God and games mix in youth ministry some say is too much about entertainment

Posted: Friday, April 30, 2004

TULSA, Okla. (AP) It's Wednesday night, and the hottest teen hangout around is packed and throbbing with what seems an unholy beat.

A DJ spins dance tunes upstairs, sending boys in sagging pants into contortions. Downstairs, girls surf the Internet from rows of iMacs flanking a glassed-in basketball court. Hundreds of new arrivals flow under a neon sign reading, ''Oneighty,'' slowed only by a weapons check at the door.

Church night Bible study, it's not. But the music is Christian, the surfing monitored and ''the funnest part,'' a 12-year-old Oneighty regular attests over a video game, ''is learning about God.''

With a worship style that's both hugely popular and way over the top this night's service features live motocross stunts the youth ministry of Tulsa's Church on the Move has been copied nationwide.

More than 100 unrelated youth groups have franchised the concept and the trademarked Oneighty name, despite critics who find its approach big on show and short on spirituality.

The night Westside Church in Bend, Ore., launched its Oneighty ministry, more than 800 kids showed up about 10 percent of the city's population, a pastor says.

When New Harvest Christian Fellowship's version of Oneighty brought a skate park, video arcade and DJ concerts to the Los Angeles suburb of Norwalk, the youth group went from 40 teens to about 600.

''Flannel boards don't work anymore,'' says senior pastor Richard Salazar, referring to the cloth cutout story boards that were once a Sunday school staple. ''This is a technical generation. I think our numbers speak for themselves.''

Salazar was wary at first. But like other pastors facing aging congregations and shrinking youth groups, he was also frustrated.

He followed other pilgrims to Tulsa to see what has been proclaimed the nation's largest weekly youth gathering, secular or otherwise.

Each Wednesday, 2,000 to 3,000 teens pour into what looks like a suburban multiplex in an industrial section of the city. They spend an hour in fellowship playing free video games, dancing, watching other teens from the flavored water bar and an hour in an X-Game styled worship service.

The ministry started about eight years ago when the Rev. Willie George gave up his midweek pulpit at Church on the Move, a charismatic Christian megachurch drawing as many as 10,000 weekend worshippers. He wanted to focus on the ailing youth group, says Blaine Bartel, Oneighty's national director.

George's conclusion: If MTV spends all the money it does to lure young men and women, the church needs to do it, too.

''You've got to have the hook the message of the Gospel. But you've got have bait on the hook,'' Bartel says. ''We've got to have things that appeal to kids.''

And so the youth group scrapped its hokey sing-alongs and beige fellowship hall, adopted a name that suggested the 180-degree turn of repentance and in 2002 moved into its multimillion-dollar 92,000-square-foot building.

''Oneighty is the result of failure,'' says Bartel, whose sermon this night happens to be about just that.

Giant screens in Oneighty's auditorium display a motocross racer detailing his failures in a litany of broken bones. The screens switch to a live feed from just outside the building. The same racer is there, gunning his bike toward a ramp.

Flawlessly, he executes high-flying flip after flip. Guitars grind inside and Proverbs 24:16 flashes on a screen: ''For though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again.''

Bartel, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans and in front of a trampoline, says the on-stage prop is ''just like the Lord. He will help you to bounce back every time.''

The service ends with two dozen youth tramping to the front in an altar call.

Sixteen-year-old Eddye Allen has been a Oneighty regular for years and returned to her family's Baptist church on Sunday mornings.

''It's more than coming here and playing games,'' she says, adding Bartel makes the Bible more accessible. ''Instead of saying, 'Thou shalt not whatever,' he'll say, 'This is what you shouldn't do.' ''

The high-tech, entertainment-based approach has become popular among churches looking to draw a crowd, says Mark Oestreicher, president of Youth Specialties, which provides training and resources to youth workers from a variety of Christian denominations.

But not all ministers think Oneighty's popularity equals success, he says. Some find the approach has little effect on long-term spiritual growth.

Dan Kimball, pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, Calif., says he lost his faith in the concept after years of leading a similarly styled youth ministry. Teens had started asking him, ''Where's the spirituality?''

''Are we creating in teenagers a view of church that is scored by what we do entertainment-wise like the 'American Idol' panel, rather than on Jesus?'' Kimball says. ''They are seeking the spiritual, so why should we give them entertainment?''

But Bartel says teens searching for something more sublime find it in Oneighty ''unplugged,'' Monday night small-group gatherings that include a Bible study. And for some, the Oneighty experience is their only contact with organized religion.

''We have kids who come to Oneighty that don't come to church on Sunday,'' Salazar says. ''They call this their church.''

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