'Postmodern' pastor digs rock 'n' roll, loathes religion, but loves Jesus

At a downtown car wash, the pastor's pimp-daddy Caddy is getting a final once-over by the Latino buff crew. The chestnut-colored 1977 El Dorado gleams with an optimistic glint that suggests its owner is up-to-the-moment, a person who views himself as better at setting fashion than following it.

The pastor says he recently paid five grand for the car, which, in its pristine state, is a song by any standard, and he treats the auto as if it's a piece of his own personal history. He's trying to sell it, asking $15,000, because it's not practical to own, and he can't really afford it.

A raw-boned guy on a mountain bike rolls to a stop in front of the pastor. He's obviously negotiating the downside of a run of misfortune and reeks like a summer Dumpster. His eyes are all jittery. When he hits the pastor up for 99 cents, the scorched quality to his voice implies a surplus of sleepless nights with the rock pipe. All he needs, he says, is a hamburger.

Heaven up here: Spy in the Land's Jeff Szakonyi, flanked by wife Alisha against his 1977 El Dorado.
Paolo Vescia
Heaven up here: Spy in the Land's Jeff Szakonyi, flanked by wife Alisha against his 1977 El Dorado.

The pastor reaches into his pocket and politely hands over a buck. The guy takes the dough and asks if he knows anybody who might be interested in his bike, a bargain at $25. The pastor shakes his head and tells him no. The derelict steps up on the pedals and disappears around a corner.

"Jesus told us to give to whoever has need what they ask," the pastor says with unblinking eyes. "So, in my view, it is not necessarily for us to judge whether or not they are going to go out and drink. He asked me for 99 cents to go out and get a hamburger. I don't need to judge, I need to give him 99 cents. Whatever he wants to do with it, that's his deal. My deal is to give what he asks for if I can. If he would have asked for five bucks, I'd given it to him."

I ask him if I can have his car. He offers a smile just this side of smarmy and says, "I'll give it to you for $10,000."

The El Dorado is polished and ready and the pastor slides in behind the wheel. The car's brown leather interior is smooth and soft and smells like rosy emollient. He ain't the pasty-and-bejeweled-in-his-early-50s-Pentecostal-Evangelical sheriff in a bad silk suit you'd think. In fact, with dark shades, matching earrings, Internet-ease attire and bleached spiky coif, the man could be a member of Sugar Ray.

Coming in, I thought this guy was attempting to pull one over, using a Swaggart scheme to turn a quick buck. Turns out his story is on the level, according to the people he's left behind, and, no matter if you've a God or not, he's earnest and idealistic. His name is Jeff Szakonyi, and he calls himself a "postmodern" minister. A year ago, he founded the Phoenix-based nonprofit Spy in the Land Ministry. The ministry is currently building a core of volunteers from other churches and has a small crew and a five-person board of directors.

"Postmodern," and the more contrived "Gen X," are two buzz bin appellations for new American ministers who actively seek out those born after 1961 -- the live-for-today, cable-ready, post-Vatican II latchkeyers raised without religion. Postmodern ministers are shaping the new edge of American Protestantism by reaching out to Xers who've nothing but contempt for any establishment, let alone a religious establishment.

According to the Christian Century Foundation, only 30 percent of people born between 1964 and 1978 currently belong to a church.

Szakonyi may eschew religious dogma, but he maintains a very clear idea about the role of Jesus in contemporary life. "As Christians, we're told what we should be thinking, and we should be doing this or doing that. Always told what to do. The focus was always on what we were doing wrong. What I want to do is focus on what we are doing right."

He says his ministry's missive is to "spread the gospel using the means that are relevant to our culture. . . . My goal in my life personally and the goal of our ministry is to connect people with people." His target assembly knows lyrics to Alanis Morissette songs, watches WB and Fox networks and was weaned with negative campaign ads. The group came of age with HIV and AIDS awareness.

Built like an ex-college fullback with packed shoulders and thick thumbs, Szakonyi looks younger than his 38 years. And the man possesses real show-me pragmatism. His sentences are peppered with New Testament parables punctuated with the occasional "dude." His demeanor is disarming, the sporadic used-car-salesman smile notwithstanding. With his ministry, Szakonyi is taking the gospel to the streets and to the kids. "We are just trying to be a bridge between the postmodern culture and the church that they have no interest in."

The ministry plans to entice potential believers through a series of shows, concerts, raves and street-level sermons. But Szakonyi wouldn't be caught dead wearing an alb with a red stole. Nor would he be found delivering a sermon in multicolored auras cast from stained-glass windows, or singing from ponderous and Germanic hymnals. He doesn't like church or religion. He and his ministry like rock 'n' roll and simply adore Jesus, and they think you should, too.

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