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Smells Like Holy Spirit

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.

But none of that wholesomeness seems to deter the Metro crowd. Tonight, it's about 1,700 strong by the time David Edwards, Metro's traveling minister-cum-guru, takes the stage.

A fixture at Metro gatherings throughout Texas, the Oklahoma City-based Edwards was key to Metro's establishment and proliferation in Houston. The colorful, baby-faced Edwards (he's in his thirties but declines to give his exact age) works the crowd like a veteran standup comedian, mike clenched firmly in hand. A hefty wallet chain dangles from his back pocket as he smoothly negotiates the stage in blue jeans, a neatly pressed button-down shirt and black combat boots, his hair slicked back in an impermeable light-brown mass. A Billy Graham, if you will, for the next millennium.

"Jesus operated as a man relying on the Holy Spirit while he lived on this earth," Edwards calls out from his perch. "That means that the way he lived, you and I can live that way also. It's attainable; it's possible; it's not something that's way out in outer space. But we need to make sure that we're coming [to Metro] for the right reasons, and we're not just here to work the room, get phone numbers and scam on people -- that we're coming here with a feeling of anticipation that God's going to be here tonight."

With a boyish voice and a fondness for addressing acquaintances as "bro," Edwards is, without a doubt, a savvy communicator. Seamlessly and with very little proselytizing, he relates his struggles as a Christian to the enthralled Metro crowd, peppering the personal anecdotes with a bit of prayer, occasional biblical references and good, clean laughs. In Edwards, the audience sees a youthful, worldly Christian with a heart of gold and spirit to match -- an example of what they too could be, if God sees fit, a squeaky-clean role model who seems more like their friends than like their parents.

"There's no point in doing this if it's going to be out of touch with reality," Edwards says after the service, which always concludes with more music from the Metro Band. "This is not hype; this is real life."

It's unlikely that Reverend Ed Young, head pastor of Houston's Second Baptist Church, could've imagined his sons taking more opposite directions in life. Young's middle child, Ben, followed closely in his dad's footsteps, attending the seminary and coming to work at Young's Memorial-area mega-ministry. But Ben's younger brother, Cliff, has another agenda. Sure, Cliff loves Jesus, but he also loves music -- folk, pop, rock and roll -- and he's passionate enough about the latter to make it his occupation.

Cliff's group is Caedmon's Call, arguably Houston's most commercially viable Christian rock group. With a sound a bit like 10,000 Maniacs, the bouncy, sophisticated, mostly acoustic sextet started out as the house band for Metro Bible Study before going on to tackle the national college circuit with surprising success. Relying heavily on word of mouth, the group built a sizable following and eventually entered into a major-label recording deal with Warner Alliance, which early last year released the self-titled CD Caedmon's Call. The band's relationship with the label has since ended. But thanks to the crossover success of evangelical rockers like Jars of Clay (whose "Flood" can be heard on the Hard Rain soundtrack), Caedmon's hopes to make it really big.

Caedmon's Call still plays the occasional gig at First Baptist, but the band's new home is on stage at Logos, another extracurricular worship service aimed at a youngish demographic group. Held Sunday nights in the Second Baptist gymnasium, Logos was started by Cliff's brother Ben last September as a more scripture-intensive version of Metro. Ben Young gears his services to a slightly older, thirtysomething audience (Metro-goers are, on average, 23). And unlike nondenominational Metro, Logos is proudly church-affiliated.

Caedmon's Call acts as the house band, opening and closing the service with a tight, emotional display of guitars, bass, drums and a Hammond B-3 organ; the act is heavy on acoustic guitars and pretty harmonies.

 

Caedmon's performs none of its own tunes at Logos; the band doesn't want to be the main attraction at a party held in God's honor. By and large, the group adheres to pepped-up reinterpretations of the contemporary hymns that waft through Baptist churches all over the South. As is the norm, lyrics to all the tunes are superimposed on a large screen for easy reading, and, as at Metro, even the worst singers don't hesitate to put their hands together and holler along at the top of their lungs.

Sandwiched between the music is Ben Young's sermon/talk, in which verses from the New Testament are applied to everyday life; most folks break out their Bibles to follow along.

It's impossible to determine how many former Metro-goers have been lured to Logos by Caedmon's Call. But if raw numbers are any indication, that portion is significant: Attendance figures at one January meeting of Logos were only a few hundred less than those at Metro the same week. Then again, it's not only possible but probable that many young people attend both services, hitting Logos Sunday and Metro the following evening. Rest assured, if there were similar events lined up for the rest of the week, those same folks would probably show up at those as well.

"It's a great time to be alive," Young exults over coffee at a westside bakery/cafe. "This is happening all over the country. There's Gen-X churches doing this stuff in New York City, Los Angeles, Denver, Waco. People are wondering if there is any truth out there -- any stability, any hope?"

Just then, "One of Us" comes over the cafe's sound system; it's the multiplatinum song in which Joan Osborne wonders what if God the Almighty were "Just a slob like one of us? / Just a stranger on the bus."

Young pauses briefly to listen. "I love this song," he admits. "I haven't heard music like this since the '60s. There's a lot of searching going on in [rock] today. Ten years ago, I don't think this sort of music would have been embraced by mainstream culture."

Not everybody believes that using pop culture to lure young people into Christianity's clutches (and keep them there) is a holy pursuit. Many hard-line fundamentalists see today's burgeoning Christian Contemporary Music industry as nothing more than a poorly camouflaged pathway to sin. A web site for the Alabama-based Dial-the-Truth Ministries goes so far as to offer a lengthy list of testimonials supposedly written by teenagers improperly swayed by these sounds.

"When I got into 'Christian' and secular rock, I went out from under my father's protection," reads one such admission, supposedly written by a 17-year-old from Texas (no gender or name is given). "I lost sleep, was rebellious, had a rotten attitude and made life miserable for my parents. I also had major impure thoughts."

The testimony continues: "I no longer listen to that music, and life is so much more enjoyable, and I have much more spiritual victory. Whenever I hear this music, I get uptight and am tempted to get back into it. Thank God I am not in it anymore."

Caedmon's Call's Cliff Young and Derek Webb find such goofy fundamentalist fodder humorous, to say the least; for them, the question is not whether rock and faith can coexist, but how to foster both.

Despite the group's strong Christianity -- or actually, because of it -- Caedmon's is trying to make it in the secular world. Over the last year or so, the band has been trying to break loose of its CCM shackles, playing bars and clubs all over the country.

"I'm going to go out on a limb and say that there shouldn't be a Christian music industry," says Webb, the band's lead guitarist. "We've got bands like Live, who are Buddhists, but apparently their music is good enough to be respected by the masses. But what we don't have is a contemporary Buddhist industry. So the bottom line is: [Christians] are the only ones who separate themselves out. You can't run from a world you're trying to reach. I mean, Christ literally submerged himself in it."

Webb, 23, and Young, 25, both look thoroughly submerged in youth culture. They sport shaved domes and frumpy, earthy attire; they convey a polite, understated sense of cool. Young prefers to go barefoot as much as possible, and his slip-on Simple sandals lie nearby. His goateed artiness contrasts with Webb's keyed-up skate-rat persona. Among the guitarist's tattoos are an ornate Canterbury cross and a detailed illustration of Celtic knot-work. The Greek word for "grace" is etched in thin black lettering around a thumb, and his latest acquisition -- a list in Latin of the five principles that defined the Protestant Reformation (Sola Scriptura [scripture alone], Solus Christus [Christ alone] and so on...) -- covers one upper arm.

 

"Humanity is the great equalizer," says Webb. "I mean, I didn't really accomplish anything in my conversion anyway, so what do I have over anyone else? If anything, I'm probably a little more in touch with what a freakin' idiot I am. I'm more in touch with how completely depraved I am, not with how righteous I am."

But that does not mean that he and the others are any less Christian, Webb points out. In fact, they plan on continuing their relationship with Logos, when not on tour. They are also outspoken when it comes to the benefits and drawbacks of Metro, their former employer.

"We're different from Metro in that we are part of a church," says Young. "Just getting up and giving this self-help speech -- it's laughing, it's comedy, blah, blah, blah. Then, [kids] leave and they say, 'Man, that was a good message. What was it about?' "

"I mean, really, wouldn't that be the great deception?" asks Webb. "For them to spend years and years in these emotional worship services getting zero truth out of it? They might as well have been out there enjoying a rock concert."

"In history, this has happened over and over again," notes Jeff Smith, a 34-year-old pastoral associate at First Presbyterian Church. "When they first brought pipe organs into the church, they came out of the pub. Calvin called them the Devil's bagpipes. Now, the pipe organ is the staid instrument in the church. In a way, we're not doing anything that different from what they did."

Smith jokes that Quest -- his church's variation on Metro's theme -- embraces an "industrial cathedral" motif. White candles stand atop tall black pedestals in front of the stage, ripped plastic sheeting hangs from the rafters above, and a large, crude driftwood cross is lashed to the scaffolding on one side. The lights are kept low through most of the service, and the requisite screen flashes song lyrics.

Smith assembled the eight-piece band 40 Days largely from First Presbyterian's congregation. The group shows a mishmash of musical influences: Smith follows a David Wilcox-like sensitive singer/songwriter muse; guitarist/singer Rick Walker shows a Nashville country fetish; and backup vocalist Laura Floyd leans toward modern rock. Exotic instrumentation -- recorder, mandolin and djembe drum -- lends the lightweight hodgepodge a comforting air of new agey-ness.

But however loosely defined the music, 40 Days' lyrics are unmistakably Christian. Consider this verse from "Psalm 5," on the band's CD: "Give ear to my words, oh Lord / Consider my sighing / Listen to my cry for help / In reverence I'll bow down / In your temple." Somehow, it's hard to imagine those words on the tongues of pop-music lovers everywhere.

But Tim Thompson, the latest addition to 40 Days, is one of those who love the music -- and Quest's modernized worship service. Smith, says Thompson, "is talking my kind of language. These other guys come across as either too old, or they're too clean or their hair's too straight...."

Just then, Christian charity gets the better of rock-and-roll attitude, and Thompson bites his lip. "The most difficult thing Christians have to overcome," he confides, "is being judgmental.


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