A size-6 running shoe soars through the air and pegs Barry Bowling in the arm. A Reef sandal hits him in the stomach. An enormous hiking boot catapults overhead, fortunately missing wide to the right. But Barry was asking for it.
"Take off one of your shoes, and try and hit me," the 43-year-old said to a group of high-school students moments earlier.
"Now grab a shoe, and meet who it belongs to."
The shoe toss was part of a Monday-night meeting of Cru's high-school and middle-school outreach.
As director of the high school ministry in Houston, Barry and his wife, Laurie, initiate with high-school kids and train them to do the same with their peers, in hopes of spreading the message of Jesus Christ. While it may look like fun and games, initiating is an important job.
"Especially today, they aren't just going to show up at church," Laurie says. "Unless we go to them, they are less likely to hear the gospel."
From the inner city to suburbia, Cru staff members reach people at a critical time. Barna Research Group reports that 80% of those who receive Christ do so by age 18.
Barry and Laurie teach teenagers how to have a personal relationship with God. The couple, who has 5 children of their own -- ranging from Shepherd, 1, to Hannah, 12 -- lead the vision of the citywide ministry while working directly with Cinco Ranch High.
Cru staff members work in nine high schools in the city. It all starts with meeting the kids where they are -- including school grounds.
It's a Tuesday, and Barry arrives at Cinco Ranch High to give a motivational talk to the boy's basketball team -- a technique he frequently uses to connect with students. The upscale, suburban high school, spread out like an airport terminal, holds nearly 3,400 students.
Barry shakes hands with a few coaches, and then they usher him to the team.
Surrounded by a sea of gym lockers, Barry stresses "The Ingredients of a Champion" -- desire, determination and dedication -- to about 30 freshmen basketball players. The punchy, 15-minute speech is full of sports anecdotes, but mentions nothing about God.
At the close, Barry invites the kids to a second talk off campus.
"Because of laws and stuff, a public high school isn't equipped to help you develop spiritually," Barry says to the team. "That's why Cru's high school ministry exists."
The next day, 12 of the basketball players -- all freshmen -- show up to hear more. Barry, along with a few parents, caravan the kids to one of the player's houses. After the teenagers scarf cookies and drain bottles of Powerade, Barry moves effortlessly into a 20-minute presentation of the gospel.
The talk is not overly complex, but clear. Ten out of the 12 freshmen indicate decisions to receive Christ and several ask to be part of a Bible study.
Fred, a freshman attending the event, writes his thoughts on a card and leaves it behind for Barry to read.
"I never knew Jesus was the real key to knowing God."
In 19 years, Barry has led similar outreaches to sports teams, where hundreds have indicated decisions to receive Christ. Among them 3 years ago was 17-year-old Spencer Seurrette.
"It was my dream to lead a Bible study my junior year," says Spencer, who helped lead 15 to 20 freshman football players in a study last year. Even still, talking about Jesus takes courage for Spencer.
"Sometimes I get that gut feeling when I share my faith," he says. "Will they accept me or tell me to go away?"
Recently, he and Barry met with 5 students at 9ers Restaurant. Over burgers and fries, Spencer led the boys through Connecting With God, an evangelistic booklet that explains how to have a personal relationship with God. Spencer added examples from his own life.
"Since I've gotten to know the Lord, I have had great joy," he told them. "And you can have the same thing."
Two of the guys indicated decisions to receive Christ.
Barry and Laurie don't just initiate with students; they build relationships. Spencer recalls a time when he was ending an 8-month relationship with a girlfriend -- a big deal in high school.
"Barry came and picked me up from her house," says Spencer. "If I have a problem, Barry is always there for me."
Later that week, Barry returns to Cinco Ranch to meet students for lunch. Five boys surround him at a luncheon table; the steady roar of banter fills the room. So does the smell of cheap, high-fat food, like potato chips and chocolate milk.
A freshman named Trevor Nelson belches and leans back in his chair, patting his stomach. The sandy-haired teenager co-leads a Bible study with Barry.
With Barry's prompting, the outgoing 15-year-old recruited 10 of his peers to join the study. Several of them are football teammates, whom Trevor approached in the locker room.
"You want to come to a Bible study?" Trevor asked a freshman named Josh, handing him a Cru flier.
"Wait a minute," said Josh. "Isn't Barry that guy who always brings pizza?"
"Yep," Trevor replied.
"I'm in," Josh said.
Barry and Laurie are always on the lookout for young leaders like Trevor -- they are key to reaching their peers. And along with them, they need older leaders: parents, teachers, coaches and college students. To find them, the couple has to be proactive.
While perusing a local Christian bookstore, Barry met Laura Koby, a college sophomore working the counter. After a short conversation, he asked, "Would you be interested in working with high-school girls?"
Laura now interns with Cru and is mentored by Laurie.
So far, the high school ministry in Houston has 4 interns, with plans to add 10 more in the next 2 years.
"College kids understand intrinsically where a high-school kid is coming from," points out Zeke Zeiler, who served for 22 years as director of the ministry in Houston and is now a regional director. "When a college kid speaks, they listen."
They don't always listen to Barry. He remembers one student literally running to get away from meeting with him. Teenagers are unpredictable, but Barry knows that.
"He challenged me to do things that scared me to death," says Howard Crutsinger, a former high-school student who was mentored by Barry. Today Howard works full time with Cru in Atlanta. "He definitely helped me realize my comfort zone is something I shouldn't live within."
While in high school, Howard told Barry, "I don't want to share my faith or speak in front of groups."
Soon after, Barry brought him on an evangelistic appointment and then coaxed him later to tell his peers at the weekly meeting how he became a Christian.
"There's not a lot in the Gospels about staying where you are and letting people come to you," says Barry. "When it comes to having an impact in other people's lives, Jesus says, 'go.'"
After all, God is an initiator. "He sent His son to the earth," says Barry. "Jesus sent the disciples."
His life's work keeps Barry on the move. Which isn't a bad thing, especially when someone flings a shoe his way.
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Do you have a heart for reaching inner city teens with the gospel? This ministry to middle and high schoolers reaches far beyond the school building into the families and communities they surround. Could God be calling you to join them?
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