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Formerly the domain of well-meaning but tragically un-hip Stephen Curtis Chapman and friends, Christian music has made a serious bid for the mainstream in the past few years. Bands like Switchfoot get MTV airtime thanks to the success of Jesus-friendly rock-rappers P.O.D. and everyone's favorite former Creed front man, Scott Stapp. But behold what lies beneath the radio-friendly Christian radar: a wave of metal, nu-metal, old-school metal, metal-core, hardcore, emo-core, insert-your-favorite-core-here bands that make it their business to rock small cities and suburbs full of kids frustrated with the traditional youth group. Dallas-Fort Worth is one of the places where they thrive, filling alcohol-free, all-ages venues with kids desperate for a non-nerdy alternative to weekend nights filled with drinking, drugs and premarital sex.
Big-name local stages like The Door have two locations and draw national tours, but it's the underground, word-of-mouth places like Dreamworld, Club 412 and brave, small churches throughout the area that produce a concert-going experience as spiritually powerful as it is loud.
Club 412, struggling to find a home and reclaim the (relatively) massive crowds it once drew at its Fort Worth shopping-center location on Southwest Boulevard, now operates out of the sanctuary of Christ Fellowship Baptist Church in Arlington. What started out as a Christian coffee shop in 1998 turned into a weekly packed house as kids arrived en masse to hear faith-based bands like Embodyment and Travail before they were big enough for countrywide tours.
"I was amazed that this loud screaming stuff could bring anyone into church," says Rusty Ivey, who's been with 412 since its first year in 1998, starting out as a curious neighbor, then working security and eventually becoming a co-manager. It didn't take long for him to realize that what seemed bizarre--getting a spiritual experience from rocking out to the growl of faith-centered lyrics--was working.
At 412 and other clubs, most of the staff are young Christian adults. Concert-goers can find spiritual mentors working the door or concession stand and not feel like they're talking to a stuffy minister or parent. Providing that kind of counseling is another primary function of the clubs. They also allow kids to bring their non-Christian friends to a concert without feeling embarrassed about an overly religious atmosphere. Ivey says that those friends-of-friends, once they build up a rapport, can make up some of their most significant conversions to the faith.
Somehow, their message-via-heavy metal works, even in a sanctuary. The room's eerie lighting, huge projector screens playing cartoons or recent DVD releases on mute and the massive cross suspended above the altar-turned-stage make the whole experience seem catacomb-like and secretive. Perfect for 30 kids packed around the band, their hands raised and occasionally swaying with the beat.
The scene is different now. Back then, you'd be likely to see a lead singer who also doubled as a worship leader, guiding the audience in a prayer or perhaps invoking them to form a nice, friendly mosh pit for Jesus. Today, bands rely more on the personal faith of the audience members to fuel their shows.
Over at Dreamworld, Society's Finest is headlining. There's no trace of the onstage power chord-backed testimony-cum-group-prayer that was so prevalent when most of these clubs opened their doors. Then, it was mostly JNCO-clad skater boys clamoring for that comforting spiel: Jesus can and will save your soul, metal kid, because he's saved mine; let me share my story with you now. Instead, the audience is treated to a brief encouragement of morality.
"This song is about premarital sex and how you shouldn't have it." Cue searing guitars.
Still, what's happening is as much worship as it is a concert. The parallels are there--rapt congregation, fearless front man at the helm. It's almost like what might happen if white suburban teenagers took over an energetic, Southern Baptist black church. They clap. They sing. They shout encouragement during an especially rocking drum solo.
John Tunnell, owner and operator of Dreamworld, is more like a spastic 9-year-old with a penchant for the word "stupid" than a Bible-toting former youth minister. He opened the club in 2000, two years after The Door Dallas had its first show. Tunnell walks a fine line. He wants to bring more teens to Christianity, but he has to be careful not to scare them away with talk of fire and brimstone.