World's strongest evangelist: Teens are key to anti-bullying, suicide prevention efforts

by Karen L. Willoughby |

TOCCOA, Ga. (Christian Examiner) -- He had at least one friend, this high school senior in a small town in Texas. That friend beamed and gave him a high five after he was part of a group lying motionless on the gym floor while a BMX stunt performer jumped over them during a school assembly.

But the two were surrounded by a clique of classmates that had bullied him for years, and who heckled him even in this bright moment. Two days later -- only two weeks before graduation -- the senior drove his car into the woods and shot himself.

"There are too many teenagers committing suicide," said Steve Paysen, who saw the senior celebrating just as he was about to speak to the crowd. "What should have been a happy moment turned into an ugly moment, again.

Paysen is a youth specialist and student consultant with more than 20 years of mentoring and counseling young people and working with groups to help teens, and he is an evangelist. Anti-bullying is one of the topics Paysen stresses to students, along with making right choices, good decisions that won't imperil their young futures.

"I don't know anything about this young man. I heard on the Sunday after, that he had committed suicide," Paysen continued. "But here there was a crusade in town where hope could be found, and maybe he was on his way to finding it, when he was stomped on again."

Nobody stomps on Paysen. He is 6 feet tall, weighs 250 pounds, and at age 47 bench-presses double his body weight. The 500 pound mark is an elite standard among weight lifters.

"I do it to connect with the younger generation," Paysen told Christian Examiner. "It's part of my life story. I was always the strongest kid in my class, in middle school and in high school. I tell kids now that though I was strong physically, I was weak on the inside."

Paysen talks with elementary and secondary students at schools across the nation. He is frequently part of Evangelist Rick Gage's GO TELL Crusades and Camps, and he also has a ministry organization, "P230 Foundation" – a reference to Philippians 2:30 about giving your all to Christ in service to others -- that leads mission trips and plants churches in third world countries.

Preaching the Gospel is not allowed in public schools, but presenting a message on the importance of having a good character is, Paysen said. "We ask permission to do everything. The school assemblies give us an opportunity to share a valid message of character, education and values, which are desperately needed in our public schools."

When a GO TELL Crusade is taking place in a town, Paysen asks permission to invite students at the school assembly to come to a bigger stunt show, typically with free pizza and soft drinks, that usually precedes the last night of the crusade. There are no hidden "catches" or quid pro quo for watching the show and eating the food; the students and their parents know the youth event is held in conjunction with a religious service.

"I tell them the story of a 12-year-old boy, who based his choices on what was popular and what made him look cool," Paysen said. "That was my story. I was surrounded by Christians who never shared the Gospel, but they shared a joint, or a beer. All my Christian friends tried to send me to Hell."

For a dozen years he lived that life, until one day he woke up with an empty whiskey bottle still in his hand, after passing out watching a football game on television. The program that was on when he came to was a Billy Graham Crusade special.

"I didn't hear the sermon," Paysen said. "I woke up to the invitation to receive Jesus and receive hope in my life.

"I was very hopeless and very hungry for hope," said the man whose spiritual strength now matches his physical brawn. "I was ready to end my life. I had tried everything the world had to offer, and found no hope, until I heard Billy Graham."

In time Paysen became a youth minister until 20 years later he was called into full-time evangelism. That was two years ago. It is his passion to share hope with the 35 million teenagers in the United States today.

Suicide is a major issue with them just as it was with him, Paysen said.

"Teenagers commit suicide because they have tried everything the world has offered them," the evangelist said. "They're skeptical of religion -- Christianity -- mostly because of Christians, and they get frustrated when they continue to try things that don't work and don't fulfill them, don't satisfy them.

"The results of those things -- drinking, drugs, sex -- is guilt and shame. They try popularity and see how shallow it is. All those things fail them, and when you include the breakdown of the family that has also failed them, you've got a very jaded view of the world."

Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among young people from 10 to 24 years old, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It accounts for about 4,600 deaths among this age group each year.

While there are no hard and fast statistics linking bullying to suicide, Melissa Reeves, a school psychologist and expert on bullying, told NBCNews.com harassment by peers can be a "big factor" in youth suicide.

"When they really get to a sense of hopelessness and helplessness, you know, where they see no other way out of this particular situation, then, unfortunately that is when we do see completed suicides," said Reeves, chair of a National Association of School Psychologists' Prepare Working Group on Crisis Prevention and Intervention.

Paysen said that is a strong motivation for speaking at schools -- to inspire students to be bold, to stand up for each other and to encourage one another.

His passion for Christian youth is to get them to see their responsibility is for everyone in their school and not just the circle of friends in their church group. He said they are the ones with the best opportunity to reach their generation -- that they need to develop compassion for classmates, and to care enough, too, to share the Gospel.

"We have to remind young people that if they don't reach their friends, no one else will," Paysen continued. "It's not just transferring information," he said. "We have to raise the bar of expectations," and that requires intentional training and accountability about sharing the hope of the Gospel.

The weightlifting he does at schools is a gift God has given him to get peoples' attention long enough to tell his story of getting back on track by making right choices, the strong man said.

His major point is that the wrong road never leads to the right destination, Paysen said.

He challenges churches to care enough about their youth to prepare them to serve as active members, and then to care enough about area youth to send their teens out to minister to them.

"Too often the church is more focused on the teenagers sitting in the pews, the chairs, than the ones who are not," Paysen said. "And the ones sitting there are not being challenged to go out and reach their community of teenagers.

"I'm going to Nicaragua in a couple of weeks," Paysen said. "When you think in a missional way, you know Nicaraguans are better at reaching their people than outsiders. I'm going to help them do that.

"By the same token," he continued, "I'm 47 years old. I have to do a bunch of crazy things to reach teenagers. Teenagers reach teenagers because they are teenagers."

The key is to help students in the church understand that they have a life story, and that "the" Story of their life can help their friends find hope in the chaos of the teen years.

"Every Christian has a story," Paysen said, "and all we're called to do is share our story."