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A young evangelist draws thousands to worship at 'The Basement'

Matt Pitt, 23, operates a youth-oriented church in Birmingham, Ala., that features laser lights, hip-hop music, testimonials, and prayer.

By Carmen K. SissonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 17, 2007


The music is pounding, buffeting the thrashing bodies from every direction as lasers swirl overhead, first red, then green, then melting into a disorienting synesthesia. This is the hottest ticket in Birmingham right now – Tuesday nights at "The Basement." It draws nearly 5,000 teenagers a week to dance, sing, and pray. That's right. Pray.

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The Basement isn't a club. It's a youth-oriented church service – part concert, part pep rally – led by 23-year-old Matt Pitt, a self-taught evangelist who's been preaching his message of clean living, racial conciliation, and sold-out-for-God Christianity since 2004. What began as informal street preaching has become a full-blown enterprise requiring police, security guards, lawyers, and accountants. Mr. Pitt's life has changed seemingly overnight, and many of the teenagers who flock to Birmingham's Cathedral of the Cross to hear him speak say he's changing them, too.

Jeff Malone, 18, has given up drugs and alcohol since he began attending in June. He's also stopped hanging out with his old friends. "I just couldn't do it anymore," says Mr. Malone as he stands in the line of teens snaking toward the door. "Matt's our age. He's been through what we've been through, and he knows where we're coming from."

Zach Everett, 17, agrees. "I get a feeling like butterflies," says Mr. Everett, text-messaging as he talks. "I feel cleansed every time I go, like everything I've done wrong is just dropped."

Pitt is one of a new generation of young evangelical pastors around the country trying to reach out to kids who feel alienated by traditional churches. Mixing prayer and pulse-pounding music, the services speak to teens in a vernacular and environment they're used to, often emphasizing personal testimonies rather than authoritative teaching.

"Kids today are savvy," says Teresa Reed, a religion expert at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma. "They have an insatiable appetite for what's real. Consider the culture we live in – reality TV. They don't necessarily want it canned and choreographed."

Pitt also symbolizes a long tradition in the South of celebrating evangelists who people believe are anointed by the Spirit, instead of theologically trained, as a sign of God's favor. Indeed, Pitt's dramatic conversion – after a drug overdose in college – typifies the strong Baptist and Pentecostal influence prevalent in the South since the 1950s, according to Bill Leonard, dean of Wake Forest Divinity School in Winston-Salem, N.C. He says much of the appeal of ministries like The Basement lies in the dynamism. Pitt's use of MySpace, YouTube, film clips, and other media adds to the attraction.

But in the end, Dr. Leonard says, it's the personality of the evangelist that draws people. "The role of the youth pastor has always been significant, but it's more so now because churches are desperate to get the attention of young people," he says.

Services at The Basement open with roughly 45 minutes of hip-hop performed by local Christian rappers who whip the crowd into a frenzy, encouraging them to dance mosh-pit-style to lyrics like, "Jesus is my rock/ Jesus is my rock star/ Jesus is my rock/ And he's totally cool."

Pitt arrives onstage afterward, looking somewhat like a rock star himself as his lanky frame, clad in a black T-shirt, jeans, and sandals, is projected across two large screens. "Look at those Jesus freaks right there who are not ashamed," he says, pointing to a row of gyrating worshipers. "Jesus is the only way. The Basement can't do it for you. This is not about a man or a ministry. I'm just the messenger."

Keeping it real is a big part of Pitt's message. He addresses issues like school violence, sex, absentee fathers, racism, and suicide. He speaks openly about his personal struggles, as well as those of his family.

"I'm in the business of twisting ears," says Pitt, perched on a bench in the lobby following a service. "I'm going to be as real as I possibly can. There are things I'll probably regret later, but you live and learn."