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.

At least one family left the church.

"They didn't like the Realm, basically," youth pastor Gary Carter explains. "'We've sheltered our kids from everything, and I don't want my kids to be around kids who don't think exactly like we do,'" he says one of the parents told him -- though he declined to supply their names.

Of course, many First Baptist parents want the Realm to do precisely that: shelter their kids. Indeed, one of the Realm's implicit goals would appear to be to keep kids away from much of the mainstream, secular entertainment in which their classmates participate. Though Josh Parrish's tough road is atypical, it is the path First Baptist parents hope to steer their children clear of.

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 
groove
Dan Padgett
Christian rockers Sky Harbor lay down a righteous groove

For many, of particular importance is that their children avoid unsupervised trips to the mall. "All ages are around, and in the middle-school years kids are so susceptible to going with the crowds," Dena Pendleton says. "Did I grow up with a place with loud music and crazy games? I didn't -- I grew up in a very southern traditional Baptist church. Nowadays we need safe places to go. At the Realm, they can have junk food. They can play outrageous games, like seeing how many Twinkies you can stuff down your throat in two minutes, which the kids just love."

But even though she calls the Realm a "good, wholesome environment," Pendleton fears the day when someone tries to bring drugs into the center. Her husband, too, seems wary, noting that one can't be too careful of potential predators.

For the most part, parental passion for the Realm seems to be topped only by the kids' enthusiasm. But that's not to say everyone is a booster of the Christian shadow culture.

One dissenter comes from Relevant, a Christian, youth-oriented pop-culture magazine that includes Freddy Williams on its list of fans. Won Kim, associate editor of the Lake Mary, Florida, bimonthly, hasn't seen the Realm, but he's familiar with the concept. And he's not crazy about it.

"You have to be careful. I know that a lot of these young, hip Christian guys are trying to create forums where it's safe yet you can still touch upon this cool stuff that's happening in the world and stuff like that," says Kim, who's 25. "But it's creating a bubble. You're trying to separate the secular and the sacred, and the thing is, with us at Relevant, we believe that there are redeemable things, even within the secular. Because that's all under God's creation.

"You take some songs from Kanye West and N.E.R.D. and all these hip-hop guys, and even Coldplay and different things, and there's a spiritual, redeemable factor in them," Kim continues. "And we don't feel that, 'Oh! Let's create a Christian group that sounds just like them.' Instead we feel like there's a way to merge the secular and the sacred, and understand it. There's good and there's bad. I think the motivation behind what these guys are doing is pretty awesome, but how they approach it is another story. Because once that building goes down, or another cool thing comes up -- like, another mall -- they'll have to catch up. It just becomes kind of cheesy after that. No matter how much you hide it, our kids are watching MTV."

Christian young adults from coast to coast debate how to reach the younger generation. To preach his philosophy of greater openness in the church, Southern Californian Craig Gross started a Web site called XXXchurch.com, which confronts pornography from a Christian standpoint.

"We saw the church not doing anything on the issue of pornography," Gross explains. "A lot of people just wished it would go away. And our thought was: Porn isn't going anywhere, let's try to address this topic in a relevant way. The message is, 'We're greater than porn.'"

When he's not updating his Web site (which contains no pornography), Gross sets up stands at Los Angeles-area porn conventions and hands out Bibles. His concept is to educate the nonbelievers, not preach to the choir. And he thinks what the Realm is doing is great.

"I wish the church would take ideas from what some of these centers are doing," Gross says. "I don't think we need more church buildings, or more places with folding chairs and projection screens. Let's design places that are interesting to [youth]. Sure it competes with MTV, but you can sit at home and watch MTV, or you can go check out this concert at a cool venue that's got clean bands and a good message and doesn't feel like a church. If we could design our church campuses to be more appealing to the world, maybe we'd have better luck with our churches today."

Conventional wisdom has long held that young people are increasingly less interested in going to church; Relevant's Kim says that's true more than ever nowadays: "There was a resurgence after 9/11, but now supposedly it's back to the dwindling percentage that it was before. I just feel like the church has lost touch with what our generation needs."

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