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.
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.
"Go!" Carter yells. McGoop goes everywhere -- onto Williams, onto Carter, onto girls with their hair tied back in ponytails. No one vomits, though, and the winners go home with T-shirts.
This, in all its messy glory, is Jamie George's vision. The 34-year-old youth minister at the First Baptist Church of Harvester imagined this paradise of squeaky teen fun as an antidote to the distant suburbs' Bermuda Triangle of malls, drugs and faithlessness. Just around the corner from a strip featuring Long John Silver's, KFC, Pizza Hut and Wendy's lies the Realm, a project six years in the making, a type of facility Missouri had never seen.
Big, shiny and beckoning, the Realm is like a sports car. The Harvester congregation bit its lip and wrote a big check, hoping the youth of St. Charles would keep it washed and full of gas. They say they don't know precisely where it will take their children, but they feel confident it will bring them home to the kingdom of God at the end of the night.
Some, though, fear the kids will simply go joyriding, tear around in it while it's new and inevitably crash it into a tree. They will abandon it, and abandon their faith. At least a few of the church's approximately 3,000 members left when the Realm went up, taking their kids with them.
When the Realm opened in January, times had officially a-changed, both for church members and the nearly 900 youths -- from junior-high students to college kids -- who attend weekly programming.
"Some people say the youth are our tomorrow," says the only slightly less hipster than Williams George (who also happens to hail from Buffalo and be a graduate of Liberty University). "I believe that they're our today. I believe they can make a huge impact on society and the community and the world today. Most teenagers are more globally sensitive than their parents. I think they are a catalyst for energy and change."
Some might say the same about George. Briefly seated now in the Realm's "Green Room" -- where bands hang out before ascending a black spiral staircase directly to the stage -- the frosted-haired father of three seems exactly the kind of guy you'd like to have a beer with. If he drank, that is. "I read Wired, I catch some of GQ to try to stay up on what's happening," he says. "I think Johnny Depp is cool. I loved Pirates of the Caribbean."
But free time is about the last thing George has. Since 1997 he's had the demanding role of First Baptist youth pastor, with an eye toward outreach.
"There are about 30,000 adolescents between 10 and 24 that live in a 5-mile radius of this building, and that number is only gonna grow significantly," he says, citing regional demographic trends.
First Baptist Church of Harvester's congregation reflects the demographics of surrounding St. Charles County, which is about 95 percent white with a median family income of approximately $64,000. By comparison, the city of St. Louis is 44 percent white with about half the median income.
"Our approach is: We want to serve the community. There are some churches who kind of hole themselves up, build up the walls: 'We don't want our kids to be like anyone else.' That's not our mentality."
George's original answer was the Planet Youth Cafe, an informal hangout for kids inside the church. When Planet Youth Cafe began attracting a few hundred kids a week, George set his sights on something bigger. Bringing the Realm to life required not only gobs of money, but convincing the congregation of its worth.
"We called the project 'Hand in Hand,'" George says, linking his fingers as if to mimic the logo of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. "To reach across generations." Dissenters grumbled, but most congregants warmed to the idea. Fundraising took place mainly in the form of special offerings during services, and the folks at First Baptist gave generously. When the tally came up a little short, regular First Baptist attendee Ben Blanton -- who also happened to be the contractor on the project -- donated the rest in the form of free labor. "We raised about $1.7 million, but [he] put in the other $300,000. He gave us a sweet, sweet deal."
"I'm excited about it because Jamie's excited about it," says Blanton, whose own kids are long past Realm age. "He thought it's a need in his ministry. Jamie's a great kid. We built it, and we did it as a part of our ministry to the church, to the Christian community. We just passed on all that profit stuff."
Three large gears are mounted above the Realm's front entrance, representative of what George describes in a guide about his youth ministry as the "five essentials that lead people to balanced spiritual life development.... Each of these gears is driven by smaller gears and in each of these is written the word 'worship,'" he writes. "Without worship, the gears are useless. They will bind, rust, and have no impulsion."
The Realm isn't all about fun and games, though. Besides Fear Factor-type wildness, the center houses basement classrooms where weekly Sunday school-style classes are held. After Sunday-morning Realm programming (which includes an amped-up jam and prayer session for the junior-high set called "Awakening"), a shuttle bus takes the kids over to First Baptist for services.
Above all, George aims for the Realm to provide a safe hangout for as many kids as possible. As far as that goes, he doesn't mind picking up hitchhikers on the road of spiritual confusion. "Probably our greatest value is one of love: that people would look at us and not go, 'Oh, those people follow Christ so they're real judgmental,'" he explains. "Certainly we have convictions and standards, but first and foremost we are about love. We have lesbians, and gays, different races, different denominations, some kids that are Jewish. Some that are Catholic."
And some that are neo-Nazis. While other kids arrive at the Realm in shiny new Ford trucks, Josh Parrish is bumming a ride. A recent Realm convert, Parrish sports a shaved head, suspenders and a Third Reich tattoo with a swastika centerpiece. Though he bounces in and out of hospitals, friends' pads and his grandparents' house, he can sometimes be found at his aunt's mobile home in O'Fallon. Amid the laundered bedding drying on wire fences and the above-ground pools of the small suburban subdivision, Parrish emerges from the unit.
This is the twenty-year-old's second trip to the youth center, and he's bringing along his cousin Jacob. The two are good friends who refer to each other as brothers. The relationship is made peculiar by the fact that Jake is openly gay.
The story goes something like this: Their mothers were identical twins. Josh's mother died shortly after childbirth, and he ended up with his mother's parents in O'Fallon after his father abandoned him. A falling-out with his grandparents led him to join up with a crew of local neo-Nazis for a time; Josh now stays with friends or at his aunt's, where Jake and Jake's sister live. Jake's dad split long ago.
Before the Realm, seasoned fries, Vanilla Cokes and Marlboro Lights provide a three-course meal at a nearby Denny's. "I started when I was thirteen, so it's not really a big deal," says seventeen-year-old Jake, dismissing his smoking habit. "My mother buys them for me." The two are awaiting the arrival of Josh's fiancée, Darla, who's also the mother of his young son. An overly attentive waitstaff keeps a sharp eye on the table as the cousins discuss their beliefs, their bond and their mishaps.
"He just got out of the psych ward [at St. Joseph Health Center in St. Charles]," Jake says of Josh. Darla took him there after he overdosed on pain pills. Even worse, owing to a fight a few months back, Josh says, he can only pee with the aid of a catheter. Though he says he quit the Nazi thing when he got out of the psych ward, he still has "some belief in it." He still shaves his head and wears clothes that show off his tattoo, and he feels loyal to the St. Louis neo-Nazis who took him in when he was down and out.
"It was kind of a welcoming thing," he explains. "I found more comfort in it than I do in my own [grandparents], really. They were more accepting than any other race on the streets. Everyone else just treated me like blatant crap." His worst fight was with a group of four SHARPs, or non-racist skinheads: "They were trying to gang up on me, so I ended up bringing out a knife out on it, cutting up some people. They eventually just ran off."
Though not thrilled with his cousin's sexual orientation, Josh accepts Jake because "he's blood." Jake seems to take his future a bit more seriously than his cousin, but he's certainly done his share of fucking up. The high school dropout says he wrote $1,700 worth of bad checks recently to buy car stereo equipment. He recently entered the Job Corps program and says he's aiming to get his act together.
On this Wednesday night at the Realm, Josh, Jake and Darla listen to a band called Our Heart's Hero. "They were okay," Josh says afterward. "Weren't too bad. They had kind of like a blink-182 sound to them." They play Foosball and meet new people. Josh appears to get along well with everyone he encounters, and Jake seems particularly jazzed about the venue in retrospect.
"I had a wonderful time," he says. "It was very friendly. There were some people from my old church that I saw. The fact that they'd spend that much money on the teenagers in the community is really kind of cool."
Jake says he plans to go back. Informed of Jamie George's accepting-yet-proselytizing attitude toward gays -- "From the Bible's perspective, homosexuality is a sin. We would encourage them to start on a journey of reflection and questioning" -- he says it won't affect him.
"I'd let it go in one ear and out the other. I'll listen, but I'm not going to take it to heart. The Bible says that it's wrong? I'm Christian, I'm born again. It's just -- something happened. I can't force myself to like the opposite sex. I think it's unchangeable. It's hard to live with people coming up to you saying, 'You need to change.' It just makes you want them to leave you alone."
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.'"
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."
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.
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."
Outreach is a big part of the Realm's mission, and not only in America. Earlier this month a group of high school kids and their chaperones took their sleek sports car on the road, embarking on a two-week evangelical tour of Italy. Packing along hundreds of pounds of equipment, including electric guitars, drum sets and amps, they planned to drop in on Venice and Rome to jam. Led by The Realm's praise and worship leader (and also semiprofessional singer/songwriter), Aaron Mansfield, they'd play loud rock music -- some secular, some not -- in piazzas and hand out Bibles.
The Italy trip was just part of the Realm's plans for 2004, which have also included an "alternative prom" trip to Chicago in May, and a surprise "rite of passage" excursion for junior-high boys: After being "kidnapped" by their parents, the boys were taken camping at Cuivre River State Park, where they spent a Saturday night under the stars before returning to the Realm for the 9 a.m. Awakening, looking spent but content.
If the Realm is a Ferrari, someone has just keyed it. Upon their rainy-morning return from Cuivre River State Park, the junior-high boys are greeted by an anything-but-random act of vandalism on the side of the previously pristine youth center.
"Church is boring," reads one spray-painted scrawl.
"God kills more then [sic] he saves," reads another.
A third: "God is dead." The crude black letters are accompanied by an anarchy symbol.
At First Baptist's 10:15 service, Jamie George baptizes a couple of Realm kids in the traditional head-dunk style, then stands before the congregation.
"Can you roll that, Scott?" he asks, as soft piano music trills in the background. Soon digital photos of the desecration are being displayed on the tech-friendly sanctuary's several huge-screen monitors.
"We got our first graffiti this morning," he announces, about as awkwardly as Jamie George ever says anything. "And I had some students come and find me and say, 'Jamie, ugh, did you see what happened? Right across the wall, three or four sayings. Can you believe this has happened?' And I said, 'Yeah. I can. And I'm excited. Praise the Lord.'"
A trickle of nervous laughter emerges from the congregation.
"'God is dead.' 'God kills more than He saves.' You know what? There's the tendency to go, 'Man, it's a beautiful building. That they would go and deface that!'"
George looks out over his congregants. "Hey, it's just a building, right?" he says. "The fact is, Satan wouldn't be this hacked off if we weren't making a dent in his kingdom."
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