Imagine black lights, thumping music, pool tables, and young people talking over the loud music. What do you picture – a bar, a party, or even a night club? Try again – it’s a Christian youth event. “Unconventional approach,” some might think. No, not really when considering the target audience. Who better to reach this generation’s youth than other young people? “Unleashed is a movement that has been taken beyond the pews of religion,” 21-year-old founder Donnie Mainellis said. He has taken to heart what Paul wrote to Timothy: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12, NIV). Donnie and his team at Unleashed have made it their mission to wake up this generation and as he put it to “make Jesus famous.”
Donnie grew up in a strong Christian home and attended church regularly, but as a teenager he wasn’t interested in being around the church. That didn’t stop his mother from praying for him or any of his friends he brought around. He was a lifeguard and got involved in the party scene, drinking and doing drugs. One evening after a long night of drinking and getting high, Donnie decided to do his first line of cocaine. Before he did, he looked over at his friend who was strung out on cocaine. “Something just happened in my heart and I saw myself when I looked at him,” Donnie said. He second guessed his decision to try another drug and told his friend, “There has got to be more to life than this.” Stories and scriptures his mom and dad told him went through his mind and he felt his life flash before his eyes. There were so many times he could have died or gotten arrested. Donnie said, “God, if You’re real, show me right now.” God sobered him up immediately. He made a decision then and there and told his friend, “Today is the day that I’m changing; I can’t do this anymore.” From that day forward, Donnie gave his life to God. He repented of his ways and never looked back.
Soon after his change of heart, Donnie began having services in his living room worshipping with his mom, Shelly Riker, and other close friends. They invited people to join them and before they knew it 60 people were crammed in his house. The weekly event became known as Unleashed and it was obvious they needed a new place to gather. In July 2009, Pastor Chuck Hodge of Community Worship Center helped Unleashed to begin holding their meetings at Onething Prayer Center in Brandon. God called Donnie to speak to the growing crowds and told him, “I need you for this hour to stand and do whatever I call you to do.” Despite his fear of speaking in front of people, Donnie answered the call. He humbly said, “I’m just a lifeguard that God woke up one day.” Donnie realized that God will literally use anybody for His Kingdom work, if they will only make themselves available to Him. Within six months, Unleashed moved to another room in the center. After six more months, they outgrew that space as well.
The time came to find a new facility for the ever-growing ministry. Donnie and his team found a space that would work perfectly, but the rent would be more than they paid before. They were about to sign the lease when the Holy Spirit prompted Donnie to hold off. The next day he received a call from Pastor Burnard Scott at The Crossing Church. The church had a newly refurbished facility for the youth department and they wanted to offer the space to Unleashed every Thursday. This included the equipment for lights, sound, and video. The Crossing Church became a vital partner of the Unleashed movement. God had a plan all along for the fast-paced success of Unleashed, and Donnie slowed down long enough to hear the voice of the Lord. For that, the ministry has been and will continue to be blessed beyond measure. Today anywhere from 200 to 1,200 people come out for Unleashed events with virtually no advertising. They also hold five major events during these times of year: Spring Break, Summer, Back to School, Halloween, and New Year’s Eve.
Unleashed – The Movement
“Billy Graham’s association did a survey that said 90% of people after the age of 18 would not return to church,” Donnie said. Undoubtedly there are many reasons for this, but several have shared with the Unleashed team that they felt judged, unaccepted, or simply did not fit in because they couldn’t identify with the message or the style of the church. So Donnie and the Unleashed team strive to change the way people see Christianity. They are presenting the Gospel in a radical way and sharing the redemption found in Jesus. “We believe that doing worship the way we are doing, we’re not only going to get the 18-30 year olds (the 90% that is being missed), we’re also going to get that 10% to answer the call and stand up for Jesus. We want to reach everybody,” Donnie explained.
He made it clear that Unleashed is not a church; rather, it is a movement. As Donnie and the rest of the Unleashed team see it, the time has come that we as believers need to stand together and influence the world around us and not allow the world to influence us. This movement isn’t about what you look like, what clothes you wear, where you go to church, or even how you worship. Unleashed seeks to bring together the lost as well as believers of every denomination to unite for one cause: wake up this generation to the truth, the way, and the life that is Jesus Christ.
Unleashed has reached thousands of people, impacting the youth, young adults, pastors, drug addicts, parents, and many who would still be lost today if they hadn’t attended. Each week hundreds excitedly gather to worship the Father, hungry for the Word. The club-type atmosphere is not what you would expect for a Christian event, but the presence of the Holy Spirit is undeniable. The facility opens every Thursday at 7:30 p.m. for foosball, pool, and catching up with friends. In its midst are kids in middle school, high school, college, and even adults hanging out and moving to the beat of the music. A familiar song to the crowd comes on and they rush to the double doors leading into the main room. People are jumping up and down with their hands in the air, smiling. The doors open and the crowd rushes to the stage. The energy in that space is unreal.
A clock starts counting down five minutes before the “Hype Service” begins. A light show by Ken Boyd ensues as Pac Man, the DJ, gets the crowd fired up with the “Crunk Team.” People are yelling “fired up” and “sold out,” still jumping up and down. It’s like a mosh pit in front of the stage. Next KAS, the in-house rapper, takes the stage and the crowd goes wild. Their hands are waving in the air as they shout the lyrics. KAS said, “Every week I just come and use my gifts through hip hop to encourage and influence the youth in a positive way.” Whether you’re a fan of hip hop or not, you sense the Spirit of God and feel connected to the excitement. The band joins the stage and the crowd lifts their hands high in worship and the presence of the Lord thickens. The lead singer, Wes Gillett, has an amazing voice and keeps the audience flowing in worship. The idea behind this type of worship is clearly successful – God is moving in the hearts of all who are in attendance.
The event flows seamlessly from one segment to the next. Bruce “Bam Bam” Miller comes on stage to share some announcements and gives an opportunity for a love offering. The funds are used to keep Unleashed free of charge as well as to support disaster relief efforts across the world. Donnie runs on stage pumped to give a relevant and illustrated message. KAS said the first time he came to Unleashed he was blown away and “couldn’t take his eyes off the stage.” As for Donnie’s word, “It was comic, it was funny, it was honest, it was real, it was hardcore, and it was straight to the bone,” KAS shared. Drama and skits are intertwined with Donnie’s message, along with video and soundtracks. The skits portray situations that many youth face every day like partying, drinking, and doing drugs. Music plays in the background and you see the emptiness around this type of lifestyle.
Donnie shares scriptures that awaken the crowd to the fact that Jesus loves us and He loves us unconditionally. His message seeks to break down the barriers and perceptions of who God the Father and Jesus Christ are. Donnie teaches that it is only by grace that we are saved – it can’t be earned. It has already been freely given. He illuminates the fact that we don’t have to hold on to the guilt and shame of our past and that we don’t have to continue living empty lifestyles because Jesus can and will transform all who are willing. Donnie shares his own personal testimony with the crowd – these people can relate to his message on so many levels. The Unleashed team is piercing hearts with their message because the words hit home, the drama hits home, and the songs hit home. Donnie not only does an altar call and walks the new believers through the salvation prayer, but also puts out a call to become unashamed of Jesus and join the movement. Donnie challenged the audience to be leaders and make a difference right where they are – on their school campuses, at their jobs, wherever their sphere of influence is. He told the crowd, “Jesus died for me; the least I can do is live for Him.”
God has gifted this young man to inspire all who hear his messages. Parents and pastors have thanked Donnie and his team for the impact they have had on their youth. Donnie knows how to “light a fire” under mature Christians and new believers alike, including those of his ministry team. Unleashed is comprised of young people that believe in the movement and many of them, according to Donnie, have come out of some of the craziest situations. They have laid down drugs, alcohol, and other addictions to follow Jesus. Donnie said, “God is rocking their life – Damascus road, a Saul to Paul moment – and He is changing their lives and using them in this ministry.”
Bam Bam shared that he fell away from the church when he was 17 years old and got involved with drugs and partying all the time. He said, “I had nothing going for me. I felt like I shouldn’t turn back to God because I turned my back on Him.” Bam Bam came to Unleashed and felt welcomed and loved. It literally transformed his life and he recommitted himself to God that very night. Chad Lee, another volunteer said of Unleashed, “It ignited a fire in me.” Donnie’s whole team is made up of 50 volunteers who dedicate several hours every week to plan and prepare for each event. His core leadership team consists of six guys and six ladies. “We are raising up these 12 leaders to go out and get in groups of 10,” Donnie said. The 12 leaders invest in those 10 people every day, encouraging them so that they, too, will go out and change the world for Christ one person at a time.
The Unleashed team’s guiding Scripture is Jeremiah 33:3, which says, “Call to Me, and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty things, which you do not know” (NKJV). It’s powerful to Donnie; he said, “We stand on that verse with everything that is inside of us.” God has shown Donnie the great and mighty things He has in store. Donnie’s vision for Unleashed is big! He spoke of creating moments in all the major cities across America and in venues like Madison Square Garden. But first, Unleashed will conquer Tampa Bay, and they intend to pack out the USF Sun Dome and the Amphitheatre with worshippers. Donnie said, “We want to wake up this generation and let people know Jesus is real!” Donnie went on to say, “There will be a day where we will worship in the streets, and we will worship in cities, and we will worship on lawns, and we are going to do it for the whole world to see. We will make a stand for God and all the news [outlets] will watch.”
Donnie knows in his heart that God chose him and the Unleashed team to stand in one of the toughest times mankind has seen to bring people to Jesus. “God chose us to wake up America and we’re going to do it.” Donnie said, “God is just looking for somebody crazy enough, wild enough, and passionate enough to do it. We’re crazy enough, wild enough, and passionate enough to believe He will use the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.” They will not be deterred because of their age, but have decided to set an example for believers just as Paul wrote, by the way that they live, the way that they worship, and the way that they bring people to Christ.
Unleashed is the most relevant and successful attempt Overflow has seen to reach our city’s youth. We believe in their mission and we stand with Unleashed to wake up this city, to wake up this country, and to wake up the world to Jesus Christ. Will you stand too? Will you be unashamed for Jesus? Will you help Unleashed wake up this generation?