Rock the River Takes the Gospel to America’s Heartland

By Jerri Menges, Richard Greene, Bob Paulson   •   August 31, 2009

In Baton Rouge, St. Louis, Quad Cities and Minneapolis-St. Paul, teenagers jammed into large, outdoor venues where the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association presented Rock the River, a bold summer evangelistic outreach to America’s youth. The concerts began in early afternoon and continued late into the evening, reverberating far and wide.

Across the heartland, the Holy Spirit broke through the noise of the concerts, and thousands responded to stirring Gospel invitations from Franklin Graham, who shared how God had rescued him as a young man from a life of rebellion and sin. At each stop, hundreds of teens who had been held captive to sin surrendered their hearts to Christ. Some shared with trained counselors how they had been trapped in a lifestyle of immorality and drugs, and how grateful they were for a new beginning with Jesus Christ.

Christians, churches and youth pastors had spent months praying for the event, talking it up among their friends and congregations, and many joined the fanfare on social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. As the dates drew close, Christian youth handed out fliers, put up yard signs and invited their friends.

When Rock the River concluded Aug. 16 in Minneapolis-St. Paul, more than 110,000 people had heard the Good News of God’s saving love.

The Southern Louisiana sun bore down on the Levee Lots at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. The crowd started gathering just before noon, and by the end of the day almost 11,000 people had descended upon the grounds–lawn chairs with attached umbrellas and bottles of water in tow. And like the current of the Mississippi, the teens never stopped moving, their hands never far from their cell phones, the favored mode of communication with anyone standing more than three feet away. As emcee Canton Jones came to the platform, signaling the start of the 2:30 show, a throng of teens pressed close to the stage.

“Come on Rock the River, let’s make some noise for Jesus!” Jones shouted. From the front of the field to the back, the teenagers complied–screaming, dancing, headbanging and pumping their fists in the air to music so loud it seemed to shake the ground.

Up the river in St. Louis, an eclectic crowd of 65,000 crammed into every possible inch of the lush national monument park under the iconic 630-foot Gateway Arch. They lined up four to five deep outside the park fence or stood on tip-toe in the area behind the concert platform. Musicians crisscrossed the stage at a frenetic pace, jumping on and off the speakers, and their powerful bass beat rattled windows in nearby buildings.

The massive crowd–the largest ever for a Franklin Graham event in North America–was a testimony to God’s sovereignty in answering prayer.

“Man, we’re in awe of the turnout,” said Jason Jordan, youth pastor at South Side Church of God in Sappington, Mo. “God has demonstrated His mighty power.”

Jay Westra, youth pastor at Central Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, called the concert a “shot in the arm” for the spiritual and moral environment of St. Louis.

“I believe that God has used this in a big way, and we’re headed into the beginning of a wonderful season of ministry,” Westra said.

From St. Louis, Rock the River continued up the Mississippi to the Quad Cities in Illinois and Iowa. Quad Cities is actually comprised of five cities–Bettendorf and Davenport, Iowa; and Rock Island, Moline and East Moline, Ill. Although this was the smallest metropolitan area of the event, thousands packed a sun-drenched Centennial Park in Davenport, and hundreds responded to Franklin’s invitation to turn control of their lives over to Jesus Christ.

A Heart for the Next Generation
In each Rock the River city, Christians saw the concert as a way to reach America’s youth before they fall from the cliff so many seem to be hanging from.

“There’s a crisis of purpose and sense of worth among the youth in the world,” said Gerrit Dawson, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge. “The so-called self-esteem propaganda has taught them that they’re special and have value, but it hasn’t taught them how to deal with guilt or emptiness or failure.”

In the absence of truth, kids turn to drugs and alcohol and sex to deal with these issues, said Jason Laird, youth pastor at Healing Place Church in Baton Rouge.

“Rock the River is key because it’s a different way to try to draw the youth and get them connected to God and to the local church so they can be discipled and ministered to,” Laird said. “I’m told that less than 4 percent of this younger generation are Bible-believing Christians. So we have to get out there; we have to bring the Gospel to them.”

Rob Willey, chair of the Rock the River leadership team in the Quad Cities, described similar needs among youth. “The next generation is spiritually lost,” he said. “It’s incumbent upon us to tell them how to be found. That’s a passion that should burn in every single one of us.”

For the youth in the heartland who are standing strong for Christ, Rock the River presented a new way to invite friends to hear the Gospel.

“Our students brought lots of their non-Christian friends,” said Matthew Hampel, a core leader at Faith Family Church in Shiloh, Ill., which bused more than 100 teenagers to the St. Louis event. Matthew’s group has been trying–unsuccessfully–to get non-Christian friends to come to church.

“So they were excited about bringing their friends to Rock the River because their friends had heard of the bands and were open to checking it out and hearing about Jesus in the process,” Matthew added.

Paving the Way
In the midst of performances, the hip-hop, rap and hard rock bands took advantage of the opportunity to speak for Christ. In St. Louis, Skillet’s lead singer John Cooper told the crowd, “It’s true, we’re here to get loud, no doubt about that. But there’s something better, something more, Someone greater that we’re here to tell you about. It’s Jesus, and He’s worthy to give your lives to.”

Hip-hop artist Lecrae reflected, “I’m not doing this to be popular. Most people don’t know who I am, and that’s OK. I’m here because Somebody else needs to take center stage, and that’s Jesus Christ.”

The bands’ comments paved the way for Franklin’s messages, which were clear and to the point. “I want everyone that’s here today to know that this God we’ve been talking about loves you,” he said to the crowd in Baton Rouge. “The Bible says that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him shouldn’t perish but have everlasting life.

“If you’re here today and you aren’t sure that your sins are forgiven, I don’t care how young you are or how old you are, you can repent of your sins and be forgiven right now,” Franklin continued. “You can have a new life, a new beginning.”

Transforming Power of the Gospel
Hundreds of youth gave their hearts to the Savior during the four concerts.

Even before Franklin finished his second invitation in St. Louis, a young man named Colten ran down the aisle and wanted to talk with a counselor. He said he was tired of drinking and heading in a wayward direction. He knew about God; his parents and grandparents went to church, and after committing his life to Christ, he was now ready to join them.

A 13-year-old student who was invited to Rock the River by a friend from a church youth group said he had never been to church before. He said he had been physically abused in the past but that his mom let him come to the St. Louis concert with his friend. He walked forward to the counseling area in the middle of the field and asked Christ to come into his heart. The church is now helping the student and family work through the abuse issues.

One young man who accepted Christ told his counselor, “I felt the Spirit moving. I’ve had an addiction, and I know that with Jesus I can be rid of it. I couldn’t ask for better timing than right now to do this.”

Denzel, a teenager in St. Louis, told his counselor that he had done “some pretty bad things” and wanted to be forgiven and turn his life around. His counselor explained from the Bible how Christ would forgive him and could change his life. Denzel accepted Christ and was nearly brought to tears by how much Christ loved him and wanted to change him into a new person.

Another person who went forward in St. Louis was Dallas, a high school sophomore from Farmington, Mo. She had committed her life to Jesus when she was younger but stopped walking with Him when her parents forbid her go to church. Dallas began to rebel against God and all authority. She got mixed up in the wrong crowd and started stealing cars. Eventually she sensed her need to change and got involved in the youth group at the Church of God at Doe Run in Farmington. Her parents allowed her to come to Rock the River, and when the Tommy Coomes Band began to sing “Our God is Mighty to Save,” Dallas thought, Hey, that’s true, God can save me. She surrendered her life to Christ.

Sawyer, 15, had never been to church. Like hundreds of others, he was invited to Rock the River, and when the counselor asked Sawyer’s 18-year-old cousin why he brought Sawyer, he said “Because I love him and I’m concerned for him.” When Sawyer committed his life to Jesus, his cousin told him: “This is the greatest day of your life!”

Mikia Russell, a teen from Davenport, Iowa, brought two friends she has known all her life. In the past she had brought them to church, but the traditional worship style hadn’t made much of an impression on them. Rock the River got their attention. After one of Franklin’s invitations, Mikia turned to see if her friends were ready to receive Christ, and one said, “I get it now.” She raised her hand, and a counselor came and led both friends to Christ.

Meagan, 14, in Baton Rouge was excited that she got a chance to put her BGEA counseling training to use.

“I met this girl named Amy,” she said. “She had drifted away from God and she wanted to come back. She told me her story and I told her mine.”

When Megan finished leading Amy in a prayer of rededication, Megan had the biggest grin on her face, said her youth pastor, Ryan Wells.

“You could tell she really loved it. She said: ‘Mr. Ryan, I was shaking in my flip flops.'” d: articles and photographs ©2009 BGEA

See next month’s Decision for stories and photos from the Twin Cities Rock the River concert.

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