An unconventional Church

  • Jon Kelly
  • 5 Oct 08, 07:24 AM GMT

ST LOUIS, MO: So there I was in a downtown bar, discussing indie bands over my pint with a crowd of studenty-looking twentysomethings.

The talk turned to the election. Religion and party politics shouldn't mix, someone said. Church leaders who urged their congregations to back conservative candidates were abusing their position, another drinker agreed.

And then I remembered. These people were Southern Baptist evangelicals - supposedly the most partisan and right-wing of all American religious groups. What was going on?

The Journey isn't your typical church, to be fair. Its website proclaims a mission to reach out to "punk rockers, grandmothers, [and] construction workers" alike. And as part of its strategy to persuade young people that a love of alt-rock and alcohol is compatible with Christianity, it holds regular informal meetings in this ale house I visited.

Well, any trip to the pub is a religious experience for me. And at a time when most Americans are demanding that politicians listen to them, I was keen to meet one group who were anxious to step back from the megaphone.Darrin

With his scruffy-smart demeanour and fashionable horn-rimmed glasses, Darrin Patrick looked more like a Hoxton web designer than a Southern Baptist pastor.

He told me how much he loved Radiohead and Arcade Fire. Earlier in the week, he said, he'd been to an "awesome" Foo Fighters gig.

In Britain, we tend to be cynical about anyone who tries to marry popular culture with faith. I come from a country where "trendy vicar" is a term of derision (and one which was regularly lobbed at guitar-strumming Roman Catholic convert Tony Blair).

But Darrin genuinely seemed equally at ease in both worlds. And in a county where religious belief is so widespread, it's hardly surprising that young Americans might look for a connection between the secular and the sacred.

He told me how he had found his faith as a teenager when, during one week, he was suspended from high school for fighting, kicked off his football team for drinking, and led to believe that he might have got his girlfriend pregnant.

He'd set up the Journey appeal to people like his younger self. Six years on, over 2,000 people were now attending regularly.

An equal proportion of them were Republicans and Democrats, Darrin said. Some were motivated by concern for the poor, others by individual responsibility. It wasn't his job to tell them how to vote, he said; in fact, to do would be a breach of responsibility.

Instead, he told me that his priorities were social justice and community action. Journey members worked in St Louis's inner-city schools as well as with immigrants, people with HIV and single mothers. Putting Christian principles into practice was what evangelicals should be doing, he insisted, not getting mixed up in party politics.

"If you sell out to the right or the left, you sell out Jesus," he said.

"Go to certain evangelical churches and they're all conservatives. But I think the church needs to follow Jesus and stay right in the centre."

Richie Cook, a 22-year-old Bright Eyes fan, agreed wholeheartedly. He had felt alienated from conventional churches when he studied for a theology degree at university.Ritchie

"I met people living Christian lives who were secretive and hypocritical and..." he searched for the right word. "Mean, to be blunt.

"I didn't want anything to do with Christianity. But I couldn't get away from the fact that I believed in God."

After discovering the Journey, he said he'd finally found a home in the church. "I do care more about social justice and issues that deal with how it affects people," he said. "That's what motivates me."

He wasn't the only one. Kristin Guilliams, 28, a paediatric neurologist was still making up her mind about how to vote.Kristin

But she said that issues like the economy were more important to her than the kind of topics that were meant to excite evangelicals.

"I think that morality is something that shouldn't be legislated for," she told me.

"Abortion and marriage are things that are better left to individuals' conscience."

Religion and politics might seem inextricably linked in the US for now. But if Darrin gets his way, one of the great certainties of American elections could be undermined.



  • Comment number 1.

    Great of you to point this out. I hope Europe realizes there are a many "Evangelical" Christian churches in the States, especially younger ones, that do not advocate even indirectly for political parties - it's just the loud ones that do.

    You should see the most even split among evangelical voting this year than in recent memory. I will be one helping to moderate... :)

  • Comment number 2.

    Good to see an article on the 'other side' of evangelicalism. All too often, we evangelicals are portrayed as fundamentalist, right-wing, hard-liners. Of course, some are like that (and they probably tend to be the ones who shout louder), but the spectrum of evangelical views is a wide one.

    And it's not just the 'new' churches either - plenty of traditional evangelical churches have both 'conservative' and 'liberal' members happily worshipping together.

  • Comment number 3.

    "I think that morality is something that shouldn't be legislated for," she told me.

    If this lady were a real Christian, she would believe that all forms of morality stem from her God and his word.

    If that were so, she would recognize that in order for there to be a just form of law, morality would have to come in to play.

    None of this is anything new. People have tried to water-down the Bible and the importance of the morality it teaches, for centuries.

    This is yet another way to conform to culture, and be "lukewarm".

    I like to call it Pop-Christianity, or better, Christianity-Lite. This is not what true Christians endorse.

    We will not conform to the whims of our current culture, and we will remain un-apologetic for being that way. The word of God deserves so much more than compromise.

  • Comment number 4.

    The Roman Catholic Church I attend, the Monsignor nor the Priest have never mentioned any political agendas nor endorsed any candidates. They have spoken about our duty and, more importantly perhaps, our responsibility to vote. The church has regularly hosted debates, always with all candidates. A weekly reminder from the pulpit to attend such events and to bring with us anyone of any or no religion. That's it, "these are the candidates, now get out and vote."

    It is particularly hard to define any political agenda with the Catholic Church, one tenet that is tantamount is always, under all circumstances, to be kind and love your fellow man. Love and Kindness heard from the pulpit every sunday to be practiced every day and every minute and by extension to help those in need. If you have two coats, give the second to a fellow who has none. Surely socialistic programs would and do fall into line with this.

    Of course another tenet is that always under all circumstance abortion should not be the option. I am sure this is an issue for a lot of Catholics in the decision of a political candidate, but I rarely hear it.

    As polarized as the political parties agendas have become over these, it is a very difficult decision as to which way should a Catholic vote? It is clear from my Church's leaders that these decisions are our own to make, and not theirs. Just as clear that to not make a decision would be a sin.

    Should Helping your Fellow Man and Prohibiting Abortion be Legislative Mandates? NO!

    We all should be free to decide these things on our own, by Law of our Conscience rather than Law of the Land.

    I have 'heard' that some 'churches' in far off distant states have had their 'ministers' from the pulpit endorsing a particular candidate, which for many reason is just plain wrong. Please, keep it off of the pulpit; please, freely endorse it over coffee and pastries in the Church Hall.

  • Comment number 5.

    "I like to call it Pop-Christianity, or better, Christianity-Lite. This is not what true Christians endorse."

    Let me guess, you will define yourself as the "true Christian" and explain what these valiant folk should and should not endorse.

    I was wondering Jon, are Southern Baptists technically "Evangelicals"?

    Otherwise, a great article about great people.

  • Comment number 6.

    Nothing more than a re-packaging of the same old egocentric nonsense.

  • Comment number 7.

    "If this lady were a real Christian, she would believe that all forms of morality stem from her God and his word." So says awesomeracehochdorf in a comment above.

    I count myself among those who believe that true morality stems from God and what he has revealed of himself, but I find it immensely saddening that a woman's faith is being questioned just because of her view that issues around abortion and marriage should be left to personal conscience rather than subject to legislation. It is perfectly possible to believe that a course of action is right and moral, and even that it is revealed to be so by God, and at the same time to believe that it is not appropriate for that course of action to be imposed by law on others.

    Of course it is entirely right to debate the appropriate extent to which good behaviour can be enforced by the state, but the view that someone who believes that certain matters should be left to personal conscience rather than legislative fiat is necessarily unChristian is a very narrow one.

  • Comment number 8.

    "I like to call it Pop-Christianity, or better, Christianity-Lite. This is not what true Christians endorse."

    That's ludicrous. If YOU were a 'true' Christian, you wouldn't criticize the subjective opinions of others.


  • Comment number 9.

    Thank you for writing this. i am a christian am i seem to be very similar to those you interviewed. The fact is that there are a ton of churches that are like this in the US but the media only fits us into the "right-wing" or "conservative" box.

    I am of the personal belief that politics are multi-dimensional. As christians, we are called to love people but also to be responsible for the earth (look at genesis). Getting caught on one issue or another just shows how politics effects "religion" and not the only way around.

  • Comment number 10.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 11.

    I've been around these people and have some family members involved in this type of thing. They are just as they present themselves. There is no one set opinion for any certain issue. The idea of gay rights runs the gamut from 'its a sin' to 'whatever.'

    These people are very difficult to pigeon hole. They have 'grown out' of old style evangelism and tell me they are tired of the old 'guns, abortion and school prayer debates.' It will be interesting to see what comes of this.

    And right now for the most part I find them completely harmless.

  • Comment number 12.

    Thank you so much for writing this article!!! As a young Midwestern passionate Catholic, it was great to see an entry letting the rest of the world know that we aren't all blindly following the "religious right" (which, by the way, I feel is thoroughly un-religious by doing the whole guilt trip thing _and_ leaving out protection of life for all the moments between birth and death). At any rate, keep writing and keep watching out for anti-stereotypes.

  • Comment number 13.

    "I think that morality is something that shouldn't be legislated for," she told me.

    "Abortion and marriage are things that are better left to individuals' conscience."

    Well, to each his own, but I don't think all of this statement lines up with biblical teaching.

    While I am ok with homosexuals marrying and having the same rights as heterosexual people, I would prefer it not be called marriage, but a civil union or domestic partnership.

    And on abortion, it doesn't matter if the child is unborn, in my opinion it is still a life, so if you end it, it's a murder, which is illegal. So if you say you can't legislate against abortion, you're also saying you can't legislate murder. As always it all depends on when life really starts, and I believe it is from conception.

    Disclaimer: I respect other peoples' beliefs, but I personally don't think her opinion on this lines up with the bible and I think most Christians would agree, even the more liberal ones like me.

  • Comment number 14.

    Although the Bible isn't always easy to interpret, one thing that's clear is that Jesus wasn't political ("My kingdom is in Heaven") . His mandate was so simple - love God with your whole heart, and love your neighbor as yourself. Tying any political agenda to Jesus - beyond giving people freedom to worship as they choose, and helping the poor, aged and sick -- would seem to me to be a tremendous stretch.

  • Comment number 15.

    Thanks, Jon! As you move across the southern part of the US, I'm more and more impressed with the even-handed manner in which you're taking a look at our country. Now, if you could just visit us in the Northwest....

    My feeling about the country is that it's so big it's split into many smaller cultures. There's less influence from the media, newspapers, movies, TV, that once gave us a fairly bland mix, an "America" that immigrants could join. Now it's people who believe one way, or who's view of the world is from a particular direction, all talking to each other, not to people who believe differently.

    If anything, a small town forces you into close proximity with people of different backgrounds and beliefs. They aren't as easy to ignore. Sure, many small towns have a lack of racial and income diversity, but that's diminishing.

    On the other hand, a larger place, like St. Louis, has enough people who think outside the mainstream to bring them together to support each other, as this article points out.

    Anyway, good work! I look forward to reading more.

  • Comment number 16.

    tying religion to politics is doing the very thing we in the u.s. advocate against: the construction of theocracies like in the mid-east.

  • Comment number 17.

    I think religion means different things to Americans and Europeans.

    When Europeans think of religion, they think of the useless and bloody wars of religion between Protestants and Catholics, they think of the silly but violent disputes between the various sects of early Christianity, they think of the often reactionary and closed-minded resistance of churchmen to the development of science and other aspects of modernity.

    Immigrants to America experience a healthy dose of amnesia, and so Americans have forgotten all that history. Religion to Americans means community, fellowship, a means to organizing themselves to raise children and do good works for the community, e.g feed the homeless, provide voting centers, educate themselves on political questions.

    And American religion is almost without exception extremely open to people of all backgrounds, and so is an antidote to bigotry.

  • Comment number 18.

    Religion, religion, religion. It seems so many of your blogs are about religion. I wish you would take a swing thru the Northeast of the country and talk to some folks who aren't religious at all.

    I think it is up to 16% of the US population now that have NO religion. We are a growing population and have just as much compassion and care for our fellow man as religious folk, maybe more.

    We of the un-religion do not believe in "end times" and care very much about everyday life here on earth, more so than some hoped for "hereafter" for which there is not one scintilla of proof that it exists.

  • Comment number 19.


    Good post, I really enjoyed it. However, you blew open the subject of religion and the non-issues that accompany it -- issues that are easy to take a firm stance on and cite the bible, but that don't really give any indication of how well suited a candidate is for a job. And many people vote on those issues.

    I hate those non issue conversations -- and they dominate the beginning of political races, especially for president.

  • Comment number 20.

    Interesting, but your title leads me to think that you see this church as the exception to the "evangelical" rule. It may signify a change for the future but it seems that generalizations about Christian partisanship are holding relatively true.

    As for political endorsements from the pulpit, it's illegal. Churches can lose tax-exempt status for that. It's wholesome that The Journey doesn't want to "sell-out Jesus," but the law doesn't allow for a choice here. I'm not sure how the "loudest" churches that have the most clout and probably define the evangelical movement for the rest of us get away with it, but I suspect it comes down to choosing their words carefully, in a way that could be argued as within the legal boundaries.

  • Comment number 21.

    Personally, I think Ms. Guilliams is a bit off track in saying that "morality shouldn't be legislated for". Aren't all laws, including those that tell us not to murder and steal, based on a certain perception of what is right and wrong? It would be foolish to believe that morals influenced by religion, culture, and history don't have a part to play in the laws that govern society.

    That said, I think there's a certain balance that needs to be struck when considering the amount of influence of God's law on worldly legislation. awesomeracehochdorf: although I understand and respect your concerns about "watering down" and compromise, I believe Christ's life and teachings provide clear instruction as to what issues we're to focus on in our everyday lives. sfbaygal is correct in asserting that Jesus wasn't political, and I'd expand on that by saying that he was extremely concerned with the legalism that defined Jewish culture at the time. Although I'm sure He judges the rightness and wrongness of abortion and same-sex marriage - just as we're allowed to - the New Covenant of the Gospels gives us a clear mandate to focus on enforcing justice, sharing Christ's Good News, and living selfless lives.

  • Comment number 22.

    Great...religion staying out of if we can just convince politicians to stop trying to legislate our 'morality' and start practicing their own personal responsibility and ethics...nah!


  • Comment number 23.

    "As for political endorsements from the pulpit, it's illegal."
    "Great...religion staying out of politics..."
    "I think that morality is something that shouldn't be legislated for."

    If we aren't supposed to legislate morality, then we'd better throw out every law ever written. After all, they're based on ideology, are they not? According to who is it wrong to murder, rape, molest children or fauna, take drugs, gamble, lie, cheat, steal, commit adultery, or sell oneself, relatives, friends, strangers, or fauna into prostitution and/or slavery?

    Christians, leave your Bible and your brains at home, just show up at the precinct and vote the way someone who is socially and politically approved tells you. Oh, pay your taxes and keep your mouths shut, no one wants to hear what you have to say. Besides, your freedoms aren't protected by the Constitution, what gave you that idea? The First Amendment? Surely you jest!

    \don't call me Shirley...

  • Comment number 24.

    There will be hope for man when we begin to treat others with caring, respect, and fairness not because a great, invisible man in the sky has mandated it, but because we simply want to. Has our civilization not advanced enough for this to be possible? If you have two coats, and another fellow has none, give him a coat because you, as a both rational and empathetic human being, understand that he is cold.

    Religion is lovely for the psychologically, intellectually, and socially disadvantaged, but why continue to fight fire with fire? It is such an innately divisive and exclusionary concept that there exist insurmountable hypocrisies and calls for inhumanity. As a born and bred Southerner, when I hear "Christianity," I think not of beautiful fellowship and feeding the homeless; I think of the Confederate States of America and the Ku Klux Klan; I recall my ten years in Baptist church watching eight-year-olds being pressured into filling some sort of void in their little eight-year-old hearts while creating a void in their parents' ten-year-old wallets; I envision men and women closing their eyes and raising their arms in a bizarre and conscious aping of the men and women in front of them; I remember my mom's secretary greeting me with a sickening sweetness during our official time for fellowship, and then turning into a real witch at work.

    Anyway, Jon, there certainly does exist great cynicism here about efforts to marry popular culture with faith. Just think of it as certain people trying to add "izzle" to the end of words. I'll leave that an open analogy.

  • Comment number 25.

    A few comments:
    I understand the cynicism regarding religious references to popular culture, but why should it bother people that much? The Apostle Paul referenced Hymns to Zeus in his works as well as referencing racing...which they did in the nude back then... If it was good enough for him, why can't a minister use cultural references?

    Second, It's interesting to see that the poeple here are willing to drink, which represents a major shift away from much of what would be considered Fundamentalist, many of which are teetotalers.

  • Comment number 26.

    I have a couple of quick comments for those outside of the States who may not understand what the big deal is with ministers/priests advocating from the pulpit on behalf of a particular candidate or political party.

    The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires the separation of church and state. In practical terms, this means that government cannot directly or indirectly favor any particular religion.

    Under U.S. tax laws, however, religious bodies can qualify as non-profit organizations. This means that they pay no federal income taxes on their income and that individuals who give money to a duly qualified religious organization can deduct those donations from their own income (subject to certain limitations which apply to all donations to charitable organizations).

    This exemption from taxation is Constitutional (i.e. legal) for churches (and all other charitable organizations) provided that they refrain from political activities and advocacy for any particular political candidate/party. The "why" of this is that if a church provides purely spiritual guidance and benefits to its parishioners, then it is fulfilling a charitable purpose (e.g. providing comfort and solace to people), and as such granting it tax exemption is not governmental support of a religion but rather government support of a charitable organization which happens to be a religion.

    There is nothing that prevents a church from engaging in political activities. Any church that wishes to do so can do so without legal consequence. But if a church chooses to involve itself in politics (affairs of the state, so to say), then it exits the realm of being a purely charitable organization and, as a consequence, would no longer qualify for tax exempt status and those who donate to it would no longer be able to deduct their donations from their income.

    So the real battle is a financial one. Certain churches wish to advocate for particular candidates/political parties. Yet they also wish to retain the tax benefits that are granted to them due to their purported charitable nature. Becoming involved in politics brings an organization (whether a church or any other group) into the realm of public (political) life. Tax exemptions are not granted to organizations actively involved in politics. So if a church wants to enter politics, it's welcome to do so. But it must start paying taxes. This is something they don't want to do. Hope this clears things up a bit.

  • Comment number 27.

    Religion has become a cautious word in the USA to many, especially the Christian faith. One doesn't hear right wing politicians bragging anymore about being compassionate, having "Christian", family, moral values, etc.,. like they did during the past 8+ years. The reason is simple to explain. They were the most unkind, the most hateful, the most nastiest, the biggest hypocrites institutionalized religion has yet to embrace. And they still are.

    The saying now is: "show me a born again Christian, and I'll show a hypocrite!"

    The Christian religion in the USA should make an Atheist proud of what he believes or doesn't believe.

    Organized religion like the Christian one in the USA is like the Republican Party, strictly money. This the basic thing they worship the most. Money is their God!

    The entire subject on Christianity in the USA makes me sick, but it has to be exposed. In the USA it goes hand in hand with corruption, greed and the hypocrisy that dominates and divides the nation at the moment.

    In fact, I dare say that institutionalized religion in the USA comes close to proving God does not exist!

  • Comment number 28.

    I am so tired of people going on about religion when there are important political issues that need to be addressed. Church and state are supposed to be separate in America. Let's try to keep it that way.

    I am equally tired of people calling themselves "Christians" who make a point of belittling Christian denominations not their own - not a very Christian way of behaving in my books.

    Just recently, her Baptist sister-in-law told an astonished, and highly affronted, friend of mine that she was not "saved" and could not go to heaven because she did not go to the "right" church. Oh, Pleeeaassee... And, more than a few times I have heard "Christian" callers to radio shows declare emphatically that Catholics are not Christian, which is idiotic. Catholics were the original Christians and have been for over 2000 years.

    It's scary to think what some of the self described "Christians" really feel about Jews, Muslims or Hindus, since they openly dislike other Christians so much.

    That's why Gov. Palin with her sketchy education and fundamentalist views is so frightening. She would set us back a hundred years.

  • Comment number 29.

    Jon's coach itinerary (look at the map) has him in Jesusland for most of it, so I guess we're going to have a lot of this stuff come up. There is a big difference between organised religion and spirituality, I think more Americans are putting their focus into the latter these days

  • Comment number 30.

    If anyone actually cares to read the 1st Amendment to the Constitution you will notice that there is NO call for, or requirement for, the separation of church and state.. In fact the Constitution clearly states that the church can do its own churching, per its desired canon, and exercise free speech thereof, without anyone telling it that it can’t. PERIOD.. The Constitution doesn’t say “separation of church and state” it does say that the state MUST stay out of church’s business. It doesn’t say that the church has to stay out of politics...


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