Scion of Disgraced Televangelists Preaching in Hipster Bars
Wearing a cross, star of David and Islamic crescent moon, Jay Bakker speaks of "inclusion."
At 4 on a Sunday afternoon, the nightclub is filled with twentysomethings. But they haven’t come to drink, or to watch the flat screen TV. The draw is Revolution Ministries, a church service led by Jay Bakker, son of the fallen late-80s televangelists Tammy-Faye and Jim Bakker of The PTL Club fame.
The junior Bakker, 32, dresses like his listeners: tight jeans, a leather jacket, multiple tattoos and a silver lip ring that catches the light when he talks. Despite what some might call sacrilegious surroundings, the point, said acolyte Christie Lee, a 29-year-old social worker, is “being in the presence of the Lord.”
Revolution Ministries’ indie-rock flavored service started in 1998 in Atlanta and has since spread to Charlotte, N.C., and New York City. (Today we’re in Pete’s Candy Store, in the hip Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg.) The service’s popularity is an indicator of a growing trend in evangelical Christian worship: hipsters in bohemian fashions worshiping at clubs or bars, proudly breaking with their parents’ traditional practices.
The only rule for salvation, Bakker said in an interview, is accepting Jesus into your heart.
Revolution, and other churches like it, seem to be flying under Evangelical leaders’ radar—they believe most teenagers are abandoning the faith. At a series of what were called emergency meetings this past fall in 44 cities, more than 6,000 Evangelical pastors met and released a study that said if current trends continue, only 4 percent of teenagers now involved in Christianity will be “Bible-believing Christians” at adulthood, from 35 percent of teens who stayed with the religion in the baby boomer generation.
Bakker’s parents were famous televangelists who hosted a popular Christian cable show in the late-1980s and early 1990s, until their fall from grace in 1987, with a probe into accounting practices at their Christian theme park, Heritage USA, and accusations that Jim Bakker had raped a staff member.
Jay – whose real name is Jamie Charles Bakker—says he’s at peace with his tumultuous upbringing. In those days, he said, his best friends were his bodyguards.
“I remember when I would be on the show, I would have to wear a suit and have my hair gelled down to my head. Right before I would go on, I would grab my G.I. Joes and put them in my pocket.”
He sits next to the stage from which he will deliver his sermon. He wears white undershirt and silver necklace decorated with a cross, the star of David, and an Islamic crescent moon.
He speaks with a slight Southern drawl and drinks iced tea—he has been sober for 14 years. His ministry’s success, he says, is based on his belief that young people should come as they are, both in dress and with whatever ideas they have about God. He’s especially against the black-and-white concept of salvation he says his parents preached.
“I was raised with the belief that you could do good or you could do bad. If you did everything you were supposed to do, you were guaranteed salvation, but if you didn’t, it was easy to backslide.”
Now Bakker believes that you are accepted through God’s grace exactly the way you are, whatever your sins, past or present. His vision of Christianity believes strongly in inclusion and welcomes lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people.
The problem that Jay has with mainline Christianity is the rules and beliefs that pastors and organizations, like the National Association of Evangelicals, force upon their flock after they have accepted Jesus. “At Revolution,” he adds, “We don’t believe that we are holier or better then other people.”
Social worker Lee, who grew up attending an evangelical church, tears up while discussing her two years as a Revolution follower.
“I still believe in God, but I don’t connect with many of the beliefs of the church today,” she said, “like their strong opinions against gay people and abortions.”
In his sermon, Bakker tells his followers to read their bibles, not just to believe what a pastor tells them.
“It’s the greatest story never told,” he joked.
The bar stays open during the service, and though the bartender is playing dominoes and taking phone calls, the worshippers don’t seem to notice. A few non-worshipping regular customers drink in respectful silence.
Vince Anderson, the assistant pastor, hits the bar after the service.
“Christianity is not a private little club,” he said, ordering a beer. “Since 9/11, Christianity has not included others, and where has it gotten us? Only bad places.”
Many young worshippers join the pastor at the bar.
But Bakker bundles up in a tight black leather jacket, collects his notebooks and bible and strolls out alone.