Youth Alive

Youth Alive (extract from Chapter 12 "Dreams come true"

As my ministry increased in popularity, an area that became extremely effective for me was speaking at youth groups and camps, so the leaders of the Assemblies of God approached me to unite the youth groups of the churches all over Sydney with large-scale events. Initially, I was reluctant to take this on because Every Believer Evangelism had become a growing concern, but I was also aware of the enormous need of youth. For many years, the Sydney Assemblies of God youth met for a combined meeting every few months with just over one hundred attending, mostly second-generation Christians who’d been brought up in the church. The youth of the churches were unwilling to work together and there were hostilities over a variety of issues, as well as power struggles between the most significant  churches, each group thinking they should take the leadership and do it better. I could circumvent these issues because I was an independent preacher with no particular loyalties to an individual church, so I decided to take it on, get it established, then hand over the leadership to someone else. Once this was successfully underway I could then give my total focus to Every Believer Evangelism.

To achieve my goal, I had to get as many young people on side as possible so I worked hard, building relationships and encouraging youth leaders in the city to get involved and work together, knowing that a combined, large visible presence was much more powerful than just their little group meetings in the suburbs. I tried to impart a large vision: one I knew they had never seen before. The mission, should they choose to accept, was to create a lively, contemporary rally that would present Christianity in a way that was relevant to youth in the largest entertainment venues Sydney had to offer. What I was planning on doing was radical and I needed sound and production people as well as contemporary Christian musicians. The existing name of the Assemblies of God youth, Christ’s Ambassadors (or CAs for short), had to be changed. Who’d go to a youth rally called Christ’s Ambassadors? I knew I wouldn’t.

After much arguing and persistence, the name Youth Alive became the name of the organisation, but as we prepared for our first event, other problems began to develop.

Within Pentecostal churches, most people had been taught that rock music was from the devil and some sensationalist preachers, like Gary Greenwald, even said that some rock musicians used backward masking to hide demonic, subliminal messages that could be heard when songs were played in reverse. Greenwald claimed that back-masked messages propelled listeners into sex and drug use. The White Album by the Beatles was said to contain backwards messages such as the repeated words, ‘Number nine, number nine, number nine ... ’ in the song ‘Revolution 9’, which backwards supposedly became ‘turn me on, dead man, turn me on, dead man ... ’ Probably the most well-known example of alleged back-masking was Led Zeppelin's song ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ If a particular portion of the song is played backwards, then supposedly the phrase, ‘Here's to my sweet Satan,’ can be heard. Those who had the sense to investigate the claims discovered that, given a randomly generated series of syllables, it would be easy to find a two-syllable pair that could be liberally interpreted as ‘Satan’. It was possible that any person with some creative interpretation skills could play virtually any song backwards and uncover ‘Satanic messages’, especially if you were a Christian preacher and rock music was taking away your young people. Christian youth were being encouraged to forsake the rock stars and burn their records. Foolishly, in this highly-charged, controversial environment, I wanted to introduce Christian rock music at Youth Alive rallies.

On 23 February 1985, Youth Alive’s first event began with a day of evangelistic outreach at Manly, one of the major beach suburbs of Sydney, consisting of a concert in the mall using a variety of Christian bands and singers, drama and dance. Several hundred Christian youth showed up and people spoke excitedly about the innovative program we’d put together—Sydney had never seen anything like this before. We talked to many people on the streets about having a relationship with God—even a few of the local street kids prayed to receive Christ into their lives. The day climaxed with a youth concert in a nearby basketball stadium. The entire event had been a great risk but the evening rally was to be the greatest test.

The excitement increased as the audience in the stadium grew to five hundred people (an unheard-of figure among the youth of Pentecostal churches) but I could also sense tension building when certain groups arrived. They were so straight-laced and boring it was understandable that their youth groups were small. Their youth leaders fostered a defensive siege mentality, and their only objective was to protect their young people from the temptations of the world, not to reach out to young people in need outside the church. Even if they had attempted such a radical thing I doubt they would have related or been able to communicate with them anyway. They were fearful their Christian youth might find out how much fun you could have enjoying life—if they discovered it, they’d defect from Christianity. The program was about to commence. I prayed together with the performers at the back of the stage for God’s blessing and most of all that we would somehow be able to communicate to young people how much God loved them.

The hall was in darkness … Wah,wah,wah,wah, a sole electric guitar whined and screamed … then the drums kicked in … Boom, boom, boom …lights flashed and we were underway. I loved it, but others didn’t. Some of the youth leaders became restless, you could feel the tension rising in the air as they muttered to each other about the music, lights and atmosphere. One of the leaders stood up, gathered his little flock of young people together, and walked out. I was standing at the back of the stadium watching the band when another youth leader moved towards me, his eyes flashing with rage.

‘What do you think you’re doing?’ he shouted, trying to make himself heard above the Christian rock band. ‘You can’t win people to Christ with this type of music, it’s satanic!’ I tried to settle him down and reassure him that it would be okay.

‘Just wait and see,’ I said, but he wouldn’t listen, returned to his group sitting near the front and marched them out defiantly. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I was called out to the car park where another leader was so upset he had gathered his group and was praying against us.

Apparently I was doing the work of the devil. As the program continued, even more walked out, arguing with me as they departed. I was trying desperately to keep cool and calm, wishing my spot in the program would hurry up so I would have some people left to preach to. At the conclusion of the one-and-a-half hour program, when I was scheduled to preach, we had lost at least a third of the crowd.

I preached like a man possessed that night, possessed with a mission. A mission to reach out to young people, to let them know God loved them and there was a better way to live; they could have hope, healing and the power to change their lives. A mission to also let young Christian people know that they did not have to be dull and boring, looking and acting like they belonged to a former generation, totally out of step with the rest of the world. I was also angry. Angry that the youth leaders had judged what we were doing, judged the Christian rock musicians who were using their talents for God’s Kingdom. I was disgusted by their religious, sanctimonious, pious attitude—it was the greatest barrier to God’s love touching the world. As my message ended I needed God to perform a miracle. After all we had done and been through we had to see results. Preaching into the glare of the spotlights only heightened the feeling that came over me several times. Is anyone out there? Is anyone listening? I could barely make out the sea of faces as I asked people to come to the front and ask God to come into their lives. There was a long deathly silence that was occasionally broken with a nervous cough from somewhere in the stadium. No-one moved. I waited and asked again. ‘Who would like to give their life to Jesus tonight?’ Still nothing. One more time, I had to have results from all the work we’d put in.

Then I heard a chair move, a rustling at the back of the hall, and a big biker in leathers moved quickly towards the front out of the darkness, the sound of his boots on the wooden floor echoed throughout the building. I had never seen anyone come to the front at that speed before and for a moment thought he may have been angry about my Christian preaching and was coming to attack me. He stopped directly in front of me. ‘Have you come to give your life to God?’ I asked hesitantly.

‘Yes,’ he replied in a strong, confident voice that could be heard throughout the entire auditorium. The crowd burst into spontaneous applause as I jumped off the stage to shake his hand. One person, but it had been worth it for just one. I nearly cried at the sense of relief. Then I heard other footsteps as another came down the front, then another, then another, until within minutes there were twenty young people standing with me. Some were
crying, others smiling. All young people who previously had little or no experience of God but wanted to make changes in their lives. Afterwards, when we talked and prayed with each of them, we discovered most had come from difficult situations and were in great need. Mission accomplished, and the foundation laid that Youth Live would always be about reaching out to young people in a contemporary and relevant way.

The high of that night lasted for days, and I assumed the results of our first Youth Alive outreach would speak for themselves. Sometimes I was so naive. The Assemblies of God Executive Committee requested I meet with them immediately because the youth leaders who’d walked out had complained about the concert. We’d achieved at our first youth rally something many had wanted for years and I knew the methods we used were essential for the continued success of Youth Alive. I was not going to compromise but would stand my ground—a new position for me.

Waiting outside the meeting was daunting as I had never been in trouble with the Executive before. It felt like I was a naughty little schoolboy waiting outside the principal’s office, about to be disciplined for some misdemeanour. The door opened and I was asked to enter. I knew all the Men on the Executive, most on a first-name basis. I showed others respect by calling them ‘pastor’. None of them was under forty, all attired in their outdated, conservative suits. Their greetings were formal and cool and their faces told me we had some serious business to deal with. I was still grinning ear-to-ear from the excitement of the previous Saturday night. The seating arrangement was ridiculously intimidating—a solitary seat faced the dozen men. Images of a firing squad flashed through my mind.

‘Mmmmmmm, we’ve had numerous complaints about your rally on Saturday night,’ was the superintendent’s opening comment, spoken in a slow, deep tone to reinforce the seriousness of the statement. I listened as they detailed the reports they’d been given about the worldly music, seductive dance and dark atmosphere, just like a rock concert. We had used rock music to share the Christian message, we had used flashing lights and created a rock concert atmosphere, we had used a contemporary dance sequence to communicate a powerful message, the Christian youth had danced exuberantly. It had been intentional—to communicate in a medium and language young people understood. I denied nothing.

Today it seems so ridiculous that this was so controversial—now this is the normal Sunday service format in almost every growing Assemblies of God, Hillsong and Pentecostal church in Australia. I knew there were a couple of men in this group who supported the changes I had to make, but in this arena with their peers they made no comment. As a group, it seemed the Executive were asking me to go back to the old way of running a youth service,
maybe a middle-of-the-road approach to please everybody, they suggested, be less controversial. They were concerned that by using contemporary means and rock music to communicate with young people, we were lowering our standards and using worldly methods.

‘Yes,’ I finally responded after listening to their criticisms, ‘We have lowered our standards. In fact we have lowered them so much we were actually able to reach twenty young people for God.’ There was silence in the room. Knowing Youth Alive’s success depended on developing what we’d started, I gave them my ultimatum.

‘Here are the options, gentlemen.’ (Even I was shocked by the assertiveness of my statement.) ‘If you’re not happy with what I’m doing with the youth groups of Sydney then I’ll resign now. If you want me to continue then you’ll have to leave me to do what I feel is right to reach young people with the gospel. I’m not going to come in here after every rally and have to justify our program. You’ll just have to trust me.’ I smiled and made eye contact with everyone in the room.

They backed down immediately and from that time on I was never pressured or questioned by them again; they allowed me to fulfil Youth Alive’s vision of presenting a powerful witness in a contemporary mode. The numbers increased at each event, the word spread around Sydney and other denominational churches wanted to join us, so we decided to take over Sydney Town Hall for our last rally for the year. Once again, this was groundbreaking for the
Assemblies of God. We had no money to fund such an event, but believed God would provide. When we inquired about a booking, apparently the only night the Sydney Town Hall wasn’t booked was the exact night we wanted. We took it as a sign from God that it had been kept for us. We had enough funds for the deposit so we paid that and worked on the preparations to produce the best program yet. It seemed like a big step of faith but if I’d waited for the funds to be in the bank before I did anything, I’d still be in Orange working part-time in the church.

When I walked into the Sydney Town Hall on the afternoon of 7 December 1985 to see how the preparations were going, it looked huge. I’d attended concerts there throughout my schooling and remembered it was large but now it looked so much bigger—and I was responsible for filling it.

There were a couple of brief moments of doubt as I wondered if we could draw a crowd big enough. The largest crowd we’d had to date was around 800, but for tonight to be a success we needed over 2000. We opened the doors half an hour before 7pm and the few people who trickled in only accentuated the emptiness of the building. More arrived, and then a steady stream of young people flooded through the doors and took up their positions in different parts of the ground floor. During the last five minutes the ground floor and balcony were packed. The atmosphere was electric, as most of these young people had never been to a Christian event of this size before. The crowd shouted and applauded as the evening’s program commenced. I felt both humbled and excited walking out on the stage at the end of the evening; it was a wonderful privilege to be speaking to this crowd of over two thousand young people. In my mind, I’d rehearsed my message over and over again knowing it would look ridiculous to come out on stage with preaching notes—it was important to speak from the heart. Preaching with passion and conviction, I spoke about the power of God’s love to heal, forgive and change anyone who was willing to acknowledge their need of Him. To say ‘I don’t need God’ seemed a ridiculous statement to me as I was constantly aware of my need for God’s love, forgiveness and power. The response was more than I had hoped for. Over two hundred young people came forward at my invitation to give their lives to God. A stillness came over the crowd as we realised the significance of what was happening. Certainly a new chapter was beginning in the history of youth outreach that would have an impact for years to come.

It was time to find someone else to take on Youth Alive and so I approached Mark, an experienced youth leader, who was managing a Christian organisation in New Zealand. As I’d been supporting myself through Every Believer Evangelism, Youth Alive had no salary to offer him and he declined. Pat Mesiti, the youth pastor of an Italian congregation in Sydney, had been my enthusiastic assistant, so he was my next choice. Pat did a tremendous job and under his dynamic leadership, Youth Alive continued to grow, opening up opportunities for him to preach around Australia and overseas. Seeing the potential in Pat, Brian Houston, the senior pastor of Hillsong Church, invited him to join their team. Basing himself at the large church in Sydney, Pat became a very popular speaker and sold thousands of tapes, videos and books on youth topics, as well as speaking regularly at multi-level marketing conferences for companies like Amway.

It hurt me when I heard, not long after I had fallen off the radar so to speak, that Pat had taken on the title of ‘founder’ of Youth Alive NSW. My teenage daughters were finding it difficult enough to come to terms with what had happened to their dad, but hearing Pat regularly acknowledged for what their father had done caused them even more pain. My sense of pride and achievement in founding a successful youth organisation, eventually growing to events of 20,000 or more people,  was now, along with many other things, also to be taken from me.

However, Pat would eventually discover himself what it’s like to have your humanity become public knowledge, with all the pain and grief this brings to your family. In 2002, Pat was stood down from all ministry in the Assemblies of God because of misconduct, the result of a sexual addiction. I’m sure he was unaware how blessed he was to have a pastor like Brian Houston support him and his family in counselling and other ways. This support meant Pat could focus on getting his life and marriage back on track in order to be restored to the ministry. Sadly, even with that support, Pat’s marriage didn’t survive. Phil Pringle, the Senior Pastor of another mega-church in Sydney, willingly took Pat’s healing and rehabilitation in hand. In his new church home and with his new wife Andrea, Pat was re-instated as a preacher on Sunday 19 February 2006 and serves God with a new awareness, and one would hope with a little more humility.

The Christian Church—a place of love, forgiveness and restoration—proved to be so for Pat. His repentance opened doors and people came to his rescue. Why hadn't it worked like that for me? I wondered. Was my sin so unforgivable?
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Copyright © 2007 - 2012 text: Anthony Venn-Brown

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