Christianity, with a dose of punk

Jay Bakker is appealing to a different sort of congregation with his Revolution ministry.

He's America's punk-rock preacher.

Jay Bakker, once the chubby kid running around the Praise The Lord Ministry TV stage, is all grown up - with a silver ring in his lip and plugs through his earlobes. On his arms, bold tattoos spell out "Grace" and "Christ."

The figure he cuts doesn't fit anyone's image of a typical religious evangelist. But eleven years after a Charlotte jury convicted his father, Jim Bakker, of fraud, Mr. Bakker is busy fusing punk culture and Christian values in an attempt to show just how hip and welcoming today's churches can be.

More concerned about God's love than rules and ceremony, this young street minister has an appealing and inclusive message for his blue-haired flock: Come as you are.

With his new autobiography, "Son of a Preacher Man," he's created quite a buzz. Some see him as the latest prodigal son in a growing crusade to attract society's young misfits to the church. From the leather-studded juke joints of San Francisco to the midtown music scene of Atlanta, more and more punk and goth kids are walking through the doors of new "Gen-X churches" like Bakker's Revolution ministry.

"The challenge is to look at people differently, to love differently, to restore people differently," Bakker tells a packed audience on his current book tour. "In the end, God doesn't care about an Ozzy Osbourne T-shirt."

To be sure, the TV cameras at this Charlotte event (where his famous mother, now Tammy Faye Messner, stands by) may be more interested in the next chapter of the Bakker story than Jay Bakker's insistence on facing the world with grace, humility, and without "the breastplate of self-righteousness." But religious leaders, eager to bring in younger, more diverse congregations, are taking note.

Bringing rebels back to the fold

After the social upheaval of the 1960s, many churches largely gave up trying to attract young rebels to the pews, says David Roozen, director of the Hartford Institute of Religious Research in Connecticut. But that's changing.

Mostly driven by entrepreneurial evangelicals, but also by cast-offs of both Catholicism and Protestantism, the punk-rock ministry movement is having surprising success. Indeed, it's a religious revolution of sorts, says Mr. Roozen.

And it may be a revolution driven by music as much as message. "When people talk about this kind of contemporary worship, sure, there's a general informality involved, but another key piece is the very contemporary styles of music," Roozen says. "The broader piece is that it's making worship fit a constituency rather than assuming that organs work for everyone."

Usually sans organ, music inspired by bands like Creed and Social Distortion is at the ecumenical core of these new faith churches. At Bakker's Revolution ministry in Atlanta, for example, Tuesday-night services may have anything from U2 to Johnny Cash piping out over the speakers. On Friday night, Christian and non-Christian punk-rock bands get together for fast-paced punk performances that draw up to 200 kids.

In downtown Tampa, Fla., punk rockers and bruisers show up at the trendy Refuge ministry. In San Francisco, the Sanctuary ministry has found a niche among the city's goth culture. Here in Charlotte, Warehouse 242 features unorthodox services for "seekers," and New Song in West Covina, Calif., often draws 200 young people to services dominated by soulful rock.

Some of these new punk ministries are independents, while others are offshoots of the country's burgeoning "megachurches." "The intent is to get them in the front door and to keep [them] coming back," says Roozen. "The hard work is the deeper, more conversionary work being done in other ministries of the same church."

Critics say that guitars don't carry the proper solemnity of a church organ, and are inappropriate to be used in worship. Indeed, old-line church leaders, especially among fundamentalist Protestants and Pentecostals, wince at Bakker's revolution. They say it's distorting the message.

Style over substance?

"Some of the innovations that they attempt frankly are pretty thin and often border on being unfaithful to the traditions of the church," says Jack Carroll, a religion professor at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C., who is studying how Gen-Xers approach religion. "Yet many existing congregations still don't recognize that a changing culture creates new demands. The challenge is to do that while bringing the Christian tradition along."

Jay Bakker is trying his best to do just that. With his father's easy preaching style and his mom's penchant for self-decoration, he comes across as a humble, honest, and vulnerable character - miles and years from the days when he used to play with GI Joe dolls between shoots at the PTL Ministries in Fort Mill, S.C., a facility now shut down and plastered with "No Trespassing" signs.

In an interview, he said that he imagines himself in the same environs that Jesus patronized: smoky rooms full of outcasts, misfits, and prostitutes. "I've come to call the lost, not the saints," he says.

Bakker, and his story, are certainly a large part of his ministry's appeal. "This is about as earthy and real as it gets," says Roger Freet, Bakker's publicist at HarperSanFrancisco. "First of all, the guy's dead broke. He's somebody in the trenches, ministering to the kids. There's a lot of pastors out there who wish they knew how to do what he does."

Bakker says he learned it by living it, as he explains in heartfelt detail in his new book. After his father's conviction for defrauding PTL worshippers of $158 million, Bakker, then a teenager, suffered emotionally. Distraught and rebellious, he sneaked out of his house constantly. "I tried to nail the windows shut, but he still got out," says his mom. Moreover, he had trouble with alcohol and drugs.

Though he now prefers sweet tea, he still faces the demons, he recently told National Public Radio's Terry Gross. Not long ago, he stopped a sermon mid-speech and left the stage, hankering for a drink. He never took it, but returned to tell his congregants: "Don't ever think I'm better than you."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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