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Teen Christians campaign against pop culture

  • Story Highlights
  • Thousands of teens attend Christian rallies each year
  • Many of the rallies attempt to offer an alternative to secular popular culture
  • Opponents say these impose conservative values on vulnerable teenagers
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Editor's note: This is part of a series of reports CNN.com is featuring for "God's Warriors," a documentary hosted by CNN chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour.

(CNN) -- At one point in Jared Hutchins' young life, the Beatles were a big problem.

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The rallies, which draw mostly teens, are one part concert, one part Christian revival.

"I had to stop listening to them for a while," said Hutchins, who lives in Cumming, Georgia, and plays the piano, guitar and harmonica. He said the group's world view "had a negative effect on me," and made him irritable and angry.

"God owns my life, not the Beatles," he said simply. Although Hutchins said he enjoys a wide range of music -- from Pink Floyd and Arcade Fire to Christian bands such as Hillsong United -- he said he has to be careful of what music he listens to, for the same reason he temporarily turned off the Beatles.

Hutchins, a 16-year-old graced with poise and thoughtfulness, is one of many teenagers who say that some part of popular culture, with its ubiquitous references to sex, drugs and violence, has harmed him.

Last year, Hutchins and his Christian youth group attended an Acquire the Fire rally in Atlanta, Georgia, he said. Acquire the Fire -- regional rallies held across the country -- and BattleCry -- the larger rallies held this year in only three cities -- are the products of the evangelical Christian organization Teen Mania. Video Go behind-the-scenes with CNN's Christiane Amanpour at a BattleCry event »

One part concert, one part Christian revival, the rallies seek to "stage a reverse revolution" against secular popular culture. They have the pull of headlining rock concerts, drawing thousands of people regardless of the region of the country, the month of year or the day of the week. The audiences are nearly always predominantly teenagers and young adults.

From 2006 to 2007, a total of 127,830 people attended the 34 Acquire the Fire rallies, and 71,414 people attended the three BattleCry events held in San Francisco, California; Detroit, Michigan; and Bristow, Virginia, according to Teen Mania. Watch flags, fireworks and teens at rally Video

For Hutchins, who said he struggled in his early adolescence to fit in and be cool before having a personal experience with God about four years ago, the organization's message is exactly right.

"We don't have to be branded by the culture, we are branded by God," he said. "Be who God created you to be."

But the glossy, glamorous appeal of popular culture too often obscures that path to God, Teen Mania followers say.

And so, Ron Luce, the 46-year-old founder of the organization, has waged a modern-day crusade against "purveyors of popular culture," whom he has condemned as "the enemy." More than two decades old, Teen Mania estimates it has reached more than 2 million teens with its message "of living completely for Christ."

The organization is sprawling. In addition to its live stadium rallies, there are BattleCry shirts and hats, mobile screen savers, books and a television program. There are international mission trips -- Hutchins attended one in Tijuana, Mexico, this summer. There is even a Teen Mania internship, a one-year program called the Honor Academy, based in Lindale, Texas.

In the live events, Luce couples the earnest appeal of a young father with a preacher's ability to mobilize a crowd. He weaves disturbing statistics about teenagers amid his gospel.

Today's teenagers are in crisis, he says.

"We're fighting for those who don't know they have a voice, that are being manipulated by our pop culture indulging in things that, really, they're not mature enough to be thinking about yet," Luce told CNN.

"Kids are hurting," he said. And of those who he feels inflict these moral wounds, Luce said, "We call them terrorists, virtue terrorists, that are destroying our kids."

"They're raping virgin teenage America on the sidewalk, and everybody's walking by and acting like everything's OK. And it's just not OK."

To some, Luce's rhetoric is off-putting, hateful and divisive. Opponents point to his views on homosexuality -- not "in God's plan" -- and abortion -- the "ending of a precious life" -- and say Luce is imposing conservative values on vulnerable teenagers. Explore Americans' views on religion

It is this criticism that Luce and his followers confronted head-on in March at BattleCry San Francisco.

There, in arguably the most liberal city in the United States, protesters, armed with megaphones and poster board signs, rallied against BattleCry on the steps of City Hall as the Christian teenagers circled and prayed in a demonstration of their own.

"Ron Luce is a liar!" one protester shouted. "Let me hear you say Christian fascist," another yelled.

Luce and the youths, some as young as 11, also raised their voices.

"God, I ask that as we do this BattleCry, Lord, that you would reveal yourself to the teenagers, God, here, God," Mindy Peterson, shouted. Peterson is a member of Teen Mania's Honor Academy. Afterward, Peterson railed against what she said was the protesters' mischaracterization of BattleCry.

"These people think that our war is against other people. They think that our war is against man. And our war isn't. Our war's against ... the pain in teenagers' hearts, like depression, alcoholism. Those things that -- that are, like, tearing our teenagers apart," she said.

While much milder in his terms, Hutchins agrees. "We're a generation that is kind of troubled," he said. Luce wants to "rescue the hearts of our generation," he added.

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And of the critics' contention that the rallies, the organization, the message is neo-conservatism wrapped in Biblical verse? Hutchins smiles, nods patiently. "I don't go because I have a political agenda," he said, adding that his friends don't, either.

"Mostly, what we're concerned with is Jesus." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Christiane Amanpour, Julie O'Neill and Taylor Gandossy contributed to this report.

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