Lords of the New Church
At the intersection of First Street and Garfield, near a health clinic for indigents and an Arizona Public Service substation, there's a burnt-orange brick building that stops pedestrians. Most of the time, you don't see many people walking this part of town, but it's the First Friday in May, and a large crowd has wandered south from Roosevelt Row.
Three young women approach the building with puzzled looks and peer through the jagged, unintelligible, two-foot-long piece of vandalism carved into the front window. Inside, the walls are painted blood red.
Tonight, those walls are hung with photographer Monica Vega's "Women With Guns" series, which features hot babes pointing the barrels of various guns directly at the camera lens. There's a stage at the far end of the building, and shaggy-haired twentysomethings are shuffling in and out of the back door with various instruments, including three guitars, a drum set, keyboard and cello. While they set up, the sound man plays Rush and DJ Shadow CDs. There's no furniture inside except an old yellow couch and a few folding chairs.
There's also a crucifix over the front door and some pamphlets about church services on a table in the entryway.
Outside, a man in grimy clothes, clutching a bottle wrapped in a paper bag, asks, "What is this place?"
Somebody tells him it's a rock venue.
"Oh. I always thought it was a church!" he says, surprised.
"Well, it's kind of a rock 'n' roll church," says a skinny girl in blue jeans.
Her friend corrects her. "No, no, this is that art church."
The man takes a swig off the bottle and looks at them for a moment. "What is this place?"
"This place" is OnePlace, and in theory, it's a Christian church. In action, it's a hangout for local artists, musicians, college kids, and castoffs from more traditional churches.
And while it's still trying to find its identity, OnePlace hasn't had a problem fitting into the downtown arts scene or the local music scene. It's the "church scene" that's been a tough fit for OnePlace, because its unconventional methods of worship and openness to just about anything put it at odds with traditional churches. Across the country, religious organizations and churches are taking a more liberal approach to attracting new members, but OnePlace takes its tolerance and hipness a few steps further -- maybe too far, some say.
Smoke cigarettes? That's okay. Gay? Welcome. Got tattoos and piercings? So does everybody else. Having sex out of wedlock? Whatever.
Don't even believe in God? That's okay, dude. Hang out and catch a punk rock show or peruse the art, anyway. There's a new exhibition every month, and a rock show almost every night of the week.
Word on the street is that OnePlace even hosts hardcore shows, when no other local venue will book them.
"It's cool that they're accepting of people who smoke or have piercings or whatever, but I don't understand how they can be a church and book hardcore shows, because those kids are violent as fuck," says one local venue owner, referring to past incidents of violence at hardcore shows in both Phoenix and Tucson, including a fatal shooting at Skrappy's last year.
OnePlace did host hardcore shows for a while, long after every other venue in the Valley decided not to take any chances on them.
"I don't want to exclude anybody's scene, and there was no place left for them to go," says Mandi McKinney, who books all of the shows at OnePlace.
McKinney managed to pull off a handful of hardcore shows before somebody shoved the pastor one night. "We don't book any hardcore bands at all now," she says. "The church asked me to stop booking them because it's too much of a liability."
OnePlace does hold church services every Sunday night, but this is not your typical church experience. Every week, there's something different. One Sunday, you might walk in to find the place set up like a coffee lounge, with throw pillows and books laid out everywhere, and another week, you might be gorging on a massive food buffet while watching a documentary about Somalian refugees that one of the church members made.
The head minister at OnePlace, Rob Tarr, has spiky red hair, a goatee, and an earring. The 30-year-old pastor took the full-time job at OnePlace about a year ago, after serving as a minister at various churches since finishing seminary school in California seven years ago. He writes a blog on the church's Web site, www.oneplacechurch.com, where he shares what he plans to preach about and asks for feedback.
OnePlace's worship band (think melodic rock with some Jesus thrown in) is one of the church's big draws, consisting of members of local rock bands Micah Bentley and The Stiletto Formal, with several other musicians sitting in when somebody's on tour.
"We rotate people in and out [of the band]," says Israel Whittimore, the worship-band leader. "We have that ability."
Members of local bands Desole, Goodbye Tomorrow, And the Hero Fails, and Good Morning Providence have all attended church services at OnePlace as well. The rock shows and art exhibitions also bring a lot of new people into the church, almost all of them between the ages of 18 and 35.
And they're in the perfect place to try to build around their community, says Adam Brooks, a longtime staff member at OnePlace who's working on his Master's of Divinity at Phoenix Seminary. "Jesus went where there was the most need, where he could make the most difference," Brooks says. "And that's what we're trying to do."
Brooks' professors at Phoenix Seminary are pretty conventional, but even Steve Tracy, the college's Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics, appreciates what Brooks and his church are trying to do.
OnePlace landed in the right spot, Tracy says.
"If Jesus came today, he'd be in downtown Phoenix."
The genesis of OnePlace began early in the 21st century, at Calvary Chapel in north Phoenix, a nondenominational church where self-described "tech geek" Ben Rushlo and Michelle Roberts, a writer for the Associated Press, attended services.
After getting married, the young couple moved to San Francisco and joined Highway Community church, which specifically appeals to "Generation Xers" through programs like the "20/20 Singles Fellowship" and sermons that incorporate entertaining videos.
When Rushlo and Roberts moved back to the Valley in 2003, they decided to start a church that reflected the style they'd seen at Highway Community. "There was a void in Phoenix for a church that had a more cutting-edge philosophy about God, and a more liberal view of Christianity," Rushlo says.
So Rushlo and Roberts rented out the auditorium at Deer Valley High School -- where Adam Brooks works as a teacher -- and started holding services under the name OnePlace, with Michelle's brother Mark Roberts serving as minister. When the fledgling church began meeting at the auditorium, the atmosphere wasn't that different from the scene at OnePlace today: There was a rock band, a young congregation, and short, straightforward sermons.
Brooks, who's been a member of OnePlace since its inception, says there was also a lot of flak from traditional churches in the area.
"When we first started, there was a lot of opposition. There were a lot of people who talked a lot of stuff. They were like, Who are these people? They're trying to change things.'
"People were like, Oh, we can't do that, that's not a church. You guys are going to Hell,'" Brooks says. "The nicest way to put it is, we just silently gave them the middle finger and went on. We'll keep doing what we're doing."
Brooks adds that the congregation doubled in size when the church relocated downtown last November. And the crowd around OnePlace seems to grow larger with every First Friday, as word of mouth about the "alternative" rock/art church spreads.
OnePlace's approach to attracting new members to the church isn't new. It's called "seeker-friendly," "seeker-sensitive," or "market-driven ministry," depending on whom you ask. The idea behind it is that the modern seeker is turned off by the traditional church model that enforces rules and emphasizes repentance, so to attract new members to the church, a more modern, self-centered approach must be used, something that's a little more liberal and a lot more hip.
"We want people to feel like they can come here and not feel judged, not feel depressed, not feel talked about -- to feel safe. Deep down safe," Brooks says.
And judging by the hundreds of "seeker-friendly" churches springing up across the country, feeling spiritually safe is a big selling point. Many modern churches have adopted the more pop culture model, encouraged by the success of advocates like Rick Warren of Saddleback Creek Church in California, Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church in Houston, and the international Emergent Movement, with which OnePlace identifies.
"This movement called Emergent [includes] different churches from all over the country and all over the world, and it's kind of reexamining what it means to be a Christian and to develop Christian faith," Rob Tarr says. "We're moving over to worshiping in new ways. We worship a lot through our art. Art draws artists, so we draw those people in. The same with music."
But critics of the contemporary church have a couple of complaints.
"While no pastor would ever admit to watering down the gospel message, that is exactly what has resulted from preaching this kind of positive needs-oriented sermons that entertain and amuse," says Michael J. Penfold, author of Contemporary Church Building. Penfold lives in England, and is not personally familiar with OnePlace, but spoke about the movement in general.
"Market research has convinced them [churches] that unbelievers stay away from the church not because they reject Christ, but because they reject the church's boring presentation of Christ."
But according to members of OnePlace -- most of whom were raised in traditional churches -- there is something wrong with the traditional model, and it's not just that it's "boring."
"A lot of us are just sick of churches that make you follow these certain requirements, or you're just not welcome," Brooks says. "What kind of load of shit is that?''
For Israel Whittimore, OnePlace was a relief after attending many churches that he says were "pure performance" in their values. "I like the honesty of the people there, and the openness to being real," Whittimore says. "We're saying we have our faults and our weaknesses, but it's some way to find God, and to find church."
OnePlace identifies as a Christian church that believes Jesus Christ is "the one Lord" and the one path to salvation, and that the Bible is the Word of God. The church takes its name from the Biblical book of Acts 2, chapter 1, verse 11, which describes the birth of the Christian church ("When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together").
"For us, it's all about Jesus, and how we worship and how we show that is probably very, very different from a lot of churches, but that's what we're trying to do," Rob Tarr says.
Brooks stresses that the church is open to all kinds of lifestyles and fashions, and that members welcome anyone into the church -- including the pierced, tattooed, and gay -- because they believe that's what Jesus would have done, but also because they want their church to reflect the culture of this generation. But such liberalism doesn't apply to what they preach from the pulpit. "We want people to still feel welcome to come, but we don't want this to be a free-for-all where we teach everything," Brooks says. "What we are going to teach is God's word, and we want to stay true to that."
But opponents of the model say the methods of these contemporary churches debase the true gospel message, take the focus away from God, and offer members no real spiritual sustenance. "They're people who are close to their traditions," Brooks says. "We're saying, Screw tradition.'"
The art at OnePlace is usually more along the lines of the "Women With Guns" exhibition, but this past Easter, a muggy, pre-summer night, the art display is "The Stations of the Cross," one of the first religious-themed exhibitions to hang on OnePlace's walls.
Even this exhibition contains some things you'd never see on the walls of, say, the First Assembly of God. One of the largest paintings in the exhibition, Jeremiah Sazdanoff's Jesus Meets His Mother, depicts images of Christ and Mary behind a swarm of words and sentences, including "Crucify that mother fucker." The bright yellow "fuck" is the most prominent part of the painting. Even the "-er" is a more docile blue.
Behind the building, church members are bringing musical equipment through the back doors. Three homeless people -- two men and one woman -- are drinking and chatting it up on the curb. After a while, a beat-up Toyota Tercel with four men inside pulls up to the trio. The woman approaches the window, converses briefly with the driver, and climbs into the car.
Five minutes later, the Tercel comes tearing back down the street and screeches to a halt next to OnePlace. One of the men in the back seat flings the car door open and shoves the woman out onto the street. Barefoot and crying, she leaps up and runs after the fleeing Tercel.
"Gimme my money! They took my shoes! Help, police!"
There are three people unloading equipment at the back door of OnePlace. None of them approaches the screaming woman in the street.
During the Easter service, pastor Rob Tarr, wearing jeans, sits on a chair in front of the congregation and talks for all of 15 minutes. The congregation of about 40 people is spread out in front of him on a hodgepodge of chairs -- green lawn chairs, brown metal folding chairs, old elementary school desks with hard, utility-orange chairs, and other secondhand seats.
The subject of Tarr's sermon is where to find meaning.
"For Christians, there's a history of looking for meaning in the church. Spiritual meaning is never meant to be limited to the church," he says. "Can we find meaning in the stuff we do on a regular basis? Is there meaning in folding the laundry or scooping the dog poop? I think there is."
When the offering plate is passed around, there's no announcement or fanfare. No one looks to see how much money anybody else is dropping into the little red pail. By the time the bucket reaches the back row, there's only about 20 dollars in it.
So how does OnePlace -- a registered nonprofit -- sustain itself financially?
All of the staff members at OnePlace are volunteers. The only person who gets a salary is Tarr. Adam Brooks says that 25 percent of OnePlace's income comes from cover charges at rock shows, with the remaining 75 percent coming from church members' donations.
"We're not rolling in the dough," Brooks says, laughing. "But we're able to pay our bills."
On any given Sunday night, the stage at OnePlace looks like KISS might walk in and start setting off fireworks during a particularly pious rendition of "God Gave Rock 'N' Roll to You."
There are stack amplifiers on both sides of the stage and half a dozen guitar cases and microphones onstage. There's a wall-size projection screen to the right of the stage, and several stage lights beaming down on the scene. Looming behind a Plexiglas wall is a drum kit with enough tom-toms and cymbals to rival Peter Criss' lavish set. There are no painted faces, but that's okay, though, because on this particular Sunday in April, the Jesus fans are ready for some righteous rock, sans the six-inch tongue wagging.
When the worship band launches into Michael Pritzl's "Clean" and Israel Whittimore starts singing, several people in the crowd stand up, raise their arms to heaven, and sing along: "My God has rescued me/Taken my rags and made me clean/Open my eyes so I can see."
After the beautiful ballad, the band bounces into a more poppy song, "Rain Down" by the U.K. Christian rock band Delirious. Several people tap their feet, and a few even dance in front of their chairs, as they sing along again: "Give me strength to cross the water/Keep my heart upon your altar."
Many churches, even those some people might consider "stodgy," incorporate some form of rock or jazz music into their services. What separates the worship band at OnePlace from the music at other churches is the caliber of talent within the group. Everyone in the band has been making music for years, and some members of the worship band -- like Shelley Barnes and Sunny Davis of secular indie rock band The Stiletto Formal -- have enjoyed an amount of mainstream success (they'll spend most of this summer playing a slew of dates on the Vans Warped Tour). "A lot of churches don't have the musical depth that we've been blessed with," Whittimore says.
For the few hard-line, old-school critics who still insist that rock is the devil's music, the leader of OnePlace's worship band says he's heard that tune before. "My parents were super conservative," Whittimore says. "So I had to hide my rock 'n' roll CDs under my super conservative Christian CD covers. For people who have the idea that sound -- whether it's rock or organ -- for someone to say, That's from the devil, and that's from God,' I'd just ask those people to look at the heart of it, where it's coming from, and what it's really saying."
The sun has set outside a north Valley Starbucks, and Mandi McKinney is sweating in her seat on the patio. Tonight, the 23-year-old California transplant is wearing jeans, a sleeveless shirt that shows off the colorful heart-and-dagger tattoos on her arms, and earrings in a couple places on her face. She's puffing on a Virginia Slim as she thumbs through her day planner. It looks like someone dyslexic and half-blind has played tic-tac-toe all over the pages. She's been booking shows like crazy, especially since the church got new speakers, recently. She says there are more secular bands than Christian bands at the shows, and she's open to booking all kinds -- hardcore aside. That experiment failed.
The only discouraging aspect, McKinney says, is that she doesn't get enough time to interact with people at the shows and tell them about the church. "For a while, I was discouraged. I was like, You know, I'm doing this venue thing and it's really awesome and I'm meeting lots of cool bands, but I don't really feel like God is in it enough,'" McKinney says.
But she felt better when Rob Tarr told her that the rock shows were bringing people into the church. "I guess a lot of kids have come in because of the shows," McKinney says. "And that's what I want more than anything."
It's the First Friday in June, and Jesus is all up in the house. Two white school buses are parked in OnePlace's parking lot, surrounded by yellow crime scene tape and six high-voltage spotlights. Four graffiti artists on ladders are adding to the colorful abstract spray paint murals on the buses. There's a stereo with huge speakers outside, blasting a Sean Paul song so loud you can hear it from two blocks away.
A crowd of about 40 people is gathered around the live art project, taking pictures and talking on cell phones.
"Hey, it's me -- are you guys coming downtown?" a girl in baggy camouflage pants asks her receiver. "I'm at the OnePlace. No, no -- it's called OnePlace. It's really cool."
Another few dozen people are gathered outside the front of the building, including a black guy with a big Afro, a woman with hot pink hair, and a girl with a pair of handcuffs dangling from her backpack. Adam Brooks, wearing a backward baseball cap, is greeting people, along with Israel Whittimore, whose shaggy black hair keeps falling down into his eyes.
Pastor Tarr is inside the church with his family, trying to keep an eye on his adopted toddler son, who keeps trying to stand up on a folding chair. "I think there's gonna be some hip-hop dancing or something," he says.
A couple minutes later, two young guys in baggy shorts and ball caps take the stage. "We're here tonight to recognize our Lord Jesus Christ," one of them says into the mic. "We're gonna do some rapping and then a little dancing."
The DJ starts mixing a fierce hip-hop beat reminiscent of gangsta rap, and the guy with the mic starts rapping all about God, ending the first verse with "Don't believe The Da Vinci Code and the gnostics!"
At this, the entire crowd goes, "Oooooh!"
The second verse ends with, "Praise Jesus!"
Afterward, people wander outside. Brooks and Whittimore are outside talking to people when a woman comes running up to Whittimore. "The DJ's feeling sick, can you play something?"
Whittimore goes inside and somebody asks Brooks, "Isn't something else coming up?"
Brooks shrugs his shoulders and smiles. "I never know. I just unlock the doors."
OnePlace is burning to help the homeless. Literally.
"For a while, we had couches in our church and we were getting rid of them, so we had them in the back," Adam Brooks says. "And we had guys sleeping on them, which was fine. Well one day, one of our members drove by and saw smoke coming out of our shed. So she went over there, and a homeless guy was basically sitting there in his underwear smoking on the couch. And apparently, he was doing drugs or something and had lit our shed on fire. So we had to call the fire department and they had to tear down our door. Luckily, they caught it just in time, so it was a little comedic."
Even though church members can laugh -- after the fact -- about such mishaps, they take the needs of the disadvantaged seriously. When OnePlace was based on the northwest side, church members drove to Maggie's Place in Phoenix, which provides housing for homeless, pregnant women, and did some volunteer painting and yard work.
They also volunteered at Remuda Ranch in Wickenburg, an eating-disorder clinic where Israel Whittimore works full-time. OnePlace's desire to effect social change was one of the reasons they decided to move downtown.
"We always talked about how important it was to take care of the homeless and the poor and the widows, but we were in the suburbs," Brooks says. "We're looking around, and everyone's got these nice houses and Hummers, so we were like, You know, if we really care about this, let's move.' At the time, there were about 30 people going to the church, and we found a building downtown that they let us renovate, so we moved."
OnePlace's congregation has tried to respect the fact they're in an underprivileged area, tutoring Somalian refugee families in English, donating shoes to elementary schools, and taking boxed lunches to homeless people in downtown parks.
The church building, at 825 North First Street, used to house a photography studio. Church members found it in need of a makeover, so they gave the place a new paint job, knocked out an interior wall, and set up a new sound system. A few of the many homeless people in the area helped with the remodeling, in exchange for money or food. Many displaced people in the area still hang out in or around the church, and a few wander into Sunday services on occasion. They've occasionally disrupted services, too, by coming in intoxicated and screaming and yelling. Luckily, the staff of OnePlace sees the humor in such instances.
"I'd rather they be there sobering up than somewhere else," Brooks says. "It makes it interesting."
But the push-and-pull effect of balancing social programs with pop culture Christian outreach may change the scene at OnePlace soon.
As of press time, OnePlace had at least three rock shows per week booked through August. But Brooks says he and Rob Tarr are talking about limiting the number of rock shows at the building to a few concerts a month, so the building can be used for more social programs. The shift wouldn't hurt the nonprofit church financially, its leaders say, but it remains to be seen if a decrease in the number of rock shows at OnePlace will stunt its growth in other ways.
Ironically, OnePlace's decision to possibly limit the amount of rock shows in the building comes at a time when the church is finally starting to gain acceptance from traditional churches in the area.
"A lot of people thought it was just a fad," Brooks says. "But it's been three years, and we're still around. And so [now], people are like, All right, there's something here. We may not understand it, and we may not like it, but there's something there that's working.'"
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