Sometime back in the early nineties I remember seeing pictures about an organization called Power Team, a traveling group of hypertrophied Christians smashing bricks, lifting absurdly heavy things, and ripping phone books in half. Even at that time I felt conflicted. Isn’t the kingdom of God a matter of power? Yes. But isn’t the 1:1 parallel between physical strength and spiritual strength a little, well, crude? Add to the skepticism my growing awareness about religious forms of male posturing.
So when I saw a sign advertising their arrival in my hometown, I attended their recent performance more out of interest in identifying men’s issues than for the possibility of spiritual edification. But as it turned out, I got a serious helping of both. My family and I arrived at Church at the Gate (Sioux Falls, SD) a good fifteen minutes late, by which time the church had been packed out. Parking had been extended onto their lawn. Inside the church mayhem had broken out, volunteers shuffling children to the appropriate nursery area, church members trying to set up seats in the foyer as quickly as possible. It was our good fortune that an usher took hold of us and placed us in the last two seats available in the sanctuary – which happened to be the front row. A band had just finished leading a few raucous worship songs, and a leader had stepped up to rile the crowd with a raffle drawing for insignificant gift cards. The crowd, nearly half of them minors, had little interest in the prizes, but were amped by the packed audience. Notably, the one good prize the church gave away, a Nintendo Wii, was given back by the girl who won it; she explained that she already had one and wanted someone else to have it. That alone should have convinced me that the Spirit of God was brooding over the place.
Finally, Steve Hickey, the pastor of Church at the Gate, stood up to introduce the main act. Pastor Steve’s pasty white visage was a marked contrast to the behemoths about to take the stage, something he highlighted by ripping his button-down shirt open to reveal another shirt, air brushed with bodybuilder’s muscles. The self-deprecating humor was disarming – “My wife told me maybe I should cut a few strings first…” – but I recognized in him a trend in many charismatic churches, the way pastors and teachers are conscious of masculine standards, and often seek to meet them by incorporating manly language and themes into their ministries. Such leaders teach the art of spiritual warfare. They claim and exercise authority over the earthly and heavenly realms alike. They instruct men on how to be good husbands and fathers. While women are often given “stronger” roles and religious expressions too, the categories of power are especially gendered towards men. Where so many Protestant churches are just now beginning to organize attempts at re-masculinization, charismatic and Pentecostal pastors have been charting these waters all along. More on that later.
The pastor introduced the act. Formerly called Power Team, they now have the more cumbersome name, John Jacobs’ Next Generation Power Force. Jacobs came out, an imposing figure of 270 pounds of muscle that overshadowed his agedness. With him was John Eskridge, a former linebacker with the New England Patriots, and – shocker here – a woman by the name of Kathy Bertram.
Crap. There goes the men’s studies element.
Or maybe not. John Jacobs began explaining what they would be doing that night and also why they put on these performances. He assured us that we would be impressed. But we were not to marvel at these things too much. “I’m not the big guy,” Jacobs asserted with all soberness. “Jesus is the big guy.”
The spectacle that ensued was impressive. Bertram broke a baseball bat on her knee, bent a bar of steel around her body. Eskridge lowered pick axes down to his eyeballs multiple times. There was the tearing of a phone book, ripping of license plates in half, rolling up a frying pan like a tortilla. Keep in mind that these guys are the small ones on the Power Force squad. The kind of affection and support within the group was also impressive. Events a member couldn’t complete would be taken over by another: “That’s what Christians do; we help each other.” I thought there was great respect shown between the men and Bertram, who treated each other as genuine peers without pretending that one’s sex was invisible.
Towards the end Jacobs roped pastor Steve Hickey back into things. He was to have an unopened can of soda smashed on his forehead. It’s one thing to talk like a man – show us you’re a man, pastor! After much build up, a team member drove a can of Sprite onto the his forehead, blowing the can in half and spraying all of us in the front row. The right reverend seemed alright, if a little dazed.
If only ordination ceremonies could integrate such hazing.
Interspersed throughout the night were the team members’ testimonies. Bertram shared how her devastatingly low self-esteem from her unpleasable father landed her in a psych ward as a suicide victim. She experienced a radical, life-altering encounter with Jesus Christ there. Eskridge shared how ministering in Christ’s name has been truly fulfilling, and in total contrast to the selfish, idolatrous culture into which he found himself sinking in the NFL. (Those two testimonies, my wife and I agreed afterward, were enough to cut to the heart of any teenager.) John Jacobs finished the night with one of the most arresting messages I’ve ever heard. He spoke about his conversion as a child, the miraculous physical healing he experienced, the thousands of people he has seen saved from utter hopelessness through the Power Force ministry, exorcisms he himself has witnessed.
The amazing thing was that for all the spectacle of that evening, all the physical stunts and rhetorical displays, the Power Force stayed the course. Everything led back to Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected. As someone who has spent some time in the midst of numerous revivals, crusades and rallies, I want to assure you that this is no common or easy thing. Speakers usually devolve into emotional manipulation. Stunts and charismata become the object of attention. But this group had an unmistakable gravitational core in the gospel.
The night finished out as all evangelistic crusades do. During the closing prayer an invitation to receive Christ as one’s Lord and Savior was issued. With all eyes closed, Jacobs asked people to raise their hands if they were making a decision of faith. Then, the prayer concluded, Jacobs turned it into an altar call, asking people to demonstrate the decision they just made by coming forward. Everyone on stage had shown courage and risked themselves. Now it was the new converts’ turn. “I’m going to say it South Dakota style,” Jacobs quipped. “This is where the men are separated from the boys.” Muscles don’t make the man. Instead, the courage to confess Jesus publicly becomes the touchstone of Christian masculinity.
The music sounded, and a mass, perhaps over a hundred people, flooded forward. As with every crusade, there were plenty of souls who were clearly converted years earlier (e.g. the boy in the t-shirt that said “Jesus has reserved MySpace in heaven”). It’s hard to pass up getting saved all over again. Even so, if only one of five were making first time commitments, it was a considerable harvest.
The new converts were led out to the foyer, and everyone was dismissed. My wife and I, a little winded and a little sticky from the soda, were finally able to weave our way out, past the splintered wood and ripped phonebooks and bent steel. Could it be that people met the strong arm of Jesus Christ here? Did God show up in this whirlwind?