Nearly 5,000 Christian teens are screaming in anticipation of the Rapture. "Jesus is coming soon!" their preacher yells as he paces and waves his arms, the veins in his neck visible to the jocks, cheerleaders, skaters and goth kids shouting cheers from the front rows. "That's what this weekend is about, to remind us that Jesus is coming soon."
Dressed in a "Jesus Recycles" T-shirt and jeans, 42-year-old Greg Stier still resembles the awkward kid who was preaching in parks and malls around Denver thirty years ago. The founder and president of Arvada-based Dare 2 Share Ministries is a self-proclaimed dork, but whatever he lacks in cool, he makes up for with enthusiasm — and production. On this Friday night, he's in Chicago for the last stop on his 2007-2008 conference tour, called Survive. He gets the kids' attention with bright lights, loud noise and video streaming across the six massive screens hanging behind him. But between the Christian rock and hip-hop performances, skits, movie clips, funny anecdotes from his childhood and the testimonial of a former NFL player, Greg keeps repeating the same simple message: Hell is real, and it's where all your non-Christian friends are going unless you save them. Soon.
"But I don't want to just talk about the Hell they're going to," he says. "I want you to think about the Hell they're going through. I don't know how people make it through the tough times without the hope of Jesus Christ in their soul...
"If you had the cure for cancer and your friend had cancer, you would do everything you could to get your friend to take the cure. Listen, we have the cure to something infinitely worse than cancer, and our friends who don't know Jesus are heading somewhere infinitely worse than death, and I want to challenge you to share the cure with your friends.
"I'm not talking about being pushy. I'm not talking about trying to coerce your friends to convert. I'm talking about lovingly, gently, patiently sharing with them the good news of Jesus."
Greg Stier is a preacher 24/7. Ask him about his background, and the events of his life are broken down into neat little parables or humorous anecdotes that he can use as icebreakers to begin a sermon. One of his books, You're Next: Outrageous stories from my life that could change yours, is a memoir in which every chapter actually ends by spelling out a lesson and discussion questions, complete with space to write in answers. In Chapter 1, "Death Encounter #1: War of the Womb," Greg introduces his tough single mother and his upbringing in poor, "inner-city Denver" — an apartment at 20th and Federal. He writes that his mother almost aborted him and that he never knew his father. Decades later, on her deathbed, Greg's mother asked him if he remembered what he used to say to kids who made fun of him for not having a dad.
"You used to say, 'God's my Daddy.'"
Greg's lesson: "If you have put your faith and trust in Jesus as your only hope of going to heaven, then God is your daddy, too."
Greg says his beliefs have never wavered from this childlike simplicity. He's never questioned or doubted the existence of God. "It's as real to me as when I was little," he says. And for those who find that hard to understand, he offers this: "You got to realize my situation. I was raised in a family full of pain and doubt. Once I believed in Christ and I saw the impact he had on my family, I didn't turn back."
When Greg was five, he watched his mom take a baseball bat to her bloody and screaming husband, who'd left the family. A nervous kid, Greg was agonizing over the meaning of life and wondering if there was a God and how he'd get to heaven by the time he was six. At eight, he remembers getting into closets and cabinets with a flashlight and the Bible, hiding from his uncles. They lived in the neighborhood and were always around, bodybuilders with big tempers who drank a lot and got into fights. "Some of my most vivid childhood memories were people spitting teeth," he says. "But then Christ came in, and literally one by one through various circumstances...."
The first to get the call was Uncle Bob, a bouncer at the Silver Dollar. One night a guy came in and stabbed his best friend. Bob found the guy hiding behind the bar, slammed his head against a brick wall and kept hitting him until his heart stopped. As paramedics tried to resuscitate the man, Bob was in the back of a squad car realizing he might have committed murder. "God, if you get me out of this one, I'll follow you," he prayed. The guy survived, and Uncle Bob became a Christian.
Then one day Uncle Jack — who for a long time thought there was something wrong with his "wussy" nephew Greg, always with his nose in a Bible instead of out playing with the other kids — had a scared preacher knock on his door. Ralph "Yankee" Arnold, a Georgian who got the nickname because he was born in Pennsylvania while his bootleggin' father was running from the law, had started Colorado Bible Church in Arvada. Jack Mathias's daughters had joined his church, and kept asking Yankee if he would go see their dad. "I had heard some scary tales about Jack Mathias, so I wasn't too eager to go see him." Yankee was met at the door by a German police dog, but then Uncle Jack and his wife, Earlene, invited him inside. Yankee told them that no matter what they'd done wrong, they could go to heaven. "I trusted Christ right there, because I always thought I was so rotten I didn't have a chance to go," Jack recalls.
Yankee, who was big on outreach, held a contest at his church not long after that. Whoever brought the most new people in a month would get a free Bible: Jack brought 250. "I've never had nobody do that before," Yankee says. "Many were bouncers, weightlifters, thugs, people who would scare you to death, but they were all nice to me. Jack would bring them and I would win them. Then he got to where he would go into any church, give a testimony and try to preach to them.
"Jack was no phony. He was real. He was very bold. That, I believe, was what caught the eye of Greg Stier, when he saw what happened to his uncle."
Seeing his family transformed, Greg decided to spend the rest of his life telling people about Jesus. Uncle Bob and Uncle Jack are still recurring characters in his sermons, and they appear on the promo for next year's Dare 2 Share conference tour, sharing their fight stories from back in the day. "We taught him quite a bit, even though he taught us," Jack says. "We showed him how to live without being self-righteous. I can't stand self-righteous people."
At eleven, Greg became an evangelist — walking up to six teenage boys at Sloan's Lake to tell them about Jesus. That same year, Yankee started Arvada Christian School, and Greg decided he wanted to go learn how to become a preacher. The $1,000 tuition was tough for his mom to raise, but she made it happen. "She sacrificed an awful lot," Yankee says. One day, Yankee put his hand on Greg's shoulder and said, "God's going to use you to shake the world."
Greg never forgot it. "We all believed that he believed in us," Greg says. "When you're confused, looking to latch on to a purpose, a focus, a mission...that's what Jesus gives us."
At twelve, Greg preached his first sermon, on evangelism, at a "preach-off" competition. By fifteen, he was reading seminary-level theology books on his own time and hitting the Westminster Mall, which was near the family's new home in the suburbs, to talk to kids about God. He'd go into the bathrooms, unroll rolls of toilet paper and stick scripture verses inside, then roll them back up; he'd place pamphlets in the hands of mannequins. "We used to get kicked out by security guards, and I thought it was the coolest thing in the world," he says.
By now, Greg had a friend who shared his passions. Greg had met Rick Long on Rick's first day at Arvada Christian School, when Rick was twelve and Greg was thirteen. Like Greg, Rick had grown up in north Denver and considered himself a Christian early on — but when Greg was reading the Bible, Rick was out playing football, baseball and basketball. "His passion just instantly captivated me," Rick says of Greg. "Not only is he totally hopped up all the time and excited without being on drugs, he really knows what he wants to do with his life. He helped me understand just how personal that relationship with God is.... We were obviously different than a lot of kids in the sense that we dreamed about reaching the world through Christ. We were sick of churches that repelled people and that said you've got to be this or you've got to be that to come in the doors when Christ said, 'Just come as you are.'"
So they started planning their own church, an informal place that would reach out to people and make everyone feel welcome. "Even in our dreams, I knew I would probably someday end up pastoring a church," Rick says. "I always felt Greg would do things on a larger scale. He always had this vision far beyond the local church. He wanted to go reach the masses."
After graduating from their little Christian school, Greg went off to Jerry Falwell's Liberty University while Rick stayed in Denver and went to Colorado Bible College. The friends lost touch for a while, but Greg returned to Denver after a couple of years, enrolling at what was then Colorado Christian College in Lakewood, where he eventually earned a degree in youth ministry. He'd been making money as a roofer since he was fifteen, but gave that up after a friend fell off a roof. Then he got in an accident in an ice storm and wrecked his car. Carless and jobless, he became homeless, too, and started crashing at Rick's house.
Rick had married Shelley, a classmate at Arvada Christian School, his freshman year in college. They had a baby at home, and Rick was working twelve-hour days managing a tire shop. But still, early every morning (except Sundays), Rick and Greg would go to Denny's. Then Greg would go with Rick to work, sitting in the tire racks, scribbling down notes on the backs of napkins.
When they told Shelley they were back to planning their church, she tried to talk Rick out of it. They had a kid and no money. "I was thinking, 'You have lost your mind. You're both just boys,'" she remembers. "Rick can't match his socks. Greg doesn't have a car." They wanted to call their church The Church, which Shelley and Greg's then-girlfriend and future wife, Debbie, thought was the stupidest thing they'd ever heard.
They settled on Grace Church and had their first service on March 12, 1989, for 23 people in a friend's living room. But Grace Church grew so quickly that it would move six times over the next dozen years before settling at its current home at 69th and Sheridan, where it ministers to a congregation of 2,500.
Greg started out as the church's preacher, but it soon wasn't enough for him. His passion was teenagers, and he wanted to reach them on a massive scale. "Kids are more open to considering new ideas and thoughts," he says. "They're more revolutionary.... Dare 2 Share was kind of in my blood."
Greg keeps building the drama on the first night of the Survive conference. When the kids return Saturday — for a full thirteen hours of evangelical training — he wants them to feel a sense of urgency.
"Do you know what the last words of Jesus in the Bible are? 'Behold, I am coming soon,'" he says. "We don't know exactly when he's coming.... There will be signs.... Wars and rumors of wars and Christians are going to be hated and persecuted, hunted and killed because of their faith. You may be thinking, well, not in America.... Let me tell you, that could happen here one day, but I am convinced that if that day ever does happen in the United States of America, that believers in Jesus Christ — teenagers — will still stand up for the name of Jesus Christ.
"What you're about to see on this stage has some scenes of violence, but I believe these scenes of violence are necessary to paint a clear picture of what it could be like.... Rivet your eyes to the stage.... Allow the spirit of God to break your hearts for your friends who don't know Jesus...."
When Greg finishes his prayer off stage, two characters are on stage screaming. One is pinned to the floor with a folding chair over his neck and chest. "Is this what you want? Is this what you want to die for?"
"At least I'm willing to die for something. What are you willing to die for?"
The stage goes dark and a narrator's deep voice fills the arena while the screens lining the stage show images of war and destruction: "Five years from now, America has been decimated by terrorism, and fear grips the nation. But instead of flying planes into buildings, Islamic extremists detonate explosives in Christian churches across the country. Thousands are killed. But a small group of Christians choose to fight back. They call themselves the Elect.... Many Christians from every denomination join the underground resistance. The Elect target and execute key Muslim clerics and officials. A holy war begins in America.... The Federal government gathers thousands of Christian and Muslim leaders to begin peace talks, which conclude in the conception of the National Interfaith Administration, a federal branch which confines religious activity to national security standards. Anyone practicing religion outside the NIA is considered a threat to national security and tried as a traitor. Now, the NIA and the Elect are going into battle for the last few followers of Jesus."
The stage lights come up, illuminating the inside of a prison cell that holds four people. Max is puking — he's just watched his friend Eric be executed for saying his first loyalty was to Jesus and not the country. With Max is his girlfriend, Amy; his brother, Casey; and his former high school basketball coach. Over the next ten minutes, Max learns that his coach is working for the NIA as a spy in exchange for money and drugs, and his brother is a Christian terrorist with the Elect.
"I had no choice, Max," Casey tells him. "They've taken everything from us: our history, our dignity, our faith. This is the only hope we had for taking back this country for God. I'm not a traitor, Max. I love this country, and I won't stand by and watch this evil government take away everything I believe in. This is a Christian nation. We had no choice. We had to fight, and now God has finally raised up an army strong enough to cleanse this wicked nation."
"What have you done?" Max yells. "Christians are supposed to forgive people, not murder them."
"Forgiveness is God's job. We just set up the meetings."
Max attacks his brother with a chair and accidentally kills him — then learns that Amy is a government spy.
"Max, we had to know if you still had Christian ties," she says. "Any religion that claims to be the only way into heaven is a serious threat to our national security.... I have this one chance to prove your innocence. They have more than enough to convict you."
"Of being a Christian?"
"Of being a traitor. Christians put their allegiance to God above the government, and they will kill you, Max, right here."
Two guards with guns are in the room now. One pays the coach for his help, and he throws the money down. "I'm not a teacher anymore, but I once was, a long time ago.... My heart and my allegiance is to Jesus, so you can keep your filthy money. Max, son, what's it gonna be? Are you going to save your life or lose it?"
"I might live, but I won't have life," Max says. "I choose Jesus."
The men are weeping and singing hallelujah until two shots are fired and the stage goes dark.
Greg returns to the stage, and asks the teens if they'd be willing to die for Jesus if they were forced to choose between him and their country or their boyfriend or girlfriend: "God is not calling most of us in this room to die for Jesus, but he's calling everyone in this room to live for Jesus, and I guarantee if you're not living for Jesus today, you wouldn't die for Jesus tomorrow."
The next day, the apocalyptic tone gives way to more practical discussions. But then Greg suggests something even more shocking than the previous night's skit. "I want you to think of that one friend who doesn't know Jesus," he says. "Pray for them. Pray that God would use you because you realize what hangs in the balance — the difference between heaven and hell."
When the kids look back up at him, he tells them to take out their cell phones and lift them up, so he can see the lights.
"You're about to call that friend right now," Greg says.
The arena is suddenly silent. Kids laugh nervously. Greg can't be serious.
But he is. If you get voice mail, he says, leave a message that you want to talk about God. And if you don't have a cell phone on you, wait until the person next to you is done and borrow theirs.
"Remember, we deal in awkward moments. This is an awkward moment. This is not a drill. This is not a test. This is as real as it gets."
Kids continue to laugh and fidget with their phones, and then some start to dial. When they get voice mail, there are great sighs of relief. They leave messages that say, "I need to talk to you about something important," and leave out the God part. But dozens of kids actually reach friends who let them awkwardly spout through a message they've memorized. A few friends even agree to "accept Christ" right there on the phone. A crowd gathers around one teen crying with joy because she's just saved a soul from eternal damnation.
This "cell-phone challenge" is classic Greg. "I am sick and stinkin' tired, guys," he tells the teens on the first night of Survive. "I travel the states, and I see teenagers everywhere I go. I get sick of religious teenagers who know all the words to all the songs and all the stories, but they have not fully dedicated themselves. They're one way with their Christian friends at church; they're another way on their MySpace page. It is time to choose a side."
Greg started Dare 2 Share by making a list of 300 Colorado churches in every Christian denomination, then called every youth pastor at those churches, begging them to bring their kids to a seminar. September 1991 was the first Dare 2 Share conference, only it wasn't called Dare 2 Share back then. "I'm ashamed to share with you what our original name was," Greg says. "Warriors for Christ, which sounds like Jihad for Jesus, but we didn't mean it that way. I just wanted to train every kid how to share their faith without being obnoxious. How do you bring it up without throwing up? How do you talk to your friends about God?"
Even in its earliest inception, Warriors for Christ looked a lot like today's Dare 2 Share conferences, with plenty to grab the kids' attention. Rick and Shelley were already in a Christian band, Kenaniah, so they played music. Brad Holder, the friend who'd lent his living room for the start of Grace Church and for years ran one of the state's biggest haunted houses, Frightmare, did special effects with sound and fog. At first the Friday-night dramas were just readings, but they soon became more elaborate. Shelley would write and revise and direct productions that required casting, costumes, sets and sound equipment.
By 1999, Dare 2 Share was attracting several hundred kids at each weekend conference, held in Denver, Detroit, St. Louis, Lincoln and Atlanta. Greg was struggling to balance his desire to reach out — his goal was to train a million kids to share their faith — with his role as pastor at Grace Church. Pastors have to be patient, Greg says. They're supposed to shepherd and counsel people, and he had a hard time with that. Once, he was in a counseling session with a married couple and Rick. The husband said he believed God was calling him to divorce his wife because he was more spiritual than she was. Rick was doing the right thing, asking probing questions. But Greg, watching this man's wife crying next to him, couldn't stand listening to a pious jerk claiming to be spiritual, and he jumped in the husband's face. "God just told me something," he said. "You're full of crap!" The couple left the church, never to return.
Then came the shootings at Columbine High School, and Greg decided he had to devote himself to Dare 2 Share. He resigned from the church, and Rick stepped away from Dare 2 Share to focus on Grace full-time. "By design, it was always going to go that direction," Shelley says of the split. "Greg is high-energy, blow in, blow up, blow out. That's really Greg's personality."
Greg wanted to tell teens that if Jesus were in high school today, at a place like Columbine, he'd be hanging out with the kids who were bullied and pushed down. "Not that he didn't care about the jocks and the cheerleaders, too, but he was with the people in pain, because the people in pain are more open generally to the possibility that there might be something beyond this," he says.
But he knew that to get their attention, he needed to up the quality of his conferences. So he added bigger names in Christian music, got a license so that he could show movie clips, contracted with a production company to run the seminars on a minute-by-minute schedule. Instead of hundreds of kids coming to the conferences, there were soon thousands. Last year his biggest, in Denver, drew 10,000 teens to the Pepsi Center. All told, 350,000 kids have attended Dare 2 Share conferences. Today, the non-profit organization has a staff of fifty and an annual budget of about $5 million — just $500,000 more than it costs to put on a nine-city tour for 55,000 kids. Greg charges teens a nominal amount to attend the conferences; he spends the half of the year he's not touring trying to raise funds.
Dare 2 Share's come-as-you-are, pop-culture-and-rock-and-roll-meet-fire-and-brimstone style is part of an emerging trend in evangelism. Lauren Sandler, author of Righteous: Dispatches From the Evangelical Youth Movement, traveled across the country researching what she calls the "Disciple Generation" that preaches from the pulpit of skate parks and rock festivals. She calls the movement political, emotional, deeply anti-intellectual and alarmingly successful at engaging America's disillusioned youth. "It is actively identifying what the experience of teenage life is and addressing that pain and loneliness in a way that kids are really hungry for," she says. "So groups like Dare 2 Share come in and say, 'You need meaning, purpose and identity? Come join us.'"
The largest effort is Acquire the Fire, which Teen Mania Ministries, a Texas-based organization, founded the same year that Greg started his project; it's already drawn 3 million kids to conferences. According to Kevin Benson, an executive with Teen Mania, the style of conferences such as Acquire the Fire and Dare 2 Share is rooted in the Billy Graham Crusade and other large-scale Baptist events; they just take advantage of new technology. But while Greg is a friend of Teen Mania founder Ron Luce, he doesn't subscribe to the Teen Mania agenda of mobilizing kids to change secular culture through protest and creative media.
Dare 2 Share's mission is much simpler: Greg just wants kids to talk to their friends about God. That's it. "We don't stand outside the courthouse," he explains. "We don't stand against something. We engage the conversation and let the Holy Spirit do the rest of the work."
He hates the idea of Christians protesting and spewing hate. "What idiots!" he says. "What would Jesus do? Can you see Jesus with a picket sign and a bullhorn? We're known for what we're for and against politically more than we're known for loving people and loving Jesus. Jesus was harder on the religious people than he was on the sinners. He went off on them, and that's how I kind of feel."
Greg stays in close touch with other Colorado-based Christian ministries. He's partnered with Focus on the Family and regularly attends Promise Keepers events. When women's groups and gay activists protest there, he'll try to engage them. It's not that he doesn't believe homosexuality is a sin. He does. "But so is gossip and so is fornication," he says. "There's a long list of sins, and what I don't want to do is pull out one area and beat that over someone's head. Christians have a tendency to do a hierarchal approach to categorizing sins, and I think oftentimes the way that we approach the homosexual community is different than the way we approach everything else, and I think it's hypocritical.
"I'm hoping this next generation really steps up and represents Christ in a positive way," he continues. "He had a very controversial message. He said, 'I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.' That's controversial enough. Let's not make it more controversial by being obnoxious or arrogant or focusing on making this a Christian nation through politics. I think my goal is that Christians everywhere be examples of what it means to live like Jesus."
At a training session for youth ministers from across Colorado, Greg encourages his audience to listen to kids talk about what they believe — and don't believe. It's better for teens to have these conversations now, in their church, rather than later with their Philosophy 101 professors, he says, pointing out that 70 percent of the kids who say they're Christians in high school later repudiate their faith. It's obvious that they're losing kids: At every Dare 2 Share conference, there are fewer seniors than juniors, fewer juniors than sophomores. But then, more than 20,000 teens post on the Dare 2 Share message boards. Jesus said when you share the Gospel, it's like sowing seeds, he explains. They're not all going to grow, and it's not his job to make them all grow — just to chuck them.
Toward that end, Dare 2 Share has created a curriculum that youth ministers can use year-round, distributing it free through e-mails called Soul Fuel that go to 80,000 in-boxes each week. These missives often take their inspiration straight from entertainment headlines and relate a popular movie or song to theology. Greg has also written a host of how-to books on evangelizing for young people, which often include mock conversations between Christian and non-Christian friends. Venti Jesus Please, his favorite, takes place in a Starbucks.
But a few years ago, Greg got tired of making up conversations — he wanted to show teens something authentic, in a format they could relate to. So he borrowed the medium that America's youth knows best: reality television.
Dare 2 Share placed classified ads inviting non-Christians to participate in a Christian reality series in the mountains, and Gospel Journey was born. Just like the party girl, gay guy and angry black man caricatures that often show up on The Real World, Gospel Journey's cast members were defined by their religion or backgrounds: An Agnostic. A Minister's Kid. An Atheist. A Wiccan. An Episcopalian. A Presbyterian. A City Girl... and a Preacher. Let's hope they play nice.
At the last minute, Stier asked Zane Black, a staff member at the Christian retreat center where they'd be filming the series, to join the cast as The Guide. For a week, Zane, a goofy blond surfer/snowboarder dude, led teens and a few twenty-year-olds on daily mountain adventures. And after the Gospel Journey DVD was released in late 2005, Zane quickly became a celebrity among Christian teens. At conferences, kids wear Zane T-shirts and girls scream like he's a rock star.
When Zane Black takes the stage at Survive — all smiles, laughter and energy — the entire auditorium quiets for his testimony. How did this outgoing guy, who's obviously never had trouble making friends, come to know Jesus? The kids are riveted as he opens with a story about almost dying in an avalanche on Mount Baker near his home in Washington, when a cliff broke away beneath his snowboard. He was trying to experience life to the fullest, so he took risks off the mountain, too. He started smoking in sixth grade, drinking in seventh, and doing drugs by the ninth.
"Did you guys have the DARE program? Well, I called the DARE program Drugs Are Really Expensive, so I decided to sell drugs to pay for my own habit," he says.
After graduating from high school, Zane got his own place and a job driving a truck for Budweiser; he continued selling drugs on the side. "I thought I had everything I wanted — friends, parties. And you know what? I'll be the first person to say, the drugs, the alcohol, the parties — it was fun. Otherwise, people wouldn't do it, right?"
But it was really an escape — one leading nowhere fast. One night, Zane drank himself senseless, and his best friend — scared they'd get in trouble for drinking — left him on the floor of a movie theater bathroom. A janitor found him, and Zane was taken to the hospital. When his mom arrived, they told her his organs were shutting down and they didn't know if he'd make it through the night. If he did, he might be in a coma for the rest of his life or have permanent brain damage.
"Cheer up! I'm here! I'm alive!" Zane calls into the crowd.
The kids clap and holler.
"Now, the brain damage is debatable, but I'm here. And you'd think after that I'd wake up, right?"
Wrong. Zane kept on partying hard until a friend's mom invited him to come to church, where he was challenged to read the Bible for fifteen minutes every day. "It was great, because I'd go to the same parties with the same friends, and they'd be like, 'You gonna hit this?' and I'd be like, 'No, I'm cool.'
"And they're like, 'Zane, what happened to you?' and I'm like, 'I don't know, it's this Jesus guy, and I'm freaking out now.' And they're like, 'You're freaking us out now.' And little by little, my life started to change."
But the road has been rocky. Zane describes how he got a girlfriend pregnant after high school and they decided to have an abortion. The decision had consequences, he says, but God has forgiven him. And backstage, he offers more sordid details. Zane says he was selling drugs to the kid whose mother invited him to church, and he was often wasted when he came home for his fifteen minutes of Bible reading. But he liked the message at this church — they didn't talk about a list of rules, but a relationship with Jesus — and he kept at it. He stopped smoking cigarettes, because he wasn't ready to give up smoking weed. He eventually cut that out, too, but kept selling because the money was so good. He didn't quit drinking, but he did cut back.
When he heard about a Bible school in Colorado where he could snowboard — Timberline Lodge in Winter Park — Zane was intrigued. He sold a car he'd just bought with drug money to cover his tuition and took off. The school was all about outreach and outdoor adventure, and he loved it so much he decided he wanted to stay there the rest of his life. He was a student for three months, and has now been on staff for six years. His official title is Director of Careless Activities.
Zane had just transitioned from student to staff when he heard that Dare 2 Share was holding a retreat at the school. "I was so anti the big hype-em-up type deal," he remembers. "That's not what kids need. I need someone to love me. I don't need some pep rally, go go Jesus, that's lame. So everyone was like, 'Oh, this Greg Stier, he's super funny.' I'm like, 'Sounds like a dork to me.'"
Greg came in exactly like Zane expected: an excited, dorky guy. At dinner he made everybody laugh — everybody but Zane. And when Zane stood up to do the five-minute devotion and teaching talk the school includes with each meal, he attacked Greg: "I said, it's not about you telling the world about Jesus. It's are you loving your neighbor?"
After dinner, Zane went to a talk Greg was giving youth leaders. Greg was saying he didn't care about Dare 2 Share, that it could fail and he'd find another way to reach kids. "I care about these kids," he said. From the back, Zane could see Greg was tearing up as he continued, "It's not just about the Hell these kids are going to, but the Hell these kids are going through."
That was enough for Zane: "I remember thinking, 'I will follow that man. I want to be a part of that vision.'"
He got his chance on Gospel Journey.
Greg likes to say that the original Gospel Journey was a line, and Gospel Journey Maui is a circle. The first Gospel Journey was basically a lecture series with reality-series elements: Zane would take the cast on some adventure that made for good footage, like rappeling, and then Greg, The Preacher, would come in at the end of the day and give a sermon on the Bible, ask questions and let the teens share what they thought.
It worked because they got lucky with the cast. The week before they started filming, Greg decided he needed still one more cast member. "We needed someone kind of crazy, someone who was going to liven the party up a little bit. I told Spencer, my assistant, to go to the 16th Street Mall and find somebody." Spencer found Stephen. He had pink hair, said he was Wiccan, and didn't hesitate to sign up for the trip. And on the last day — in what would be the culmination of the series — Stephen broke down in tears and said that the night before, he'd accepted Jesus Christ. Today, Stephen is still a Christian, and hopes to someday work for Greg at Dare 2 Share.
While Greg was thrilled to "welcome Stephen into the family of God," converting the cast isn't the goal of the series. Instead, it's designed to teach teens how to talk about God. "The point was to lay out a message of true Christianity and let people either respond or reject it," Greg says. "'Convert' is one of those words with a very negative connotation. I don't want people closing their eyes and jumping in. What I want people to do is be able to really evaluate the real claims of Christ — not religion, but Jesus — and say I accept that or I think that's a load of crap or I'm not sure."
Although the first Gospel Journey was popular, Greg thought he could do better, with less preaching, more conversation and a lot more intensity. Dare 2 Share spent $300,000 on Gospel Journey Maui, filmed at "an MTV-style beach house" by a Christian production company in January and slated to be released this fall. "These teenagers live in a media-quality world," Greg says. "Everything they do and see, the stuff that is engaging, is well done. So we wanted to match that. We want them to pay attention."
The trailer for Gospel Journey Maui opens with Zane doing a backflip into the ocean. Sweeping landscape shots filmed from a helicopter are interspersed with adventure scenes and testimonials. We see Jonathan, the Jewish bodybuilder model who's had a few drinks, pacing and saying, "Jesus, I feel, couldn't have been the Messiah, because there's too much crap in the world to say that he is salvation." Then it cuts to Emma, the Buddhist, confessing to the camera that one of the other cast members called her a "religious floozy." There's a zip-line and more action, and then a girl crying on the beach: "How are you going to judge me and tell me I'm not a Christian because I'm not believing what you believe?"
Words flash on the screen: Buddhism, New Age, Islam, Mormonism, Christianity, Judaism.... Can Everyone Be Right?
Greg won't reveal what happened on the show beyond saying that while some cast members may not have been converted, they still became friends. He got to know Jasser, the Muslim, especially well: "I told him, 'You keep trying to convert me and I'll keep trying to convert you, and we'll be friends in the meantime.'"
Emma Blue Tummon, the 22-year-old Buddhist cast member, lives in Boulder. She didn't realize that she was applying for a Christian reality show when she spotted the ad; her eyes focused on "reality series," and she sent in a topless photo of herself on a beach with her application. She tried to stir the pot before the cast even left for Hawaii, staying after a meeting to ask questions like, "Can you masturbate and be a Christian?"
"I'm very open to stuff, so I was excited," she says. "I had never read the Bible, so I wanted to know more. Whether you read it as a textbook or a library, a lot of people read the Bible, so it's a good thing to be familiar with."
Emma got drunk on the plane to Hawaii. After they got to Maui, went to the house and met their very energetic preacher, they finally went to sleep — only to be awakened at 3 a.m. "They wouldn't tell us where we were going, but I knew because Mount Haleakala is in Maui, and thousands of people go there every day to watch the sun rise," Emma remembers. The scene was incredible, and then she got a phone call from her sister, who wanted to warn her that cults often make people sleep-deprived, which leads to emotional breakdowns.
But after the sunrise, and again after she took off all her clothes and ran into the ocean, Emma decided that if there was ever a way she could be converted, this was it: "Just keep it coming. Whale watching. Scuba diving. Snorkeling. Surfing."
Beyond the adventure, there were intense conversations — often unfinished when the cameras stopped. Emma wanted more. For Zane, these discussions were the best part of the trip. "I was amazed at how much the non-believers actually wanted to talk about Jesus," he says. "Sometimes I feel like people are just like, don't preach at me, and that's true. People don't want to be preached at. But when it was through a relationship and people were honest and open and allowed to share their perspectives, they wanted to talk about Jesus."
Emma responded to Zane. He was an "evangelical noodle," she says, meaning he wasn't pushy. "There are some wonderful people who are so tolerant, and that's why I was like, maybe there's something to this."
Emma didn't care for the more rigid aspects of Greg's message. "I fucking hated this quote: He said the Bible is either all true, or it's not true at all," she remembers. "Or that Jesus is either telling the truth, or he's a liar or a lunatic. And to me, that's like he's saying, that wall is yellow, to you it's orange, does that mean the wall doesn't exist at all?"
His other infamous question — and to Greg, the climax of Gospel Journey Maui — was: "Can everyone be right?" At the time, Emma agreed with Greg that they couldn't all be right, that either one religion is right or no religions are right. But since returning to Colorado, she's adopted a quote from the Reverend Roger Wolsey, who directs the Wesley Foundation United Methodist Campus Ministry at the University of Colorado at Boulder: "I view the major world religions as wells, and each well, if you go deep enough down into it, taps into the same aquifer. But if you try to go down into several wells at once, you won't get very far into any of them and you'll never reach the source."
"I like that," Emma says. "Because I can do my path and my well, and that doesn't mean I can't be friends or love or be lovers with someone in another well." At a recent lunch with Greg, she showed him a book she'd been reading called Speaking of Silence. It's a dialogue between Christians and Buddhists.
Since Gospel Journey, Emma has been reading the Bible, going to church, praying and calling herself a "revolutionary Christian" — a denomination she created that's more concerned with the here and now than the hereafter, by taking care of the Earth and its people. She thinks a lot of Christians think they're just going to be "beamed away," so they don't have to worry about the "shithole" they've made of God's creation. "Thank God, God isn't Christian," she says. "Because the world would be a really fucked-up place."
But she and Greg agree on at least one thing. "One of my favorite quotes about Jesus is, 'He stirreth up,'" Emma says. "He was a radical, and people did not want to hear what he had to say. My intention is to stir up the status quo, and that's what I mean by revolutionary: to stirreth up."
At the end of a Dare 2 Share conference, the kids are sent on an "evangelism experience," knocking on doors and collecting canned goods for a local mission. They're told to ask strangers if they think they're going to heaven, and would they like to know for sure?
Fifteen-year-old Amy, dressed in huge black pants decorated with chains and skulls, says this is her third Dare 2 Share conference and insists that the thought of evangelizing to strangers doesn't scare her. Yet when she and Ernie, a sixteen-year-old in a NASCAR jacket, start knocking on doors together, they suddenly lose the ability to speak. They shyly ask people what their religion is, then say thank you and leave — no matter what the answer is.
At one house, a teenager answers. When they ask if there's anything he'd like to pray about, he says his family is going through a rough time. He's open to hearing the gospel message, but before the kids can get to it, his mom comes to the door and says they've interrupted their dinner and pulls her son inside.
This experience isn't about saving souls so much as getting kids to graduate from Persecution University, Greg says, so that they know that having a door slammed in their faces isn't the end of the world. Real evangelism will happen when they engage in open, honest conversations with people they know. That's something he's had to learn over the years. His wife has helped to calm him down, taught him that not every Christian is comfortable evangelizing in malls. She's certainly not.
"He still looks at every person as an opportunity, but he's become more open-minded and more conscious of how he treats people," Deb says. "He's learned to not always be so dogmatic, that you have got to be more soft or people are not going to want to hear what you have to say."
Their son is following in both their footsteps. At the conclusion of Survive, Greg invites seven-year-old Jeremy on stage. "I have sin," Jeremy says confidently. "Christ died for me. If I believe, I will go in heaven."
When Greg asks if he has anything else to tell the audience, Jeremy can't remember, so his dad whispers it in his ear: "I double-dare you to share your faith with all your friends."
"What is the Double Dare?" Greg asks. "The first part is to share the gospel with everyone you know — one by one, with your friends, in the context of a real conversation. The second part is to start with one person in the next 48 hours. Why? Because I'm sick and tired of Christians talking about evangelism and not doing it.
"We are living in a country where people are talking about who's it going to be. Is it going to be Obama? Is it going to be McCain? Let me tell you something. We are not going to transform this nation politically. The way this nation is going to be transformed is through a personal relationship with the hope that Jesus Christ has to offer. Heads bowed, eyes closed, if you're willing to take the Double Dare, I want you to raise your hand.
"Wow," Greg Stier whispers. "That's an army."