The old school gym location was appropriate because I was there for something old school, but it wasn't basketball. I was there for a classic Youth Rally. My friend, who we'll call Ric, was asked to "bring the Word" at this youth event, and Ric had invited me to join.
The Youth Rally has been around a long time and had various manifestations in its history. It is no longer called a Youth Rally in most youth ministries, but its parts and intentions still exist. This story happened in 2001, so it still had no problem calling itself a Youth Rally. Whatever they are now called, the essential core remains the same and remains true to its original moniker: They exist to Rally the Youth. It may take loud music, pizza, hilarious games, hilarious-er videos, hyped youth workers, whatever, but you got to get them teens rallied up.
It's similar to a pep rally for the football team's Friday night game versus their division rival, except in this case the offensive line is 87 pound middle school boys and the enemy is Mammon or that ole Devil. Philippians 4:13 is still relevant in both scenarios of course.
Ric and I sat down front like good preachers and entourages should, and behind us the bleachers shook and squeaked as the stadium rows were being filled with teenagers from all the local youth ministries. The praise band had set up centered on the floor, just about ten feet off the front row. Ric and I were very close to the action.
As the patented 7:00 start time struck, a very non-cool looking man humbly walked to the keyboard, and was followed by equally postured teenagers who arrived at their various instruments and microphones. It was nice to see them all acting so reserved and unassuming about their role as worship leaders. The keyboardist began to play softly on his electric piano and the moderately volumed house PA system projected it somewhat garbled out onto us rally constituents.
The worship leader began to speak over his tickling of the heavenly ivories:
"Guys, these rallies are often about hype, and getting fired up and being passionate, with loud music or a great band, or cool speakers or games or whatever. And it's really easy to forget why we're here, and that's Jesus."
(awkward applause from the Pentecostal church present which died out when not properly backed by the Baptists)
"So tonight, we don't want it to be about us, or getting crazy, or winning games. We want to bring it back to the heart of worship, which is about singing to our awesome Savior, Jesus. Let's pray."
I don't remember what he prayed because I was just really impressed with his intro and how he was conducting himself. He seemed to really want to bring the students to a place of reverent humility and away from vaporous hype.
He said amen and began to play Heart of Worship (which you probably saw coming if you remembered it was 2001) and lead the rally to a place of reflection.
What happened next? Revival? 500 teens getting on bended knee and crying out to God? Heavenly clouds appearing and parting and a dove descending in glorious light with messages for each of us in its talons?
Nope. I'll tell you what happened next and not one bit of it is hyperbole. . .
The three youth pastors who sponsored the event came rushing in from the lobby doors carrying a water balloon launcher and a trash bag of balled up T-shirts. They were whooping and pointing at the crowd and ran to the edge of the keyboard and set up to begin launching t-shirts into the crowd.
The worship leader just kept going with his subdued and authentic rendition of Heart of Worship with the three highly amped leaders right by his piano. Remember that the keyboard was about ten feet off the front row. They didn't care. The youth guys just started loading up their launcher with t-shirts, pulling back hard on those bungee cords and began letting the cotton fly.
The crowd became this surreal mix of people holding up hands to bless the Lord and teens holding up hands to receive the blessing of free clothes. I think the youth pastors assumed all of them were the latter. The scene turned into a bizarre mix of news footage of a protest mob being dispersed with tear gas and a crowd of people arriving at an armored car wreck with cash floating on the air. The shirt bombs were flying at them at insane speeds, people diving to avoid getting hit, others scrambling to get the free treasure.
The front rows were throwing themselves to the ground like they were playing dodgeball with rocks once they saw an eighth grade girl go down holding her face like she'd been punched by a bear. We reached our concussion quota for this youth event in the first two minutes.
The youth pastors kept firing and the worship leader kept singing.
"And it's all about you Jesus. . ."
"I'm sorry Lord for the thing I made it. . ."
Kaboom. Pow. Ka-Boom.
Ric and I turned and watched the chaos. We laughed ironically and tried to follow our lone keyboardist and his timid little band of poor musicians. It was tough to do, being in the middle of an America's Funniest Youth video and all, but it became easier as the youth pastors exited with one last cheerleader like hand-raise and head bob, and dashing back through the lobby doors, no doubt congratulating each other with high-fives. Another successful youth rally and the Word hadn't even been "brought" yet. . .
"O Lord, help us all to be outdated irrelevant keyboardists of sincerity, and protect us from the passionate missiles of distraction launched our way. Amen."
(If you're cynically wondering what font they used at the Youth Rally, this was Pre-Papyrus era, when Comic Sans reigned. . .)