Tonight at Club 3 Degrees, a patron and sometime-volunteer named Sam is shooting pool in the downstairs lounge. The room is dimly lit and elegantly appointed, with sleek furniture and a bar that mirrors the one upstairs next to the dance floor. A handful of patrons sip drinks at the counter, chatting amicably with the barista. For the moment, at least, Club 3 Degrees appears to be the most typical watering hole in the world.
Apart from the absence of alcohol, that is. And the smattering of religious tokens. Sam wears a striped, collared dress shirt tucked neatly into his jeans and unbuttoned halfway to reveal a plain, silver cross atop a white cotton tee. Over his shoulder and past the bar, a hallway leads to the lower-level bathrooms. And before long, there seems to be a commotion back there: In front of the men's room a cluster of people crowd around a figure on the floor. It appears to be a woman on her knees.
Racking the balls for another game, Sam sees my look and shakes his head. "Oh," he says, "don't go back there. They're just doing some heavy praying."
"Say I embrace life," people in the group are murmuring over and over to the figure on the floor. One woman is particularly loud and forceful. "Say it! Say I embrace life!"
From the outside, Club 3 Degrees looks like your average nightclub. The bold red "3" of its logo hovers in the window, casting a wet reflection in the piss-stained gutters of North Fifth Street. Across the way, twentysomething salsa fans form a line outside the Quest, cursing and pushing, eager to get inside. Two blocks east, Dreamgirls passes out lap dances and overpriced drinks. Three blocks north, Sexworld peddles vibrators, blow-up dolls, and 50 flavors of lube.
Amidst it all, Club 3 Degrees holds down the fort with Bibles and prayer.
Upstairs, where church services and concerts are held, candles flicker on high-top tables and deep purple lights crawl along a two-story-tall checkered wall. Soda bottles, energy drinks, and juice containers line the top of the bar. Behind the counter is an espresso machine, some blenders, and a young volunteer armed with vitamin-enriched smoothie ingredients.
Onstage a four-piece band plays soft, jazzy music in front of a projection screen that bears the Club 3 Degrees logo. An excited brunette with blinding white teeth holds a microphone and gestures upward as she speaks, "You've got to hold on!" she cries to the dozens of men, women, and children who fill the chairs and lean against the walls. "Punish the devil! Mark this place in your life!"
Club 3 Degrees opened its doors in the fall of 2003, providing a sin-free alternative to the sex and booze that fuels the Warehouse District. "The whole purpose is to reach the lost," says club manager Corey Bianchi-Rossi. "To be a kind of light in the city." Promotion depended on word of mouth and glossy flyers, but with Living Word Christian Center—an 8,500-member nondenominational superchurch—footing the bill, turnout has seldom proved a problem. According to Living Word's website, club attendance has grown from 10,000 to over 40,000 people annually.
"I'm not a huge fan of the normal club scene," says Candace Rovang, a student at Bethel University who estimates that 30 of her friends regularly visit Club 3 Degrees. "[At normal clubs] you have to be part of the clique to be accepted or to understand or to even hang out, whereas this is open and welcome and I really appreciate that. It's also a safe haven even though there are people that come in there who might not be Christian."
In addition to twice-weekly church services, Club 3 Degrees boasts live music acts with top-of-the-line sound and lighting equipment and a 1,700-person capacity. On a recent balmy Saturday night, droves of teenagers poured into 3 Degrees to see Project86, a Christian hardcore band from Orange County, California. Fans crowded against the front of the stage wearing black T-shirts and studded bracelets, waiting for opening band Children18 to take the stage. Rotating ads for the Gospel Music Channel, volunteer opportunities, and the club's MySpace page appeared on the projection screen behind the drum kit as the band did a quick sound-check. Finally, they stepped offstage and made a proper entrance: jackets off, punk outfits on. The lead singer looked like an emaciated Jared Leto with thick black eyeliner and ratted black hair that stuck to his face as he sang. The guitarists threw their instruments in the air, racing from one end of the stage to another, head-banging as they scream-sang lyrics.
Out in the audience, kids jumped and yelled, singing along, waving two-fingered devil signs high above their heads.
"This song is for the rejected and the lonely," the singer growled. "But that's none of us because we're the Christian nightclub, right?"
By 9:30 p.m., the crowd was getting restless. The emcee passed out red balloons that were tied to the amplifiers, a gift from Project86. Half of the balloons popped and sank lifelessly to the floor as the audience chanted "Pro-ject! Pro-ject!" To the far right of the stage, a blond girl with heavy makeup noted to her friend, "It's kind of a bummer this crowd doesn't get into it."
Soon the stage darkened and ominous feedback crackled out of the speakers. Project86 made their entrance in a flurry of strobe lights and thick smoke. They wore black jeans and black T-shirts and looked like a blink-182 cover band. Accompanied by thrashing chords and grueling drums, lead singer Alex Schwab galloped across the stage, alternating hard fist pumps and effeminate hand gestures. "The slow burn slow steady climb this time/'Bout to reverse the movement/And I'm quite sure you know just where I'm heading," he sang. It's hard to tell whether the apocalyptic undertow of the song is getting across to the audience, but there is no shortage of enthusiasm. On two separate occasions, teenage girls got crushed by the overzealous crowd and had to be carried to the sidelines by security guards.
Though it isn't an official requirement of bands that play at 3 Degrees, many performers take a minute to spread a quick Christian message. "A question posed tonight for every soul in existence," panted Schwab. "Are you willing to risk heaven on a roll of the dice or a temporary fix or is there something greater beyond your understanding?" He paused and stared fiercely into the audience, sort of like a baby Bono, before slipping the microphone into its stand and catching the cord on his foot as he tried to strut away.
Also in this issue: Get Rich with God Pastor Mac Hammond's suburban megachurch preaches heavenly financial rewards in the here and now — if you've got the faith to give till it hurts by Beth Hawkins