Originally published in 2012
The church service started behind the heavy black curtain of a Williamsburg dive bar one Sunday evening in October. Two electric guitarists—a man in his 40s and a young guy in a trucker’s hat with a blond beard as big as cotton candy—called it to order with a song about Jesus, the lyrics projected onto a screen. Beneath a rotating disco ball, about 20 young Brooklynites slumped back on mismatched couches and metal folding chairs for a weekly service at Trash Bar.
The pastor of North Brooklyn Vineyard, Mike Turrigiano, a 62-year-old in an army green cap and clear, thick-framed glasses, led the service from a stool on stage. He talked about hearing the voice of God.
“For some, it might be a little tricky and a little weird,” he said, his Bronx Italian upbringing sticking on every word. But, he explained, God speaks to his children and guides them to better places, better choices, a better life. He referenced scripture and offered suggestions to first-timers—be relaxed, in a peaceful place, don’t try too hard—but he wasn’t telling anybody what to do. “Just sharing a couple of tips.”
The approach, which Turrigiano describes as “prescriptive, rather than directive,” appears to resonate with the 70 or so mostly young congregants who pay a weekly visit to either his more traditional morning service at P.S. 132, or the dark back barroom on Grand Street. In the seven years since Turrigiano’s church arrived in the neighborhood, welcoming anyone who wants to take a peek behind the curtain, it has attracted a demographic more likely to be doing just about anything than going to church.
According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, adults under 30 are driving a movement away from religion and no group is more affected than Protestants. More than one in three adults under 30 polled, the majority of whom were brought up in a Protestant tradition, said they now had no religious affiliation at all. The trend toward secularization has been largely chalked up to the perception, among many millennials, that religion is judgmental, homophobic and tangled up in conservative politics.
“There is a big image issue out there in American culture,” said Nancy T. Ammerman, professor of the sociology of religion at Boston University’s School of Theology. “If younger adults hear evangelical they’re going to…automatically think anti-gay, they’re going to think straight-laced morality, they’re going to think almost like Mitt Romney Mormon in terms of lifestyle.”
A number of Brooklyn churches, however, are quietly—and successfully—beating back that perception with a gentler brand of Christianity that is more inquisitive than dogmatic, and led by pastors who either embrace the socially liberal values of their communities, or consciously bite their tongues.
Forefront Church is one of the most recent churches to land in Brooklyn. Billed as an independent Christian church, Forefront arrived in Downtown Brooklyn in September with the support of two church-planting groups, The NewThing Network and Orchard Group.
Led by Jonathan Williams, a 34-year-old pastor with a freshly inked forearm, Forefront’s services have looked more like concerts than religious events. On a recent Sunday, about 100 people—not one with gray hair—streamed into Roulette, an experimental music venue that houses the church.
Forefront’s six-piece band, led by Williams’ petite wife Jubi, kicked off services with an indie pop number by The Head and the Heart. Congregants, taking a break from the coffee they sipped and bagels they chewed, stood up to sing along.
Besides the apparent youthful lean—social media references, the pastor’s laid-back delivery (“Jesus was like, you got what I’m sayin’? I’m gonna die, tomorrow!”)—it was church. There was standing and sitting, there was praying and communion. There was scripture and the sign of peace (wherein people turn to their neighbors and say “peace be with you”).
What does set Forefront apart from more traditional churches, and even some alternative churches like North Brooklyn Vineyard, is its explicit invitation to all people, “regardless of belief or background … gay or straight.”
Stef Fontela, a 27-year-old graphic designer who came out nine years ago, was pleasantly surprised to find that Forefront’s invitation had no strings attached. In both her native San Francisco and later in Brooklyn, she encountered pastors who would tell her that she was “more than welcome to be part of the community,” but would add that her sexuality was “clearly a sin,” she recalled. At Forefront however, she breathed a big sigh of relief when Williams and his wife “liked” a gay pride post on her Facebook wall and later asked her if she could baby-sit their kids.
Williams’ open-arms approach reflects his rejection of the sort of judgmental God he grew up with as a member of a conservative evangelical congregation on Long Island. And that rejection is evident in his sunny, if not stretched, interpretation of even the darkest bits of scripture.
“If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned,” Williams read from the Bible, while pacing the stage in his jeans and a checked button-down.
“It’s not a judgment of wrath,” Williams told his congregation after noting that the excerpt scared the crap out of him as a kid. “That’s an example of God’s love for us.” It’s about Jesus advising us, wanting us to get rid of our dead parts—addictions, bad relationships—so we can continue to grow, he explained. Not about non-believers burning in flames.
That’s not the sort of message he would hear at the conservative church of his youth—a church that offered him more fear than comfort and had him dwelling on hell quite a bit for a kid. He remembers asking his mom when he was little what would happen to him if he never got baptized. His mom replied that he would be okay as long as he were baptized by the time he turned 12.
“That kind of stuff was sort of scary,” Williams said. He said he’s discussed his bad experiences with his mother, who has since taken to a gentler brand of Christianity herself. “She feels so bad about it. The church has messed us up in so many ways.”
The rejection or rebranding of an older generation’s beliefs and practices is hardly a new concept. It’s what Martin Luther was up to when he was nailing his gripes to a church door and dates even further back, to Jesus and Moses. The more recent movements, which favor inclusiveness, community involvement, and care much less about the Sunday service and the big church building, trace their roots back to the revivals and barefoot beach sermons of the hippie era.
“It’s cyclical. These kinds of churches in the 70s just all had guitars out, and then in the 80s their hair just got really big and their shirts were open, and then in the 90s they got dark and emo again,” said Kate Bowler, professor of the history of Christianity in the U.S. at Duke Divinity School. “The market is the push.”
That’s why, as homosexuality gains wider acceptance—particularly among younger generations—religious groups that previously shut the door on gay congregants are starting to rethink their positions. The trend extends beyond Christianity. Since the 1970s, gay-friendly synagogues have gained wider acceptance and morphed from “what seemed to be mostly a gay men’s ‘clubs’”—as Moshe Shokeid, sociologist and author of A Gay Synagogue in New York, once put it—to community synagogues, like Park Slope’s Kolot Chayeinu, which include a mix of straight members, gay couples and their families. As in Christianity, the movement has been met with varying degrees of resistance among more conservative branches of Judaism that maintain a strict set of gender rules. But signs of tolerance, if not acceptance, have emerged, particularly in cities like New York, which was at the forefront of the inclusive movement.
“What often seems to happen is that the younger generation is brought up often in a religious community and they look around and they say ‘well, here’s what you’re saying but you’re not doing that,’” said Boston University’s Ammerman, speaking of the spiritual conflict young Christians often experience in the face of church-sanctioned homophobia. Leaders, too, of some progressive religious congregations can’t square the idea that a God they see as loving and ideal would condone the exclusion or rejection of someone on the basis of whom they love.
It was that sort of philosophical struggle that led Jay Bakker, the son of disgraced televangelists, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, to launch Revolution NYC, a church that convenes in the back of Pete’s Candy Shop, a Williamsburg bar.
When Bakker’s parents—whose “700 Club” and “Praise the Lord Club” were fixtures of Sunday morning television for years—became the subjects of a money fraud scandal that eventually landed his father in prison, Jay Bakker witnessed an ugly side of the church, according to Revolution’s website.
In sermons, interviews and a recent memoir, Fall to Grace, Jay Bakker has talked about watching a community that preached love and forgiveness turn its back on his family during their darkest hour. The experience rattled his faith and set him on a soul-searching course that eventually prompted him to establish Revolution. He’s now a vocal proponent for same-sex marriage and apologetic in his sermons about the close-mindedness of conservative Christianity.
“We wonder why people leave the church in droves, why the church is falling apart,” he said in a recent sermon called Same Love. “I hope that God has mercy on us. We failed some of the most important and wonderful people in the world.”
Fontela, the San Francisco native who spent months searching for a gay-affirming church she liked, visits Bakker’s church from time to time, finding both Forefront and Revolution to be welcoming and indifferent about her sexuality.
Her new problem is being open about her faith among people in the city who still associate Christianity with a darker side, from which many churches are running. “In New York, I think it’s harder to come out as a Christian than a lesbian,” she said.
Progressive Brooklyn churches struggle with the anti-Christian sentiment Fontela described. Pastor Brad Canning, who runs Church! of Park Slope (“that’s what happens when you name the church at 3am,” he explained) has encountered his share of criticism for bringing his church into the community, and for opening The Postmark Café on Sixth Street.
The idea for starting a café in the neighborhood, he explained, was to have a space to get to know and serve his neighbors. “Our desire is not to be defined by our Sunday service and our building,” Canning said. “We really want to build community.” Postmark, which also serves as a coffice and caffeine depot, recently launched a Wednesday night wine and cheese church service to attract the sort of people who either can’t make a Sunday service or might not be sure enough about Christianity to devote a weekend morning to church. It has also served the community by taking on interns from a Brooklyn job training program, hosting story time events for pre-schoolers and their parents and most recently, organizing relief efforts for victims of Hurricane Sandy.
Besides a small card in the window that notes church service times, there is nothing about the café that indicates it is tied to the church. When people discover the connection, however, there’s the occasional backlash.
Just months after the café opened in 2005 a parents’ blog erupted with criticism over the launch of story time at Postmark. “I think this is sneaky and deceptive,” Stephanie LaTour, an atheist wrote in a web posting, according to The New York Times, which covered the blow-up. “If Postmark wants to convert people to Christianity, they should be up-front about it—not lure families in with seemingly neutral activities, and then spring the Christianity on them by surprise.”
Canning notes that while he does see the café as a welcome mat to the church and “would be lying” if he didn’t acknowledge that he did want more people to follow “the Jesus I know,” he says the café has never been used as a way to fill out his congregation.
This summer, a Yelp! commenter wanted to know if anyone knew “anything about Church! of Park Slope, which seems to be running the place. I have a severe aversion to giving a penny to any church that’s a NOM-lover (National Organization for Marriage, an anti-gay marriage group) or the like.”
Canning, a 42-year-old with a soft voice, notes that he barely breaks even, doesn’t donate to any political organization or take strong political stands. “I have strong beliefs about the Bible and Jesus. But I don’t—I try really hard to listen,” he said, adding that he loves his gay neighbors and thinks they should have the same rights as anyone else.
Even if the café isn’t doing much, or anything at all, to expand Canning’s congregation, he’s optimistic that it’s taking a tiny crack at Christianity’s reputation problem.
“I want to surprise people,” Canning said. “Like Jesus did.”