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

The Spy in the Land Ministry digs are in a large, sectioned-off art space in the warehouse district south of downtown. Hardly the stucco/drywall/track lighting affair you'd expect from a modern ministry. Inside the airy space is a vintage set of leopard-upholstered rattan divan and chairs placed around a black-spotted bear rug in the main room. A lavender color scheme and well-chosen thrift-store furnishings decorate throughout. Guitar amps, instruments and a PA are stacked haphazardly in one corner.

It's a weekly Tuesday night meeting, and a dozen or so volunteers and board members are sitting around going over details for an "immersion" planned for New Year's Eve on Mill Avenue. The idea of the immersion is to make the ministry more visible. They'll have poets, musicians and the gospel going on. The group hopes to seek out bar-hopping "twenty- to thirtysomethings into talking about spiritual things."

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 assembled group members are all under 40, most in their early to mid-20s. There are a few tattoos and piercings, some spiked or bleached hair; there're a couple of suits. Could be the cast of MTV's Real World.

The monthly overhead for EITL is roughly 10 grand. An eye-popping sum for a pre-launch ministry barely a year old. Szakonyi and his wife are the only ministry members pulling full-time wage. He says their combined monthly take-home is $3,000.

Members of the board of directors are financial contributors of varying degrees based upon means.

"To some people it may sound like a blind faith," laughs Michael Simpson, one of seven of the ministry's board of directors. "There is a confidence that comes when you have a relationship with God and God consistently is providing once He's given you the direction, even though you don't necessarily see what that tangible providing is going to look like. It [the money] shows up. It's always there. There's an amazing confidence that we have. God called Jeffrey to this. He called me here. He's moving people from all over the nation."

Simpson is the most conservatively dressed of the bunch. He's lanky and well-groomed. By day he runs worldwide marketing for Interact Commerce, a multimillion-dollar software company.

"The good thing is Jeffery is pragmatic enough to surround himself with people who are very different than he is and who are also equally strong," continues Simpson. "He spends an enormous amount of time understanding what his strengths and what his weaknesses are. On our board of directors, there's not a lemming in the crowd. I have a lot of respect for the guy. I think he's amazingly gifted in a lot of areas. He's amazingly empathetic with other church leaders. I think he will develop into a mentor."

Echo Mountain's John Covell says that for an upstart ministry, he was a bit surprised at how well Szakonyi amassed donations. "People who believe in him continue to contribute."

" I think the Christian community is narrow-minded," says Szakonyi over a beer at Tommyknockers. "On abortion, for example, do I agree? No. Do I expect people not to have abortions? No. Not, at least, until they are changed by the love of God.

"Spy in the Land," he says, "is your basic reaction against a politicized movement. Legislation of morality is the stupidest thing I've ever heard of. You know what, dude? Jesus didn't come to legislate morality, he came to change people's hearts."

For Szakonyi, the change must be palpable.

"I believe Catholics are hungry for an experience with God," he says to underscore his point.

Szakonyi claims he has had that sort of tangible moment with the Lord.

"I know that I know I've seen miraculous things. Faith is a very abstract thing. [But] I can't disregard the experiences I've had. I can't disregard the time I was going to preach on Easter morning and I was asking Jesus to make himself real to me. I was sitting on my couch at five o'clock in the morning in Salt Lake City watching the sun come up. I wanted to be able to talk from experience; I wanted it to be real for me. And all of a sudden, this aroma fills the room for a second, and then it's gone. It was something I had never smelled before. It was a beautiful amazing thing. It brought me to tears, weeping."

What was it?

"It was Christ!" he says.

"Now I'm really gonna look like a wacko."

I ask him what he thinks might happen if next week it is proven beyond all doubt that the existence of God was a hoax.

"There would be no more hope," he says between sips of beer. "It would all be over. My story is saved by grace. I believe that He is who He says He is."

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