By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
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By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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It's 7:15 on a weeknight, and the auditorium at Houston's First Baptist Church is rocking to high heaven; God's children are whipping up a polite frenzy. On stage, a band is laying down a perky, harmony-laden folk-rock groove. Most of its seven members are clad in oversized T-shirts and worn jeans, and the rail-thin, male lead singer is barefoot. The kids in the front row look possessed, their bodies swaying, eyeballs rolled back, lids half-closed, mouths reciting the lyrics to songs they'd know in their sleep:
Every breath I take / I breathe in you / Every move I make / I make in you.
As lips move, faces assume expressions of bliss that would seem at home at an Oasis concert. But during the music's loudest, most emotional moments, the audience erupts into ... spirituality. "I could feel the Holy Spirit in there," gushes 22-year-old Alison Ashworth. "It was so awesome."
Welcome to Metro Bible Study, a giddy, postmodern mix of sermonizing, prayer and pop music tucked neatly into a sleek, exceedingly safe package. Among a handful of alternative worship services in Houston geared toward the young and single set, Metro draws anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 supplicants weekly, most of them white adolescents. And like-minded congregations are gaining momentum fast, attracting numbers well into the hundreds -- even the thousands. These, too, use live, rock-oriented music as both a catalyst for worship and the proverbial carrot on a stick to lure reluctant newcomers into the fold -- lost souls searching for a version of Christ who speaks to them.
Right now, Metro's Monday services consistently claim the largest turnouts. The quasi-hip singles ministry has hit on a winning combination of arresting, down-with-it leadership, session-quality musicianship and snazzy business cards, the last of which are scattered throughout the area on a regular basis by faithful attendees. At once watered-down and jazzed-up, Metro's philosophy stresses self-help as much as scripture.
"This is my thing," Ashworth says of her Metro experience. "People come here for different reasons. I come here to be with God."
She beams, her cheeks flushed, her dark brown eyes alight as she savors her surroundings. Dressed in dark slacks, a gray cardigan and a white blouse buttoned up to the neck, the Lee College student is one of a handful of early birds patiently watching and waiting inside the mostly empty auditorium. Just in front of her, the Metro Band is warming up with a punchy version of Counting Crows' "Omaha."
"If the first song they hear is a song they know, then they really get into it," Ashworth explains. Personally, she's partial to Phil Collins.
For many of the regulars at Metro, tattoos, body piercings and a streetwise fashion sense belie an intense religious faith. For others, Metro's well-choreographed mixers serve more as a well-scrubbed underage nightclub, a place to see live music, chill with friends or find a date -- and with no cover charge at the door. For still others, such as Ashworth's khaki-and-oxford-cloth contingent, this might be the only serious hanging out that they, or their parents, feel comfortable with.
Whatever the draw, it's proven itself over time. Metro, the granddaddy of Houston alt-worship, is celebrating its fourth anniversary this year. And though it's hardly the only service of its kind (thriving Gen-X-geared worship programs can also be found in Colorado, Washington state, Virginia, Florida and many other locales), in clerical circles, it's perhaps the best known.
The group's mission statement -- to "meet young, single adults wherever they are in life and bring them one step closer to knowing Jesus Christ" -- originated in Atlanta, where the first Metro was founded more than 15 years ago at the Mt. Paran Church of God. Since then, Metro's informal, youth-oriented format has spread throughout Texas to Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin. A nonprofit entity subsisting totally on the weekly contributions of its attendees, Metro is not a franchise, though its name and general concept have been informally acquired by churches in Texas and elsewhere around the South.
"Certainly, most of the organizers of the various Metros know of each other," says Houston Metro co-founder Mark Palmer. "But they aren't linked in any real way." Though the First Baptist auditorium provides the forum, Metro takes pride in its pan-Christian inclusiveness. Organizers boast that some 200 congregations and 20 different denominations might be represented on any given night.
It's easy to spot newcomers at Metro. They're the clueless-looking souls with awkward grins, crimson-faced and struggling to take it all in. More often than not, though, they're singing, swaying and clapping along with everyone else by night's end; there's no denying the potency of the Metro high for those who partake.
Although loosely categorized as rock, the music that is pushed at Metro is best described as upbeat folk pop -- catchy and propulsive, yet oddly devoid of the rebellious undercurrent that usually fuels rock and roll. The lyrics, which flash conveniently on two screens high above the Metro Band, are even safer: Their simple rhyme schemes offer praise to the Lord and quote biblical doctrine.
Mosh pits are unheard of, and the event is substance-free, even in the parking lot outside. No clove cigarette smoke hangs heavy in the air, and well-worn Bibles are more common than pagers. Kids can return to devout households without a trace of sin lingering on their persons. Their pockets, though, may be a bit lighter: The movie-theater popcorn tubs passed around the audience fill up quickly with cash donations.