It's a Sunday in mid-August at Ogren-Allegiance Park, and Michael Burks has the look of a manager. His head pokes out of the dugout, one leg up on a step, and he leans forward, rests his arms on one knee and strokes his goatee as he stares out onto the field in anticipation.
Burks isn't watching baseball. He's listening to a band perched on a stage over the pitcher's mound finishing its sound check. Once it does, a band member asks the audience of roughly 1,200 to join the band in prayer. The stadium falls silent, and Burks drops his head into his hands, appearing to mumble to himself. And then the band, a group of Christian musicians Burks cobbled together to open for the headliners, launches into a few catchy Christian rock tunes that, according to Burks, everyone knows.
Burks, 41, is tall and fit, energetic and affable. A baby-blue bandana covers his buzzed head and sunglasses conceal his eyes. He wears torn and frayed jeans and a tight black T-shirt with an elaborate design and the embroidered words "Rebel Spirit." He doesn't look much like the typical businessman, but, in fact, he's one of Missoula's most successful—a multi-millionaire who owns eight businesses in the state.
How Burks uses those businesses and his wealth stands out almost as much as his appearance: He's intent on promoting a message of faith in Jesus Christ, and doing so on a large scale. It's part of the reason he helped to bring Sarah Palin to Missoula for a Sept. 12 fundraiser to benefit Teen Challenge, a faith-based organization for young women, and why he's hosting the Christian rock concert at the ballpark.
"The Christian community, we couldn't do what we're able to do without somebody like him, somebody who has the wherewithal to do it," says Pastor Keith Mobley, a member of the Missoula Christian Network, about Burks.
At the rock concert, Burks takes the opportunity to speak to his target audience. After the opening band finishes its set, he announces the Newsboys, a Grammy Award-nominated Christian rock band, will soon take the stage. Then, he starts to preach.
- Photo by Chad Harder
- Michael Burks leads a prayer before a Christian rock concert at Ogren-Allegiance Park on August 15. The concert and worship service had been planned for the Western Montana Fair, but the Freedom From Religion Foundation complained it would violate the separation of church and state. “I want people at the fairgrounds to hear you singing ‘Amazing Grace’ to almightily God that is in charge of this city!” Burks told the crowd.
"Get up, stand up, stretch your legs, and let's worship God," he says.
The audience rises and Burks attempts to recreate, as he would explain days later, an experience he had with a Christian organization for men called the Promise Keepers.
"Right now I want every guy in the house to close your eyes," Burks commands. "Every single person, close your eyes. I want you to forget about every problem you have. I want you to forget about school, work, money, marriage, kids—whatever's going in your life right now that's keeping you away from having a relationship with God. I want you to forget about it. Because fear is not of God. Worry is not of God. So right now I need you to just take a huge, deep breath and let it all go."
As Burks speaks the opening band's guitar player quietly strums the notes to "Amazing Grace." Burks then tells the men to concentrate while he talks to the women in the audience.
"Ladies...I want you to think of at least one man in your life who needs prayer—a father, husband, son, uncle, boyfriend, just a friend—who needs prayer to walk the walk, needs prayer to be strong in school, to be strong at work, to absolutely not falter on his walk to be with Christ. Just concentrate on that person or persons right now."
Burks returns to the men.
"Men, I need you to stand up...I need you to tilt your head toward the heavens right now, eyes closed. I need you to picture the throne of God up there and him looking down at you. You're the only person in this stadium right now, and I need you to be looking right at him. I need you to lift at least one hand to almighty God right now. Don't be weirded out, don't be afraid, don't be thinking I'm some crazy guy. I want you to take everything you have right now and give it to God. While you're doing this, what I'm going to have you do—and I want all of Missoula to hear this, because we had a battle this week—I want all of Missoula to hear every man in this stadium sing 'Amazing Grace.'
"I want God to hear a joyful noise," he continues, "while your women are praying for your strength and salvation."
Burks looks out over the audience as the men quietly sing the song. The band joins in and then takes the lead. After they finish, Burks announces the Newsboys will be up next.
Minutes later the Newsboys, a foursome of skinny-jeaned, pious pop rockers, take to the stage to raucous applause. The first song's opening notes rile the concertgoers to their feet, hands waving. Under the uproar Burks retreats back down into the dugout. His work, for now, is done.
The "battle" Burks mentioned during his impromptu sermon referred to the controversy that forced him to have the concert—and the worship service preceding it—at the baseball stadium, not at the Western Montana Fair as originally planned. A Wisconsin-based group known as the Freedom From Religion Foundation complained that a free worship service at the county-run fair would violate the separation of church and state. The county relented and asked Burks to move the events. That's why the crowd hollered in approval when Burks said on stage, "I want people at the fairgrounds to hear you singing 'Amazing Grace' to almightily God that is in charge of this city!" It's also why Newsboys frontman Michael Tait defiantly exclaimed after a couple songs, "They tried to stop us, but we're going to do this concert anyway!"