Graceland

'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.

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.

John Cavell, an articulate, leather-jacketed senior pastor at Echo Mountain Church, one of a handful of Valley pastors who embrace a postmodern approach, says the city is saturated with conservatism. "Christian" to him is a dirty word. "It ["Christian"] is full of all these negative stereotypes. I've always been embarrassed by a lot of Christians. You know, that 'Toupeed Christianity.' When you watch TV, how often do you see somebody who believes in Christ, let alone a pastor, who isn't just a total idiot? The closest thing on TV to a realistic portrayal is that show 7th Heaven. And even they need a better consultant."

"Once in a while, I use the word "Christians" in terms of talking about people, but usually it's in a negative sense," he continues. "I talk about being a child of God. I talk about those of us who believe in Christ, who've accepted God's forgiveness. I tend to qualify it more and say, 'Here's what I mean.'"

"Say the word 'Christian,' and immediate judgments apply," says Szakonyi. "What we are supposed to be is loving and open-minded, full of joy and humor. If you say you're a Christian immediately, what would somebody think? They'd think that you're judgmental, a tight-ass, sheltered, white, middle- or upper-middle-class. I tell people I'm a follower of Christ, that I'm a believer in Christ."

Tom Beaudoin, a Catholic theologian, says in his book Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X that Xers are distrustful of institutions, particularly organized religion.

"I don't wanna be religious," says Szakonyi. "I really struggled with that. Who wants religion? I want new life. There's an interest in the spirituality; there's no interest in organized church. Forget the institutions, let's talk about God, let's talk about Jesus.

Szakonyi came out of a "poor, white-trash neighborhood" outside Chicago with limited opportunity and no spirituality. His real father vanished before he was old enough to remember, and his mother left him with his stepdad when he was in kindergarten. He describes himself in those days as a deep-thinking loner who never went to church.

"When I grew up into my teens and 20s, I was just really out of control. I was looking for ways to mask the pain. I lived a highly sexualized early 20s. I had an influence of my stepfather: I was taught love is sex."

He got into weight lifting, drinking and women. He became a professional body builder and later, a personal fitness trainer. Then came the road to enlightenment.

In 1985, Szakonyi was driving through the country with some friends. One night, they stopped at a bar in Spearfish, South Dakota, and Szakonyi mixed it up with one of the locals. Everything got crazy, and he soon found himself outside. His foe hopped in his truck and ran him over. Szakonyi got caught in the truck's underside and was dragged 60 feet over harsh road. He wound up in a Rapid City hospital going in and out of consciousness for nearly a month. His left kneecap was torn off, as was half his calf. He says it was the muscle bulk from body building that saved his life.

The redneck motorist got off.

"I lost all faith in the court system, in the hospital system, in everything. Before the accident, I was pro-American, a loving-the-Fourth-of-July kinda guy all the way."

The experience left in him an aftertaste that made him a believer.

"I believe that night was a battle for my soul, because as I laid in the street bleeding -- it was 30 minutes for the ambulance to get there -- I said, 'God, don't let me die.'"

Szakonyi became a regular at Willow Creek megachurch in Chicago. He worked with orphans on a mission trip to Haiti, only to return with a heady case of typhoid. He volunteered to go to Bellevue, Washington, where he produced worship services and did high school ministry. He landed in Salt Lake City in 1995 as a co-pastor at a GenX church called New Song. He studied theology at a Utah seminary.

Now he looks around Phoenix and sometimes scratches his head, wondering. Before the ministry was up and running, Szakonyi was working as a handyman in Scottsdale.

"I don't know why God brought us here, but this is where we are supposed to be. But there's no community here."

Or at least no community at his crib.

Szakonyi shares a cozy, California-bungalow-style home in the Coronado with his wife Alisha and the couple's 12-week-old daughter, Caden. Alisha is the daughter of It's a Beautiful Day founder and violinist David LaFlame and is a singer-songwriter who performs at ministry functions.

However, the scene ain't always cozy. A slumlike property across from the Szakonyis' home was, until recently, occupied by washouts who made life hell for the family. Threats to kill the family dogs and sexual innuendoes toward Alisha came often.

"These guys were smoking pot out front, blaring their music all the time, and drinking. The kids were running around, not going to school. One day, I asked them not to scream at the top of their lungs. And I asked them all to keep it down. They found out I was a pastor, and so they burned Bibles in front of my house. One day, one of the cops looked at me and said, 'I'm surprised you haven't kicked these guys' asses.' I said, 'I'm a pastor!' He says, 'So what!'"


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."

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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