Come as you are

At Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Snoop Dogg figures in sermons, housewives cradle babies in tattooed arms -- and religious fundamentalism rules. Meet the Disciple Generation, the fierce new face of American evangelism.

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Come as you are

It’s Father’s Day and Mark Driscoll is blessing babies. A stocky, square-headed figure in a black shirt and jeans, with a leather cord around his thick neck, Driscoll stands against a backdrop of a giant brushed steel cross and a phalanx of electric guitars, praying over the “lovely wives and godly husbands” lined up on the stage of Mars Hill Church. Located in a former warehouse in Seattle’s hip Ballard neighborhood, where drive-through espresso joints out-number churches ten to one, Driscoll’s megachurch is a sprawling industrial space of corrugated steel, painted charcoal and muted taupe. Inside, the walls are hung with a member’s graffiti art, lit by Starbucks-style colored glass fixtures blown by a congregant.

In a husky voice, the 35-year-old pastor prays for the continuous fertility of his congregation. “We are in a city with less children per capita than any city but San Francisco,” he declares, “and we consider it our personal mission to turn that around.”

The way Driscoll sees it, the more babies his conservative Christian congregation can produce in this child-poor city, the more they can redirect local politics, public education, and culture in one of the liberal capitals of the world. To complete his trifecta of indoctrinating, voting, and breeding, Driscoll has developed a community that dwarfs any living experiment of the ’60s. To say that Mars Hill is just a church is to say that Woodstock was just a concert.

Mars Hill wrests future converts searching for identity and purpose from the dominion of available sex and drugs that still make post-grunge Seattle a countercultural destination. Driscoll promises his followers they don’t have to reprogram their iTunes catalog along with their beliefs — culture from outside the Christian fold isn’t just tolerated here, it’s cherished. Hipster culture is what sweetens the proverbial Kool-Aid, which parishioners here seem to gulp by the gallon. This is a land where housewives cradle babies in tattooed arms, where young men balance responsibilities as breadwinners in their families and lead guitarists in their local rock bands, and where biblical orthodoxy rules as strictly as in Hasidism or Opus Dei.

Following Driscoll’s biblical reading of prescribed gender roles, women quit their jobs and try to have as many babies as possible. And these are no mere women who fear independence, who are looking to live by the simple tenets of fundamentalist credo, enforced by a commanding husband: many of the women of Mars Hill reluctantly abandon successful lives lived on their own terms to serve their husbands and their Lord. Accountability and community is ballasted by intricately organized cells — gender-isolated support groups that form a social life as warm and tight as swaddling clothes, or weekly coed sermon studies and family dinner parties that provide further insulation against the secular world. Parents share child care, realtors share clients, teachers share lesson plans, animi buffs share DVDs, and bands share songs.

After Driscoll prays for the continued fertility of his congregation, and the worship band cranks out a few fierce guitar licks, the sermon begins. Pacing the stage like a stand-up pro, blending observational humor about parenting with ribald biblical storytelling, Driscoll peppers his message with references to his own children as midget demons and recalls his own past in stories about duct-taping and hog-tying his own siblings. He riffs about waiting in a supermarket checkout line behind a woman who said to him, “You sure got a lot of kids! I hope you’ve figured out what causes that.”

“Yeah,” he flipped back. “A blessed wife. I bet you don’t have any kids.” The congregation hoots and hollers. “That shut her up,” he mutters.

In today’s sermon on Genesis, chapter 37, Snoop Dogg, the man who penned the memorable lyric, “Now watch me slap ya ass with dicks, bitch,” plays a supporting role. Driscoll conjures Joseph’s famous coat by showing an image of Snoop in the coat he wore to play a pimp in “Starsky and Hutch.” “The next time you read Genesis, think of Snoop,” he chuckles.

Driscoll’s mood darkens as he discusses how Jacob shunned Joseph’s brothers, and imagines their pain at not being anointed the favorite son. Pausing a studied beat, he looks out over his rapt charges and lowers his voice. “Some of you know what it’s like. You were the one that wasn’t loved. I can see it on your face and I’m sorry,” he practically whispers. “Some of you are still living life in reaction to your father. I’m here to tell you, you don’t have to. There is a providential God who can fix you, and his name is Jesus. He’s your only hope.”

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Driscoll and his Mars Hills followers epitomize the mounting evangelical youth movement in America. Within this movement lies something as old as America itself, and as terrifying and alluring as anything Orwell predicted; something that is at once political, emotional, deeply anti-intellectual, and more galvanized than you can imagine. I call this population of fierce young evangelicals the Disciple Generation.

The Disciple Generation is an ever-growing population of people ages 15 to 35 who are equally obsessed with Christ and with culture as a means to an evangelical end. People within this age bracket are defined by a shared culture, whether Christian or secular: if you own an iPod, know Green Day is a band and not a Nader rally, and ever considered getting a tattoo, you’re probably within the boundary. This is an age group whose transgressive actions — regardless of faith or demographic, whether in the form of an inked bicep, high school detention, or a fundamentalist credo — are easily slapped with the label of rebellion.

But for Christians within this generation, behavior and beliefs are unlike those of any archetypal rebellion that has come before. For every member of the Disciple Generation raised secular in a car or a commune, or had a lesbian mom or a pothead dad, plenty more grew up in traditional Christian homes, whether that affiliation took the form of an occasional Sunday service or a father who was an active church elder. There’s a three-piece suit for every freshly shaved mohawk in this subculture.

Yet wherever they began their individual walk with Christ, and however they choose to outwardly identify themselves within the subculture, members of this movement all talk about a meaningless and bankrupt society; a world that offers no anodyne culture outside their faith. Their lives are in fact a criticism of our own. This youth movement isn’t one that merely defines itself against its parents’ generation; it exists in opposition to all culture and history that excludes evangelicalism.

To young evangelicals, our secular world is devoid of the type of love they seek, not parental love or fraternal love or even erotic love, but an even bigger love — a love called agape. When Christians describe God’s love for his children this is the word they invoke, a love so powerful one is moved to proclaim it on car bumpers and coffee mugs. Hand in hand with certainty, agape is what this generation longs for today — a love that will soothe the pain of breakups and breakouts, heal the wounds from shattered families, make bearable the awareness that we are each a solitary speck in an illimitable world. It’s the emotion that secularism, enraptured by its logic and empiricism, refuses to engage.

The new disciples are ripping down their parents’ white steeples and tearing apart the lumber to build a half-pipe. Christian youth is deinstitutionalizing the American church for the first time in about 400 years. This evangelical movement isn’t just about internally held principles, it’s a matter of lifestyle. Young evangelicals look so similar to denizens of every other strain of youth culture that, aside from their religious tattoos, the difference between them and the unsaved is invisible.

After all, shared culture is an opportunity for people to connect and gain one another’s trust. Culture — your favorite music, sport, pastime, style, you name it — presents an opening for evangelism. Once bonds are forged over a beloved band or football team, then the Evangelical “message” can work its way into a relationship. Once the message is heard, a world opens in which God’s love, as well as your cultural predilections, provide spiritual isolation from the secular world. It’s hard to imagine an aspect of secular culture lacking a Christian counterpart: one can choose from Christian hip-hop ministries, Christian military intelligence classes, or Christian diet groups in this mirror society.

The evangelical culture is rooted in place, and it’s expanding every day to swallow a generation whole. Shattering the perceived blue statered state dichotomy, epicenters of this Evangelical movement are even swelling madly in leftist zip codes of cities like Boston, Denver and Seattle.

Mark Driscoll’s Jesus is no sandal-wearing pacifist. When Driscoll invokes his Lord, he describes an uncompromising disciplinarian who demands utter obedience from his followers in exchange for rescue from an eternity in hell. “Jesus pissed people off, so he got whacked,” he tells me. “That’s a guy with some edges. Marketing firms and spin doctors have been trying to round out those edges for centuries. Look at politicians, entertainment: Jesus has probably become the most marketable brand in the country. But here we just talk about him like a person, edges and all. And people know the difference; they know what’s real.”

The church’s slogan articulates exactly what young evangelicals are seeking in Christianity today: truth, meaning, beauty, community. To Mars Hill members, these words function as a mission statement more than a sales tool, but to the uninitiated who see the slogan painted over the church entrance, it’s a pitch or, more kindly, an invitation. Driscoll never views evangelism as a form of marketing.

Because Mars Hill members frown on the traditional techniques of Bible thumping on the street corner, begging on televangelism programs, and threatening eternal hellfire on talk radio, they’ve had to consider missionary work of a different flavor, which they call “missional living.” This is the notion that living well in strict accordance with the Bible, while reaping the benefits of a deeply supportive community, advertises the faith to the heathens by demonstration. “It’s like Jesus chilling with prostitutes and tax collectors,” young Evangelicals tell me, defending what could be construed as blatant manipulation if their Savior hadn’t done it first.

The way Driscoll sees it, America has been marketed to so constantly and shamelessly that it has produced a generation of jaded cynics desperate for what feels real. It is his edgy Jesus, he says, who best reaches a searching crowd. Likewise, he points out, this generation has grown up rootless and unparented, yearning for discipline within the very orthodoxy that Driscoll makes relatable and relevant. “They know there’s more to life than waking up, eating what’s in the fridge, watching what’s on TV, and then going back to bed, than the rest of their porn-addicted, video-game-playing, loser friends,” he tells me. “That’s what I give them through the Bible. I say, let me give you some rules, not to be a jerk, but to help you out. And when was the last time that anyone in their busted-up family did that?”

Driscoll has built a fundamentalist empire by blending this stern-father sensibility with the savvy of a pop mogul mainstreaming alternative culture while maintaining its underground appeal. The word “alternative” still held a fading flicker of sway in 1999, when former savior Kurt Cobain’s body had been cold only a few years, thrift-shop clothing wasn’t quite yet “vintage,” and Jesus was someone worshiped by virgins and grandparents. Within this culture, Driscoll launched a radio call-in show, which discussed Jesus in accessible slang and brought new members into his fold. He befriended some musicians who were writing loud music to worship God, and began to grow a church where members could watch Tarantino movies, drink beer, and live by strict biblical rule.

These days, Driscoll’s reach, which began with his small-time call-in show, has evolved far beyond his Seattle base; people from Chicago to Denver to North Carolina listen to his preaching every week via podcasting. In his voice, they find what their broken families, secular friends, or traditional churches have failed to give them: a home and a reciprocal commitment — if you swear by Driscoll’s fundamentalist reading of the Word, his church will swear by you.

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The community Mars Hill members have built is truly utopian — this indeed is its great allure — and the allure that cemented Ted Dietz to Driscoll. Dietz was raised by a nonreligious mother; his father was at best absentee. In July 1992, when he was about 20, bored, curious, and still living with his mom, Dietz started listening to Christian radio in his room late at night or on his way to the mall where he worked in a dead-end job selling televisions. Every day he’d hear a preacher named Tony Evans bellow on about hell and sin, delivering warnings about coming judgment, depicting a tableau of fire and brimstone, frightening Dietz to his very marrow.

Dietz came home from a party one night, switched on his radio, listened to a few minutes of hellfire talk, and knelt beside his bed. For the first time in his life he prayed, fervently though cluelessly, a novice impelled by terror. “Fear is an entirely appropriate way to be born again,” Dietz tells me. “If we ever encountered God it would crush us. If you’re in danger of being destroyed forever, that should strike fear in you. That’s where all this starts for me.”

Some friends in Seattle introduced Dietz to Driscoll a few years later. Dietz and Driscoll discussed a new type of church — one that embraced the larger culture but was orthodox about biblical laws and values. Soon after, Mars Hill was inaugurated, the group houses were rented, and Dietz moved in. Around the same time, a counseling psychology student claimed a room in the women’s house. When I first met Dietz, he had yet to take notice of the sturdy blonde. But when I returned to Seattle six years later, Dietz had married her and was supporting their family with income earned as a real estate broker within the Mars Hill community.

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Evangelical Christianity in America today is a grassroots movement grown up. New churches pioneered by young believers have set roots as formidable institutions, “the new establishment,” John Vaughn, from megachurch research center Church Growth Today, tells me. What began as experimental living and spiritual exploration has cemented itself in the traditional American modes of commitment to marriages and mortgages. Now in his early thirties, Dietz, a compact but burly man in a dark Amish-style beard, is a force behind this solidifying community, using his real estate license for ministry and moneymaking.

In the past couple of weeks, Dietz has sold five houses within the church membership — “making our community more permanent,” he says. The group houses were dismantled four years ago, when the landlord wanted to sell the rentals the community had long outgrown. Realtors like Dietz replaced the group houses with title deeds, garages, and lawns that would quickly expand to form a new and intricate network across the city. Now there are no less than 50 neighborhood hubs that form centers for prayer, Bible study, and dinner parties throughout Seattle — local axes for Mars Hill’s global reach. A megachurch of thousands threatens the deeply personal experience the church relies upon for intensive active membership. These cell groups keep the church intimate even on its mammoth scale.

Most houses are owned by young married couples who rent their basement apartments to unwed members of the congregation, whom the couples “mentor” until God delivers a spouse. Dietz and Sarah recently reclaimed their own basement after they adopted two foster kids; adoption, Dietz says, is another form his “missional living” takes. On one side of the city, the houses tend to belong to the Goths in the congregation, or the members of the Moped Army that buzzes around town in matching leather jackets, lining up their collection of Vespas outside the church for the late service every Sunday. Another side of town is home to most of the church pastors as well as a more mainstream set of congregants who wouldn’t look out of place outside the city limits in their uniforms of standard-issue fleece and denim.

Dietz and I chat with abandon as we cruise past 24 recent house sales in his pickup truck. Like many Mars Hill members, he rides the ridge of a puzzling contradiction: Dietz voted for Bush but talks like a quintessential Pacific Northwest progressive. “We’re devaluing ourselves with consumerism,” he warns, speeding through a red light. “The future is bleak for the United States if we don’t free ourselves from corporate tyranny,” Dietz continues, now railing against Wal-Mart, sweatshop labor, the threat of globalism, and other standard leftist grievances. He sees mass liberation from America’s fearsome consumerist and labor trends in the current religious “Reformation,” as he calls it, but imagines this current trend to be a temporary one — not because he imagines secularists gaining ground, he says, but because the apocalypse is right around the corner.

Dietz is extraordinarily well informed in matters of domestic politics and foreign policy, but he interprets all he learns through the book of Revelation. “I don’t know if you know about this,” he tells me, “but there’s a new organization in Israel completing plans for the new temple. Jesus will come back and he’ll take us — well, at least us,” he says, looking at me with a straight face, “and there will be an end to all things.”

One June evening, I arrive at the small, pleasant home of Dietz and his wife Sarah to meet their kids and join them for dinner. Sarah is clearly exhausted from caring all day for two children, cleaning the house, setting the table, and preparing a nice meal complete with thoughtful touches like organic strawberries in the salad and fresh mint in the iced tea. As Dietz carries on about church affairs and lectures about the importance of children’s obedience, Sarah serves the meal, cuts the children’s food, minds their behavior and eating, and clears the table. Every Wednesday the Dietzes’ community group assembles in this living room, where vintage touches and contrasting paint colors suggest discipleship to Martha Stewart. Here they participate in Dietz’s Bible study and a discussion of Driscoll’s most recent sermon; afterward Sarah serves dinner for 12 on an average week, 25 if the entire group shows up.

During a community group evening, a couple of weeks before I visited, Dietz was hanging out with the men in the backyard, while the women were inside cooking and watching the kids. Scrutinizing the dilapidated fence that had come with the house, Dietz began talking about how he’d really like a new one, but wasn’t sure how much the whole endeavor might cost.

A few days later, the men in the group pulled up in front of the house with a pickup truck full of lumber and set about building a new fence on the spot. Now whenever the Dietzes look out their kitchen window, they see a proud and solid reminder of the strength of their community, and the unity of their faith in God. Dietz recounts this story sitting squarely in his big chair in the living room, his eyes set on mine over the rim of his coffee cup. I tell him the truth: I have wonderful friends who I have considered close as family for many years now, and I can’t imagine any of them helping me lug the wood, much less building me a fence. He pauses and sets down his coffee cup in a motion that is about to put a definitive end to a delightful evening. “Listen,” he says. “We have a really nice rapport. But we believe different things. And let’s face it, because of that, you’re never going to feel like family to me. So, what I’m saying is, this is as far as it goes.” Stung at first, upon reflection I can’t blame him. I have nothing like his shared faith to connect me to other people. It’s no wonder Dietz and Sarah glow when they talk about their group with the same tones of veneration in which they join hands and say grace before dinner.

The Mars Hill community resembles the shared-land communes of the ’60s far more than any traditional society of churchgoers. It’s a little shocking to see this experimental model exploded into a megachurch that is rolling back the achievements of the ’60s generation, its current emphasis on connection and meaning a tool to convert purpose-seeking postfeminists into self-described proud submission.

Like every woman I’ve gotten to know at Mars Hill, Sarah talks about her appointed role within the church not in terms of subjugation but in the language of difference feminism. She tells me a sisterhood forms between women who celebrate their domestic roles and talents as offered from God, delivered unto their children, marriages, and community as part of his “perfect plan.”

At the end of the evening, when I go into the kitchen to help Sarah with the dishes, she confesses that she’d love to go back to school for her master’s degree, but she just can’t see finding the time. “I guess it’s just not part of the plan,” she says in a soft, distracted voice. It’s hard to imagine that just a few years before, Sarah was a single girl tooling around the Seattle rock circuit in an old MG, spending her days studying Carol Gilligan. These days, Sarah’s old copy of “In a Different Voice,” a text youll find on most womens studies syllabi, gathers dust on the secular bookshelf (Penguin classics and psych textbooks) that faces off against the Christian bookshelf (Bibles and theology textbooks) in the living room.

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For Judy Abolafya, a young mother in her early thirties, it was harder to come around to the Driscolls’ version of what a woman should be. As she sets out coffee cake on the kitchen table in her Seattle apartment, straining to be heard over her infant daughter’s cries, Abolafya tells me without apology that she never wanted to have children. She shudders as her daughter wails, shaking her auburn ponytail. “Listening to her like that just grates on me.” She grimaces. In a high chair at the table, her toddler, Asher, glumly pokes at blocks of cheese with grubby fingers, periodically mashing them into a paste he rubs into his black Metallica T-shirt. “Let’s face it. Asher is whiny and clingy and talks back. It’s dull and tedious here — there are myriad things I don’t enjoy about being at home, but it’s a responsibility.”

This life of homebound wifely submission is the opposite of what Abolafya thought she wanted, and the opposite of what she had. Before she met her husband, Ari, Abolafya toured all over the world with bands like Bush and Candlebox, staying at four-star hotels, living life on her own terms. She made a great income heading up merchandising on tours, managed it well, enjoyed her freedom, and was confident and outspoken. Now she defines that behavior as prideful, even if she misses it. “Everything was great when my conversion happened. I was making money, I was about to take a trip to Mexico, I was totally in control of my life,” she tells me. “My life is much harder, not easier, now that I’m a Christian,” she says, clenching her teeth against Asher’s droning whine. “We had originally planned not to have kids, but now we have to do our best to repopulate our city with Christians.”

Abolafya’s conversion was a total surprise to her. She was a nonbeliever who accompanied her husband, Ari, to a service at Mars Hill — he was curious to check out the “tattooed punk-rock church” he had heard about. That Sunday, one of the church’s worship bands was playing an electric version of “Amazing Grace” toward the end of the service, its loud and powerful sound filling the giant space. Suddenly Abolafya realized she was sobbing and couldn’t stop. That night she gave her heart to Jesus. “It wasn’t like I was looking for a solution, or that my life was a problem in any way,” she explains. In fact, the problems were just beginning.

At a weekly Bible study class at a Mars Hill pastor’s home, Abolafya first heard about the doctrine of wifely submission. The pastor’s wife gave Abolafya a book to study called “The Fruit of Her Hands,” which can essentially be summed up in Ephesians 5:22: “Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord.” When Abolafya stretched out on her couch one evening to read the first chapter of the book, she screamed and threw it across the room. But she prayed to God and was led back to the Bible, to understand Wilson’s perspective. In the Bible, Abolafya found story after story about women being willfully deceived, following their own desires, wreaking travesty in their relationships and homes. In these stories she saw signs of her own past, her mother’s behavior, her friends’ actions. She began to submit to Ari about purchases and plans she wanted to make.

Abolafya no longer reads secular books or speaks to her old friends, She is now a deacon at Mars Hill and is responsible for planning the weddings held there, which always include a biblical explanation of marriage and gender roles; each year Mars Hill averages about one hundred marriages between couples within the congregation, all of whom must agree with this doctrine. Between her marriage ministry, the women’s Bible study she runs, her two small children, and taking care of her husband and her home, Abolafya says she doesn’t have time for many relationships anyway, and when she starts to home-school her kids soon, her time will be even tighter. “It’s not what I ever imagined,” she tells me, “or even what I ever wanted, but it’s my duty now, and I have to learn to live with that.”

Radical conversions like Judys arent what Driscoll has in mind just for Seattle, but for the entire nation. During the late ’90s, a number of young people approached Driscoll for advice about starting their own churches. His response was to establish a church planting network called Acts 29, which has been growing rapidly ever since. The book of Acts tells of the first Christians’ evangelism in 28 chapters, thus the idea behind Acts 29 is to continue their legacy. Through the network, new churches from San Diego to Albany have grown to follow Driscoll’s strict orthodoxy and views. Acts 29 sponsored 60 new churches in the last year alone; 120 applications now wait in the queue for consideration.

While cultural specifics — media, music, dress, attitude, and so on — vary widely in the churches that Acts 29 encourages nationwide, cultural politics do not. Most significantly, in founding the network, Driscoll has established a nationwide apparatus to push back women’s rights through the “liberation theology” of submission. The online application for church planting is an extremist screening device to this effect. It begins with a lengthy doctrinal assertion that every word of the Bible is literal truth; the application plucks out the examples of creationism and male headship of home and church to clarify this doctrine. “We are not liberals,” it says. “We are not egalitarian.”

As Ted Dietz noted to me when we were cruising in his pickup truck, discussing Driscolls effectiveness in sowing his evangelical orthodoxy nationwide, “You know the Ben Folds Five song ‘Stan’? It’s just like he sings in that song, really. Once you wanted revolution, now you’re the institution.”

Lauren Sandler is Salon's Life editor and the author of "Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement."

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