Impact World Tour is a traveling show based in Lee's Summit that combines teen entertainment with evangelism. IWT manages four groups: Island Breeze, a group of Polynesian dancers; Thrive, a Kansas City-based Christian-rock band; Team Xtreme, a group of beefy dudes who perform feats of strength such as tearing phone books in half; and GX International, a crew of skateboard daredevils and break dancers. The four troupes have toured more than 200 U.S. cities and have made stops in seven other countries. IWT's theory is that traditional proselytizing is outdated -- for teens to pay attention to the message now, they need something that speaks directly to them. Something like what they see on MTV.
First, though, the folks behind Impact World Tour have to convince kids to watch, and that often takes place in public-school gymnasiums, where performers bait kids with ostensibly nonreligious spectacles. Before the November 6 assembly at Nike Intermediate, 21-year-old Nate Tanner gathers his crew and prays for God's help in spiking attendance at four evening performances scheduled for later that week. "Get these kids stoked and get them to bring their families to the show," he implores.
At a makeshift DJ table on the gym floor, GX International's DJ Tiberius (twenty-year-old Jonathan Bartlett), spins a record on which GX International has laid its own kid-friendly, positive messages over a beat from a Fugees song. Ten dancers bound onto the floor and launch into an ultrasynchronized series of steps. At the end, they freeze, salute the kids in the bleachers and scatter. Then Tanner strides onto the floor and says, "Hey, do you guys like skateboarding?" Two 3-foot-tall ramps are set up at each end of the gym, with a foot-high rail between the two. One by one, skateboarders set off to jump them. "Here comes Alex from Mexico, Missouri, and there goes Jesse Fellers of Montana, and give a hand to Josh, and there goes Shane, our fearless rollerblader!" Tanner puts down the mic and nails a kickflip, skating over the ramp, flipping the board underneath him in the air before landing on it.
"How'd you like that, Gardner?" Tanner asks. "Well, if you like what you see here today, don't forget, it's going to get a whole lot crazier when we put on our real show on Saturday in the gym at Gardner-Edgerton High School at 7 p.m. So don't forget, you're all invited. You gotta come out there and see it."
Tanner and the rest of the GX performers are pumped for Saturday's show not only because they'll have their lights, sound and special equipment in full force but also because they won't have to skate around their Christian mission. "We're not allowed to mention God or Jesus at the school assemblies," says Charity Albers, GX's dance captain. "We're not allowed to say we're Christians, not even speak of it. We can only perform -- without the message."
Thirty minutes west of Kansas City on Interstate 35, Gardner is home to 13,700 souls. In November, Johnnie Craig -- an eighteen-year resident, parent of six children, Chamber of Commerce member and owner of a wireless consulting firm called Integrity Communications -- spoke to 250 people gathered at the First Presbyterian Church about the virtues of Impact World Tour.
"IWT could be anywhere in the world, but God has chosen Gardner," Craig announced. "Is IWT in Gardner because God knows we are the second-fastest-growing community in Kansas and need all the help we can get? Or is IWT in Gardner due to assistance needed with our crime statistics? Allow me to share." With that, Craig listed some of Gardner's crime statistics for the year 2002: 172 juvenile offenses, 48 narcotics arrests, 111 reports of vandalism, 125 burglaries, 154 DUIs, 7 rapes, 26 sex offenses and 4 arsons -- 583 arrests in all.
The town had spent a year planning for IWT's arrival. To oversee efforts to bring the tour to Gardner, twenty or so community members formed an executive board chaired by the same pastor who heads the town's Ministerial Alliance, made up of ten out of Gardner's seventeen churches. People had volunteered their houses to board IWT performers for the week they'd be in town. Others had volunteered to cook meals. The First Baptist Church had become the official headquarters for the IWT staff and performers. The only thing that looked uncertain was the money. The salvation of a town's youth doesn't come cheap.
Four nights of IWT performances would cost the city $38,500. A dessert-banquet fund-raiser at the high school brought in about 150 people. Then each church in the alliance held a "kickoff," ultimately raising 75 percent of the budget, with churchgoers pledging money and making monthly payments. Local businesses such as the Genesis Development Team (a group of builders and developers) and Jabez (another development company) pledged $3,000 after Craig approached them.
But not everyone was excited.
Donny McElhiney's office at Gardner's First Baptist Church looks more like a teenager's bedroom than like a youth minister's space. A pair of black Converse tennis shoes with painted flames licking the heels hangs on one of the walls, which are coated with posters of Christian-rock bands such as Pillar and P.O.D.
"Based on the music I listen to and that I'm into skateboarding and mountain biking, [young people] relate and connect with me and don't see me as an adult per se," McElhiney says. "I mean, I have tattoos, I used to have piercings in various places ... my appearance makes me approachable."
McElhiney came to Gardner from Augusta, Kansas, this past summer, bringing what he considers a unique and modern approach to ministering to young people. "You don't have to look a certain way to get into the Kingdom," McElhiney says. "I was out of the church for almost twenty years, and when I came back I was blown away by how much it's changed. It brought me back, knowing I'd be accepted."
The plan to bring GX International to Gardner was racing ahead like a chariot when McElhiney came to town.
"It was a great thing, and I was so happy to have it already in the works when I got here," he says. "But in Augusta, we were able to have a speaker come in for less than $10,000, and I've seen several hundred lives saved. Don't get me wrong -- it's a great organization and a wonderful ministry that they do." But, McElhiney says, "When I found out we'd spent $38,000 to do this, I was like, wow, that's outrageous. You can get the same results with just one speaker. Of course, having the skateboarders there, that's a big draw. Bringing kids in and that kind of thing is just awesome."
For the highly anticipated Saturday-night show in the Gardner-Edgerton High School gym, the bleachers are so packed that there's spillover to the exits, where folks are standing-room-only. The lights are dimmed.
"It's going to be off the sheezy for Heezy!" an announcer promises from his post at an elaborate techie table, with controls for the lights, sound, fog and images projected on a screen set up as a backdrop.
To the left of the stage is a 10-foot-tall ramp, accessible by ladder. A skateboarder's playground is set up center stage; ramps on four sides lead to a platform at the top, and a rail runs down one side. To the right is another, larger ramp painted with graffiti.
Lots of middle school kids are here with their parents. Many audience members are wearing neon-colored WWJD bracelets.
As the fog machines begin to chug, images of a spinning galaxy appear on the backdrop, and a voice booms, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth." A spotlight hits Jesse Fellers, a veteran GX performer, who says, "Are you guys ready for a show?" As he introduces the team members, each does a trick off the 10-foot ramp.
But as a dance number begins, a group of girls gets up and leaves the gym, preferring to stage their own dance party outside the gym's doors. Then five teenage boys walk out, skateboards in hand.
Outside, concrete benches form an unofficial skate park. "I expected more of a street course," one skater admits. "More grinding. Less dancing." He kickflips his way back to his friends. The cold night air is tinged with pot.
Back onstage, the skaters have returned, and Fellers is wearing a platinum mullet wig and sunglasses. "Is this better than every other Saturday night?" Nate Tanner yells, and the crowd applauds enthusiastically. On the middle skateboard platform, several large men from GX's crew are lying down, waiting for Rollerblader Shane to jump over them. "There goes Shane -- he does not care if he lives or dies," Tanner says.
Shane Wahl skates down the ramp and bites it huge, sliding across the floor on his unpadded knees. Fellers' next trick ends the same way. Then Josh Tolle skates off the side of the ramp and falls.
Finally, Tanner takes center stage with the microphone and launches into the evening's finale. "A radical decision is needed in Gardner. The truth will set you free," he says. "What's it gonna be? All of you who are with me, raise your hands on the count of three." As he counts, hands in the crowd are sprouting. "OK, now all of you with your hands raised, stand up. Maybe you're messing around with drugs, with witchcraft. Come on down here and get right."
Slowly at first, then with more speed, people stand, grab each other by the hands and trail down the stairs to the stage. Fellers takes the mic from Tanner and begins telling stories. He talks about how in Holland, a GX team member prayed for a girl's fractured back, and the next day her doctor couldn't tell where it had been broken. More than a hundred people now stand on the gym floor, the result of a slow avalanche from the bleachers. The crowd in the bleachers is now a mix of sinners and the already saved.
Fellers asks for a non-Christian to come down from the bleachers. There's dead silence. Then, a rotund boy in a striped shirt reluctantly makes his way to the stage. "OK, Charity here is going to pray for you, is that OK?" Fellers asks the boy, who nods. Charity Albers, the pretty, dark-haired dance captain, puts one hand on the boy's shoulder and bows her head. When she's finished, Fellers asks the boy, "Did that feel bad?"
"Yes," the kid says, exhaling into the microphone.
"What happened when Charity touched you?"
"My legs, um, were, um, shaking," the kid says. "And, um, something came out of my body."
Fellers moves on. Out on the gym's floor, church volunteers are walking around with pink slips of paper, asking people if they want to know more about Gardner's churches and collecting names and phone numbers.
Weeks later, McElhiney sits in his office at the First Baptist Church, where the phrase "Welcome, Impact World Tour" is still displayed on the sign outside. He's sorting through stacks of Christian-rock CDs sent to him from record labels. In the wake of the tour's performances, McElhiney admits that the churches' follow-up plans aren't as solid as he'd hoped.
Every volunteer who took home a stack of pink slips was supposed to call the people who had signed up. The Impact World Tour tallied the number of decisions made for Christ at 513 over four days, which made for a lot of calls. But some of the volunteers were pretty young themselves and were slacking.
"We need to step up," McElhiney says of his youth-minister brethren. "We don't just want to leave those people hanging. They're new to their spirituality and not sure how to feel about it, and if no one's talking to them, they could just fall through the cracks."
To formulate a plan of attack, five youth pastors hold a meeting at the Gardner Pizza Hut. Lacking fog machines or freewheeling daredevils to attract young people, they stick with what they know.
They decide to put on a teen Christmas party and invite all the kids in town. McElhiney will line up two Christian musicians from Augusta. The ministers brainstorm a list of games guaranteed to get teens associating Jesus with nougat: The kids would know which groups they belonged to by the type of candy bars taped to the bottom of their chairs. There would be "Bobbing for M&Ms," a game in which kids try to pick out the candies from a bowl of Hershey's syrup, and another game where people coat their faces in peanut butter and have teammates throw Chee-tos at their faces.
"It's going to get messy," admitted Jenny Popp, one of the youth leaders. "But whatever makes the kids happy."