Editor's note: These stories were produced for High Country News by students in the University of Montana's online news class. They will be running over a period of two weeks in the Range blog. See a list of all the stories here.
By Billie Loewen
It’s an especially cold December night, with the kind of cold that makes every muscle in a person’s body clench. Inside one of the few new buildings in East Missoula, Mont., sweaty students -- mostly middle- and high-school age -- are packing up speed bags, jump ropes and boxing gloves after two hours of boxing. Donni Brickyard, whose baggy sweatpants and Everlast hoodie make him appear even bigger than his bulky 5-foot-11 frame, calls the group together.
Everyone kneels on the concrete floor to pray. Because this is more than a boxing club: It’s part of River of Life Ministries, an evangelical church started in Missoula in 2008.
Like other churches in the West, the Brickyard Boxing Club is using new and unorthodox methods to reach out to youth –– including coffee shops, worship music that sounds more like punk rock than traditional hymns, church parking-lot spaces reserved for motorcycles, and a general acceptance of tattoos, piercings and other contemporary styles. Although the West is traditionally one of the least religious regions of the country, church leaders hope this kind of culture-based, bottom-up outreach will benefit young people, who, particularly in rural areas, are often at high risk for teen pregnancy and drug use.
THE LOOK OF A NEW GENERATION
Everything about Donni Brickyard’s appearance screams “thug.” The red highlights on his immaculately clean Michael Jordan shoes match the red jewels on the cross he wears on a long gold chain. His head is shaved and he’s heavily tattooed. But the word “Forgiven” stands out from the other tattoos on his muscular forearms. And when he speaks, he is quiet, almost meek.
Brickyard gets a lot of heat for dressing like a gangster, he says. But he won’t change his look. “There are a lot of kids who will approach me who wouldn’t approach a man in a suit,” he says.
Brickyard acknowledges that a boxing club may not seem like a “Christian” activity. But it teaches self-respect, pride and manners, he says. More important, it gives kids a place to feel at home, away from drugs and alcohol and among people who care about them.
Initially, he says, “Most of the kids in boxing club wouldn’t talk about Jesus.” As time went on, however, “they would start asking questions. There was no pressure. We would do an opening and closing prayer, but that was it.”
Now most of the kids in his boxing club — sometimes more than 30 — attend the youth group at River of Life.
And Brickyard's efforts have had some positive effects, he says. He's seen improvements in the attitudes and manners of the teenage boys he's worked with, and the girls involved in the program have gained confidence.
SETTING DOWN THE HYMNALS, CRANKING UP THE SPEAKERS
You won’t find your grandparents’ hymnals in these youth-oriented churches. A rising underground hardcore and punk Christian music scene, including bands such as P.O.D, Underoath and Reliant K, have been selling out both mainstream concert venues and church concerts across the nation, especially in small towns.
Meek’s father was a pastor in Williston, N.D. At night, the teenager would listen to rock songs on the radio, holding it close to his ear, ever alert for the sound of his parents’ footsteps. In those days, Meek says, in his house, rock music was considered the work of the devil.
Now, Meek is known for leading rock ’n’ roll-style worship in jeans and T-shirts, his shaved head and tattoos blending in with those of his congregation. Recently, Lion’s Den outgrew its space near the town’s strip malls and car dealerships. Now, it holds Sunday services in the downtown Wilma Theatre, better known as a venue for secular hard-core bands like Insane Clown Posse, the Wailers and Tech N9ne.
“We like the Wilma because anyone can just come in off the street. We have met homeless people and brought them in to eat,” Meek says.
Meek says that Lion’s Den aims to be a genuine part of Missoula culture while still teaching young people how to have a relationship with God that goes beyond Sunday mornings. Music, he says, is something everyone responds to.
That response isn’t always positive, though. According to the Seattle Times, residents who live near Seattle’s Gold Creek Community Church have filed formal noise complaints against the church’s three Sunday services and its Friday night concerts, citing the heavy bass and throbbing drums.
Nonetheless, the punk-rock Christian movement seems to be taking off. In northwest Montana, for example, a once-a-month event brings hundreds of kids to different venues for “Skull Church,” which features a different mystery Christian alternative band sponsored by Kalispell-based Fresh Life Church.
When Jason Tonn decided to plant a church here several years ago, he wanted River of Life to be different from the traditional Pentecostal, suit-and-tie church he was raised in. Tonn was tired of “clubhouses for Christians” –– churches more concerned with how much money they were making and how large their membership was than with whether or not they were serving people in need.
“We wanted to be an outward church,” Tonn says. “The first thing we ever bought was a truck for our street teams.”
Tonn’s vision for the church was influenced by his visits to the Dream Center, a volunteer ministry in Los Angeles that serves more than 40,000 people per month. It offers shelters for the homeless and victims of human trafficking, along with mobile hunger relief, medical care and adopt-a-block programs.
River of Life Church now owns a small complex of industrial buildings, including a church sanctuary that doubles as the meeting place for Brickyard's boxing club, and a public coffee shop with study areas and free Wi-Fi. Another building hosts a food bank, clothing closet and other outreach ministries. A large yellow-and-gray truck sits outside the building with the words “Street Teams” printed on the side.
Tonn and Brickyard may have started with youth, but they hope their work will expand to support the larger community.
“I met with pastors who lead churches with congregations of 5,000 who are enthralled that a church of our size is doing all the outreach we are doing,” Tonn says. “When we first started out, we maybe had 60 people, doing as much outreach as those huge churches.” The church now ministers to hundreds of people per week. The focus is not just at-risk adolescents, but entire families and individuals in need of help.
“Jesus’ ministry was out in the streets,” Tonn says. “We can’t just open our doors on Sunday and expect people to show up anymore.”
Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.
Images: Dave Meek, and worship at the Lion's Den Church in Missoula, Mont. By Billie Loewen.