September 21, 2009

Televangelize This!

photo by William Hereford

From out of the Bible Belt, a young preacher comes to grace, and Brooklyn. Jay Bakker's Revolution Church.

First published in WG Magazine on September 19, 2009.

What is surprising about pastor Jay Bakker is not that he is covered in tattoos and wears a lip ring and preaches Galatians on Sundays at a bar in Greenpoint. And not that his ministry, the Revolution Church, which he shares with a dapper Lutheran from Fresno named Vince Anderson, is gay affirming.

No, what is surprising about pastor Jay Bakker is … that this is not performance art. The Revolution Church has been holding services in the neighborhood for nearly three years. And the fact that a radical Christian church operating out of a popular music venue, can hold its ecclesiastical own and not get absorbed as just another idea, is at the very least a notable turn in the discourse of the Williamsburg art scene.

Bakker, who is 33 and hails from the Carolinas, founded the church with a few friends in 1994 in Phoenix, Arizona. There are a few branches in other cities, and the great majority of its members are online. But about 30 people a week attend sermons in the back of Pete’s Candy Store on Lorimer Street, where we recently sat down with the two pastors. Jay looks like an impassioned rocker, Vince like a radiant hipster. Jay has roots in the AG (Assemblies of God) and Baptist circles, Vince in mainline Protestantism. Beyond that, they are exceedingly down to earth. They read the Bible in context, not literally, and their abiding theme is grace — grace and restoration.

Bakker is the son of Jimmy and Tammy Faye Bakker, the founders of the evangelical megachurch PTL that was seized by Jerry Falwell in 1987 in the wake of financial and sexual scandal – one of the biggest churches, and scandals, in the history of American Christianity.

The church survives on donations. Once, there was grant money and a paid staff. “But because we are a gay-affirming church,” says Bakker, “I knew that was going to cost us a lot. When I made that decision, I also had to lay off the whole staff in Atlanta. We’re definitely following our convictions. We’re not in it for the glamorous lifestyle. But it’s definitely worth it. I get to read and study the Bible, challenge people, and see people redeemed. That’s what I love to do.”

It is apparent that Bakker is still bracing himself against the Christian conservatism with which he has broken ties. The schism occupies his discourse, certainly more so than the possibility of getting any flack from the odd marxist or pagan in Williamsburg. He confesses in a recent sermon to being “hurt” by constant buffeting from other Christians. But it seems to be a reference to something somewhere out in right field, and a little lost on the Brooklyn flock. The congregation includes a number of avowed atheists. (“We love our atheists,” says Anderson. “They stimulate great conversation.”)

The Sunday meetings draw mostly an under-forty crowd. The congregants drink beer, and Bakker pulls on a soda with a wedge of lemon in it. iPhone lights flicker as congregants check the time or emails. It’s not your grandmother’s church.

Bakker has the evangelist’s talent for moving easily between scripture and popular idiom. But his interests extend also to subcultures, and his sense of artistic existentiality is just about pitch perfect. His sermons are speckled with references to his favorite bands, legendary tattoo artists, the redemption of Mike Tyson.

He begins a recent sermon with the news that the Lutheran clergy has just decided to accept ministers and lay leaders who are in committed same-sex relationships. Then he moves on to Acts 10, the story of the apostle Peter going among the “unclean” gentiles in defiance of Jewish law.

Bakker’s mother Tammy Faye, who died in 2007, broke the ice on Christian television in the 1980s by showing compassion for gay men with AIDS. And her popularity among gays at the time was probably also not hurt by her over-the-top fashion sense. “She was a great influence on me with regard to tolerance and compassion.” But Bakker is not gay, and he admits he was uncomfortable with his mother’s stance at the time. His realization about the need to be gay affirming came only later as a spiritual epiphany.

photo by William Hereford

Bakker struggled with substance abuse, hard partying, and the fallout from his parents’ dizzying rise and fall at the helm of the biggest evangelical network in America. He feels that his parents were severely treated, “excommunicated” by Falwell and the born-again community, when they should have been helped and “restored.” And he became generally disillusioned with what he views as too much emphasis in evangelical circles on repentance and conduct.

“The message I got in my church was that good works could earn your way to God. I didn’t really learn about grace and restoration until I was about twenty. In the church I grew up in, it was all about control. But with faith, you give up control. And it’s tough not to want to grab the reigns.”

And so Jay Bakker turned away from an Angry God. Tried, as we all do, in so many words of the great American theologian Jonathan Edwards, to work his own way out of a pickle.

“I was finished with God. I was trying to earn my own salvation, rather than receiving it from Christ. Because in my church, all the emphasis was on conduct. If you didn’t speak in tongues, you didn’t have the Holy Spirit. Things like that. When I finally learned about grace and restoration through Christ, it blew me away, it changed everything. I realized you could read Galatians and Romans, and then read the gospels in the light of grace.”

“If anything, we get accused of teaching too much grace,” says Anderson. “They say we practice ‘cheap grace.’ But to that, I say the other churches practice ‘cheap repentance.’ If you look at the Bible through a legalistic lens, you will see it as a set of rules. But when you read the scriptures in the light of grace, they become transformative.”

“It’s not even about being saved or not saved,” Bakker adds. “It’s just that the rules don’t give grace.”

It is a predestinarian position. But there are shades of difference between the two preachers. Anderson is a Universalist: “We’re all saved.”

“To say that would have been heresy in the church I grew up in,” says Bakker. “I still talk about repentance. But for me, it’s about process.”

“He hangs on a little more,” says Anderson. “We work well as a team. We teach an attitude of repentance. Not the traditional view where … I was wrong, now I’m right and everyone else is wrong.”

The main evangelical movements in America are about a hundred years old, and they presently risk hanging their collective hats on a few words of scripture that have long been scientifically disproved, in many species on the planet. But for Bakker, this is not just about a no-brainer like acknowledging the normality of gay and transgendered people. Bakker is a theologian who has come to join the philosophers, in a general discussion of identity, ethics, and struggle.

“Transparency and honesty are a big part of what we practice. We are as earnest as we can be, and as honest as we can be, and my example is Christ.”

Jay Bakker takes speaking engagements, he is the author of “Son of a Preacher Man,” and the subject of the 2006 documentary “One Punk Under God.”

Vince Anderson plays with his band “Dirty Gospel” at Union Pool.

Revolution Church services are held on Sundays at 4pm at Pete’s Candy Store, 709 Lorimer Street. Listen to sermons at

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