SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT

Christian rock combines the Lord's message with the devil's beat. Sometimes the result is exhilaration. Sometimes it's god-awful confusion.

What's happening out here in St. Peters and in a handful of Christian churches in the St. Louis area isn't part of some sort of cultural, or even musical, revolution; it's not some massive subculture on the verge of exploding into the mainstream. Nor is a thriving Christian-rock scene fermenting in the area, though several bands — Cope, FoM, the Ruin, the Cartwrights, Catalyst — are gigging at rock clubs (Cope recently won the Midnight Metal battle of the bands at Pop's on the East Side) or in churches. Rather, a genre long since considered secular rebellion, rock & roll, has been harnessed by people who, wisely, realize that in an era in which the Christian message struggles daily to compete with the allure of MTV, Hollywood and commercial radio, the surest way to touch hearts with the Word is through hipster music. But once a month, here and in a few other area churches (such as Parkwood Christian Church in Maryland Heights), Christian-rock bands gig in the sanctuaries, replete with all the rock accoutrements.

Although the Christian buzzwords — Christ, Holy Ghost, born again, redemption — are often avoided in many of the songs, they're implicit in every performance activity, from the occasional heaven-glancing upward gazes of lead singers to the he-slammed-me-but-it-felt-like-a-kiss free-for-all in the mosh pit to the quiet prayers that open many of the shows. This message is nestled away inside the records, between the beats, in the corners of Christian record labels' Web sites. And it's being preached in the form of hard rock, ska, punk, metal, hip-hop and swing — all the youth music — and the crowd just loves it.

Audiences range from a few hundred to 700 or 800. In churches with removable pews, like Mid-Rivers, they're hauled out and the open space is a perfect atmosphere for a rock show. At other churches, like First Baptist Church of Ferguson, the pews stay, and the crowd must either cram in front of them or take a seat in one.

Clark has the blessing and trust of the church's pastor, Richard Holcombe. "The message that's going out is a message we affirm," says Holcombe. "Music, as far as I'm concerned, is a matter of personal taste. My folks despised the early Beatles, and now you compare them to the music today — times change. Compare the music in the church today with what was done in the first century. You don't hear too many Hebrew chants today. So our first commission is to get the message out and try to do it in some form that can be received without compromising the message. I don't think it's written anywhere in the Scriptures that "thou shalt not have a good time when you're doing it.'"

And the crowd, which ranges from early teens to people in their early 20s, does have a good time. During a recent hard-rock show at the church, the mosh pit was going full force. They knew the songs, exploded when P.O.D. (an acronym for Payable on Death) riffed one of their favorites, lifted one another up to body-surf.

"A building's a building," says Holcombe. "Obviously, when you gather as God's people, it's a sanctuary."

The guitar entered Anglo-Christian churches in the late '60s and early '70s as liberal, youth-oriented churches became involved in the Jesus Movement, an offshoot of hippie culture that stressed Christ, not drugs, as the true vehicle for spiritual transcendence. Holcombe recalls, "I played the guitar in a church then — probably the first guitar played in our church — for a youth musical, and that was considered cutting-edge. Now, if you'd listen to it, it's really not. But that set a lot of people on their ear." Before then, jokes Holcombe, strict rules were enforced concerning music and celebration: "Baptists, for the longest time, could only clap on beats one and three, and now it's kind of switched." He laughs. "There wasn't a mandate, but at the same time we're kind of coordinated that way. It's hard to clap on two and four without moving your feet. I'm serious about that. And so when Baptists did clap to a song, it was usually on the first and third beats. The changes are gradually taking place."

If there's an Elvis of contemporary Christian music (besides, of course, Elvis himself, who recorded deeply spiritual albums in the early '60s), it's probably a man named Larry Norman, who released his solo debut, Upon This Rock, on Capitol Records in 1970. His second record contained his statement of purpose, which sounds perfectly in step with the message Christian-rock bands preach 30 years later: "I want the people to know that He saved my soul/But I still like to listen to the radio/They say, "rock & roll is wrong ...'/I say I feel so good I gotta get up and dance."

Brian Q. Newcomb, who is the pastor of Christ Church United Church of Christ in Maplewood and writes for Contemporary Christian Magazine, describes the foundations of Christian rock: "There was a whole scene in Southern California at the time the Jesus Movement was on the cover of Time and Newsweek, mid- to early '70s, and that's where most of the Christian bands sprang up. Larry Norman kind of floated through there, developed converts and followers and friends. But (it was) a whole group of bands, and that really is the basis of where CCM (contemporary Christian music) got its financial basis. It was a church where the minister was very music-friendly, so they had concerts every weekend. It was a real fertile environment. You had all these rock musicians who converted to Christianity. So they had the vocabulary and this faith, and it was fresh and vibrant and it made sense to them."

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