The room is dark, illuminated only by the glow of black lights and lava lamps. Posters of skulls and crossbones hang on the front wall. Teenagers and 20-somethings sit in mismatched chairs. Most are dressed in black from head to toe--a collective statement of millennial counterculture. One wears black lipstick and matching eye shadow. Another sports a dark brown lightning bolt down the middle of dyed-white hair. Tattoos adorn knuckles, forearms, ankles, and necks. Some of the body art proclaims a love for Christ; other pieces assert an affinity to Satan or showcase naked women.
Welcome to Bible study with Jay Bakker.
More than a decade has passed since the demise of Jim and Tammy Bakker's Gospel dynasty. But their tattooed, pierced, 24-year-old son now has his own ministry, appropriately named Revolution.
Christian punk and hard-rock concerts? Skateboarding shows? Goths who look like your basic Marilyn Manson crowd?
That's Revolution--and it's not for everyone. It's not supposed to be. The ministry is attracting droves of Goths, punks and modern-day hippies who are open to Jesus but turned off by traditional Christianity. But it's not the eclectic tapestry of counterculture chic that makes Bakker's Revolution so revolutionary--it's his ability to touch the hearts of youth with Christ's message of hope and love.
At a recent gathering, Bakker stood before more than 30 teens and 20-somethings and opened the meeting with prayer. He then pointed to an article about the Pokemon craze.
"What do you guys think when you see Christians saying Pokemon is of the devil?" he asks. He drops the magazine on the table beside him. "When I was a kid, every toy I had, some Christian thought was of the devil. I remember burning all my He-Man toys because I was scared to death that demons were going to jump out of them and into me."
After a pause, he continues: "Don't Christians have something better to do than this?"
A torrent of response follows from the crowd. And that's just what Bakker is after. His brusque question is intended to evoke lively debate. Many of the young participants share their thoughts about the Pokemon phenomenon. One points out that the same people who created Dungeons and Dragons invented the Pokemon cards. Another brings up the fact that the creatures use occult powers to fight their battles.
As the discussion progresses to other topics, it's obvious they have balanced, thoughtful opinions and are deeply concerned about issues affecting the world. Bakker concludes the evening with a brief study from the Book of Philippians, freely speaking of his own past hurts as he applies the Gospel message to everyday life.
Bakker was once the pampered son of a living legend. But when his family fell from favor, he became a high school dropout, a drug addict, and an alcoholic.
"Paul talks about having joy that never leaves you--and I remember how hard that was for me," Bakker said. "I started drinking the night my father was sent to prison. Years later, I was trying to find my way back to Christ. I'd sneak into a church and sit in the back, my heart aching. Then the preacher would start to take the offering, and he'd make some joke about 'not doing a Jim and Tammy.' It was hard to have joy in my life during that time."
An Outcast for the Lord
Jamie Charles Bakker--later known as Jay--was practically born on Christian television at the beginning of PTL's glory days. Viewers were allowed unfettered access into the Bakkers' personal lives. When Tammy announced she was pregnant, viewers eagerly tuned in every step of the way. Tammy went into the hospital to have the baby while Jim was broadcasting a live episode of the PTL Club. Jim fully intended to make it to the hospital in time for the delivery. He didn't.
As the program closed, cameramen held up a poster board announcing, "It's a boy!" It was the perfect illustration of a family thrown off balance by the pressures of ministry.
Although Jim was driven to build more, do more, and reach more, his wife, Tammy, had a love-hate relationship with the ministry, enjoying its perks but resenting the fact that each new project overshadowed their family life. In the midst of the turmoil was Jay. From the young boy's point of view, his dad ruled the world--and the world was Heritage USA.
"I started drinking when I was 13," Bakker recalls. "For years I tried to ease my pain with drugs and alcohol, but I always knew the Lord was there; He loved me."
Bakker had a serious reading disability and struggled with every aspect of school. After the early years of privilege at Heritage USA, the young man was suddenly facing ridicule from schoolmates. He and Tammy Faye moved frequently, and he attended schools in North Carolina, Florida, California, and Tennessee.
In addition to drinking, Bakker began smoking marijuana and finally started dropping acid.
"I would struggle to live right," he says. "I remember once going to a Baptist youth camp and rededicating my life to Christ. I quit drinking and was trying so hard.
"It was a summer night and someone offered me a wine cooler. I almost said no, but thought: Well, what's the harm? It's just a wine cooler. Just as I raised it to my lips, a church friend drove up, took one look at me, pointed his finger, and said, 'See, I knew it wouldn't last.' I fell off the deep end again after that."
Life without his dad was not easy. His mom and dad divorced, and Tammy Faye married family friend Roe Messner in 1993. Angry and disillusioned, Jay dropped out of the 10th grade and moved to St. Petersburg, Fla., where he found work as a cameraman for a Christian television station. He did manage to kick his drug habit, but couldn't quit drinking. Yet despite the alcohol, he never lost hope for a better future.
"My whole teenage life, I wanted to help people, but I wasn't sure how. I didn't even know if I wanted to do it in a church, because my family had been so hurt," Bakker says.
He finally did figure out what God wanted him to do: He would reach out to kids whom he believed needed the message of the cross but didn't need what he considers to be the "Pharisee approach" of condemning less-than-perfect lifestyles.
"There were a lot of churches that reached out to me, but it was always conditional, and I could never live up to those conditions," Bakker said. "There are so many conditions put on it. You know, 'Get your life together and then come to God.' That's not why Jesus went to the cross. Jesus died because we could not do it ourselves."
Focusing on unconditional love, Revolution began in 1993 in Phoenix. Pastor Mike Wall became a leader for the newly formed outreach. Bakker partnered with associate pastor Kelli Miller to start the ministry. The trio wanted to reach out to youth whose lives were torn apart by drugs, alcohol, and abuse. They drew teenagers by meeting in coffeehouses and staging skating events, concerts, and weekly group sessions. Revolution gatherings now number a couple hundred participants.
Bakker worked at his ministry while struggling with demons. After Revolution began, he moved to Atlanta to live with Bishop Earl Paulk's family. He credits the Paulk's son, Donnie Earl, for helping him get his act together. This new friend was there when he needed a sympathetic ear.
Donnie Earl's message was acceptance, not condemnation. The two young men agreed that the message of Christ's acceptance should be taken to the streets--to those who felt alienated by mainstream society and traditional Christian circles.
"Jesus died on the cross for our sins," Bakker says. "There is the unconditional love of Jesus. For some reason it seems that we have lost that. That breaks my heart."
In Atlanta, Bakker finally laid his struggles with alcohol to rest, joining a 12-step program and using the program's philosophy of acceptance in his own ministry. Soon God brought Phillip Bray into his life. Bray's ministry, Safehouse--an outreach to the down-and-out--is located in the heart of Atlanta's inner city. As soon as he met Bakker, he offered him a place to stay and a ministry umbrella for Revolution.
Welcome to My Revolution
Rolling Stone magazine recently ran a five-page profile of Bakker and Revolution. The writer was quick to point out that the young evangelist's Bible studies are more like a 12-step recovery program than a typical church service.
True enough. The analogy points to a weakness of the traditional church.
In a 12-step program, the loudest applause is for the person who steps up to receive their "24-hour chip," which signifies that they have been sober for a full day. Some of these people are new participants who are making their first baby step toward sobriety, but most are regulars who may have remained sober for a time but ended up falling off the wagon. A 12-step program praises the efforts of a person and doesn't condemn the slip ups.
Sitting in the shadows of a recent meeting was a young man clad in black leather. His eyes had the look of a serious drug user. When he entered the room, Bakker and his wife immediately dropped everything to embrace him. There was no mention of drugs, only the fact that they were overjoyed to see him again.
Later that night, the young Bakkers invited him to join them for coffee. His message to the young man was one of forgiveness and hope. "Not all the kids who get saved here are able to live it 100 percent from day one," Bakker explains. "They stumble, they fall, and Jesus is right there waiting to pick them up and love them after they fail."
Bakker wants to buy a building in the center of Little Five Points--a compact residential section of Atlanta that bustles with alternative-culture businesses.
Funding is tough for an outreach like Bakker's. Not many "church ladies," he says, are comfortable with the people he serves.
And there are other struggles. Many church groups no longer allow their youth to attend Revolution concerts because only about half the bands in Revolution concerts are Christian.
But criticism from the religious crowd doesn't seem to bother Bakker. "I am not trying to be entertainment for church youth groups. My vision is for the lost. Many of the unsaved who come to our Bible studies meet us at these concerts. What they hear at the concert plants a seed--then we can help make that seed grow through developing a personal relationship and through Bible studies.
"These kids know a fake a mile away. You have to be real with them. I have to be honest about my struggles, or they will never know it is normal to struggle."
MTV has approached him about doing a TV show. Such things mean far less to Bakker than reaching lost kids for Christ.
"You know that kid, Stephen, who has been coming?" he asks excitedly. "He walked up to me and said: 'Tonight's the night, man. I want to accept Jesus.'
"Here is a kid who told me he was an atheist when I met him at a concert. He started hanging out, coming to the meetings, and today it happened for him." He pauses, visibly moved as he remembers. "I never want to lose that--the joy of hearing that someone came to Christ," he says. "I want to feel what He is feeling--joy, complete joy. What a God of grace we serve!"
"When Jesus lived on this earth, He didn't hang out with the church crowd. He hung out with people others looked down on," Bakker says. "Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. He hung out with tax collectors, people who betrayed and stole from their own people. "In Mark 2:17 Jesus said that people who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick. He had a message of grace to the outcast. I think Jesus would be at home at our Bible study."