Lee Lincoln pounded some of the first nails during the construction of the South Hills Evangelical Church back in the mid-1970s and he’s been a devoted parishioner there ever since. But two years ago, when John Erbele replaced his retiring father, Dale, as pastor, Lincoln was troubled. The conservative, traditional church that Lincoln had devoted his spiritual life to was about to undergo extensive reformation.
“When John came on board he said, ‘Hold onto your shirts,’” recalls the once skeptical 62-year-old. “At first, I didn’t like his style. I didn’t like his earrings. I didn’t like the whole thing. And I still don’t like some of it.”
Erbele, 28, looks nothing like a traditional pastor. He has pierced ears, a long, blond, shaggy mop, and is only seen wearing a tie if someone’s “getting married or buried.” Looking like a cross between Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Bodhi from Point Break, he seems more like someone you might approach for the chord changes to Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” or for a dime bag of weed. Erbele definitely can’t help you with the drugs—unless the love of Jesus is the drug you seek—but he does play a wicked guitar at Sunday services.
“Pretty much everything has changed,” says Erbele, putting down his palm pilot and turning away from the cover girl style photos of his wife that hang behind his desk. “Well, first off, I turned my father’s office into a coffee shop.”
What was once his father’s stately office in the atrium of the church is now an espresso bar called the Holy Grounds Café. The idea of Sunday worshipers sipping $1 lattes and mochas as they listen to a sermon may not fit the conventional Christian image of sin and salvation, but that didn’t stop Erbele from instituting 15-minute coffee breaks in the middle of his services.
The espresso bar may be unusual, but it’s only one of many revisions Erbele has instituted. He’s replaced the pews with chairs and added a lighting rig above the sanctuary stage, sponsored golf tournaments, snowboard clubs and rock concerts, and built a nine-hole folf course, a beach volleyball court and a skate park behind the church. All of which are meant to serve two purposes: to cultivate new relationships with God, and among one another.
“I do anything to get people involved and excited,” Erbele says. “From fishing for trout out of a tank to wearing a coconut bra.”
Looking at the numbers, Erbele’s eccentric style of ministry appears to be working. Two years ago, the church was lucky if 40 people showed up for a service. These days they’re running two services every Sunday and averaging about 300 people at each one.
“Several times I wanted to leave but I decided to stick it out,” admits Lincoln. “I can’t argue with his success. I don’t agree with everything he does, but I back him entirely.”
The South Hills Evangelical Church—or as some parishioners fondly call it, SHEC—may be rare in Montana’s Christian community, but similar churches are cropping up all across the country. In small pockets throughout the United States, progressive Christians are rebelling against traditional styles of worship. In Los Angles Catholic priests are marrying, in Maine gays and lesbians are being welcomed into the fold, and in Missoula Christians are working to build alliances with metal heads and skateboard punk rockers.
New cover on an old book
It’s Sunday morning and the 10:30 service at SHEC—the second and more popular service of the day—is about to begin. Some electronica music plays mildly from the PA system. People chat, hug, laugh, and sip coffee or iced, pastel-pink concoctions topped with whipped cream. There’s a young girl–a high schooler or perhaps a college student–with effulgent streaks of blue hair listening intently. She looks as conservative as one can look and still have blue hair.
Erbele silently takes the stage along with another guitarist, a bassist, a drummer and a keyboard player. The service begins with no announcement or formal welcome. Instead, Erbele just plugs his acoustic guitar into an amp and begins strumming a quick groove.
The rest of the band joins in. Half a song has expired and the bassist is already slapping and popping with real funk. The congregation sings along.
Erbele’s goal of taking his message “high tech and high touch” is evident from the massive screen hanging above the band, which asks parishioners to make www.shec.net their home page and providing lyrics to the songs being performed. In between numbers, Erbele speaks of praising God and raises one hand high in the air in the style of U2 vocalist Bono. The experience genuinely echoes a rock concert were it not for a few 60 year-old couples in the back of the sanctuary and the stream of infants being past among friends and relatives.
After a few more songs and the get-to-know-your-neighbor coffee break—a young woman, midriff exposed, chats into her cell phone, “No, I’m at church. I’ll call you later”—Erbele begins his sermon. As church elders distribute an assortment of Christian dog tags to the congregation out of KFC buckets—the sermon’s theme is “Property of God: Our Identity In Christ”—Erbele draws links between Romans 8:12 and the fans at Griz games, a bad burrito from Taco Bell and Top Gun (his favorite movie). Speaking to the congregation at floor level–Erbele has since removed his father’s pulpit—words like “dude” and “awesome” pepper the admonishment.
“I could care less about [reaching] ‘Christian people,’” he says. “I’m after people that are hurting, people that need help, that are looking for a community.”
It’s a hot Tuesday afternoon in August and most of the local kids have stayed away from the asphalt and gooey tar of the parking lot/skate park behind the South Hill Evangelical Church. On some days, there are as many as 25 kids here at the Flip Side Skate Park on skateboards, bikes, skates, and scooters. Today there are only three.
Circling each other on the far side of the lot are two third graders on scooters. They look like typical church-going tykes–full pads and helmets, clean shirts and smiles. The third kid, Cody, doesn’t look the part. Wearing a black T-shirt, black backwards baseball cap, worn sneakers and a silver chain, he “ollies up” onto a rail, lands and slips off his board. He mutters something under his breath, picks up the deck and tries again.
Cody is a 17-year-old high school student who, though not a member of SHEC’s congregation, is still a regular behind the church. “I come up to Missoula [from his home in Florence] three, maybe four times a week during the summer and always stop by to skate,” he says.
Cody learned about the park from an older friend, a 20-year-old who has landed a professional sponsorship from a skateboard company and who favors Flip Side to other local skater haunts. Cody admits that he didn’t even notice that he was skating in a church parking lot the first few times he skated here. He doesn’t think most of the kids here even notice the church, and believes only a small minority of them ever attend services. For Cody it’s not about religion, it’s about the half pipe.
The only other skating facility of equivalent size in the area is at the Missoula YMCA. It boasts more and bigger pipes and rails but doesn’t afford skaters the freedom that Flip Side does.
“It’s costs like five bucks,” says Cody. “And you have to wear helmets and pads.”
Unlike the YMCA, Flip Side has no attendant to enforce its rules or safety standards. It’s just kids and their boards, which seems like a potential disaster—in fact, a few broken bones have already occurred.
Early in Erbele’s tenure several of the church elders approached him with the problem. “How do we keep skateboarders off our property?” they asked. Kids had been using the parking lot to skate even before the ramps and rails were built. Related or not, the church was also being vandalized frequently, with a least one major incident, like a smashed window, every year.
Since Flip Side was put in, no drug paraphernalia, beer cans or spray painted graffiti have turned up. The vandalism that plagued the church in the past has disappeared. Other than a few crushed pop cans at the end of every night, the plan, as Erbele predicted, has been a success.
“What I did was turn a negative into a positive,” says Erbele. “I told them, ‘If you build them a skate park they will leave everything else alone.’”
What has yet to succeed is the park’s other mission: getting the skaters inside the church. As of now, the only people who have been taking advantage of the Flip Side’s indoor youth group –the church basement was converted into a youth center featuring Ping-Pong and pool tables, satellite TV and video games—have been the kids in the congregation.
“The kids in the youth group are the kids who belong to the church, period,” admits SHEC youth pastor Justin Vegge.
Earlier this summer, Vegge undertook the challenge of reaching the skaters—kids who have backed away from the church or never belonged, or those who feel they don’t fit Christianity’s clean-cut image. By Vegge’s estimation these aren’t necessarily troubled kids—unless you consider not finding God troubled—though some do smoke or drink, and about half have divorced parents.
Last week, during a back-to-school bash organized by Vegge, the skate park was full of kids. But mostly it was those with the youth groups who knew it was a special event. While young Christians charged through town on a scavenger hunt, the neighborhood locals opted not to participate. They were content to giggle, gossip and skate. Even a few youth group kids bussed in from Florence skipped the scavenger hunt to socialize with Missoula boys and girls outside the building.
“My first goal is to just get them inside,” Vegge says. “That’s half the battle. The second goal is to have them hear the Gospel.”
Though none of the secular skaters have ventured inside, both Vegge and Erbele remain optimistic.
“Hopefully, they’ll hear the word,” says Vegge. “I guess you could say using the skate park is underhanded, but it’s for a good thing.”
The rock of salvation
Even before John Lennon proclaimed The Beatles to be “bigger than Jesus,” rock music and organized religion have had a thorny past. The cliché of John Lithgow’s fundamentalist, dance-hating ministers in Footloose has often been the reality. Even in the 1980s, when Christian rock began to boom and started becoming acceptable in scriptural circles, there wasn’t much bite to the stuff; most of it was benign Amy Grant-style bubble gum. Even rambunctious Christian rockers Stryper left much to be desired when compared to their secular brethren Metallica or Guns ’n’ Roses. But things have changed.
Over the summer, SHEC sponsored its second annual Christian rock concert. The first concert, commemorating the opening of Flip Side, was just a small affair held at the church and featured a few innocuous local bands. This year SHEC brought the nationwide Fireproof Tour to the Missoula County Fairgrounds, featuring three of Christian rocks biggest, most stentorian bands: Pillar, The Benjamin Gate, and East West.
A long way from Stryper, the three groups more closely resemble Limp Bizkit, Marilyn Manson and other rapcore, goth rock and grunge acts. Their sound is right on: distorted, speed metal riffs and vociferous vocals. As is their look: tattooed forearms, black hooded sweatshirts, dreadlocks, and Mohawks. On stage they even use the same moves as their secular peers—Pillar lead singer Rob Beckley swaggers with Allen Iverson’s bravado and gesticulates like Fred Durst, and The Benjamin Gate bassist Costa Balamatsias has mastered Flea’s bounce and pop.
The bands rocked so hard that some fans had trouble discerning what actually makes these bands Christian acts.
Near the back of the crowd at the fairgrounds, Sam and Paden, both 15-year-old boys, bob their heads to the bass thump of a familiar genre. Paden leans more toward the Blink-182/Sum-41, Warped Tour skate punk side, while Sam leans toward the Godsmack/Slipknot, Ozzfest headbanger side. Neither has heard of these bands before, but on this evening they’re impressed.
“I’m surprised,” says Paden of all three bands’ performances, citing East West and their full-throttle guitar attack as his favorite. Neither one of the boys plans on picking up a CD other than the free Pillar discthat came with the ticket.
“They’re good,” says Sam. “But there’s other stuff I’d want to buy, other stuff I’d want to listen to.”
Neither of them knows what to make of the concert’s larger message. They both know a church sponsored the concert, but not the one their families belong to. They know the bands are pro-God but they don’t feel like they’re being preached to.
“To be honest, I couldn’t tell what he was saying,” admits Sam, about the screaming lyrics of East West leader singer Mike Tubbs.
To anyone who’s never heard the songs, most of the bands’ lyrics are indecipherable, other than the occasional “Thank you!” or “Sing with me!” and neither The Benjamin Gate nor East West spoke much to the crowd. The exception was Pillar, whose lead singer performed an impromptu sermon mid-set.
“It’s all about unity,” Beckley shouts to the crowd. “All the races and countries, all the different churches, we all need to unite under Christ. Christ our king.”
Sam and Paden watch intently. They cease their head-bobbing and toe tapping as if straining to listen or make sense of it. Pillar move back into their song and Beckley picks up the chorus.
For a moment, missionary and rock star have merged. While many of rock’s founding rebels may turn restlessly in their graves, both burgeoning church and hopeful rock icon rejoice. Strange bedfellows they may be, but the bands and the church sponsoring the event are working in symbiosis.
Several weeks later Erbele reflects on the concert’s success. “We only expected about 500,” says Erbele. “So 950 was a great surprise.”
Even though the church lost money on the event, Erbele considers it money well spent and is already planning Sonfest—featuring the nationally-touring, R & B oriented Katinas—for later this month. He didn’t get into concert promotion as a money making endeavor. Instead, he subscribes to the “if one person found salvation it was worth every penny” ethos.
If leaders of Missoula’s Christian community are taken aback by Erbele’s unorthodox embrace of rock music and skateboarding, certainly none of them is criticizing him.
“John’s a fine young man,” says fundamentalist Minister Harris Himes of the Big Sky Christian Center, a facility in the Bitterroot used by liberal and conservative congregations alike. “He does use rock, but his music programs are still certainly Christian oriented.”
Clark Fork Christian Center Pastor Steve Valentine agrees. His ministry, like Erbele’s, takes a progressive approach to attracting members which also incorporates rock music and a “radical” youth group called Riptide. About 10 years ago, Valentine wasn’t sure he concurred with Erbele-style proselytizing but has since come around. Like many pastors, he doesn’t quibble about the vehicle so long as it’s used to teach the Gospel.
“We need to use the mediums but still have strong Bible ties,” Valentine says. “John’s a young guy that loves God with all his heart. There is nothing non-Christian about that.”
Valentine explains that there are hundreds of other progressive ministries like his and Erbele’s around the country, and he routinely travels with his youth group to Christian concerts and festivals in places like Seattle and Portland. But for some, like Lincoln, it is difficult to imagine that any pastor’s services are as informal or modern as Erbele’s.
Even the hip, youthful Vegge was initially shocked.
“This [church] is extremely laid back,” he says. “But that’s what I like about it. Coming here has been refreshing and it’s going somewhere that the Bible and Jesus point to.”
After all, it’s people like Sam, Paden and Cody that Erbele is interested in. Erbele has had amazing success with the already devoted and the fence-sitters: college students, young couples, married and unmarried, and their children. What he has yet to do is reach the stragglers at the Fireproof show, the teens who hang out in the church parking lot on Friday nights, the metal heads and skaters who are still missing from the Sunday services. These are the people Erbele really wants to reach, the ones he believes need the church more than anyone.
When you take away the ample caffeine dosages, the Gibson guitars, and the half pipes, what’s left is a familiar message, the same one espoused by a thousand churches around the world: Give your life to Jesus Christ and your place in heaven will be secure. When faced with the alternatives—eating dinner at home with their parents or watching TV at a friend’s house—the three youths have chosen the rock and roll/skate park options that SHEC provides.
Whether they will ever come inside remains to be seen. But perhaps that’s not the point. Maybe it’s more simple than that. It could be that providing safe alternatives is all these progressive Christians can offer them. If someone joins the flock, great. If not, at least they’re not getting high and making bad choices at a Limp Bizkit show.
“The people that come here will get loved on,” says Erbele.
It’s quite a progressive Christian catch phrase, “get loved on.” But Erbele says it applies to everyone—slackers, skeptical elders, stoners and skaters—whether they know it or not.