Pumping Iron in the name of Jesus




As a rapt audience watched from the pews of the Church of the Nazarene in Ephrata, Pa., Aaron Foster raised a flaming 10-foot log over his head. The 6-foot-5, 295-pound Foster used to play professional football. Now, as a member of the Power Team, he puts his muscle into serving God as an evangelical, bodybuilding preacher.

"We're here to wage war on the devil," said Craig Lemley, 41, the Power Team leader. The team, a group of 20 muscular ministers, preaches by feats of strength. The group gives five-day performances, which unfold like a mix of a sporting event, a fire-and-brimstone sermon and a rock concert and regularly draw crowds of 3,000 to churches and community centers across the nation. For a $500 fee, the Power Team also visits schools and encourages students to choose bench-pressing instead of drugs and alcohol.

As the group's popularity has soared, it has also drawn increasing criticism. Some pastors see the team's approach as a watering down of the Bible's message. And the American Civil Liberties Union has sought to prevent the team from performing in schools, charging it with violating First Amendment laws by handing out religious material after performances.

During events, Lemley, the current Oklahoma state bodybuilding champion, breaks through blocks of ice with his head and then compares his physical strain to the suffering that Christ endured. He explained the appeal of the Power Team's preaching style: "People like the spectacular; we live in a WWF world," he said, referring to the World Wrestling Federation. Pointing to his sweat-stained tank top, Lemley said, "I'm not your typical church evangelist in a suit and tie."

Sore muscles and broken bones are the cost of Lemley's preaching style, but he said that shoeboxes full of letters from fans who thank him for inspiring them to quit drinking and resist premarital sex have convinced him that the team's methods are productive. He claims the team inspires about 100,000 people a year to pledge their dedication to Christian faith.

Throughout the two-hour performance at the Church of the Nazarene, Power Team members announce a "moment of truth," then start bending frying pans like burritos and smashing their heads through slabs of concrete, all to the thumping beat of an evangelical hip-hop singer called the Prodigal Son.

"We're fishing in the lost," Lemley declared during the performance. "We didn't come here just to break bricks."

After smashing through the concrete, Lemley drew an analogy to people breaking through their personal walls of bitterness, insecurity and addiction. "Breaking bricks will never change your life, but the message of the cross will," he said after the show.

"I like to see that husky muscle when they're working," said Gladys Weller, a regular churchgoer who attended the event with her adolescent grandchildren.

After the performance, teenagers swooned around the team members as they autographed broken pieces of brick. Ryan Harting, 14, had come to see the show on three consecutive nights. "It's like a Happy Meal," he explained. "You get to see things being broken and you get a Christian message."

Dayton Cassel, 18, was less impressed by Foster's bulging muscles than by the number of his peers who, at Lemley's urging, went to the front of the church and publicly committed themselves to the tenets of Christianity.

The pastor of the Church of the Nazarene, 59-year-old B.W. Hambrick, gladly paid the team's $8,000 performance fee as a way to lure in new congregants.

But other religious leaders are critical of the group's methods. "It's hard enough to compete for people's attention with the various entertainment on television," said Phil Scovell, a 54-year-old pastor in Denver. "After the Power Team, no one's going to want to sit and listen to a regular preacher."

The commercialization of the team, which sells dog tags with scripture and kung fu-style headbands at events, also bothered Scovell.

At the end of the performance in the Pennsylvania church, the stage looked like a fraternity house after a party weekend. Amid the shattered concrete, broken chains and melting puddles of smashed ice, Hambrick, the pastor, crossed his arms and smiled. Three hundred converts were penciling in their contact information on promise cards in the church's cafeteria.

"The Power Team," he said, "is wonderfully effective."