In the beginning was the Word, and that's all well and good for awhile. But sometimes, you got to break some shit.
The hulking members of the Power Team—veins budged, muscles swollen, eyes lit from radiant fire within—knew this. They'd come to this realization through years of practice, performing, and proselytizing. And so, in 1991, when they took the stage in front of a stadium of post-Perestroika'd Russians, the Americans didn't waste time with preaching about the glory of Jesus. The translator could sit this part out. Instead, they broke through the language barrier with noodling guitar riffs, pyrotechnics, and incredible feats of strength.
With their bare hands, they broke handcuffs and tore phone books in half. They bent steel and smashed concrete with their skulls. They rammed flesh and bone against ice walls and burning timber, and the Lord let them pass through, relatively unscathed. And the Russians—all 70,000 or so of them—stood up, shouted, and accepted God into their hearts.
If reaching people is the goal of any ministry, the Power Team fulfilled it. They encircled the globe, Bible Belt missions interspersed with passport stamps from South Africa, New Zealand, and Israel. They hosted a weekly show on TBN, the world's largest Christian television network, and they released VHSs and CDs. Nirvana's Krist Novoselic wore their T-shirts during Bleach-era shows. Chuck Norris even put them in an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger. They were an $11 million a year industry.
The Power Team, at their height, were the Christian superstars of the 80s who would reportedly preach to over a million teenagers in a calendar year. And, in 2002, they filed for bankruptcy.
The story of the Power Team began, as most things do, with a problem. As a Christian evangelist in prison ministry, John Jacobs's job was simple: Spread the Word to as many inmates as possible. But Jacobs—a six-foot-three, 275-pound bodybuilder with a broad 54-inch chest—had a logistical conundrum. No one was showing.
"There were five or six people," said James L. Reid, producer of Born Again: The Power Team Story, a documentary scheduled to be released later this year. "He didn't feel like he was achieving his goal."
A sheriff took pity on the young brute and taught him a secret: To break handcuffs, all you need is force, torque, and knowing where the structural weaknesses are. So, the next time he preached, Jacobs spoke about "breaking the chains of the devil," the metaphor particularly resonating with this group. And he brought out a pair of handcuffs, held them to his chest, closed his eyes, flexed his massive biceps, and called for the Lord's support. The chains broke in two. Word spread of his feat and his congregation grew.
After the prison epiphany, Jacobs expanded. He recruited a motley bunch of similarly chiseled God-fearing souls to perform their own "feats of strength." They were former athletes mostly, guys used to the rigors of a physically demanding lifestyle. One tore phone books in half, another ran through blocks of ice, another caved in bricks with his forearms. Some dude thought it was wise to light those bricks on fire, why the hell not? The bigger the spectacle, the bigger the crowd. Then he took his act on the road.
Pastors saw the advantage of more asses in their pews and booked Jacobs's team to preach at their churches. The barnstorming sessions took on some semblance of a structure: The Power Team would arrive in town on a Wednesday for five nights of shows. During the day, they'd lock up their Bibles and tuck in their crucifix necklaces, morphing into secular doppelgängers and speaking to high schoolers about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, premarital sex and gangs. (This was at the height of the D.A.R.E. campaign.) Leaving God out of the speeches was dictated by the law separating church and state, but the team didn't mind.
"I don't care what faith you are," said Todd Keene, who joined in the early 90s. "If you're sharing a positive message to young people, does it matter what my faith is?" And when these macho men spoke, kids listened.
"We would get bullets in letters, we'd get razor blades," said Eddie Dalcour, a member since the early 90s, who now leads a Christian apologetic ministry. (He also played the first incarnation of Reed Rothchild in Paul Thomas Anderson's short film precursor to Boogie Nights.) "Kids getting ready to commit suicide wanted to change their lives because we came into their schools."
But the afternoon messages came with a pitch: Enjoy what we're doing here, tell your folks about the night shows. That's where the real action happened. "We're on the stage of a church, breaking bricks, lighting things on fire, running through two-by-fours," said Keene. "You can imagine, that's jarring to a church. Or anyone."
But in the 80s and 90s, it was also, oddly, the norm. This was the era of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, of Wrestlemania and American Gladiators, of monster trucks, of "Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!" Body oil was sold by the gallon, hairspray by the keg, silicone and steroids filled every syringe. But that high-octane entertainment hadn't yet extended into church services.
"I thought Christians were little guys with little pencil protectors in their pocket," said Keene. "Then all of a sudden here comes the Power Team, smashing bricks, saying it's OK to be manly, to be what God called you to be."
In Sharon Mazer's fantastic 1988 profile of the group, she writes, "In the vernacular of the Power Team, the male body, as it is recognized and defined by its muscularity, literally enacts a promise to Christian men that their bodies can be likewise powerful at the same time that it acts as a manifestations of the Spirit which would otherwise remain invisible." Nowadays, if you focus exclusively on the male physique—particularly, the bulgy end of the spectrum—as being evidence of God's power, you'd find yourself on the business end of heavy ridicule. But this was not an unpopular conceit back then.
"Christians don't have to be dorks," was how Keene summed it up.
To establish their non-nerd bonafides, they broke things. Injuries were part of the deal. If you walked away with only bruises and cuts, you were lucky. It was rarely a question of if someone needed stitches, but rather how many. Keene estimates they've had close to 20 broken arms over the years, as well as seven full knee reconstructions. But despite the theatrics of smashing bricks and snapping cuffs, there was one feat every member dreaded.
"The hot water bottle," said Dalcour, "We'd blow this hot water bottle up until it exploded."
Hot water bottles are those rubber containers that, back in the day, your grandparents put at their feet while they slept. The density and thickness of the rubber keeps the hot liquid from scalding skin—but that attribute also makes them rather difficult to, say, blow up with your mouth. "When they break, they slap against faces, tear skin, leave cuts under the eyes," said Reid, who's watched his fair share of footage of this nasty feat.
The video also provides a glimpse into the other draw of the shows, since this was the one stunt they performed on the stage together as a team. The camaraderie is evident, the vulnerability present. These were men, after all, who, between acts of bodily harm, took the microphone and shared heartfelt testimonials with the crowd about God coming into their lives, how turning to Him made them change their evil ways.
"Many have gone through crazy life experiences," said Reid, before telling the story of Russ Clear, a former Hells Angel and white supremacist who spent 15 years in San Quentin before joining the team. "He found Jesus in prison and Jacobs paid to have his Nazi propaganda tattoos taken off."
The impact of watching these near-superhuman creatures bare their emotions was nearly as powerful as the feats that preceded. If breaking objects was bait, breaking down was the hook.
"You have the pressure of being successful in terms of breaking the bricks and doing the feats of strength, and if you have 10,000 people watching you fail, you feel pretty lousy," said Dalcour. "But the most important part for us was to present the gospel."
After the testimonials, the team closed with their grand finale: The altar call. They'd ask audiences to give themselves up to the Lord, close their eyes, come forward, and be saved. And the hundreds or thousands who came to watch that evening surely would. They'd raise their hands to grab the raft in the lake of fire, choose Jesus as the one true path into heaven. Then and only then had the guys, standing in a pile of broken concrete and melting ice, achieved their goal.
The end also came with a plea: "Another town sent us here," someone would announce. "Please give us enough to send us to the next town with this message." They collected the donations and off they went.
Not everyone was pleased about this approach to worship, but it didn't matter to the church pastors. Numbers were numbers. The demand grew, membership expanded, feats were exaggerated, calendar dates filled. Soon, the Power Team had built the largest evangelic organization in the world.
And then, it all collapsed.
"Our leader fell," said Keene. "He was doing things that were un-Christian. Too much drinking, too many naughty behaviors."
In 2000, Jacobs and his wife of 16 years, Ruthanne, divorced, citing the ever-popular "irreconcilable differences." Watery rumors of infidelity coagulated when he remarried in 2001 and got an annulment shortly thereafter. While playing around with marriage certificates may not seem like the biggest scandal in the secular world, muddying those waters as an evangelical minister is a cardinal offense. Locked away in confidentiality agreements, surely, is a story of debauchery and excess. But the details will likely never come out.
"That's between him and his God and his wife," said Keene.
Regardless of specifics, Jacobs and his Power Team were spoiled. What pastor wants to open his pulpit to such negative press? Soon the team began to disband. Twenty-four members splintered off and formed a similar "strength ministry" under the name Team Impact to cleanse themselves of Jacobs's rep. "Do you want your reputation attached to Jacobs?" asked Keene. "I don't blame them [for leaving]."
This exodus didn't sit well with the falling leader. In 2001, Jacobs was charged with misdemeanor assault and battery against a Team Impact member named Jeff Audas after allegedly slamming him against a wall. Responding to the charges, Jacobs called members of Team Impact "troublemakers, disloyal, antagonizers and womanizers." He tried to shift the narrative, claiming that these scabs were fired by him, rather than quit on their own. They were "pruned," he claimed, so the Power Team "could go the next level." For a company relying exclusively on donations and pastors and principals choosing to bring them into their churches and schools, infighting isn't good for business. Soon the TV deals were gone. So were the bookings. Jacobs's next level was a mirage.
Jacobs filed personal and ministry bankruptcy claims in August of 2002. The following May, the court swatted the former, saying he "exhibited a reckless disregard for the truth" while disclosing his personal finances. (While allegations of Jacobs stealing money from the team's coffers were never proven, going from having a supposed $11 million a year in revenue to being broke in such a short stretch of time is fishy, to say the least.)
That was the last straw for the remaining members. Days later, the team released a statement saying it was parting ways with its founder. After 27 years, Jacobs was now free to "go on with his own life" which, at that time, meant "living in an apartment, driving a Ford Taurus," and a third marriage. Meanwhile, an "apostolic board of spiritual leaders" were to take over the team's day-to-day operations. The parties involved concluded the statement by asking for everyone's prayers.
On May 14, 2003, then, the Power Team officially died.
This being a Christian story, it's fitting to end on a note of resurrection.
Soon after the parties split, Keene took over the logistics of the company, a role Jacobs had inadvertently been priming him for over the years. "Power Team was never about a man," said Keene. "But I'm the guy in the room who had the keys and knew what to do next."
Keene paid back debtors, clearing the name financially. "He transformed the team into a rag-tag group of guys trying to rebuild their name," said Reid. (Another part of Keene's clearing-of-the-slate mission was allowing Reid and company—an outside, secular group of filmmakers—access into the group.) With that out of the way, Keene worked the phones, "grinding it out," telling church leaders that the hearts of the Power Team was in the right place, their purposes true.
"It's an ongoing process," said Keene. "I had a pastor tell me last year that it usually takes ten years for people to really reset and go forward." Luckily, the true power of time is its ability to erode. "There's a new generation of pastors who don't know who [Jacobs] was."
In the end, Keene kept the name, but rebranded it as Power Team 2.0. Their events feature more multimedia presentations, extra costumes, even a legit fight scene. "This isn't your dad's Power Team," is how Keene sells it. Other former Power Teamers are still at it as well. Team Impact is going strong, and a few members splintered off to form Strength Team. "Some went more conservative, others went more radical with the feats," said Dalcour. But they all follow the same tried-and-true method of showmanship. "Keep it tight, keep it simply, keep the feats dynamic, keep the energy high."
(Jacobs attempted his own resurrection with a group dubbed The Next Generation Power Force, though a now-squatted upon website and the infrequency of Facebook posts suggests a less than successful path.)
While they're no longer selling out arenas or on TV, the members of the Power Team are still touring the country, waging war against the devil. They're shouting and crying and steering kids from drugs, and now also trying to end bullying. And they are they still breaking shit. When they come to your town, you'll know. If not that night, then the morning after, by the trail of broken chains and popped rubber bottles they've left in their wake.
Follow Rick on Twitter.