one who doesn’t like me because of it.” Lindsay Beth says some kids gently tease when she opts for a church activity over, say, a sleepover. But her feathers aren’t ruffled: “That may bother some people, but it doesn’t bother me.”
Other committed Christian teens, though, report a grittier battle in a culture that trivializes their faith. As they run a daily gantlet through school climates affected by Hollywood and news media hostility to Christianity, many say they routinely face anti-Christian bias.
Desiree Gulliver, a 17-year-old Scripps Ranch senior, sees it in the classroom. “In my government class, I have a teacher who is really anti-Christianity,” says Desiree, an amber-haired senior whose friends call her “Desi.” “Right after school started, she was talking about how she thought it was horrible that the Kansas schools were going to teach creation, and that only evolution should be taught. She’s really opinionated, so you think if you say anything, she’ll just say, ‘Oh well, you’re wrong.’ I don’t know what I’d say back.”
Angelo Giolzetti (Lindsay Beth’s big brother) is also a Scripps Ranch senior and one of Desi’s best friends. He agrees that their school is no friend to the cross. “It’s the teachers and the textbooks,” says Angelo, a slim 17-year-old who earns spending cash working as a barista at Starbucks. “Some of the things in the history books make Christianity sound so stupid.”
And the science books? “Evolution,” says Angelo from behind a smattering of freckles. “Totally.”
It’s not just a hostile school climate that Christian teens are battling; they’re also going head-to-head with some of the slickest, most well-financed political machines in the country. The American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way, and the National Education Association (recently named one of the most influential lobby groups in the nation by Fortune magazine) regularly go to the mat against Christian students who attempt to express their faith on campus.
Jay Sekulow is chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a legal group that fights for the rights of believers. He says he’s seen an increase this year in the number of teens calling in for legal advice on forming school Bible and prayer clubs. “We’ve seen a tremendous outgrowth of student-led, student-initiated prayer activity in schools,” says Mr. Sekulow. “There is a real desire among today’s young people to express their religious beliefs and to rely on their faith during these troubled times.”
The desire is so strong that it’s being considered again by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court announced on Nov. 15 that it would consider the Santa Fe, Texas, case where the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals struck down a policy permitting student-led, student-initiated speech at high-school football games. Mr. Sekulow will argue for Santa Fe Christian students, including Marian Ward. Rather than heed school officials’ warning that she couldn’t include the name of Jesus in a pre-game message, Marian, a National Honor Society member and Christian club officer, sued. “Religious speech and secular speech should be equal,” the 17-year-old said.
If governmental pressure makes it tough for teen believers, peer pressure is worse. Both Desi and Angelo say they’re teased for being Christians, mostly by their friends. Says Desi, “It’s not in, like, a mean way. They’ll say stuff like,” (here she adopts a mocking tone): “‘Oh, yeah, you have to go to church.’ Or ‘Don’t invite her there, she can’t do this or that.’”
Courtney Allen, another Scripps Ranch student, says that for her, the teasing is sometimes more mean-spirited: “I’ve had kids say to me, ‘So, is Jesus coming back for you this year?’”
Angelo and Desi both say Hollywood and news media portrayals of Christians make it harder for them to talk to their friends about God. But they’ve both still managed. In mid-July, the two attended a conference on friendship evangelism. Afterward, Desi wrote a letter about her faith to Emily, a sort of middle-distance friend who hung out with the “Scrippies,” a giant Scripps Ranch High clique populated with wealthy kids who did well in school, but got drunk, smoked pot, and swapped sex partners on the weekends.
“Emily called me as soon as she got the letter,” Desi says, adding that she and Emily are now best friends. “Now she goes to church and to Bible study every week. The people she used to hang out with make fun of her now. Everybody calls her a nun. But they’re voting her ‘most changed’ for our senior ads.”
Not every Christian teen walks the straight and narrow. Angelo says those who “blow their witness” by falling into sin make it tougher to convince unbelieving teens that Jesus is the real thing. But committed Christian teens who do live differently than unbelievers have a profound impact on other teenagers. Angelo, for example, says his non-Christian friends notice that he doesn’t drink, doesn’t curse, and doesn’t party on the weekends. They also notice—and envy—the close friendships between Angelo and his Christian friends, and how the Christian kids at Scripps really seem to care about each other. Both Julee DeLong and Josh Weidmann say some of their non-Christian friends even respect the moral stand they take in the face of massive peer pressure.
“I have a friend who is on the football team,” says Josh. “He does a lot of stuff that he thinks is OK and fun, like cussing, drinking, and just having fun with the boys. He knows that this is not me, and he is really careful about what he says around me. He has said to me before, ‘Josh Weidmann, you know what you stand for and you act it out. I really respect that.’”
Many Christian teens today are running the race set before them—and running it with conviction. Joe White says he sees “a geometric increase in the number of strong Christian kids on campuses every year.” These teens, he says, are putting the natural passions of youth to work in the service of the gospel.
“God doesn’t cleanse us of our passions, he bridles our passions,” says Mr. White. “Kids are passionate—God is taking that and bridling it. Christian teens today are like a stampede of ponies under the control of the Holy Spirit.”