Down With J.C. 

How Rocketown makes Christianity cool for kids

In the movie Saved!, a satire of evangelical teens at a Christian high school, there’s a scene that brilliantly captures just how lame most efforts are to spin Christianity as hip and relevant for kids. “Let’s get our Christ on!” chirps Pastor Skip, an enthusiastic cheerleader for God played by Martin Donovan, somersaulting onstage during a pep rally for the Big Guy Upstairs. “Let’s kick it Jesus-style!”

For all his hangin’-with-my-homies shtick, the rappin’ pastor might as well be wearing a hemp necklace and a backwards ball cap, straddling a turned-around chair to drop some knowledge on the kids—a kind of cheeseball dorkery anyone who ’s ever been to a Young Life meeting knows all too well. It’s even more painfully evident in the music industry, where Christian rock bands have typically been regarded by the secular world with a sneer. After all, rock ’n’ roll—torchbearer of all things dark, dirty and wayward—is the devil’s music, and everyone knows he writes better hooks.

But across the country, churches, outreach centers and youth groups are looking for ways to meet teens on their level. They hope to make Christianity more palatable by portraying it as edgy—as cool as the video games and rock bands vying for their attention.

It’s a tough task. Turning a child on to faith is as easy as convincing him or her of Santa Claus. But teenagers? They’re a notoriously prickly, fickle bunch. They’re cliquish, fad-obsessed, hormonally challenged and skeptical, and their bullshit radar is perhaps never more heightened than at this delicate age. Hey, even if everybody’s doing it—Christianity is practiced by more than a third of the world’s population—it takes more than peer pressure to get a teenager to give up Halo 3 for John 3:16. Christianity may be your ticket to salvation and life everlasting, but one thing it’s never been is cool.

None of this seems lost on Rocketown, the downtown all-ages club where free expression coexists—sometimes uneasily—with spiritual aims. Over the past four years, the Sixth Avenue music venue/skate park/coffee bar has managed to navigate the tricky terrain of faith-based outreach for disenfranchised teens.

Founded by contemporary Christian singer-songwriter Michael W. Smith in 1994, Rocketown began in Franklin as a 300-capacity coffee shop and teen center. It operated there for three years, booking mainly Christian bands, but it had difficulty attracting secular crowds—not surprising when you consider that nearly all the Christian labels in the country are located in affluent Williamson County.

Missionaries, though, aren’t exactly in the business of preaching to the choir. In 2003, the operation moved to downtown Nashville, to a 40,000-square-foot renovated warehouse at 401 Sixth Ave. S. In a post-Columbine world—Smith had performed and been deeply moved at one of the school’s memorial services in Littleton in 1999—the center made connecting with disconnected inner-city kids its main priority.

Having a 13,000-square-foot skate park—the largest indoor park in the state, and one of the 10 or 15 largest in the country—does not hurt. And the corner of Sixth Avenue and Shirley Street has proved an ideal central location. Kids from Nashville School of the Arts, Meigs Magnet School, Hume Fogg and MLK off Charlotte are all under three miles away; Hume Fogg students can easily walk the few blocks over, while others get bussed in or dropped off by parents.

But proximity alone is hardly a come-to-Jesus motivator. To reach teens who would be driven off screaming by Pastor Skip, Rocketown would have to create a place where they would actually want to hang out. It would have to book finger-on-the-pulse bands they’d actually want to hear—emo, screamo, hardcore, metal—many of which would not share the club’s Christian values. It would have to seem exciting first and enriching second, even if that meant friction between the club’s mission and its means. If such a thing were even possible for a perceived God squad, it would have to become, in the universal parlance of teens, cool.

“I don’t know if we’re making [Christianity] cooler,” says Ben Cissell, the center’s 32-year-old outreach director, the pastor of Rocketown. “But maybe we’re tearing down stereotypes. Yeah, I don’t know if we’re making it cooler, ’cause I’m pretty lame.” He laughs. “But hopefully we’re changing the perception of what a Christian should be.”

Rocketown doesn’t hide its faith-based agenda—“Culturally Relevant, Eternally Significant” is its slogan—but the club doesn’t hit you over the head with it, either. Pull up to the venue, located just across the street from a towing company and industrial warehouses, and it wouldn’t occur to you that this brick building with a graffiti-splattered wall has a higher agenda. Outside, a handful of longhaired skater kids in baggy clothes with skateboards in tow loiter around. A few puff on cigarettes. A metal garbage can in the parking lot reads, “Punch a Baby.”

Step inside the music venue’s entrance, though—where the center sheds its vowels and becomes Rcktwn—and you run into the first indication of an authoritative presence, in the form of two security guards. One male and one female stand on either side of a waist-high, narrow platform. They’ll search your purse or backpack, pat you down for weapons, drugs, smokes, a lighter—or in this reporter’s case, a pen—and place any banned items in a box on top before sending you on your way.

Look immediately to your right, and you’ll see a wall lined with framed gold records. Though Smith started Rocketown Records, a Christian label in Franklin, these plaques aren’t commemorating record sales. They contain the names of donors—called the Founders Circle—who’ve given upward of $250,000 to Rocketown, enough that the building was paid off last December. Just overhead, taped to an air duct, is a handmade flier written in black Sharpie: “1-800-DUI-MIKE: Rest in Peace: This One’s For My Homies.”

Past the curving wall there are two exit doors to the right, between which hangs a bright-yellow flier with a scowling Mr. T and the command, “No Re-entry Suckas!” Once you’re in, Rocketown doesn’t want you leaving and coming back. Chances are, your parents dropped you off here and expected you to stay put. Besides, if you’re under 18, it’s not like you have a lot of other options.

Rcktwn is one of only three all-ages venues operating in Nashville—if you count the renovated church The Anchor on Third Ave. S., which hosts shows every few weeks. Most all-ages clubs are labors of love: it’s tough to make money when you can’t sell alcohol and you’re relying on door money to break even (see the cautionary tale of Murfreesboro’s now-defunct Red Rose Coffeeshop). The only real competition for the venue is The Muse, the all-ages dive on Fourth Ave. S.

But The Muse, which squats in the shadow of an interstate overpass between a strip club and the World’s Largest Adult Bookstore, serves beer—not exactly a dream drop-off for your easily influenced adolescent. There are also no clear rules at The Muse, whereas the rules of Rocketown are posted right on the wall, under the framed records. Respect yourself, others, and the RCKTWN property. No weapons, alcohol, gang representation, fighting or smoking permitted in the building. Express yourself in a respectful manner.

“We want kids to express themselves and experience independence in a safe environment,” says development director Audra Davis, one of three adult directors, including Cissell, one of whom is always on the clock. (All three directors are also CPR and first-aid certified.) Rocketown has three full-time managers; the rest are part-timers who, though they all could easily pass for teenagers, are between the ages of 21 and 30. Several kids volunteer when they have time, working in the club’s Empyrean Coffee Bar or the Sixth Avenue Skate Park.

Not only does Rocketown not feel like a Christian hang, it feels like an all-ages venue run by kids. Everywhere you look, scruffy staffers in hoodies, studded rock belts and Vans are taking your door money, brewing up your coffee or working in the skate shop. Even the adults, dressed in Rocketown T-shirts and jeans, look like college kids. Some 1,300 teens pass through Rocketown every week.

So what’s getting them in the door? Although the center offers afternoon programs any kid with a remotely creative bent would die for—blogging, zine-making, digital photography, YouTube film editing, guitar lessons, urban arts such as graffiti, even an urban rhyme lab for aspiring rappers—it’s mainly the bands that draw kids from all over the city and even out of state.

As early as 3 p.m. any day there’s a show booked, you can see teens already lined up around the building. Bands such as Under Oath, Against Me!, Gym Class Heroes and Mastodon, as well as local acts such as The Pink Spiders and The Features, have played here. Kids show up early because it’s a general admission club: if you want a guaranteed ticket and a good spot, you’d better get in line fast.

Take Ceshia, Corey and Jessica, 15, 16 and 19, who at 3:15 p.m. on a recent Tuesday are already lined up for the 7 p.m. show. The bill, a mix of Christian and secular acts, features From First to Last, Vanna and Bless the Fall. The three teens drove 45 minutes from Lawrence County because there’s nowhere in their town to see all-ages shows.

“This is the only venue that plays the music we like,” says Ceshia, who wears a black hoodie with cat ears and has her lip pierced. She didn’t know Rcktwn was a Christian venue, but she doesn’t mind—she identifies herself as Christian. She’s also aware that the band she’s here to see, Bless the Fall, is down with Jesus, and that’s OK. “It’s better when that’s not the only thing they sing about, though,” she says, pushing a tangle of blond-highlighted brown bangs out of her eyeliner-smeared eyes.

Standing by the coffee bar, where a cheeseburger sets you back $2.50, is 14-year-old Caitlin, whose mother drove her here from Tullahoma. This is the second time Caitlin has been here. Neither she nor her mother knew that Rcktwn was a Christian venue: the center has never really been marketed to parents as a safe place—rather to teens as a cool place. But like the teens from Lawrence County, Caitlin says there’s nowhere to see all-ages shows in her hometown.

Caitlin is here to see From First to Last, a screamo band who toured with Fall Out Boy. In 2004, they released a record called Dear Diary, My Teen Angst Has a Body Count—a line from the dark high-school comedy Heathers. But that’s likely lost on this particular teen, since the 1989 Heathers is five years older than she is. “I just come here for the shows,” she says, shyly averting her eyeliner-smeared eyes.

There’s still nearly two hours before the show starts, so Caitlin and the other teens will likely play a game of Ping-Pong at the table set up in the corner or watch some cable (nothing explicit) on the giant-screened TV. Or she can play video games or surf the Internet—though questionable-content sites are aggressively filtered. (“These are smart kids, though,” says Davis, “so we have to update and clean up the filters every few weeks.”)

Setting up chairs and tables in front of the coffee bar is Chris, a 17-year-old who attends Hume Fogg. He’s tall and stocky with red hair and a red beard, and he’s been volunteering at Rocketown for three years. He’s not a Christian, but his mom works for a Christian music distributor on Music Row. She picks him up at 5 or 5:30 p.m. when she gets off work.

“This is the only place for me to go,” he explains. “There’s the First Baptist rec center up the street, or the public library. But the rec center only has Ping-Pong and a pool table. And a TV. It’s just not that exciting.”

Like a good portion of the kids interviewed here, Chris believes in God but not religion. He likes how friendly the staff and kids are here, and that they don’t push their Christian agenda. “It’s nice ’cause, though they are [Christian], it’s not forceful,” he says. “They’re open to discussion. It’s not like, ‘Hey, Chris, you need to come to church.’ ”

He’s seen his fair share of unsavory characters come through Rocketown’s doors over the three years he’s been frequenting the place after school. “A lot of kids come here who are rough around the edges, or have rough backgrounds, like abusive backgrounds and family issues,” Chris says. “But they respect the environment most of the time.”

There have been a few kids who have gotten a little rowdy. “Some of them are disrespectful of authority—not really violent, just disrespectful,” he says. “They’re just not peaceful—kind of rambunctious. Some of them use profanity.”

Every now and then, Chris remembers, some pretty crazy injuries come out of the skate park. Once, several months ago, some of the kids at the skate park tried to start a gang and handed out green wristbands to show colors, but it didn’t really take and he never heard anything more about it.

“There was a fight here once,” Christian, a 13-year-old from Lawrence Middle School remembers. “Everyone jumped on them and pulled them apart like immediately. We had to tear them apart. One of them bit the other one in the knee.” So what happens to rowdy kids who come to Rocketown looking to make trouble? They get kicked out for a while and suspended, but within a few weeks, they’re allowed back in and given another chance.

Chris doesn’t usually attend shows at Rcktwn, because he likes older bands such as Slayer and Metallica—occasionally Modest Mouse. “When the concert people come, it feels different to me,” Chris says. “I feel more isolated when they’re here.”

At the same time, kids such as Triple G, a 13-year-old who attends MLK and is dressed like a coach in the making, come to Rocketown so much after school that they’ve become part of the Rocketown Reps program. It’s a group of volunteer kids who act as mini-spokespeople or publicists in training for the programs and shows offered at Rocketown.

“A lot of people think when you show up here, everyone says, ‘Good morning, God bless you,’ ” Triple G says. “It’s not like when you have a problem they say, ‘God will help you.’ It’s not overbearing. They just listen to you.” He referees a youth hockey league at night, and says Rocketown has helped him learn leadership skills and “how to be a good person.” He wanted to come to the Pink Spiders show a while back, but he lives in East Nashville, and his parents didn’t feel like driving him back downtown. (For the record, the Pink Spiders cussed up a storm at that show, and bassist Jon Decious threw up onstage.)

“There are kids here whose parents don’t care what they do,” he says. “Whose parents mistreat them all the time. I’ve seen staffers here talk to teachers for kids whose parents don’t care if they make an F.”

A few hours later inside the venue, which holds 1,200 people and has an upstairs balcony, the crowd is five deep, wrapped around the front of the stage. Like any all-ages emo/punk/hardcore show, there’s the pungent, undeniable whiff of raging hormones, and a lot of slouching and squatting in the requisite hoodies, studded belts and Vans. There are also the haircuts that can only be described as “MySpace hair”—face-sweeping, forward-jutting, gravity-defying spikes, with the occasional streaks of pink or blue on girls.

The band walking out onstage is indistinguishable from the crowd. A few girls up front scream with recognition. The Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” blares overhead, and a petite girl with spiky black hair of Transylvanian proportions grabs her friend’s hands and starts dancing, and they both know the words. A pale, blue-eyed teen with a skunk-streaked ’do nearby gets a quick discreet smooch from her boyfriend.

Bless the Fall are up next. They’re a Christian band, but according to Drew, an 18-year-old Belmont student standing nearby, they don’t preach. “They have lyrics like ‘Him’ or ‘His,’ ” Drew explains, “but they don’t say ‘God’ or ‘Jesus.’ ” He likes that it’s not so blatant, and notes that they don’t cuss either—although, Drew mentions, the band before said “the ‘f’ word.” “ ‘You effing rock,’ they said to the crowd,” he intimates.

The band launches into a screamo double-kick-drum assault, and the moshing begins immediately, the singer and bassist trading off vocal duties between a nasally whine and guttural demonic screaming. The lyrics are indecipherable, but a group of dudes—one who can’t be a day over 10 years old—swaggers into position and starts moshing, old-school hardcore windmill-armed style, almost as if choreographed. A security guard watches closely, leaning against a speaker onstage, but finds no reason to intervene.

“The biggest problem I’ve had here is older kids who are too big in the mosh pit,” explains a security guard who wished to remain unnamed. “Ninety percent of the time, everything’s all right,” he says, adding that, since the venue doesn’t serve alcohol, most of the trouble is eliminated right off the bat. “But we do get people with broken noses and broken thumbs. It’s those bigger kids coming and the little kids getting hurt.”

“If we have any Christians in the venue tonight, raise your hands,” says the tattooed lead singer. A good half of the crowd lift their hands up. “Please put Chris, the lead singer of Vanna, in your prayers,” he says. “It’s the last night of the tour for them because his grandfather died.”

The show goes on, the band responding with precision axe-swinging to the piggyback-riding, hardcore-moshing crowd. It turns out Bless the Fall has a new CD, His Last Walk, and a song devoted to their best friend, Jesus Christ. Again, the lyrics are indecipherable, but you feel sure they’re sufficiently inspired.

For some kids, that’s precisely what draws them to Rcktwn. Asked if they’re OK with Rcktwn being a Christian venue, three teens sitting in the coffee bar between bands enthuse in unison, “We think it’s cool!” Megan, Danny and Dylan, 18, 17 and 15 respectively, have driven here all the way from Glasgow, Ky., because there’s simply nowhere else to go for shows. They love Christian hardcore—again, the lyrics are better when they’re not necessarily preachy—and they’re mainly here to mosh. They like that moshing has its own code of honor, one that’s not entirely un-Christian.

“Don’t kick people in certain regions,” Dylan explains. “And if you knock someone down, you like, pick them up,” Megan adds.

But kids like Megan, Danny and Dylan aren’t actually Rocketown’s target demographic. The club reaches out to kids who, in addition to not having positive extracurricular activities such as band or sports, don’t already have a relationship with God.

So it’s Rocketown’s inclusion of secular bands—the kind who don’t preach messages of peace, love and understanding—that shows just how far into uncharted territory they’re willing to go to bring in troubled teens. It’s a question Cissell navigates all the time, and he’s given the issue plenty of thought. It’s not just because some of the bands they book conflict with Rocketown’s message, but also because he’s had his fair share of complaints from parents, some churches, and even kids about the bands they bring.

“I feel like it’s a question we intentionally dodge sometimes,” Cissell says, when asked how the club justifies booking secular bands who don’t espouse Christian values. “But if we’re truly a ministry, we should answer it. Like MSI [electronic punk band Mindless Self-Indulgence]. They’re way out of bounds. That’s a show I approved, and I went to their MySpace page and listened to their lyrics. They have a song called ‘Faggot’ that was hateful to homosexuals. It wasn’t violent, but it was hateful. And we try to stay away from that. But the kids really wanted the show.

“To this day I question my decision. I just felt like for some reason we needed to do that show here. There are venues in this town that might book the show that aren’t safe for kids.”

Though Cissell wasn’t aware at the time why he felt called to book a band who might offend some parents and kids—not to mention Rocketown’s 23-person board of directors—it became clear the night of the show.

“That night, a girl came through that cut herself—she was a cutter, ’cause you can tell when you’re putting on wristbands,” Cissell says. “A girl that was obviously drunk. Her friend was concerned about her, and came and talked to us. So we called the police and the ambulance, which is what we always do in these cases. It turned out that she had alcohol poisoning and actually died, and was resuscitated.

“At any other venue, she would have just been kicked out—no offense to The Muse or Exit/In or any other venue. But we are a safe music venue. Other venues aren’t in the business of establishing these kinds of relationships with kids. Every kid who comes through our door we feel truly responsible for until they get home that night.”

And these kinds of kids—the kinds who experiment with drugs, or cut themselves as a cry for help—are precisely the kids Cissell and his staff want to reach.

“Christian bands are not going to bring the kids we want to minister to,” says Cissell, who admits he doesn’t listen to Christian music. He prefers bands like Minor Threat, Social Distortion and Fugazi, bands he listened to in high school when he himself was a “pissed-off teen.”

“We’re called to do shows and minister to kids that churches can’t reach,” he continues. “We bring in those bands so we can show these kids what Rocketown is, show them our programs, and build relationships with these kids. So sometimes we cross that boundary.”

And sometimes they don’t. Cissell doesn’t book acts that will bring a disproportionately older crowd, thus defeating the purpose of Rocketown’s mission to minister to youth. He is familiar with the death-metal band Cannibal Corpse, but found their lyrics—“Something like ‘I want to rape your dead rotting skull in the eye socket’ or something,” he recalled—a bit much. So he passed on booking them, which didn’t sit well with some kids.

“He’s pissed about us not bringing them here,” Cissell says, pointing to a longhaired skater teen standing at the counter of Rcktwn’s Sixth Avenue skate shop. “Cannibal Corpse would have been gnarly!” the teen responds. “Yeah, but it would have been people my age at that show,” Cissell replies.

“It’s just music—it’s just words,” a 13-year-old MLK student named Nick blurts out. “If you don’t want to hear about that stuff, don’t listen!”

“The thing is, we have these debates all the time,” says Cissell, who used to play drums for the Christian band Audio Adrenaline, though he didn’t really like their music. “We debated about DragonForce once,” Cissell begins, only to be cut off by Nick: “Who cares! We’re the ones going to shows!”

“This isn’t their crowd,” Cissell tells him. “They don’t want to play here—they want to play somewhere where their fans can get drunk.”

That happens. Bands such as Rancid or Social Distortion—who Cissell admits to booking despite their older fan base because he totally wanted to see them play—were bummed when they found out there wasn’t a bar.

“A lot of bands do research on Rcktwn and go, ‘Oh crap, it’s a Christian venue,’ ” Cissell says. “But nine times out of 10, by the end of the night, they wanna come back.”

The Rocketown staff talks with each band upon their arrival at the club, explains what Rocketown is about, and asks that the band be respectful of that. Aside from occasional cussing, or a lit cigarette that they politely ask the bands to extinguish, there’s rarely a problem. Cissell makes what he calls “a cheesy safety announcement” at the beginning of each show, then runs through a list of upcoming acts similar to the one the kids are there for that night. Finally, he reminds the audience that adults are around if they need to talk about anything at all. And sometimes, the kids seek them out.

“Sometimes they come with life-changing problems, and sometimes it’s that they got broken up with by their boyfriend on MySpace,” Cissell says.

But to Cissell and the rest of the staff, it’s a way of building trust and relationships—much like the weekly movie nights, called Connect, that they host to get kids to discuss current events. They recently held a monthlong series of films on 9/11 conspiracies, and this month focuses on the films of Michael Moore. And they’d rather host rock shows, controversial as they might be, that kids would actually want to see than lose those shows to other venues. It’s happened before.

“What should we do?” asks development director Audra Davis. “We ask these bands to keep their language appropriate. We could pull the plug, but we might have a riot of 800 kids. We turned a band away once, and the show got booked at The Muse instead. Some of our kids were upset, so we sent staffers to the venue to show support.”

So much of the Rocketown approach to ministry is about offering exactly that—support. There’s a disarming earnestness found among the staff here—not to mention a truly baffling politeness from most of the kids—about their mission to create a safe, expressive environment for youngsters. And there’s a genuine desire to connect with the teens who spend their days and nights here by learning about their lives and acting as positive role models. A wayward nonbeliever can be forgiven for waiting for the Kool-Aid to be served.

But from the classes offered—which are taken directly from the teens’ suggestions—to the visitors they invite, such as Jackass star and skateboarder Bam Margera, it’s clear they’ve made every effort to create a relevant place that encourages discovery and expression. In the skate park, they let kids play their own iPods through the overhead speakers. On a recent visit, Danzig’s “Mother” was blasting while a dozen or so kids raced around attempting tricks. Not exactly Vacation Bible School material.

“We do things to attract this age group,” Cissell says. “I’m not trying to minister to my mom.”

Indeed. Hang with Bam Margera, skateboard with your friends, listen to a band whose singer is the founder of the horror-punk genre. Play some video games with your friends, take a class learning how to graffiti, knock back a Red Bull. And if you feel like it, talk to a caring adult who’s genuinely interested in your life and your problems. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll find yourself a little closer to the man upstairs.

Or maybe not. Take Wesley, a stringy-haired, sock-hat-wearing skater in a striped sweater and tight corduroys tied with a fluorescent green shoelace in place of a belt—“That’s my steeze, you know, my style,” he explains—who says he believes in God, but not religion.

The McGavock student wears an ornate inverted silver cross around his neck. “I’m not a Satanist,” he explains. “I just like to piss people off.” (“What can I do? It’s not on my neck,” Cissell says about the necklace. “I wish he wouldn’t wear it, but I’m not going to tell him not to.”)

Wesley admits he wouldn’t come here if it weren’t for the skate park, because he thinks “most of the shows are pretty lame.” He likes local metal band Destroy Destroy Destroy, although he totally has Dr. Dre and Tegan and Sara on his iPod. But he doesn’t think he’ll ever become a Christian—all the cool bands, skateboarding and after-school programs won’t change that for him.

“I just don’t believe in religion,” Wesley says. “I just don’t believe in their beliefs, like creationism.”

“Kids like Wesley keep me up at night,” Cissell says. “Some days I leave here on the biggest high, but some days I leave here totally defeated. I’d love to have a conversion conversation with Wesley, but that’s not up to me. All we’re called to do is be here for the kids when they need us. We’re not after conversions.

“Kids like Wesley are the reason we’re here. But I can’t do that until he’s ready. Hopefully I can point these kids by my actions, but it’s not up to me to change a kid’s heart.”

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