The sun is hanging low over the water at Alki Beach, casting streaks of pink and gray that sparkle off the waves as they crash into the sand. Guitar chords float over the crowd of teenagers who have gathered here on a Wednesday evening in late summer. • The area around them is littered with guitar cases and skateboards, as a 17-year-old named Jono stands and speaks over the quiet guitar riff.
"I don't know where you are in your walk with God right now, but if you have any doubts, just look at that," he says, turning and pointing at the now-glowing horizon. "Looking at that, there is no way there could be no God; there is no way scientists or whoever could be right about us being created from some blast in space. That should be all the proof you need."
Jono is a member of Skate Church, a West Seattle congregation that hosts youth-focused events ranging from skateboarding to rock concerts to paintball excursions. "We believe having fun is not a sin," says 20-year-old Pastor Brennan Pebbles, when asked what makes Skate Church different from most youth groups today.
Pebbles can be found most days at TORN, an Alaska Junction skate shop that doubles as Skate Church's sanctuary. The rectangular store has couches instead of pews, energy drinks and candy instead of coffee and doughnuts, and a drum set and several amps in its worship center. Pebbles wanted to create a place where teens would choose to come and hang out, and not just once a week. He believes "just coming together on Sundays is not church, because church should be something that is happening all the time." To keep the congregation coming back the rest of the week, the store also contains a PlayStation video game console, skating footage projected on a huge hanging screen, and skateboard decks and related paraphernalia for everyone to drool over and consider purchasing.
After bouncing from space to space for about five years in search of a place that would play host to their youthful vision, Skate Church's founding pastor, Serena Wastman (a parent of one of the youth congregants), hooked up with the open-minded Foursquare denomination, which agreed to help the congregation find a permanent home. Foursquare, which was founded by Aimee Semple McPherson in 1923, has a fairly tolerant faith doctrine, and church planting and missionary work are among its foremost goals.
On June 22, TORN opened its doors on California Avenue, selling skateboarding products at discount prices, thanks in no small part to the church's nonprofit status and all-volunteer staff. Here, name-brand skate decks go for up to $20 less than at the store's secular counterparts, and flyers advertise TORN as the best place for candy and energy drinks because the shop is "cheaper than 7-11...closer than Safeway."
"When I first walked in [to Skate Church], a bunch of different people were playing music," says 14-year-old Nicole Roberts. "Normally you think of church as a bunch of old people in pews, wearing their Sunday best, but you don't have to be that here; you just have to be normal."
"Normal" to Roberts apparently means the following: painting her right-hand nails Sharpie black and her left-hand nails Liquid Paper white; and wearing her hair in a choppy cut, dyed black on top and straightened so it falls strategically over her heavily made-up eyes. In fact, most of the teens at Skate Church hardly fit the "churchgoer" stereotype that you may be used to, at least on the outside.
Like the handful of churches that are experiencing youthful population growth right now, Skate Church is giving teens what they want: life answers, an accepting peer group, and plenty of energy drinks to boot. Says 16-year-old member Chris Redman, "When we started thinking about starting a church, skating was just starting to blow up, and we thought...kids will just, like, flock to us."
If this sounds like a church only a teenager could dream of, that's because it is. But while their alternative looks may suggest the sort of open-minded beliefs usually associated with the skating scene, chip away to Skate Church's conservative ideological core, and the whole pierced-eyebrow facade begins to look a lot like a classic bait and switch.
Among the photos that plaster the walls of TORN, one stands out. It shows a picture of a boy dressed like Marilyn Manson: the long hair, the piercings, the makeup, the black leather. The words next to this portrait read: "What is wrong with this picture?" Underneath that: "Absolutely nothing."
"Some people look at this kid and look only on the outside, and think, 'There must be something wrong with that,'" says Jono, pulling the picture down. "But you gotta look inside....[Other churches] are just really old-fashioned. They see if it's loud or black, then it must be evil. They don't look on the inside."
Youth pastor Pebbles goes on to explain Skate Church's cultural tolerance thusly: "Jesus says you should be in the world, but not of the world. We should be hanging out with the druggies on the street, but not like them. And sure, I love all the crazy music out there.If you start doing what the music says, though, that's another story."
In the words of Katie Corcoran, a Ph.D. student who teaches sociology of religion at the University of Washington, Skate Church "can give [young people] the best of both worlds: a strong religious identity, but also allow them to be a part of that secular world that is so important to youth of today."
While Jono hopes people will become more tolerant of the clothes his congregation dons and encourages people to "look on the inside," this mind-set apparently only holds for certain societal deviants. These Christian teens may be clamoring to escape what they deem "conservative" churches, but don't think that means the religious right is going to topple any time soon—it's just getting a face-lift.
One Sunday evening at a Skate Church service, Wastman, the senior pastor, encourages the young evangelists not to "believe for one minute what I have to say, or what any televangelist has to say. You go home and you look it up." Wastman then holds up her Bible, emphasizing her belief that open-mindedness ends somewhere between the books of Genesis and Revelation.
Another example of this doublespeak comes from Pebbles, who says he would treat someone engaging in sinfully gay behavior with a support first/change later tactic. "If someone comes to us and is openly gay, then we'd give them a chance to change," he says. "We believe that you aren't born gay, and that you can make the choice to change and live for God. I've even known pastors who have been gay during their lives, and it is something they struggle with. But they know they have to change to live with their wife, and for God."
A well-respected granddad to the Seattle skating scene, Inner Space Indoor Skatepark owner Mike Martinez has watched Christian groups embrace skateboarding for the last decade to varying degrees. And while he feels some of these organizations are mostly harmless, he adds, "Skateboarding is a cool thing because it's artistic and kind of free. To use it as a tool to get people into religion, I don't really support that."
On the other hand, one of Martinez's best friends, Scott Yamamura, is a skater for West Coast Christian skating group Boarders for Christ. Martinez even hosts BFC events at his park, explaining that the group doesn't use skating as an evangelical tool. "When they throw a contest, it's just a regular contest," he says. "It's not really preaching; they are just supporting skateboarding."
Recently, though, Martinez attended a skating event in Redmond that he knew was being put on by a Christian skating group. He assumed it to be like the BFC events: mostly skating, not so much praying. Martinez says he was more than appalled by what he found when he got there.
"It felt like it was a cult," Martinez says, sounding genuinely disturbed as he describes the fenced-off, deserted area surrounding the event, the booths of preachers and groups of kids praying and preaching, and the skating gear being sold that was designed to look just like popular skating brands—but actually contained Christian messages. His language grows colorful as he remembers the image that greeted him when he first walked in: "Big huge posters of aborted fetuses, not just one, but five in a row.[They're] the first thing you see, and I'm thinking, 'Holy shit! What the hell is going on?'"
But for the most part, skaters aren't fazed anymore by the Christian involvement in their sport. Martinez, who witnesses the skating demographic daily at his park, agrees. "There is definitely a section of skateboarding that is Christian, but it's not as dominant as [Christians] would want it to be. Most kids are just like, 'Fuck that shit. Whatever.' A lot of kids laugh at that stuff."
Chris Redman is playing with his skateboard under his feet at the front desk of TORN. Redman came to Christianity without any prior religious experience; in fact, he came because he was falling in with a bad crowd. A few years ago, he was spending his time hanging out with a group of skaters who were into vandalism, drugs, and drinking, and after getting arrested a couple of times himself for vandalism, Redman followed a friend to Skate Church.
"When I was, like, 13, I had to look up what being baptized was. I wasn't exposed to anything until I started going to youth group," he says. Today, Redman takes that experience of knowing what troubled teens are looking for to the streets, and to skateboard parks. "We don't try to slam kids with a whole bunch of church stuff. We just hang out, maybe skate, and become friends [with them]; then we'll do what we do...[and] that gives them a choice whether they want to follow us and follow God, or just watch."
Reaching out to the younger generation is a goal many churches have found themselves struggling with of late. The "old people in pews" stereotype that Roberts refers to at more traditional churches may become a reality as the young-adult age group dwindles.
Pastor Don Horrell at Haller Lake Baptist Church in North Seattle describes his congregation as "the mostly 55 and better crowd." Haller Lake holds two services on Sundays, the people sit in pews, and congregants are promised "a welcome smile and a warm handshake," as well as "traditional coffee time" after services.
Facing the problem of disappearing youth, Horrell has begun to blend the traditional hymns sung at Sunday service with a few contemporary Christian songs, but without much benefit. When it comes to secularism, though, Horrell draws the line deep, without even considering touting music that isn't found in the "Christian music" section as acceptable. "Rock music can be Christian music; we can certainly use Christian rock music," he says. "There is nothing inherently right or wrong about that."
While churches like Haller Lake struggle to reach out to the youth generation without giving up their traditional theologies, churches like Mars Hill in Ballard (with a satellite congregation in West Seattle), which employs elements of popular culture in its sermons and puts on edgy Christian music concerts, and South Seattle's Christian Faith Center, which podcasts youth sermons on its Web site and has youth services that look more like rock concerts, have two of the largest youth congregations in the Seattle area.
According to UW's Corcoran, churches that embrace secular culture are becoming increasingly popular as a way to reach out to youth. "In the past, groups have had very conservative theologies that haven't really ever attracted youth, specifically if it says you can't listen to rock music," she says. "Now they are keeping their theologies the same but are changing the packaging and saying that [youth] can still listen to rock music or skateboard, but can do so in a way that's still religious."
Skate Church's teaching pastor, 16-year-old Jackson Neumiller, experienced this antipathy for the traditional Christian setting at a young age. She often tells people, "I did grow up going to church, but I didn't like it. I was the kind of kid who skipped Sunday school.I never came to Christ when I was younger because I couldn't relate to a 59-year-old man in a robe."
Neumiller wasn't the only one contemplating religious rebellion at age 10. Her good friend Natalie Wastman and a group of skating seventh-graders all felt as if they were a burden to the rest of the church they were attending at the time. Their old church may not have realized the role secularism played in their unhappiness, but Serena Wastman, Natalie's mother and current senior pastor of Skate Church, sure did.
Wastman, a retired Microsoft employee, fits right in with the young congregation. A woman of small stature with a youthful, pretty face, she walks around the TORN store barefoot. Folding her legs under her on the couch next to Natalie and her friends, she joins in on jokes about explosives on the Fourth of July and discusses horror movies.
"This is completely run by the kids," she insists, before pausing for a moment and smiling at the group around her. "But, you know, we have to have adults around, just to make sure nothing insane happens."
Jono rings up a boy for a snack-size bag of Cheetos and a Dr Pepper at the TORN cash register during West Seattle Summerfest. Around TORN, Jono is a leader: He knows the products they sell, organizes people at events, and wants to go to school to become a youth pastor and a cop. His jovial personality and sweet demeanor peg him immediately as the lovable, high-school class-clown type. He was a skater when the group was just beginning, but later shattered his ankle, an injury from which he is still recovering.
While having to quit skating didn't keep Jono from his Skate Church friends, it had other impacts on his social life. "I used to have a whole bunch of friends [who were skaters but not Christian]," he says. "[But] over the years, I lost connection with them. Those friends did a whole bunch of stuff I just wasn't into."
Having to make social sacrifices is one thing, but when it comes to religion, many kids face resistance at home as well. "My parents say they're Christian, but you know, they don't go to church or anything," says Jono. "My dad thought I was being brainwashed or something."
For teens who see other kids getting themselves in trouble every day, the ability to choose Jesus over drugs is a lot easier when you have a group of friends who will support your decision. Shiloh Mulkin, 17, goes to Chief Sealth, a school he describes as "very nonreligious." But even when he is laughed at or turned down when he invites people at school to Skate Church events, he still stands strong in his desire to change the skater image for the benefit of his, as well as future, generations. "A lot of the skating scene that I've witnessed is drugs and stuff, and we're just trying to give kids a different alternative," he says. "We don't want people to see just smoking and doing drugs and skating, and see them as all together."
Different churches are treating secular influences with varying degrees of acceptance. "It is probably healthier to find out where it is that God is moving and get in on that, rather than saying, 'This is where the culture is at, let me get in on that,' and bring God there," says Seattle First Covenant Church's pastor, Mark Nilson.
Serena Wastman and her Skate Church charges, however, know exactly where the culture is moving and aren't afraid to incorporate it into their religion. Pebbles remembers thinking when they first had their vision of a youth church that catered specifically to skaters, "We could reach out to the more lost or harder to reach—skaters, alcoholics, those type of people who love music—[then] develop a way to draw them in by [using] events, demos, and heavy-metal music."
Pebbles himself was a skater when the church started, and like many of the other founding members, he had a desire to become the shepherd for their "more lost" skater friends. Catering to this crowd, however, means the leaders of Skate Church don't expect perfection. One afternoon, a group of teens are gathered at TORN, and a boy playing PlayStation screams, "Oh man! What the hell was that!?" as his character dies on-screen.
Natalie Wastman, Neumiller, and Roberts don't even flinch at this outburst. Natalie explains that at Skate Church, things like swearing are accepted—even encouraged, if that's how you would normally act. "We always say who you are away from church is who you should be at church, too," she says. "So if you swear outside of church, then you should feel comfortable to swear here. Then we work on our problems together, here, as a group.
"The funny thing is, when I teach, I really don't think it's me talking at all," continues Natalie. "I have to really completely accept what [God's] telling me." Natalie adds that she knows it isn't her carefully prepared words that usually come out during a lesson, but God's. "I get up there and I find myself saying words, saying verses I don't even know, that just come out. It's really cool."
These youth might tell you it is God's choice as to what words come out of their mouths, but regardless of what they say, naturally these lessons of faith will be a lot more credible to other teens when they hear them from people their own age.
Weekly TORN services begin at 7 p.m. on Sunday night, since, as Serena Wastman puts it, "Skateboarders don't wake up until 3 in the afternoon!" One recent Sunday, a crowd of 30 or so teens gathered, many wearing black sweatshirts emblazoned with sayings like "Satan Sucks" or "Straight Edge Warrior."
The elder Wastman welcomes everyone to service, while behind her the worship team begins to play music, and she opens in enthusiastic prayer. "We pray that thy kingdom come, here on earth as it is in heaven," she says. "We lift up Jesus as a banner; Lord God be glorified in every way. We lift you up, we give all glory and honor to you, Lord Jesus; we lift you up. In Jesus' name, Amen." She then cues the worship team: "Let's rock! Amen."
Chris Redman pounds the drum set in front of him, closing his eyes at times while his lips move to the lyrics of the Christian song. The pounding syncopation and piercing electric guitar inspire a moshlike atmosphere in the front two rows. Pebbles encourages the congregation to "lose it for God," saying God won't answer them unless they clap and raise their hands energetically.
Serena Wastman joins the crowd, barefoot and full of energy, jumping up and down and throwing her hands in the air. Whooping along to the music, she runs circles around the rest of the congregation, which claps and sings, rocking out for Jesus.