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30,000 teens, screaming for God

Teen Mania Ministries brings its message of God in a two-day conference at Tropicana Field.

By JOUNICE L. NEALY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 2, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Thousands of teenagers from across the country will fill Tropicana Field tonight to feel God's power in pyrotechnic displays, skits, concerts and motivational speeches.

"We want to make the things that are timeless truths from Scripture relative to a new generation," said Ron Luce, president and chief executive officer of Texas-based Teen Mania Ministries, the youth mission organization that is sponsoring the two-day conference, Stand Up! Florida.

Luce, 39, wants teenagers to realize that "he isn't the big guy upstairs with a lightning bolt looking to hit you when you mess up. He's a good God. He's not waiting to slap you upside your head. He wants to give you joy, peace." More than 30,000 teenagers, mostly from across the state, have registered to attend Teen Mania's first Stand Up! conference in Florida. The event ends at 10 p.m. Saturday.

Stand Up! Florida is the third large event that the 15-year-old organization has organized and the first time it has come to Florida. The previous Stand Up! conferences were held in Michigan.

Every weekend, Teen Mania does a small-scale version called Acquire the Fire, which previously has been held in Tampa. It attracts between 5,000 and 15,000 teens screaming their love for Christ.

This weekend, there will be thousands more foot-stomping and hand-clapping teens, plus blasts of fire and loud music.

"Christianity is exciting," Luce said. But "it's not all about let's get people hyped up. It's to help them really get to understand how to live for God." So the conference also is packed with motivational speakers.

The conference, which will be broadcast live on www.standupflorida.com beginning at 5 p.m. today, will feature concerts by such Christian artists as Out of Eden and Rebecca St. James and motivational speakers such as past Promise Keepers speaker John Maxwell.

An entire list of speakers and musical guests is posted on the group's Web site, www.teenmania.com.

"It's just a good time for the kids to bond with each other, just to see that they're not alone," said the Rev. Matt Huett, youth pastor at Suncoast Cathedral Assembly of God in St. Petersburg. There will be about 30 teens from Huett's church attending the conference. About 500 teens who are attending Stand Up! Florida from across the country will sleep over at the church's lock-in Friday night.

"It's a good indication that there are a lot more out there who believe what they believe and feel what they feel," Huett said.

Luce and his wife, Katie, founded the program in 1986 out of the back of their car. They did youth rallies wherever anybody would let them. "We had amazing crowds of 10 or 20. We filled up living rooms across the country," Luce said and laughed.

They faced roadblocks along the way -- sometimes people forgot they were coming or they didn't show up -- but they kept driving across the country.

The program is now a $24-million not-for-profit organization. "God just blessed us," he said.

Luce, who grew up in California, ran away from home when he was 15, found his father and got on drugs.

Then a friend invited him to church, and "people in this church acted like God was real. And it never occurred to me. And then they acted like they really loved him," Luce said. "I'd been in church my whole life, and I never could tell if people really loved God."

He accepted Christ when he was 16 and told his friends about God. That has grown into conferences that are being held in stadiums.

Teen Mania also has a program that sends teenagers on missions and another program offering one-year internships to high school graduates on their way to college.

Pastor Jane Hillman of Tampa Bay Word of Faith Church in Tampa said Teen Mania has done an excellent job with its programs for teenagers.

"They just present their gospel in a way to make it easy for a teenager to build that relationship. They're very into character-building," Hillman said. "I expect our youth to come back with a greater perception of God and their character built up."

If you go

Stand Up! Florida, a two-day religious conference for teenagers, begins today at Tropicana Field, 1 Tropicana Drive, St. Petersburg. Doors open at 4 p.m. today and the event begins at 7 p.m. Registration is $79 at the door.

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