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.

The cousins attend church sporadically, Jake at Calvary in St. Peters, Josh at First Baptist, but Josh in particular has had a hard time committing to anything recently. Between hospitals, fights and spats with his grandparents, even he can't say where he'll be a month from now.

Dan Padgett has taken an active interest in making Josh feel welcome at the Realm. An intern who studies religious education at Missouri Baptist University, Padgett noticed a quiet skinhead on a recent Wednesday who didn't seem to be talking to anybody.

"Having tattoos of my own, I wanted to ask him where he got his work done. I spun him around, and, oh, it's Josh," Padgett recounts. "I actually grew up with him in a church in O'Fallon. We were acquaintances. We kinda started talking, and he told me how things were going, so we said, 'Let's do lunch.'"

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

At lunch the next day, Padgett continues, "He told me he was having a tough time with his family. I kind of told him that his [grandparents] cared for him, 'cause I knew them. And I told him that was probably the best place for him, to rekindle a relationship with his [grandparents]. I think he's looking to stand out. Which I don't think is a problem at all, because I think a lot of kids want to stand out, from neo-Nazi kids to popular kids, to jocks to nerds to anything.

"The thing is, I think Josh knows the truth that the Bible teaches, and what the church we went to stands for and backs up. He knows these truths; he's just choosing not to go along with them. I went through the same period in my life where I had to come to grips with, 'Is this my parents' faith or is this my faith?' I think that's what he's going through."

For nearly everyone who helps run the Realm -- a group of mostly twenty- and thirty-somethings that includes George's sister, Joy (yet another Liberty alum) -- defining Christianity for their own generation is a life's work. They all express an unshakable faith in the ideas of the Bible but tend to look skeptically upon the church's techniques of recruitment, or lack thereof. They contend that Christianity is at a crucial period in its evolution. Stick with the old way of doing things, they warn, and Christianity will become irrelevant to today's young people.

"We feel like we should identify the culture to use the culture to reach the culture," is the way Jamie George puts it.

Williams believes role models exist outside the pulpit. He cites the rock group P.O.D. (Payable on Death), whose members, while born again, rarely feature overtly spiritual lyrics. "P.O.D. used to tour with [nu-metal band] Korn, and afterwards Korn said, 'We'll never ask P.O.D. to tour with us again, because they didn't party afterwards.'"

Point being, presumably, that they didn't drink or use drugs. "That speaks more volumes than anything they could ever say onstage," Williams says.

Much like Christian rock music, which has fully entered the mainstream, the Realm's soft-sell approach is gaining popularity nationwide. Expensive, entertainment-oriented Christian teen centers are popping up all over. In addition to the Realm, the St. Louis area is home to Club xL, located in Chesterfield. (Representatives from Club xL declined to be interviewed for this story.)

When McDonald's founder Ray Kroc's widow Joan died last year, she left $1.5 billion to the Salvation Army, specifically earmarked to create family centers around the nation. The first, a center in San Diego built before Joan Kroc died, features an ice rink, an Olympic-size pool and a performing-arts stage. The centers will be "bigger beyond belief" than typical YMCAs, says Salvation Army spokeswoman Deborah Sjögren.

Part of the goal with these centers is to make Christianity seem a little less, well, dorky. The Christian teen in pop culture still exists largely as a stereotype; an uptight, anal-retentive do-gooder in the mold of character Hilary Faye, played by Mandy Moore in the recent Christian farce Saved! But that seems to be changing as rockers, skateboarders and general trendsetters like Freddy Williams appear on the landscape. Even Moore's character -- who spends almost the entire movie being mocked by her Saved! co-stars -- pulls the stick out of her ass by the movie's end. Her friends get smart to Jesus.

First Baptist Church of Harvester is a sprawling, thoroughly modern complex. The size of some hospitals, it boasts advanced multimedia equipment, ramped hallways and a well-polished look. Though Sundays feature both "traditional" and "contemporary" services (the former features an organ, the latter a band), its ideology is all traditional. Perhaps for this reason, the Realm was not an immediate sell to some moms and dads.

Dena and Dale Pendleton, First Baptist members and parents of a junior-high Realm-goer, say they harbored misgivings when the center opened. "People didn't know what to expect," says Dena, a stay-at-home mother. "Would there be a lot of fights? Because there aren't rules as far as who can be there. Everyone's invited, so you don't know what you're going to confront. And then you throw in all this loud music, which a lot of adults don't care for because it's too hard on our bodies."

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