Naysayers told Jonny Nelson that he was being too ambitious when he suggested starting a skateboard-park ministry. After all, he was only 16.¶ But when it comes to promoting God, Nelson figures that there's no such thing as being too ambitious. That's why, just five years later, he has incorporated his Twin Cities ministry into a nonprofit organization and signed deals to go on the road with two national evangelical missions this summer, including a stop in St. Paul with the Billy Graham tour. He doesn't tell doubters, "I told you so." "Truth be told," he confessed, "there is no way this should have worked out. There I am, a 16-year-old, and I had no idea what I was doing."

As it turns out, he knew more than he gives himself credit for. He knew that he had a passion for spreading the gospel, he knew that he had a knack for action sports and he knew that there had to be a way to connect the two. The result is JSAW -- Jesus, Snow, Asphalt and Water -- a ministry aimed at young people who share his love of skateboarding, snowboarding and wakeboarding.

"Boarding is a huge culture in and of itself," said Nelson, of Excelsior, who recently got a bachelor's degree in youth ministry. "Boarding is something that a lot of kids relate to, and that gives us a connection with them. It gives us a common language."

He will be speaking that language on the Graham association's Rock the River Tour as it works its way up the Mississippi River, starting in Baton Rouge, La., July 18 and ending on Harriet Island Aug. 16. Between those gigs, he'll join the Love it Loud tour, a similar music-centered evangelical road trip that starts in Colorado and goes west. He'll set up portable skateboard parks.

"We'll skate a little and preach a little," he said.

It's the same formula he uses for the combined Bible study/skateboarding sessions he hosts in the Twin Cities. A recent weekly gathering at the Urban Hub skateboard park in south Minneapolis drew about a dozen boarders, a typical turnout, Nelson said. They skated for two hours, stopped for a Bible lesson, ate a quick dinner and then hit the ramps again.

"Jonny is a great guy," said boarder Will Keogh, 16. "I met him at a skateboard park about a year ago. I'm here for the skating and the Bible lesson, the whole thing."

A division of labor

Randy Monroe has never been on a skateboard, and he plans to keep it that way. But the 44-year-old businessman volunteered to handle the financial side of JSAW because he saw the potential in using skateboards as a ministry tool. He recently moved from the Twin Cities to St. Louis, but he's staying on the team.

"I knew Jonny through his parents," Monroe said. "My family was looking for some way to get involved in youth ministry, and he had this great idea. We decided to do the outreach together."

Monroe concentrates on fundraising while Nelson does his thing.

"It works out great because I don't have to worry about the business side," Nelson said. "I can get out and skate and work on building relationships. I don't have to worry about losing my focus, which is on the kids and ministering to them."

A lot of ministries believe they exist through the providence of God, but JSAW can cite a real, if indirect, connection. Nelson and Monroe were trying to figure out how to get a foot in the door at the Billy Graham Evangelical Association (BGEA) when Monroe was sitting at a stoplight in St. Louis and was rear-ended by a car driven by Billy Graham's grandson.

"We didn't make the connection at first," Nelson said. "Randy called and said he'd been hit by a guy named Will Graham. And we said, 'You don't suppose ... '"

The fender-bender is a great story, but they are part of the Rock the River tour on the basis of merit, not a dent, said Jeff Anderson, director of Crusade Ministries for the BGEA.

"Our goal with Rock the River is to reach out to teens, and JSAW is a perfect partner for us in that mission," he said. "Their blend of extreme sports and heartfelt ministry have impacted so many young people already, and that impact will be further magnified as they entertain and challenge teens at Rock the River in August."

Monroe takes no salary; Nelson gets only a small one. He has made sure that his fiancée -- who's also studying for a degree in youth ministry -- knows that they're never likely to be rich.

"Sometimes people will ask me if I ever plan on getting a real job with benefits," he said. "That doesn't matter to me. This is what I love to do. This is what God called me to do. If I got a bigger paycheck, well, that would be cool. But I'd probably end up putting it all back into the ministry anyway."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392