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LINCOLN, NEB - 28 JUL 04 - Power Team member Jim Griffin (left) shrugs up 225 lbs. while working out with fellow Power Team member Jamie Morrison (right) Wednesday, July 28, 2004, at the Goodyear Gym.

As the curious crowd filled the pews at Glad Tidings Assembly of God Church, several people remarked that it didn't look much like a church.

Across the front of the sanctuary were stacks of concrete slabs balanced on concrete blocks, looking more like a construction site than a place of worship.

Then the Power Team - four superstrong body builders - took the stage. They doused the piles of concrete with Coleman fuel, then proceeded to break the blocks with their bare arms while flames leaped around them.

It looked like a scene from hell, but their message was all about heaven.

It was the first evening of a five-day crusade combining feats of physical strength with testimony about the strength of God.

About 400 people, including a lot of children and teenagers, attended Wednesday evening, and attendance was expected to increase each night of the crusade. The last two Power Team programs are at 7 tonight and 7 p.m. Sunday at the church at 70th and Vine streets.

Some of the feats were harder than they looked. Like when 260-pound Jim Griffin, who once held the title as the strongest man in Oklahoma, tried to blow up a hot water bottle until it popped.

Griffin huffed and puffed for what seemed an interminable time, slowly filling the tough rubber bottle with hot air. When it was about 10 times larger than his head and still hadn't burst, Griffin had to pause to catch his breath. The sweat was pouring off his face, while the crowd cheered him on. Finally, the bottle exploded like a big balloon.

Griffin, 44, is the oldest of the four team members in Lincoln this week, and also the oldest of the 18 Power Team members who travel nationwide throughout the year. The Dallas-based ministry schedules more than 100 five-day crusades in churches and more than 1,000 motivational programs in high schools each year.

The youngest of the team members visiting Lincoln is Matt Dopson, a 305-pound giant, who can leg press more than 2,000 pounds. Dopson played college football in North Carolina as a stand-out defensive lineman and now is a semi-pro player for the Central Alabama Renegades. The only single guy among the four team members here this week, Dopson said he sees himself as a role model for singles who "are keeping themselves pure for marriage."

Dopson drove the crowd wild Wednesday when he squeezed pop cans with his bare hands, spraying those in the front row with 7 UP.

"I love working with young people," he said. The crusades attract a lot of teenagers who "are drawn by the feats of strength, but they see our lifestyle," he said. He added that it's good for teens to see athletes who aren't into drugs, alcohol or sexual misbehavior.

The biggest team member here this week is Willie Raines, the "Human Freight Train," a 310-pounder who can bend steel bars with his bare hands and bench press more than 600 pounds.

Raines, from Georgia, told the crowd Wednesday how he was in a prison cell when he decided in 1995 to give his life to Christ. Since then, he has devoted his life to preaching, while showing off his muscles.

Raines snapped baseball bats in half and lifted more than 300 pounds on stage Wednesday evening.

"The feats of strength are just the bait to get people into the church," Raines said. "The real purpose is to preach the Gospel."

The day before arriving in Lincoln, Raines said he had "the privilege of preaching" at his mother's funeral. He said friends expected him to be sad about his mother's death, but he was joyful because he knew she was in heaven.

Jamie Morrison, 34, is vice-president of the Power Team board and the main speaker at the Lincoln crusade. "What we're trying to do is bring people to church that don't ordinarily come to church," he said.

Many people want to check out the Power Team, he said, because they've seen them on television. They've appeared on "Walker, Texas Ranger" and the "World's Strongest Man Competition" on ESPN.

Morrison, who can bench press 400 pounds, lives in St. Joseph, Mo., and brought his wife and two children along to Lincoln. Wednesday night, he tore telephone books in half, a feat which earned him the name "The Human Shredder."

He spoke directly to young people in the crowd, telling them they need to get a "good vision for your life." That includes having positive goals and treating oneself and others with respect, he said.

"It's a big man that treats his wife the way he should," he said. "It's not a man who can get drunk, it's not a man who can do a lot of drugs and get high. That doesn't make you big and tough. When you can say 'no' when everybody else is saying 'yes,' that's being tough."

As happens each night during a crusade, Wednesday evening's program ended with an altar call, asking people to come to the front of the church and make a commitment to Christ. About 100 people of all ages came forward.

Many who attended Wednesday said they enjoyed the program and planned to return on subsequent evenings to see more feats of strength and hear more preaching.

Some of the feats the team planned for later in the week included lifting a huge telephone pole, breaking concrete slabs with their heads and plowing through a wall of ice in a full-frontal run.

"It was great. I don't think we even knew what we were getting into," said Sheri Eichelberger," who came to the program with her son, Cameron, 12. They regularly attend Lincoln Berean Church.

Cameron said he liked the part when Griffin blew up the water bottle, but his mother said she liked the message, which emphasized relying on God rather than on one's own strength.

"I thought it was excellent," said Laura Rhoads, who attended with her husband, five children and her oldest son's wife. "It was a unique way to present the Gospel."

Morrison said people sometimes object to the circuslike atmosphere of their shows. "People say, 'What does breaking bricks have to do with Jesus?' But the feats of strength really get people's attention," he said. "When you get somebody's attention, you can get to their heart."

Sharon Anderson-Towery, a member of Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, attended with her two sons, Jason and Trey. Jason, 7, said he liked the fire at the beginning. "Doesn't that hurt?" he wondered.

His mother called the program "awesome."

"It was so unorthodox to combine powerlifting with the power of God," she said. "They showed you that through God's power, anything is possible."

The Power Team is supported entirely by donations. A suggested donation of $2 is requested at the door, and an additional offering is taken. Churches provide meals and lodging, but the team pays for its own transportation, explained Jon Stanley, the team's road manager.

Church crusades always have an openly Christian message, but when the team appears in public schools they give a motivational talk without reference to religion, he said. For more information, check the Web at www.thepowerteam.com.

Getting ready for a crusade requires a lot of preparation on the part of a church, said John Burpee, pastor at Glad Tidings. The church had to get 30 baseball bats, 4,000 pounds of ice, 30 phone books, nearly 1,000 concrete blocks, 30 steel bars and a telephone pole, among other supplies. Many were donated by local businesses.

Burpee said his church hosted the Power Team mainly to attract young people, and the high number of children and teens on Wednesday night proved it was successful.

"They're probably one of the best-known teams around to reach out to a group in our community that normally would not be reached - young people and young adults," Burpee said.

Reach Bob Reeves at 473-7212 or breeves@;journalstar.com.

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