Jesus For Juniors

How do you lure disaffected suburban teens into the bosom of the church? Try this unholy trinity: rock & roll, junk food and Foosball.

Six-foot-two, two-hundred-ten-pound metrosexual youth minister Freddy Williams sits down with his decaf. The Ashton Kutcher-caliber hunk takes off his yellow-tinted sunglasses, tucks them into his coral necklace and launches into a tirade against what he refers to monolithically as "The Church."

"The church has really failed in accepting everybody. They kind of put themselves -- put Christians -- on a pedestal. Whereas gays and lesbians, or nonbelievers, or just people who struggle, they kind of look at it like: 'I'll never be that good, I'll never be able to live that life.' That's not the message that Christ lived when He was here. They've almost created an unspoken list of 'do's' and 'don'ts' that they expect people to live by. The Bible hasn't created a list of 'do's' and 'don't's.'"

Relaxing at the trendy CuppaJo coffeehouse in Weldon Spring, the 23-year-old Williams discusses how he weaves his Christian beliefs into his private life. The director of creative arts and programming at the Realm -- First Baptist Church of Harvester's spanking-new, $2 million youth center a few miles up Highway 94 in St. Peters -- Williams is, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. A former captain of his college's Division I basketball team, he attends rock concerts in the Loop and professes to be a "total city boy" lost in the suburbs.

Freddy Williams (left), director of creative arts and 
programming at the Realm, has his eyes on the prize. 
Jamie George (right), youth pastor at the First Baptist 
Church of Harvester, has his eyes on you.
Jennifer Silverberg
Freddy Williams (left), director of creative arts and programming at the Realm, has his eyes on the prize. Jamie George (right), youth pastor at the First Baptist Church of Harvester, has his eyes on you.
Christian rockers Sky Harbor lay down a righteous 
Dan Padgett
Christian rockers Sky Harbor lay down a righteous groove

It is quite shocking, then, to hear his "Jerry Falwell is a super-cool guy" speech.

"The dude, he's just, he's awesome. The dude is a beast. He's got more energy than half the kids my age," says Williams. Falwell founded and is chancellor of Williams' alma mater, Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. Most people, however, know him from his comments that Teletubbies character Tinky Winky is gay and that the Islamic prophet Mohammed was a terrorist. "The man has an unbelievable amount of faith, and what he's created is unbelievable," Williams goes on. "I had the privilege to meet with him once a semester as captain of the basketball team. I've learned an incredible amount from the man. He'd be the coolest grandpa of all time."

The Buffalo, New York, native doesn't drink or smoke. He met his wife, Michele, after hearing her speak at a church about her experience surviving the Columbine High School massacre. They started dating in the second semester of their freshman year and were married last August. Michele -- whose high fashions and good looks are as likely to turn heads as her husband's -- leads Sunday school-style programming for the Realm's eleventh-grade girls. She also drops in to help organize the madness that is the youth center's packed weekly programming schedule.

They need all the help they can get at the Realm, especially on nights when the center puts together its own version of the NBC series Fear Factor. For junior-high kids.

Patterned strobe lights bounce off the slick gray walls, off the snack bar, the pool tables, the Foosball and air-hockey tables, off the wall of PlayStation and Xbox game stations. Music from Christian bands blasts at deafening decibel levels. Though those in attendance tend to respect the posted rules of conduct -- no public displays of affection, modest shirts, shorts and skirts only, undergarments to be tucked or hidden -- the Realm could be easily confused with a studio shooting an MTV video.

Approximately 300 adolescents, from puny sixth-grade boys to leggy eighth-grade girls, have massed on this night in the Realm's auditorium, an 800-or-so-capacity room built to accommodate nationally known Christian rock acts. Some of the kids have clearly conquered the junior-high confidence-equals-coolness equation, but many are quite awkward.

This means they scream louder. Clad in short camouflage pants, a white baseball cap and a T-shirt that says "Staff," middle school pastor Gary Carter waits in vain for the group to settle down. "We can't really get going until I finish the announcements, that's just one of those things," he says calmly. "So if you guys would just keep it down during the announcements, that would be really cool."

"All right, now we're gonna start 'Fear Factor,'" Carter says finally. The kids grip numbered tickets that will determine whether they get to play the game. He reads off five numbers. Those who have been chosen holler as loud as they can. Those who haven't shout even louder.

Non-participants stand up on their chairs to get a better view of the competition. Each contestant is handed two two-foot-long Pixie Stix. "We're going to cut these off, and the first one to slam both Pixie Stix wins," Carter instructs. The race begins. The kids sip, slurp and inevitably spit up sugar, gagging and jumping up and down from the refined rush.

"You can't spill it!" Carter admonishes. A petite girl on the end thinks she's won, but upon inspection it turns out she hasn't swallowed everything. Eventually a winner is declared. T-shirts are distributed. More screams, and the kids are handed cups of water and ushered offstage.

Soon it's time for the night's main event.

"Give it up!" Williams yells as the next round of numbers are called. Paired up and fitted with black ponchos, each pair is given what looks like a beer-bong funnel, which is attached to a clear plastic tube. Into the funnel Williams pours an entire liquefied McDonald's Happy Meal -- cheeseburger, fries and a Dr Pepper. Once the funnel is removed, the kids wrap their lips opposite ends of the tube and prepare to blow. It's a respiratory tug of war, the object being to force the contents out the other end of the tube -- and onto the opponent.

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