Call it "disintermediation" or "cultural fragmentation," but American culture is sliced up in so many ways that what's popular with one group can go virtually unnoticed by another. NPR's Fractured Culture series explores life in "a culture of many cultures."
Picture a massive arena. National Hockey League size. Filled with thousands of screaming kids. Nine boys march onto a bare stage wearing matching black T-shirts and black pants.
They climb on top of each other to form a tower of people. A lanky, handsome kid stands on his teammates' shoulders. He mouths the words to the Christian song blasting over the speakers, expertly mimicking the inflection and passion in the singer's voice.
There's no set and no costumes, and that's according to the Assemblies of God rulebook, which forbids those elements. What you're watching is called a human video because the kids themselves make the set. In one fluid movement, they become waves in the ocean, boulders, trees.
The climax of the human video is signaled by the screaming kids in the audience, who recognize it early. One of the kids turns into an unmistakable Jesus, who is strung up on a crucifix made from his teammates standing on each other's shoulders. He dies, quickly, and is hauled off by his teammates. The audience goes wild. And the people in the crowd really lose it when Jesus returns. The performance (you can watch it above) won last year at the Assemblies of God's National Fine Arts Festival in the category Human Video Large Ensemble.
In churches all over the country right now, kids are getting together to rehearse their human video entries for regional competitions. The team that wins regionals heads to nationals, which will be held this year in Phoenix, in August.
Human videos are unique to the Assembly of God. To understand what makes them unique, you have to understand that the Assemblies of God is an evangelical Pentecostal denomination. That means it's a) expressive and b) they believe that you have to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior — and that it's therefore a part of your job to spread the word about the gospel so everyone can be saved.
"You can't just go up to someone," 14-year-old Brianna Thomas says, "and say, 'Have you heard about Jesus lately?' It's kind of an awkward thing. You have to find something that reflects you and put your own personality on it." For Thomas, who's in the drama group at her secular school and in a youth group at her church, that's what human videos are: a way for her to both proselytize and have fun.
According to Jack Trewern, Assemblies of God Fine Arts coordinator, around 60,000 kids compete to get to the national fine arts festival. There are tons of categories, like percussion, photography, drama, singing and human video. Trewern says about 10,000 kids make it.
"Going to nationals is an amazing experience," says 16-year-old Daniel Aboagye. "Just having so many teens around you that are on fire for Christ, you just don't feel alone anymore. Being at school sometimes, it's like you're the only person that cares."
Aboagye's human video group meets in the back of Christ Chapel Church, in Woodbridge, Va. It's in the middle of a suburban shopping center. The classroom is bare except for the soda machine and a large poster of Jesus. It's dark outside and the kids are giggly as they form a large circle.
They begin the rehearsal with a prayer, and then Aboagye plays a series of songs for the group on his iPad. He's a gawky, skinny kid, charismatic in the way that experts can be. He and the coach of the human video group, Alice Jackson, run through dozens of songs and dozens of potential scenarios for the skit.
Some human videos are biblical stories. But even more are supposed to be current and go along these lines: A teenager contemplates suicide, or an abortion, or a school shooting, or too much partying. A kid playing Jesus usually steps in at the close of a human video and shows the protagonist how to make a change.
The song that ends up winning the group's vote is called "I Wanna Get Lost." Jackson describes what she thinks the story could be.
"Picture a teenager, letting himself get lost in the crowd instead of being himself," she says. "Giving in to whatever's surrounding him, be it smoking or drinking or whatever, having this inner struggle. And then, ultimately he's saying, 'I want to get lost in you, I don't want to lose who I am, but I want to get lost in you.' Lost in God, lost in Jesus."
The kids look like they're having a ton of fun playing around late on a Sunday night in the back room of their church. Aboagye gives a motivational speech about remembering to stay in character no matter what. Then he reminds the group that "the point isn't to go to competitions and win — that's nice. The point is they're supposed to be ministry tools, share the gospel with people. And when we get it just right — it doesn't happen often — but when we get it just right, I think it's the most powerful tool we have to minister to people."
Human videos were first created in the early '80s by a fine arts fanatic named Randy Philips. Trewern remembers that time well. "It was all about the music videos," Trewern says. "And watching creative videos on TV. You watched MTV, and you [were] sucked in by this medium of telling the story and interpreting the music in a visual way. It just resonated, and I think it still does."
Philips used this MTV jones that was biting everyone and created a new ministry, one that could appeal to anyone who had ever grabbed a hairbrush and sung into it.
But the point of a human video is also to be able to perform anywhere — set up a boombox, a PA or whatever, hit play and act it out. By the side of the road. On a street corner. At the mall. And that's something that coach Jackson thinks about all the time.
"In our backyard here at this church is Potomac Mills mall," she says with a sigh. "I would love to walk up in the middle of that food court, set up a sound system and minister to that crowd. What's holding me back? Fear. And that's actually a general theme in human videos. Some kids won't talk to their friends and tell them they're Christian, because they're afraid of rejection." Even Aboagye, who appears fearless, agrees with Jackson: "It's crowds of people who may or may not be friendly to being ministered to," he says. "People go to the mall to shop. They don't go to be bombarded by Christian messages."
Right now, there's not a lot of overlap between Assemblies of God human videos and the people at Potomac Mills. Though 14-year-old Gabrielle Schmitt says, "I think we should go over there. I think it would be really cool. I might feel kind of weird, but it's worth it. I mean, in the end, they'd be saved."
The music and the promise of sharing salvation are why these kids, each from a different school, are with each other late on a Sunday night. It's hard to cross the street and face people who don't understand something that seems so obvious when you're with your friends, in the classroom you know so well, in the back of your church.