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December 31, 2000: Saturday Night at The River

November 26, 2000: College athletes minstry emphasizes Holy Spirit

November 19, 2000: Bad weather doesn't dampen spirits of thousands at Detroit's Convoy of Hope

November 12, 2000: International Day of Prayer for Persecuted Church

October 29, 2000: Frontiersman way of life draws men, boys closer to Christ

September 17, 2000: Loving the unloved

September 10, 2000: Changing lives in a big way

August 13, 2000: Church planting fuels growth

July 30, 2000: Full Gospel New York Church targets 500,000 Koreans

July 16, 2000: Running the good race

July 9, 2000: Hispanic church thrives in border town

June 25, 2000: The hand of God

June 18, 2000: HonorBound: Raising an army of godly men

June 11, 2000: Illinois Christian radio stations deliver message of Christ to thousands

May 14, 2000: A/G foster families minister to children

April 30, 2000: Prison revival reaches beyond the fence

April 23, 2000: Harvest Sunday draws hundreds for water baptism

April 16, 2000: Chain reaction

April 9, 2000: One pastor's burden: reaching the 'white slums'

March 26, 2000: Cowboy church rounds up believers

March 19, 2000: Motorsports ministry: Winning souls at the track

March 12, 2000: A dream blooms in the desert

February 20, 2000: Romanian church prospers for 20 years

February 13, 2000: Ministry at a strategic academic crossroads

January 23, 2000: God's Navy

Saturday Night at The River

(December 31, 2000)

Music is pulsing, lights are flashing, the energy in the crowd is contagious. Eighteen hundred teen-age voices are chanting, "Let us in! Let us in!" It isn’t a rock concert or a party that has drawn this eclectic crowd on a beautiful Saturday evening in September — the young people are waiting for the doors to open at James River Assembly of God.

Seventy young people give their hearts to the Lord. Immediately following the altar call, they are led into a prayer room where youth leaders take them through the Scriptures.

It’s "Saturday Night at The River," an innovative outreach service that has drawn students from all over Southwest Missouri and as far away as Oklahoma.

Commercials on television and local radio stations have advertised the event for weeks. Members of the youth group at James River and other area churches have hung posters at their schools, distributed tickets to their friends and held weekly prayer services for months in preparation.

"The River" is the heart of the evangelism program for the youth at James River, says Scotty Gibbons, director of student ministries at the church.

For five years, the outreach services have been held as a vehicle for the students to reach out to their unsaved friends. Hundreds have been saved through the program. "Our goal is to give our students a cool, relevant, cutting-edge tool to reach their friends," says Gibbons. "We did not want to compromise the message, and we did not want to water down the heart of the gospel, but we wanted to present it in a way that was understandable and relevant to this generation."

For the first time, The River has become a three-day event. On Thursday night, the River Rally was held. Local youth groups joined James River for a night of motivation and inspiration. "Our purpose at the rally was to motivate Christians to reach the lost," says Gibbons. "We gave them T-shirts, tickets and posters for the next day at school so they could use The River as a tool to talk to their friends about Christ."

"It’s been amazing to watch the Lord use The River," says senior pastor John Lindell. "We started it as an outreach for our youth, but now the Lord is using it to bring youth groups from different denominations together in reaching out to the young people in our community."

Pastor Farley Lewis of Dayspring Christian Fellowship in Springfield brought his youth group to participate in the events surrounding The River. He wanted to support the effort to unite youth groups all over the community for the primary purpose of drawing young people to Christ. "This event is pretty awesome," says Lewis. "Anytime you have youth pastors and youth groups working together in the name of Jesus, good things are going to happen."

On Friday night the students hit the streets for the River Blitz. They met at the church for prayer and testimonies before piling into church vans to canvass every home football game, college campus and Boys and Girls Club in town, sharing their faith and inviting young people to The River.

The crowd grows as the 8 o’clock hour approaches on Saturday night. Vans from a variety of evangelical churches are dropping off groups of teen-agers. A youth leader from a new church in nearby Bolivar has brought six students. "We saw it on TV," he says. "I thought this was somewhere we needed to be."

Two youth leaders from Greater Metropolitan Baptist Church in Springfield brought their group after hearing about it on the radio.

When the doors open, the students pile into the church auditorium. A voice rings out in the dark, "The River will begin in five minutes." The crowd cheers, and soon music from a live band is playing.

For the next hour and a half, the program incorporates black lighting and smoke machines, music, drama, multimedia presentations, games, giveaways and an illustrated sermon wrapped around the theme, "It’s Time."

The mood becomes serious as Gibbons leads into the altar call. "When I talk about it being time, I’m drawing a line in the sand tonight, and I’m saying, ‘It’s time for every single one of us to determine which side of the line we’re going to be on.’

"I came on a mission tonight to say to you, ‘It’s time for you to make a decision on what you’re going to do with Jesus Christ.’ " When the invitation is given, students begin to flood to the altars.

Seventy young people give their hearts to the Lord. Immediately following the altar call, they are led into a prayer room where youth leaders take them through the Scriptures.

The follow-up will be aggressive. If a student comes from a legitimate church background, he or she will be steered in that direction. All youth pastors present are invited to the altar room to pray with their own kids.

Those who do not come from a church background will receive follow-up visits from James River youth and youth sponsors. "We plug them into our group," says Gibbons. "We work aggressively to get them involved in discipleship and teach them the responsibility of evangelism. Then they will become soul-winners. And then we start the process over again for the next River."

For Gibbons, the greatest reward is seeing students who were saved at The River come back again with their friends — students like 14-year-old Jessica.

Jessica gave her heart to the Lord at The River on October 28, 1999. Almost one year later, she is wholeheartedly serving the Lord, plugged into her youth group and inviting everyone she knows to The River.

"I’ve had a rough life," Jessica says. "I was checking out the party scene, the drug scene. I heard about The River, but I thought, I don’t think so."

She had planned to go to a party that weekend, but the person having the party canceled because he wanted to check out The River. "I agreed to go out of total curiosity," she says.

"It hasn’t even been a full year yet," she says with tears in her eyes, "but just look at my life. I used to do all that stuff and I was so depressed and angry all the time. Now I’m just happy all the time and I pray all the time. God’s given me new friends that I don’t have to worry about."

She says she’d like to be a children’s minister one day. Already she’s helping lead worship in the children’s service on Sunday mornings and working with preschoolers on Sunday nights.

Gibbons says Saturday Night at The River is a powerful tool for his group. "I use this to teach our young people to pray," he says. "I use it to teach them to fast. I use it to help them understand what it is to suffer for the gospel, to lose friends, to be laughed at because of their stand. We use it to teach them to witness. And then the miracle of salvation unfolds before their eyes. So this is a complete cycle. We’ve had divine appointments over and over again. It’s teaching young people to be well-rounded in their walk with God."

— Ashli K. O’Connell



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