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The business of saving young souls

As charismatic American preacher Francis Chan brings his passionate gospel presentation to a close at the RICE Rally at Sydney Olympic Park on Saturday night, a squad of young people in black T-shirts rises and moves discreetly back stage.

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About 30 strong, they bow through an archway lit up in fairy lights topped with a banner saying “Found,” to the cavernous Hall of Champions. There, these young faith advisers sit down in pairs on picnic rugs, eagerly waiting to counsel any high schoolers who come forward in response to Chan’s altar call and prayer of repentance.

The RICE movement (Renewal and Inter-Church Evangelism) started in 2002 under the leadership of Steve Chong, with the aim of raising up high school youth, university students, and young workers through gospel evangelism. This year, RICE rallies attracted thousands of youngsters in Auckland, Melbourne and Sydney, with a unique programme style that combines the musical energy of a Pentecostal praise party with meaty Bible-based teaching. Indeed, the core of Francis Chan’s message is “Read this book for yourself.”

Thousands of young people have dedicated their lives to Jesus at RICE Rallies over the past 16 years – including many hundreds at the week’s previous two events in Auckland and Melbourne. In Auckland, they didn’t have enough advisers for the numbers who came forward, who spilled over into another room. I’m told to expect hundreds again tonight, but as we wait, excited by the prospect of welcoming new Christians from the packed-out arena, I wonder if anyone will come to the party. My Bible Society colleague Norman Wong, who has done this before, is quietly confident he will soon have work to do, but to me it seems outlandish that this vast room will soon be packed with kids giving their lives to Jesus.

Suddenly, there’s a thunderous stampede of clapping and cheering by black-shirted ushers.

Steve Chong celebrates in worship at Rice Rally, Sydney, August 18

Steve Chong celebrates in worship at RICE Rally, Sydney, August 18

Suddenly, there’s a thunderous stampede of clapping and cheering by black-shirted ushers lining the gauntlet from the arena to the hall, congratulating a surge of sheepish kids, shyly trailing into the room. They keep coming in their threes and fours, tentative, unsure of the next step but determined to complete the journey – like sheep looking for a shepherd.

“Congratulations! You are now part of the family, the Jesus family, living in submission to God.” – Sam Wong

The advisers, mainly youth leaders in their churches, rise from their picnic rugs, which are arranged according to the four points of the compass – north, south, east and west – as eager as relatives in an airport arrivals hall to greet the new family members. They are scouting for kids who live in their area of Sydney so that they can be referred to a local church. Norman and his adviser buddy Sam Wong attend city churches and take a while to find kids from their area, eventually adopting a few from the inner west.

The crowd is 90 per cent Asian and distinctly skewed towards girls. Faced with five girls and a boy who are too shy to respond to questions, Sam breaks the ice by asking each to say their name, school, church if they attend one, and their favourite vegetable (broccoli just wins over carrot). Then he and Norman flip through a booklet called The J Curve, written by Chong just a week earlier, which takes them step by step through the gospel again – why Jesus had to die.

“Did everyone pray the prayer at the end of the talk?’ Sam asks. When there’s a murmur of agreement, he says: “Congratulations! You are now part of the family, the Jesus family, living in submission to God.”

“She can’t hear my thoughts and she can’t understand me completely, but God can.” – Emma

It’s a hard, uncomfortable floor we’re sitting on and there are no celebratory fireworks, but as I look around at the circles of young people taking their first steps in the kingdom of God, my heart is on fire.

Francis Chan with Peter Ko, left and Deb Fung

Francis Chan, centre, with Peter Ko, left, and Deb Fung

Found! was the theme of the evening, and asked to reveal what drove them to come forward that night, most of our group talk about God’s love. They have clearly been touched by a song the band sang earlier, the award-winning Reckless Love, which expresses the thought that Jesus is prepared to leave the 99 to chase down an individual – you.

“I was thinking that the person who loves me most in the world is my mum,” says Emma*, a quietly spoken Year 12 student, “but even her love is not complete. She can’t hear my thoughts and she can’t understand me completely, but God can.”

Virginia*, in a boob tube and black lipstick, who doesn’t go to church but says she soon will, has a different slant – she was touched by Chan’s testimony of having buried his father and mother as a young boy and being outraged that their lives could end just like that. Virginia says she has also lost loved ones and is comforted by the promise of eternal life through Jesus.

“How exciting is this? Some people are going to be saved tonight!” – Steve Chong

We are just about to wrap up in prayer when Chong comes into the room and bellows that it’s time for everyone to go back into the arena for some important announcements. Norman prays a quick prayer and everyone in the group fills in a form with their details for follow-up by local churches.

Steve Chong addresses the crowd

Steve Chong fires up the crowd

Back in the arena, it’s 8.45pm and Chong is back on stage, still going at a million miles an hour after three successive days of RICE Rallies. He says the pace has nearly killed everyone, but his excitement has not waned one jot since earlier in the evening when, sitting in the front row, he had turned to his young sons, Jacob and Reuben, behind him and said: “How exciting is this? Some people are going to be saved tonight!” Yup, the two sons, ten and eight, and their cousin, aged eight, are totally on board, listening with rapt attention to everything.

“We’re not in the business of filling seats – we’re in the business of saving souls.” – Steve Chong

Chong makes a big announcement that next year there will be a RICE Rally in Perth as well as this year’s trio of Melbourne, Auckland and Sydney. And for the first time there will be a one-day global conference in Sydney bringing together people from all the cities.

It’s not about bums on seats, he emphasises. The glory is all to God and his word. But thanks to funds donated by backstage aunties and uncles (otherwise known as VIPs), anyone who buys a ticket to next year’s rally within the next 24 hours will receive a free ticket for a friend who they are praying for.

“I don’t want next year’s RICE Rally to be filled with Christians,” he urges. “I want to see RICE Rally filled with people who don’t know Jesus. We’re not in the business of filling seats – we’re in the business of saving souls!”

* Names changed to protect the privacy of our new brothers and sisters in Christ. 

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