John Jacobs takes a long look at the 10-layer stack of bricks. The theme from Rocky grows louder. Jacobs takes a deep breath. The 3,200 people inside the nondenominational Peoples Church in Tacoma, Wash., hold theirs, sitting silent on the edge of their pews.
“Listen to me,” begins the handsome 28-year-old Assembly of God evangelist in that familiar ministerial style—starting soft, building to thunder—”I want to tell you a story.” The audience seems mesmerized by this 6′ 3″, 275-lb. vision, his 54-inch chest straining against his white workout suit and a red T-shirt reading “Power: God Made You To Win.”
“I’m gonna tell you a comeback story bigger than Rocky,” promises Jacobs, referring to the Resurrection. Suddenly his enormous hand smashes down on the bricks, snapping them like twigs. Next a police officer walks onstage and snaps two pairs of handcuffs on Jacobs’ wrists. Out comes Berry Handley, 21, one of five beefy young men on Jacobs’ Power Team. “Oh, God, let’s help him!” he cries, urging the audience to prayer. Jacobs, standing before a huge wooden cross, asks for total silence, then thrusts his hands in front of his chest and cries, “GOD!” as the Power Team pulls on his straining arms. The handcuffs snap open and the audience cheers.
During the day, Jacobs and his Power Team have been visiting schools to put on a teaser—ripping phone books and bending steel—and delivering a motivational speech that includes warnings against drugs, liquor and sex. Then they invite the students to an evening performance at a nearby church, where the pitch is religious. “I warn the kids that they’ll be sharing Christian testimony,” says Jacobs.
This disclosure notwithstanding, Jacobs’ critics are put off by his use of the schools to recruit a church audience. And what about his melding of circus and religion? “This generation is drawn to the spectacular,” he explains. “We’re not trying to spiritualize the feats. It’s just a platform to share the word of God. It’s the bait.”
The idea for the Power Team came to Jacobs eight years ago, when as a student at Oral Roberts University he saw a karate expert dazzle an audience. “I noticed that Christians weren’t the only ones who watched him,” says Jacobs. “I liked that. I had gotten tired of those all-Christian events, and I wanted to bring the sinners in.”
Jacobs has taken his show on the road—to Israel, Australia and England—and onto television via the Christian-oriented Trinity Broadcasting Network, where he appears four times a week. He claims to have spoken in person to one million teenagers last year. On this night in Tacoma, Jacobs calls down the converts for their public rebirth. About a thousand teenagers come forward to proclaim their newfound faith.
To help pay his $30,000-a-year salary as well as the salaries of 18 employees, Jacobs solicits “free-will offerings” after his sermons. Travel expenses are offset by the sale of T-shirts, posters and audio-and video-cassettes. (A set of four videos costs $75.) The John Jacobs Evangelistic Association—a nonprofit organization—took in $1 million last year, Jacobs says, and he sees even bigger things in his future. He and his wife, Ruthanne, the daughter of an Open Bible pastor, just moved from Bellevue, Wash., to Rockwall, Texas, in the hope that Jacobs can enter a secular television market in the Dallas area, and then, God willing, go national. “I’d like to reach more people than anyone has,” proclaims Jacobs. “And I think I will.”