In Seattle, a charismatic pastor draws tattooed musicians and other hipster youth to his mushrooming megachurch with a countercultural message that is culturally liberal, yet theologically conservative.
At a Bible class in Colorado Springs, Colo., a first lieutenant teaches Army and Air Force servicemen a fundamentalist versionof the "End Times" (the end of the world depicted in Revelation), and deems the US military God's missionary tool in Iraq.
In Council Bluffs, Iowa, skateboaders on an Extreme Tour put on a half-pipe show for local kids, then tell them about Jesus and a cool kind of church developing in skate parks.
Out in Virginia's horse country, Patrick Henry College shapes young people with an intensely "biblical worldview"; then it sends them straight into internships in the White House and Congress.
Welcome to the Evangelical youth movement. Or what Lauren Sandler calls "the Disciple Generation" – an ever-growing population of young Evangelicals, ages 15 to 35, "who are equally obsessed with Christ and with culture as a means to an Evangelical end."
Formerly a reporter for National Public Radio, Ms. Sandler had encountered many Christian groups during her travels. But as Evangelicals became more influential in politics, she set out to scout in depth the evolving youth movement. What she found surprised and disturbed her, an avowed secularist and nonbeliever who was barely 30 herself.
Her first book not only presents vivid, spirited sketches of a burgeoning subculture, but also a plea to fellow secularists to wake up and proffer an alternative.
In Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement, Sandler explores a movement of astonishing diversity in which "dreadlocks ally with buzz cuts," three-piece suits with punk rockers, Mohawks with computer nerds, all "organizing against anything that challenges the perceived literal perfection of the Bible."
The secular world, she admits, "has left a vacuum yawning in modernity's barren atmosphere," and avid Evangelicals have rushed to fill it.
While always forthright about beingat odds with the worldview of the young Evangelicals she tracks, the author writes with keen insight and empathy about those involved in a range of youth ministries. Whether camping out at the Cornerstone rock festival or mixing it up at a hip-hop club, she describes how they reach out to confused, rebellious, and vulnerable young people, and offer them both certainty and a sense of belonging.
It's a certainty built on a mix of anti-institutionalism and biblical literalism. It markets "outsiderness" and mobilizes resentment against the secu- lar world. Some youths become fervent antiabortionists in the Rock for Life movement. Others sign up for a military-style boot camp to join the army of Teen Mania and its "Battlecry" against pop culture.
Many find the belonging they desire, but often at a cost, she insists. Young married women at Seattle's Mars Hill Church must give up a career and stay home to raise children, serving as the "lovely helper" to the "manly man" in the family (though some admit they're inclined otherwise). Students at Patrick Henry live a restricted lifestyle and follow a curriculum so controlled that even some Christian professors recently resigned in protest.
In a world increasingly out of control, many young people "want liberation from liberation," Sandler finds. "A complicated world gives rise to an extraordinary yearning for the literal."
Scores of young people tell her of their moments of conversion and their new commitments. Most have taken up "relationship evangelism" – developing relationships as a means to reach people for Christ. "Once bonds are forged over a beloved band or football team," Sandler writes, "then the Evangelical 'message' can work its way into a relationship ... [what one Evangelical] calls being 'sneaky deep.'"
Her new young acquaintances are frequently disappointed that the time they spend with the journalist doesn't end in her conversion. Yet Sandler is touched by many of them – outraged by the more manipulative, but moved by the genuinely loving, such as one Extreme Tour leader selflessly devoted to aiding troubled skaters.
Experiencing the intense communal atmosphere of a two-hour worship with heart-stopping music – people swaying and hollering and dropping to their knees – she comes emotionally close to yielding to the kind of moment so many have told her about. "If I had been younger, teetering in my own sense of purpose, and less steeped in the literature, I have no doubt – they could have had me," she writes.
The American Evangelical movement is broad, ranging from fundamentalists to liberals. The "emerging church" involving young pastors using new forms to reach postmodern youth, is also varied.
Yet Sandler's extensive travels convince her that "not for a moment can we overlook the fact that the Disciple Generation is foremost a growing fundamentalist population. The apocalyptic imagination, the annihilation of the individual, the subjugation of women, the resistance to competing ideas – all these startling facets ... are conventional aspects of fundamentalism of any kind...."
Sandler's final chapter calls on secularists to recognize youths' hunger for love and meaning and to respond with alternatives. What parallel institutions she has in mind aren't clear, and her expectations are less convincing than her skilled reporting and acute perceptions.
Perhaps another book could shed valuable light on effective endeavors already under way by different religious and secular groups equally devoted to young people.
• Jane Lampman is a Monitor staff writer.