It’s Sunday evening in a residential neighborhood near Seattle’s university district, and young people are hanging out around a building’s entrance, giggling, chatting, swapping tales of the weekend. On a folding table just inside are cookies, brownies, and juice, while another table displays books, videos, and CDs. It looks like any other gathering among Seattle’s extensive café society.
But as 6 p.m. nears, after swiping a treat, or maybe flipping through a book, they grab a program and filter inside. It’s dark, a sensual, evocative darkness, with the stage bathed only in candlelight. There’s a band up there, with seven musicians dressed in jeans, flannel shirts, overalls. As they begin playing, the lyrics are projected onto a large screen behind them:
- From the formulas
And thoughts that chain my mind…
From the appetites that leave my life undone
From indifference of the heart…
From abuses of our power
From injustice and the systems that devour…
Save my soul
The young audience consists of men in baseball caps and jeans and women in tiny T-shirts, chunky-heeled shoes, and deep, dramatic lipstick. Some sing and sway to the music. A few close their eyes in concentration. The singer, his eyes closed, gently cups the microphone as the band’s instruments clash and shudder. Without any mention of God, the song rouses the crowd.
This is the beginning of the first of two services held every Sunday night at Mars Hill Fellowship, a nondenominational, fundamentalist, self-described “postmodern ministry” founded in 1996 by 27-year-old Mark Driscoll. It is one of approximately 150 such ministries that have sprouted up around the country since 1992 designed to do nothing less than rescue a generation from an un-Christian fate.
How do the movement’s young leaders intend to stem what they see as an increase in secularism? By preaching that God is relevant and church is cool. Postmodern leaders walk effortlessly between the secular and religious worlds, talking about the new Radiohead album in one breath, Jesus in the next. They are dynamic and approachable. And don’t tell this new breed of preachers that they’re marketing religion. They say market research is the domain of baby boomer megachurches, and point out that their churches don’t advertise—the extraordinary growth has come strictly from word-of-mouth.
And yet subtly, brilliantly, it’s all part of the sell. Postmoderns repeat the word “authentic” like a mantra. They seize on the tenets of Generation X—ennui, skepticism, cynicism—and use them as a way to attract members. Song lyrics portray a generation unanchored; politics go unmentioned; dysfunctional families are mourned. And almost all the churches are located near colleges, with a ready-made population that craves acceptance. Shanna Lewis, 19, a sophomore at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, says she faced a hard choice when deciding between becoming active in the nearby postmodern University Baptist Church and joining a sorority (“I prayed about it and God said, ‘I have something that will fulfill you more,'” says Lewis, who chose University Baptist).
Will this new, goateed face of fundamentalism lead to a younger, broader, and more powerful base for the religious right? Postmoderns say no; they remain resolutely uninterested in politics. And yet, exactly what message are these churches sending?
It’s the Sunday before Easter and, after the rock band finishes a few songs, Driscoll begins preaching about the importance of quiet and reflection during the week before the holiest of Christian holidays. He’s a man of craggy good looks; his face is lined with stubble and his short hair is gelled. Wearing black jeans and a white shirt, he paces before the altar, microphone in hand, tossing out questions like a talk-show host.
“I was raised in a family that went to church, but I had no understanding of what Easter actually meant,” Driscoll begins. “It was like Lincoln’s birthday or the day Neil Armstrong landed on the moon.” The audience laughs. Driscoll comes from a working-class Irish Catholic family. As a kid growing up in Seattle, he says, he was always getting into fights. When it was time to go to college, he chose Washington State University. “The university I attended was pretty isolated so I had two choices: either become a binge drinker or a Christian.”
While a student, Driscoll had a vision that he should start a church for his generation. Without a plan—financial or otherwise—he and his wife, Grace, moved back to Seattle, a city he claims is the “most unchurched in America.” Driscoll, who has a bachelor’s degree in communications, started his congregation with a dozen people who came to his house to study the Bible. Today, Mars Hill counts 800 members.
In many ways it is a model church—its numbers continue to grow, its leader is popular and charismatic. How does Driscoll keep attracting members? “We don’t do Evangelicalism, but we are a mission,” Driscoll says. “We don’t do door-knocking, we invite people into the community. They need to join us and experience Him—over meals, in worship.”
The postmoderns have little, if anything, in common with academic postmodern philosophy (whose father, Nietzsche, famously pronounced, “God is dead”). Driscoll says his movement seeks to synthesize the best parts of many religious traditions—fundamentalist Christian liturgy, Catholicism’s appreciation of art, and mainline Protestantism’s general cultural tolerance. Also, postmoderns preach the sanctity of community and argue that the Enlightenment’s focus on the individual led to tragedies specific to the baby boom generation—namely, high divorce and abortion rates.
“For financial reasons or whatever, the parents of Gen Xers put their lives ahead of their children’s,” says Lief Moi, 35, a leader at Mars Hill and the co-host, with Driscoll, of “Street Talk,” a nationally syndicated Christian radio show. By playing the “dysfunctional family” card, Moi, Driscoll, and others implicitly coax young people to turn to church as a place where they can experience the family and fellowship they missed out on as a kid. The church then becomes appealing to college students for the same reasons that fraternities and sororities are: instant community.
The postmoderns’ relationship with the baby boomer megachurch movement, meanwhile, is somewhat like a young adult desperate to be independent from Mom and Dad—but still relying on them for rent.
Sprawling, mostly nondenominational, and market-driven, megachurches have ushered in the post-traditional age of American religion during the last 20 years. There are more than 1,000 megachurches in the United States, most of which not only function as places of worship but also offer a panoply of services, including support groups that deal with substance abuse and marital strife, along with recreational activities, such as aerobics classes choreographed to Christian rock. For overworked parents, megachurches are seven-day-a-week havens, with childcare and educational programs available for their kids.
Postmoderns receive crucial support—financial and otherwise—from the megachurches. These postmodern ministries are loosely organized by the Leadership Network, a Dallas-based umbrella group for many of the nation’s megachurches. It’s the Leadership Network that keeps Driscoll’s bohemian Mars Hill ministry in touch with the fast-growing, but more traditional, University Baptist Church in Waco by holding conferences and seminars. For the past three years the network has sponsored national conferences that bring together postmodern leaders. The first one attracted nearly 300, the second 500, and the next one, this fall in New Mexico, is expected to draw 1,000.
The network also helps arrange necessary seed money, for example, setting up key contributions from megachurches for the University Baptist ministry in Waco. “We target young, innovative ministries because they are the future of the church,” says Doug Pagitt, 31, of the Leadership Network.
So what’s in it for the megachurches? Reaching a new generation, says Pagitt. Eventually, churches like Mars Hill will continue their growth and splinter, with younger leaders taking over the job of ministering to twentysomethings. Ideally, this pattern will continue over and over again. Says Pagitt: “The great commandment is to make more disciples.”
By setting themselves up against their elders, postmoderns are ingeniously adding an anti-establishment spirit to their movement. “I really preach; it’s not just three points to a better self-esteem,” Driscoll says. “Megachurches have perfect services with perfect lighting. We’re a friggin’ mess.” Driscoll delivers his sermons largely off-the- cuff, and refuses to follow a point-by-point outline like most pastors at megachurches do. “I’m very confrontational,” he says, “not some pansy-ass therapist.”
Other ministers make the same distinction, including Todd Rodarmel, who decided to start his own postmodern church after Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain committed suicide in 1994. (“I realized that this man was the hero of my generation,” he says. “Someone who shot himself in the head! It really shook me up. It made me realize that we needed more leaders.”) Formerly a youth pastor at a megachurch near Irvine, California, Rodarmel also holds worship services every Sunday morning at the cheapest deserted location he could find—a local bar. “Megachurches are cheesy,” he says. “It’s like that R.E.M. song, ‘Shiny Happy People.’ There’s a lot of pretension and pretending.”
Authenticity is also the main attraction of a Portland, Oregon, church run by Paul Anderson, 34, who ministers solely to skateboarders. “These kids need love, but their parents don’t spend time with them and they are left alone to do whatever,” says Anderson, who founded his ministry in 1987, and now serves about 150 kids, providing them with a space to practice their moves. “It’s kind of like putting cheese out for mice,” he says in a video for postmodern ministries. “They’re not primarily coming because they want to hear about God. They’re coming because they want to skate these ramps.”
“There are gays all over our church and I don’t need to yell at them like the religious right,” Driscoll says. “You can be a gay or punk and we’ll treat you like everybody else. Even if you never become a Christian, we’re still friends.”
Mars Hill is all about acceptance. Compared to the religious right’s favorite son Ralph Reed, a vision of fundamentalist zeal in a blue suit, Driscoll seems downright countercultural. He’s unabashed about using the pulpit to discuss sex. “I speak very frankly about the reasons God made our bodies to experience orgasm, the Bible’s approval of oral sex between a husband and wife,” he says. “Once you’re married and as long as you remain monogamous, God tells his children to be unblushingly erotic and passionate.”
He offers classes at church on topics such as “evangelical feminism” (“the Bible is clear that men and women are both created by God in His image and likeness and totally equal in every way,” he says) and disavows any link with conservative politics. “I used to think it was part of Christianity to be conservative,” he says. “I was further right than Falwell and Limbaugh.” Now he says he doesn’t even vote. What changed? “It got boring,” he says with a shrug. “And I realized that politics didn’t change anything, that in the meantime, people were still starving.”
This is Driscoll at his most charismatic: when he’s speaking about compassion, and deriding politics. He’s so good it’s easy to forget that his fundamentalist beliefs—and the politics attached to those beliefs—are actually the same as Ralph Reed’s. Postmoderns might never march alongside Operation Rescue, but they are vigilantly anti-abortion. Premarital sex is out of the question. And no matter how many homosexuals they welcome into their church, they still consider homosexuality wrong. They might love the sinners and hate the sin, but they talk a lot more about loving the sinners.
Driscoll says one of his best friends is gay. “When I found out, I cried. And then I made a deal with him. I said, ‘I’ll go to a gay bar with you if you come to church with me.’ So there I was in a bar with country-western drag queens! “I just told the guys I met there that I loved them. That yes, they are sinners and they needed to come to God and then their sexuality would take care of itself,” he says. “I think we’re all screwed up, some of us are just better at hiding it.”
From nine to midnight each Saturday night, Driscoll sits with Moi in a studio high above downtown Seattle, where the two host “Street Talk,” which is broadcast to 16 stations around the country. The show is the brainchild of Moi, who has hosted it for six years.
Tonight’s topic is “The American Dream and Postmodernity: Is There Hope for the Future?” and for the first 15 minutes Moi and Driscoll toss out questions and debate them: Can one be a Christian and be an upwardly mobile capitalist? How can young people reconcile Christian tenets such as service, charity, and community with American ideals such as individualism?
“Some of us haven’t given ourselves over to the American Dream yet,” Driscoll says into the microphone. “How do we make sure we don’t become victims of what harmed us— parents who weren’t around because they were too busy making money so we could go on vacations and look like a family?” The phones are dead.
During a commercial break, Driscoll throws up his hands in mock surrender. Moi says, “When we do a show that is philosophical, either they sit back and listen, or it goes over their head. But when we do a controversial or reactionary topic—like paganism or Satanism—we hear from everyone.”
The silence is starting to grate on the hosts. They decide they must talk in specifics if the troops are going to be rallied. Moi comes up with an idea: “Call me up and tell me what the top three priorities in a Christian life should be.”
No one answers these questions directly, but the calls finally trickle in. Most callers are simply looking for solace. “My parents were together until I was 14 and we were the model family; the American Dream was there,” says Stan from Philadelphia. “But my parents pushed me to go to college and, well, that’s nice and all, but you have to do what the Lord wants you to do. Personally, I like to work with my hands, but that was out of the question.”
Next is Anthony, a young man who says that Jesus Christ told him to call the show. He says he’s sad and lonely and has no friends. “We will help you find a church in your area,” Moi reassures him. “We will help place you in a community where you will be held accountable and where you can find friends.” Moi says he gets calls like this all the time.
Chris Seay, like his good friend Mark Driscoll, is on a mission to save his peers. Seay says he was laid up in a hospital bed with appendicitis and a raging fever when God spoke to him. And His instructions were precise: Open a church for twentysomethings in Waco on January 15, 1995. Seven weeks later, right on schedule, University Baptist Church was born. The first Sunday, 264 people showed up. Today, Seay has a weekly congregation of about 600.
The crowd at University Baptist, save for a few piercings here and there, looks nothing like Mars Hill’s. This is Waco, a town of 100,000, and home to Baylor University, a Baptist college that revoked its no-dancing rule only two years ago. The women wear sundresses and high heels; the men wear dress shirts. Hair is coiffed, makeup is flawless. Yet despite the difference in this congregation’s appearance, the trappings of the service—a rock band, lyrics splayed on video screens, the pastor’s casual demeanor—are the same.
“When Billy Graham preaches revival he is preaching to people who once had religion and lost it,” says Seay, a wholesome looking man with cropped blond hair and a goatee. “With this generation there is nothing to revive.”
As the name indicates, University Baptist is affiliated—loosely—with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. But, like Driscoll, Seay is quick to criticize his forebears, calling the Baptist church “too institutional,” “corrupt,” and “hypocritical.” So why belong at all? Because of his legacy—Seay is a third-generation Baptist preacher. “I speak at more Lutheran events than Baptist ones,” he says, laughing.
University Baptist is housed in an 1,800-square-foot warehouse and former grocery store. Another church owned the space before University Baptist, and the owners had installed fluorescent lights and white paneling. Seay ripped it all out when he took over, and now the interior is a hodgepodge. The sanctuary ceiling is a tangle of wires, and battered couches are strewn near the altar. When a set of bright orange pews was donated to the church last year, Seay celebrated the gift by holding a 1970s “retro” worship service.
Seay says he deliberately chose to locate University Baptist in one of Waco’s poorest neighborhoods because one of his church’s missions is to reach out to all of the city’s residents. “I want my daughter to grow up playing with kids of all colors,” says Seay, whose wife, Lisa, gave birth to their first child in May. Although he is committed to fostering a multiracial congregation, he admits it’s a tough task because poor blacks and Hispanics don’t feel comfortable worshipping with educated, middle-class white kids. This particular Sunday, two blacks sat among the 500 worshippers.
Seay uses the story of King Solomon to discuss the sin of excess and the bankruptcy of the American Dream. “Solomon had lots of sex, lots of pleasure, and it didn’t mean anything,” he begins. He paces back and forth with a microphone, at times stopping to sit on a stool in the middle of the stage. “You devote yourself to your work, and one day you’ll decide you want a Mercedes,” he says. “One day you’ll become a CEO of a company and you’ll want to be the CEO of a bigger company. Guys especially, and girls increasingly—you have a tendency to become absorbed by work.”
Like Driscoll, Seay is wary of all things political. “I don’t believe we are called to be a Christian nation,” he says simply. And while Seay doesn’t shy away from condemning homosexuality, he does downplay its importance. “It is no different than sleeping around or chronic masturbation,” he says.
After the service, a bunch of students from Baylor sit around describing what they like most about the church. The word “authentic” wasn’t used, but it could have been. “I love that I can wear sneakers here!” says Shanna Lewis, the Baylor sophomore. “I like that Chris is not afraid to tell us what he is thinking and what he is struggling with.” An example? “One morning he told us that he stubbed his toe and used a bad word! I’ve never heard a pastor be honest like that before.”
Brandon, a 22-year-old senior, says he likes University Baptist because he doesn’t have to take off his baseball cap during services. “It’s laid-back here and I feel accepted,” he says, after describing the rigid, formal church he attended as a kid in Dallas. “My biggest struggle with Christianity is people who talk all holy, because they are usually the first to fall. The people here are real. They don’t put themselves on a pedestal, and I dig that.”
Driscoll, Moi, Seay, and the other postmodern preachers are not on pedestals. They run their ministries with the purest of intentions: They want to help people. And if you ask the members of their congregations, they’ll say the church provides them with a religion’s most basic service: a refuge.
What makes a postmodern ministry so easy to embrace is that it doesn’t demonize youth culture—Marilyn Manson, “South Park,” or gangsta rap, for example—like traditional fundamentalists. Postmodern congregants aren’t challenged to reject the outside world.
But does the postmoderns’ user-friendly fundamentalism sugarcoat the group’s core beliefs? Or do the people who attend these churches even get past the hip facade?
In Waco, after Seay’s sermon, Kyle Lake, a University Baptist pastor, leads an orientation meeting for prospective new members. He talks about how during the Enlightenment, God was held suspect because he was invisible, then continues on to discuss Descartes, science and reason, and the failings of “progress.”
“Mankind,” he concludes, “has gone to hell.”
There are five young women in the group, all blond, all Baylor students, slumped on couches in Seay’s office. Are they buying this? Do they get what Lake is talking about? One of them, I notice, has nodded off.
Lori Leibovich is an associate editor at the online magazine Salon.