"I think it was pretty lame up until a couple years ago," says Nate Larson, guitarist for the acoustic-alternative band Clear, who formed in Minneapolis and currently hold a Top 10 single on the Christian charts. "You'd hear songs that were based on secular songs chord-for-chord, and it gave Christian music a bad name. But now you have bands like Jars of Clay, who were one of the first groups to push that acoustic guitar sound mixed with loops. The music is moving forward."
A good place to see this firsthand is the New Union in northeast Minneapolis, a sort of First Avenue for J-rock. Clear were signed to the Memphis-based Ardent label after an A&R director caught them playing the club's annual new band tournament, which this year wraps up its first round on January 9. The smoke- and alcohol-free club has earned a reputation for uncompromising policies, like the ban on playing mainstream covers. But the venue's calendar is more diverse than ever. "When we started 10 years ago, heavy metal was it, as far as musical styles," says New Union director Nancy Aleksuk. "Now you see everything from swing to hip hop."
On Saturday night, the audience is far more wholesomely dressed than the Hardcore Bible Study kids, and only the baseball caps and occasional Clear T-shirt would seem inappropriate Sunday morning wear at Aleksuk's church, the Living Word Christian Center, which supports the New Union. But Nancy's husband Steve teaches his own Bible study every Saturday at midnight, using live Christian-contemporary music. And the couple says they hope the service and the venue's clubby atmosphere bring in the "unchurched."
After giving me a tour, Steve asks whether I myself am a Christian. "Um, no," I tell him. "Give me a minute," he replies, then launches into a remarkably warm pitch for God that does, in fact, come in at about 60 seconds. "He knew you before any of this," he says. "And he knew you would come here tonight."
Of course, everyone in Christian rock will tell you the music is a means to an end. But there are tactical and tonal differences. You might not notice at first that the Coffee Shock, tucked into a strip mall in St. Paul, is a Christian café. In fact, the night I catch house favorites Arch Stanton, I think I might have the wrong venue. The squeaky-clean college boys playing Big Star-style pop fit the bill, but they don't use buzzwords like "praise," "joy," or "faith"--at least not that I can hear. They even cover a song by the band who once said they were bigger than Jesus. Only upon close examination do I notice that the "X" drawn on my hand by the ticket-taker looks like a cross.
Naturally, Hardcore Bible Study isn't nearly so loose and subtle. The unofficial house band, Better Than Nothing, performs only worship songs, and there's no mistaking their meaning, since they always bring the overhead projector--even to First Avenue, where they played a benefit show last year for St. Stephen's homeless shelter. What's unusual about these guys isn't just that they take Christian rock to its musical extremes; they also reach out to extreme people, the kind who presumably wouldn't set foot in the New Union, much less a church.
"When I was a youth minister, I remember these local kids skating in the parking lot near the church," says Dan Scott, who sang in the Foxfire service and plays drums in Better Than Nothing. "I relate to people like that personally. But even if I wanted to get those kids interested, the church offered them no reason to come."
Scott was attending Northwestern Bible College at the time, but says he didn't know what to do with his life until he realized he could minister to these outsiders. "Instead of expecting people to come into this church culture that's so uncomfortable for them," he says, "my idea was, why not just totally get rid of it, and set something up where they're comfortable?"
Raised as a conservative Baptist in rural Minnesota, Scott says his parents once considered rock 'n' roll an evil. "The Peters brothers went around doing those seminars about 'back-masking,'" he says, remembering the notorious satanic-message scaremongerers and their late-night TV appearances. "I grew up with everybody really believing that. But I liked the music." When Scott heard about a youth pastor from Coon Rapids holding rock 'n' roll Bible studies in a funeral home, he knew he'd found a kindred spirit.
The preacher, Mark Johnson, had also attended Northwestern, but didn't find the inspiration for rock ministry until he took a group to Amsterdam from his Christian Missionary Alliance church. There, he witnessed David Pierce preach to Dutch punks on a boat using live music. "It was like coming home," he says. In 1993 he and a colleague, Wayne Krebs, began holding similar events in the old, unused chapel of a Coon Rapids funeral home. Nathan Hieb, a volunteer from his youth group, printed up a flier that said, "Hey punk: We don't care if you're an anarchist, atheist or satanist. Come to our Bible study."