Church uses drama to draw new crowd; pastors with tattoos
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At a rehearsal of his play about Jesus' death, Jim Walker, the co-pastor of Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community, sidled up to the actor playing Satan and urged him to be bolder. The pastor tried to inspire the shy student playing Judas. "He's Satan!" Mr. Walker cried, arms wide. "You hate this guy!"
"Judas' Kiss," is Mr. Walker's biblical "Groundhog Day," in which Judas is condemned to relive his betrayal of Christ over and over. It will be performed Sunday for the congregation -- an eclectic group of drunks and college kids, suburbanites and street people, Catholics and scrawny punk artists with New Testament citations tattooed on their chests.
No one preaches at Hot Metal Bridge. Plays are its liturgy. Mr. Walker, a soon-to-be ordained United Methodist minister, leads the church with his friend Jeff Eddings, a Presbyterian seminarian. "Instead of coming to our church and listening to a sermon, you can be part of the sermon," Mr. Walker says. On Sunday when many ministers all over the country will be complaining about church attendance the rest of the year, Hot Metal will be grappling with where to put the 300 people who pack the Goodwill Industries cafeteria every Sunday, not just Easter and Christmas.
Hot Metal Bridge is part of the emergent church movement that rejects rigid orthodoxy and strives to use hip language and culture to draw in young Americans who stopped, or never started, attending church.
Some ministries have sprung up around a central interest, such as yoga. One Minneapolis group attracts drummers. A Los Angeles group favors dance. In New York, the Communion of the Arts hopes artists will flock to its first Sunday service on Easter in Times Square. Leadership Network, a Dallas-based church consulting firm, says about 1,000 congregations define themselves as part of the movement.
The movement was embraced in the 1980s by British evangelical Protestants. In recent years, it has captured the attention of U.S. denominations desperate to stanch a decline in membership. Hot Metal Bridge is a United Methodist/Presbyterian Federated Church and gets grants from both denominations.
Thomas Bickerton, the United Methodist bishop of western Pennsylvania, says churches like Hot Metal are the future of religion. He admits the rough crowd the pastors aimed to reach, coupled with the focus on drama, made some Methodist church leaders nervous. But, he says, "We've reached a point where the younger generation needs to teach the church a thing or two."
Short-term grants from the Methodists and the Pittsburgh presbytery fund Hot Metal, a $120,000-a-year enterprise. Mr. Bickerton wants the Methodists to open more ministries in the next year.
Critics of the emergent movement include fundamentalists who say such churches veer too far from the Bible, or reject it altogether. D.A. Carson, a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill., does not scorn all emergent churches, but he is wary that they promote a God stripped of his authority, who does not judge harshly. "If ... you reduce God to a sentimental figure," he says, "somewhere along the line the gospel itself is compromised."
Dramas are teaching tools, the Hot Metal pastors say. Jason Sluka says one saved his life. A 28-year-old alcoholic and cocaine addict who was jailed after he accidentally set fire to his apartment, he saw Mr. Eddings play a jailed man grappling with demons. "He made me bawl my eyes out," says Mr. Sluka, eight months sober, who talks regularly with Mr. Eddings. "I should be dead 400 times over. Something's keeping me alive." He hopes to be a volunteer minister when he finishes his alcohol treatment program at the Salvation Army.
Most of Mr. Walker's plays explore Bible themes flavored with pop culture and modern-day skepticism. "Sticking With Fishing" ponders what would have happened had Peter not dropped his net to follow Jesus. Elijah joins a man on the ledge thinking about a last leap. The archangel Gabriel kills time as he awaits news of Christ's birth.
"If the drama goes haywire, it's unimportant," Mr. Eddings says. "What's important is, who do I connect with on Sunday morning?"
The two friends, both 37 years old, met as theater majors at Point Park College downtown. They started a theater company and were youth ministers at different churches. Mr. Walker enrolled in Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and Mr. Eddings followed. Four years ago, Mr. Walker proposed they start a church.
The pastors chose the gritty South Side, once a haven for immigrant factory hands, because of its abundance of artists, bars and poor young adults, and its dearth of popular churches. They took the Hot Metal name from the nearby railroad span over which molten iron shuttled from furnace to factory.
Goodwill rents them the church space on Sundays. Without another meeting place, the pastors roam coffee shops, taprooms and tattoo parlors on East Carson Street -- hanging out and talking, as they did to build their ministry.
They often stop by In the Blood, a Christian tattoo shop owned by a group of young musicians and artists who call themselves "followers of Jesus." The shop employs tattoo artists who specialize in crosses and Bible verses, and who will not draw things satanic. It's where the two pastors got their biblical tattoos.
On Tuesday, the church and shop host Bible Fight Club, a rollicking debate about social issues, heaped with New Testament. About 25 people sat on lumpy couches in the basement, discussing paranormal phenomena, debating whether children are more in touch with angels and whether prayer helps?
"Judas' Kiss" ends with the band U2's hit "Until the End of the World." Silently, Satan places several nooses around Judas's neck, which Jesus tries to remove. As the savior tries to lift the last noose with a bag of coins attached, Judas stops him. The disciple hangs himself.
"I thought it was cool, a lot of parallels where God tries to help us and we stop him," says Patrick Over, the Carnegie Mellon University student who portrays Judas. To get over his jitters, he has been studying the script and "kind of praying about it."
"Maybe I screw up a line or two," he says. "Hopefully God's character will come through."
First Published April 14, 2006 12:00 am