Thousands of youth in Atlantic Canada were infused with a new and renewed passion for Jesus Christ over the Thanksgiving weekend as young people in Halifax, NS, and St. John’s, NL, came out to ignition, a multimedia youth event sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) of Canada.
Nearly 2,900 young people poured into the Halifax Forum on October 7, and more than 5,200 flooded the Mile One Stadium in St. John’s on October 9. Both events broke records for the number of youth coming out to a one-night event, particularly to a Christian outreach event. Three bands–Tree63, Joy Williams and Salvador–performed each night. Will Graham, son of Franklin Graham and grandson of Billy Graham, challenged the youth to make a decision for Christ, using the example of Pontius Pilate in Matthew 27 to make his point. Even when Pilate came face to face with the Son of God and knew the truth, he tried to avoid making a decision. Yet Pilate was as guilty of Christ’s crucifixion as those who condemned Him to death.
“If you make no decision for Christ, you’re making a decision against Christ,” Graham said, adding that you can’t stay neutral about Jesus. You can accept Him or reject Him, but if you try to sit on the fence, you’re not following Him. “Some of you want to stay neutral … you don’t want to be a Christian because you don’t want to give up your lifestyle,” Graham said. “The greatest decision I ever made was to follow Jesus Christ. That’s when I really started to live.”
This simple message inspired 101 young people in Halifax and 144 in St. John’s to respond to the invitation. A total of 150 trusted Christ as their Lord and Savior for the first time.
“It wasn’t the music or the singing that spoke to them,” said Ruth Longard, a counselor in Halifax whose twin 17-year-old sons accepted Christ at ignition. “It was [the] message; that’s what spoke to them.” Longard said her sons Nathan and Benjamin and a friend from school couldn’t stop talking on the ride home that night about what Graham had said–that there is no middle ground when it comes to Christ.
“The Lord used those words to touch their hearts; they were very simple and profound,” Longard said. Graham, who is the senior pastor of Wakefield Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, says he doesn’t sugarcoat the Gospel for youth.
“I believe you’re going to keep their attention by speaking the truth,” Graham said in an interview following ignition. “It’s more than stories and funny jokes. God’s Word is simple, and I just share what it means.”
A Broader Vision
When members of the BGEA of Canada first approached the clergy in Halifax and St. John’s about bringing an evangelistic youth out-reach to their cities, they were not sold on the idea until they saw the training and discipleship that were part of the wider epicentre program.
“The concept really appealed to us because it matched our [Avalon Youth Ministries] vision and mission of bringing youth together, training them to do outreach in their schools and providing events they can bring their friends to,” said Pastor Dion Collins, chairman of the local St. John’s committee and youth pastor at Elim Pentecostal Tabernacle.
The phases of epicentre involve mentoring and training Christian youth to be leaders; city-wide prayer initiatives; worship events to promote unity and generate excitement about ignition; evangelism training courses; a multi-media event with dynamic music and a clear proclamation of the Gospel; follow-up discipleship training; and a short-term missions trip.
“I saw a process take place–taking kids from being too timid to share Christ with their friends to actually bringing their friends to the Lord,” Collins said.
Matt Carol, 18, went through the counselor training for ignition and gained confidence in sharing his faith. The night of the event he was nervous, but God directed him to another 18-year-old man who came forward at the invitation.
“I [wasn't] prepared for how amazing it was to lead someone to Christ,” Carol said. Less than a year ago, Carol didn’t believe in God. He’d grown up going to church, but he didn’t have a spiritual connection.
“I was forced to go,” Carol says. “I never believed in God. I had no idea who God was.” Then a few months ago, a friend from school invited him to her youth group. At first he said he felt anxious and uneasy in the Christian setting.
“One night I just didn’t feel uncomfortable, and then the next thing I remember is kneeling down at the altar with tears coming down my face. I hadn’t cried in years.” He surrendered his life to the Lord that night and never looked back. “I’ve had kind of a rough road spiritually, but when I became a Christian my life improved 200 percent!”
There is an urgency to reach youth, said Pastor Mike Miller, chairman of the local Halifax committee and missions pastor at Rock Church. Statistics show that most people come to Christ between ages 14-18 and that it becomes more difficult to reach 19- to 25-year-olds. Miller was encouraged that epicentre targeted junior high, high school and university students.
“The most valuable resource in the Maritimes is youth,” Miller said. “It’s not oil or fish or forestry.” Both Miller and Collins view ignition as a beginning–the start of something in their cities.
Music as Ministry
Hundreds of teenagers stood to their feet to worship God each night as Nashville, Tennessee’s Joy Williams opened the service with her hit song, “Stay.” The Latino group Salvador followed, and then Tree63 took the stage. The bands weren’t there simply to entertain; they were part of BGEA’s effort to reach the youth for Christ.
“If anyone doubts whether Christ can change your life, I’m living proof,” Tree63 lead singer John Ellis said between songs. “Ten years ago, I was living in South Africa. I was trying to be a rock star. Ten years later, I’m here talking to you about Jesus. What changed my life wasn’t Oprah and it wasn’t Dr. Phil, it was 100 percent Jesus,” Ellis said.
Williams, 22, said in an interview before the event that she has a deep desire to invest her time in people who don’t know Jesus. “Being part of a team to spread the Message, to grow, involve, engage and make an impact on people my age–that’s exciting.”
Friends and relationships come and go, she told youth during her performance. But God is constant and real. “God doesn’t ask us to come all starched and perfect,” she said. “He wants us to bring our hurts to the Cross.”
In 1 Timothy 4:12-13, the Apostle Paul wrote: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity” (NIV). Heather Hartlen from Halifax took that advice to heart and, putting aside any fears of rejection, she invited 70 students from Lockview High School to ignition.
“God was, like, ‘OK Heather, this is your job–go do it,’ so I did,” she said. “I wasn’t sure how they would respond, but it’s not about me, so I was cool with that. Then God blessed it. I had people coming up to me that I didn’t even know asking if they could get tickets to the concert.”
Jolene Meinema, 17, from St. John’s, decided to have her birthday party at ignition. She asked her friends to attend the outreach event instead of buying her gifts. Six of them showed up, and they are now asking a lot of questions.
The Moncton Wesleyan Church, in New Brunswick, brought two bus loads to Halifax–75 youth and 15 leaders.
“We told them they couldn’t come unless they brought a friend,” said Pastor Mark Moore, 21. So in the end they had 35 un-churched kids on the bus. Of those, five gave their lives to Christ in Halifax on Friday night, and two made recommitments.
The Reverend Gail MacDonald, 45, of St. Thomas’ Anglican Church in St. John’s, told her youth group that if they brought 100 friends to the event, she would dye her hair purple. They brought 150.
“With evangelism outreach, sometimes you have to put yourself on the line,” MacDonald said. “I tell my kids that sometimes you have to go outside your comfort zone, and that’s what I decided to do to get them excited about bringing their friends to ignition.”
Iron Maiden and the Gospel
Chris Arnold stood with a friend at the edge of a long lineup outside Mile One Stadium in St. John’s. The only protection he had against the bitter wind was his long hair, a pair of old blue jeans and his treasured Iron Maiden T-shirt. A die-hard metal fan, Arnold came to ignition Sunday night for something to do.
“I don’t really listen to these guys (Tree63, Joy Williams, and Salvador). I’m a metal fan, but my friend invited me and I came for the music,” Arnold said.
After the bands had played, Will Graham walked onto the stage with a Bible in his hand and began to talk about how important it is that we make up our mind about Jesus. Although Graham looked nothing like the people Arnold usually prefers to hang with, and the music that night wasn’t metal, something happened in his heart. At the invitation he got up and in a few short steps found counselor Clifford Perry.
Perry, who has a heart for youth, had the joy of seeing a life change right in front of him. Arnold walked out of Mile One Stadium that night wearing the same Iron Maiden T-shirt and jeans, but something had changed inside
Drug Pushers Feel Pulled
Two St. John’s residents from a local high school came to ignition with one purpose in mind: to sell drugs. They were hoping to make a few bucks, but they got more than they bargained for when Graham gave the Gospel message.
“You will not find happiness at the end of a joint, at the bottom of a bottle or in sex without marriage,” Graham said. “True happiness can only be found in the person of Jesus Christ. He wants to take your guilt, fear and separation and replace it with joy, hope and peace.”
When Graham asked people to come forward, the two drug dealers decided to give up their drugs, and they came to the front of the stage. They didn’t make a formal commitment to Christ that night, but seeds were planted.
Seeds Starting to Germinate
The seeds of faith planted at the ignition events started to grow almost immediately. Five days after the St. John’s event, 150 young people showed up at the Elim Pentecostal Tabernacle’s youth meeting–their usual attendance is 80. Nineteen made decisions for Christ; 15 of those had attended ignition.
“It was amazing,” said Jolene Meinema, the 17-year-old who celebrated her birthday at ignition. She added that she was not surprised that some kids found it intimidating to come forward in front of 6,000 people, most of them peers. “It’s easier to make a commitment in front of 150.”
Rock Church in Halifax had a similar experience at their October 17 youth meeting. Many brought friends they had invited to ignition, and six of them gave their lives to Christ.
“You never know the work God is doing in people’s hearts,” said Erica Dawe, 17, who brought 100 kids from her school to ignition in St. John’s. “I’ve been talking non-stop since that night. People want to know about Jesus Christ and why I believe what I believe. They want to know about the youth group and how to get involved. It’s awesome.”
A Ticket With His Name on It
Lorne Keating had no intention of going to ignition in St. John’s. Instead, he felt compelled to go to the Westend Baptist Church that Sunday night. When he got there he discovered the service had been cancelled, because most of the congregation was attending ignition. Four people, however, had gathered for a prayer service.
They welcomed Keating, and as they were telling him about ignition, he had a desire to go. Unfortunately, the event was sold out. Bob and Rosemary Moore offered to drive him down to the stadium on the off chance that he might get in.
“I found a ticket on the step,” said Keating. “It had been trampled over, and I didn’t know if they would let me in with it, but they did.”
When Will Graham gave the altar call that night, Keating responded and gave his life to Christ.
“Will called people who were on the fence to make a decision–and that was me,” he said. “I’ve been on the fence for a while. I guess God was finding a way to get hold of me.”