PIKEVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- Evangelist Rick Gage fills football stadiums just as full as the Rev. Billy Graham does. It's just that the stadiums are much smaller.
Gage takes his crusades to the small towns other preachers see only from the air -- as they fly over en route to appearances in big cities.
''God has just burdened my heart to take the Gospel message to the small towns of America,'' Gage says. ''I'm preaching the same message in those towns that Billy Graham has been preaching in large cities.''
Like Graham, Gage is a Southern Baptist. He preaches the same Gospel, offers the same invitation to would-be believers, and, like other evangelists, sees lines of people walk toward his pulpit to accept.
The difference is in scale. In the towns where Gage preaches, the largest gathering place is often the bleachers around the local high school football field.
Gage recently visited Pikeville, a town of 6,500 in the Appalachian Mountains, where local pastors say he sparked a religious revival in four nights of preaching. The football stadium, which holds about 2,500, was packed.
Some 1,000 people, most of them teens from local high schools, responded to his invitation to accept Jesus Christ as their savior or to rededicate their lives to him.
First Baptist Church Pastor Paul Badgett said Pikeville never had such a successful crusade before. Baptist congregations say the same in other places where Gage has preached: Center, Texas; London, Ky.; Appling County, Ga.; Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Gage, 43, has led more than 500 small-town crusades across the nation, and says he has seen about 250,000 people dedicate their lives to Jesus.
''The small towns are wide open to evangelism, and I really believe my calling is to these towns,'' he said.
Rick Stanley, a fellow evangelist and stepbrother of Elvis Presley, has spoken at four Graham crusades, and assisted Gage in the Pikeville meetings.
''Rick Gage has a heart for the towns that most people overlook,'' Stanley said. ''His mentality is that there's nothing small in the kingdom of God.''
Outdoor crusades, once popular, now are unusual in small towns, even in the Bible Belt. Sometimes evangelists stop in and preach at individual churches, but seldom do they pull dozens of churches together in one location as Gage does.
A Texas native who now lives in Atlanta, Gage is the son of a Baptist evangelist.
He never expected to follow his father's footsteps, instead opting for a career as a football coach. After he graduated from Cameron University in Lawton, Okla., he held assistant coaching positions at West Texas State University, Texas Tech and Liberty University before going into full-time evangelism.
''I was climbing that coaching ladder, but my life was empty,'' Gage said. ''Really, I was on the road to self destruction. I had turned my back on God and turned my back on church and lived a life doing things I wanted to do. My God was football.''
That began to change on a Sunday night when he attended a crusade where evangelist James Robison of Fort Worth was preaching.
''I knelt down and asked God to save me and change me,'' he said. ''I was like a thief being caught robbing a bank. I gave up. I surrendered my life to Christ totally and completely. For the first time in my life, the Bible became real to me. I couldn't put that book down.''
Gage remained a football coach for several years, but later made a commitment to evangelism. His first efforts were on the streets of Dallas, talking with people individually about Jesus.
In the months before Gage arrived in Pikeville, local churches promoted the crusade. Billboards went up around town. Radio ads began to air. Talk in grocery stores, doctor's office waiting rooms, and high school hallways turned to the event.
After the first service, a stream of new believers began flowing out of the bleachers. People made their way across the football field, tears streaming down their faces, to pray for forgiveness.
''The spirit of God really descended on this place,'' said Mark Walz, chaplain at Pikeville Methodist Hospital.
On the Net:
Rick Gage Ministries: http://www.rickgageministries.com/
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