Up close and liturgical with the new face of old faith in Boston
Illustrations by Scott Murry | @hotdogtaco
In some respects, what happens at Mosaic Boston Church and Fenway Church ain’t your grandpappy’s stale religion. Forget the gaudy white robes, strict adherence to tradition, and denominations with pedantic, barely-consequential discrepancies. These modern devotees drink beer, and don’t mind advertising the fact. They hang out in rock clubs. Some even sport almost-fashionable fauxhawk hairdos.
Drop in on one of their services, and you’re likely to see parishioners with equally almost-fashionable facial hair strapped across their chins. Some might even call them “hipster beards.” Sermons commonly include references to The Office, or some such contemporary pop cultural touchstone. In lieu of centuries-old hymns, live bands perform folk-pop kinda like Mumford and Sons, except the lyrics are all about loving Jesus.
But in a few less superficial respects, this is absolutely your grandpappy’s old-time church. Asked what they think of well-known contemporary preachers like celebrity pastor Mark Driscoll–him being a raging misogynist and Glenn Beck bestie who compares homosexuality to incest–higher-ups from Mosaic and Fenway offer no disapproving words. Perhaps that’s because there’s some tradition afoot after all; while neither of those two congregations are directly linked to hierarchical denominations, they’re both bankrolled by and network with multinational church organizations.
Media outlets from Details to NPR have zeroed in on the novelty of so-called hipster houses of worship. That’s well and fine. Everyone loves articles about hipsters doing stuff. But there’s nothing novel about remixing ancient theology to snag younger converts. For one, it’s the same idea Cardinal George Carlin attempted with the Buddy Christ in Dogma. Since then, whether related or not, America’s been rife with youth culture Christ revivalists and all the dressing down you would expect to follow such a trend.
“There’s a lot of stigma connected to the archetypal Christian–the 700 Club, the Southern Baptist Convention, all that kind of stuff,” says Portland, Oregon-based blogger Christian Piatt. The author of Banned Questions About the Bible and other books on progressive Christianity, Piatt explains why the informal allure can be effective in a place like Boston, where it’s even less cool to be a Christian than it is to vote Republican. According to a recent survey by the American Bible Society, the Hub is one of the most godless cities in America. Behind Las Vegas! Still, if the growth of cool kid congregations is an indication, an increasing number of local Christians are finding the lord.
“All that institutional framework and resources and money and political influence [are] very valuable,” Piatt says. “Younger people today are increasingly institutionally suspicious. To actually connect with people face-to-face on the street, it helps them to create some kind of distance from that identity.”
Jan Vezikov doesn’t view his preaching style as a marketing pitch. According to the lead pastor at Mosaic, he and other hip members of the clergy are simply being themselves.
“We’re just trying to be authentic,” explains the 30-year-old between sips of fair trade coffee at Refuge Café, a meeting place we mutually agreed on. “When you’re trying to be authentic, your life comes out. So pop references and things like that, we’re not doing that to be trendy or cool or reactionary. We’re doing that because that’s just who we are.”
Mosaic is the English-language branch of the Russian-language Grace Church Boston, also a Vezikov brainchild. Mosaic began in 2011, with about 20 members meeting Sunday mornings at the Huntington Avenue YMCA. The following year, a 6pm edition of their service launched at the Allston International Community Church (ICC). Several church-planting organizations and affiliated outfits–Mosaic counts more than a dozen contributors–helped the non-profit get up-and-running, and to pay for ads on the MBTA during its initial membership recruitment phase.
During a quick get-to-know-the-stranger-sitting-next-to-you sashay on a cold December Sunday evening at the ICC, I chat with a one-eyed bag lady stereotype named Susan. I tell her I’m here writing a story, and she over-shares about her childhood experiences with cancer, and how they inspired her to write for a pro-life magazine. If Mosaic is intentionally playing down the wedge issues associated with orthodox Christianity, this woman didn’t get the memo.
The audience of more than 30 heads is largely inconspicuous. A full band–electric piano, drums, the works–jams contemporary variations of old hymnal standbys. On a side note, it occurs to me that the line, “Lo, the incarnate God ascended, pleads the merit of his blood,” from “Come Ye Sinners,” would make a great metal lyric. Meanwhile, in the land of church music, there’s at least free coffee, plus complimentary spaghetti dinner for anyone who stays to mingle afterward.
For his part, Pastor Shane Sikkema keeps his hour-long sermon bereft of secular-humanist bashing and brimstone. Sikkema, who could pass for an indie rock front man with his pronounced fauxhawk and equally sharp features, recounts the season four opener of The Office, then quotes A Christmas Story and describes a Calvin and Hobbes comic in which Calvin conspires to mug Santa. I think his point has to do with the hypothetical folly of focusing on our material selves at the expense of the spiritual, putting totally rad presents above loving Jesus and so forth.
DEEP SPACE DIVINE
It’s the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and Brighton Music Hall is set up for people to praise Jesus. It’s an unusual sight considering how many sweaty indie rock and hip-hop acts have hurled obscenities from the back of this room. Nevertheless, a mostly white crowd of about 40 worshipers, many shut-eyed with their palms outreached, are swaying along to hokey soft rock. To say I’ve heard better at the BMH would be an understatement, though the band does close with a savvy and anthemic pop twist titled “Ode To Joy,” which may or may not be an original number.
Peace and harmony aside, something is a bit off here at Fenway Church, which is not a Red Sox-themed outfit despite the catchy name. Perhaps the problem is the far greater-than-usual number of infants and toddlers, and that they’re all so well-behaved. There’s also something curious about the projector and screen set-up, which allows the congregation to sing along without cracking open a hymnal. Mostly, though, it’s the seating that’s confusing. Neat rows of folding chairs look weird in a neighborhood rock venue.
Fenway is a baby sibling of Newfrontiers, which first surfaced in the 1970s and now boasts around 700 entities worldwide. According to claims by Newfrontiers founder Terry Virgo, his organization was inspired by a prophecy involving elephants stampeding into uncharted territories. Appropriately, Virgo’s planter network covered the first year of Fenway’s venue rental fees.
“In a way, we’re all part of a broad movement of new churches that are planting other churches and have a fairly orthodox view of the Bible, but are expressing it in new ways,” says Fenway Church founder David Hill. Asked to compare Newfrontiers to Acts 29, a Mosaic backer group and aforementioned enterprise fronted by Glenn Beck crony Mark Driscoll, Hill adds: “There are some distinctions, just in what we emphasize. But we also fall under a more general umbrella of Bible-believing, Jesus-preaching, church-planting movements.”
Fenway Church began hosting services, however appropriately or ironically, at the Church of Boston restaurant and music club five years ago. After attracting more parishioners than could fit in that establishment, Fenway expanded to also include a Sunday morning service in Allston last August. Hill says private funding largely covers the additional rental, while expenses and volunteer reimbursements to Newfrontiers come from donors and other avenues. At the pre-Thanksgiving mass, right before a sermon on the Book of Romans, Hill proudly announces that Fenway’s recent bake and yard sale netted a cool $1,300.
Following his 30-minute speech, Hill invites attendees to share anecdotes about whatever kind of gratitude they happen to harboring. We are, after all, creeping up on Thanksgiving. One woman, sobbing, explains, “We’re in the Air Force,” and thanks the church for providing a sense of familiarity on strange terrain. Other congregants update the gang on their career strides and letdowns. The latter especially applies in the case of a young woman named Leann, whose hair is held in place by a trendy flower-like contraption. A recent college dropout looking to get back on track, she offers the most hipster penance imaginable: “God will love me just as much if I stay in bed and watch Deep Space Nine all day, every day, as he would with any kind of achievement, so I’m extremely thankful for failure.”
On our coffee date in Allston, Vezikov says his parents arrived in the United States in 1989. Before that, well before Perestroika policies decriminalized religion, he says his father did six months of hard time in their native Soviet Union for Bible ownership, and used the incident to garner religious refugee status for his family. When reminded of the imprisonment of Pussy Riot members, who were still locked up at the time of our interview, Vezikov responds, “That’s messed up, man.”
Free to preach and spread religion as he wishes, the younger Vezikov is dedicated to growing Mosaic. To that end, he compares his supporters to investors in a business venture. Atop the Boston church’s online list of partners is Acts 29, the very network Mark Driscoll co-founded in the late ‘90s. In addition to Acts, Vezikov got start-up help from the North American Mission Board, which was established by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1997. That’s interesting company to keep in the first state to allow same-sex marriage. Last year, the SBC released a statement saying, “It is regrettable that homosexual rights activists … have misappropriated the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement.” The list of their rhetorical offenses is endless, including claims that wives should leave the decision-making to menfolk, along with all kinds of other regrettable drivel.
A heavily-bearded pastoral assistant of Vezikov’s named Paul Ivnitskiy puts a more modern spin on things. “The apostle Paul,” he says, “his favorite authors were pagan … he was quoting the pagan pop stars of his day while debating philosophy with the other citizens. That’s not my view of things, but that’s what they would’ve been considered back then.”
Over at Fenway Church, Pastor Hill is equally persuasive, if you go for that sort of thing. He’s a kinetic orator, which, combined with his profession, gives off a decidedly messianic vibe. That could be chalked up to his training; Hill’s eponymous father, David R. Hill, runs Abundant Grace Church, another Newfrontiers affiliate, out in Brighton. Offstage, the younger Hill comes off more like the socially awkward novice sorcerer Andrew Wells in Buffy the Vampire Slayer than a potential cult leader.
Like Vezikov and Mosaic with the SBC, Fenway has what some may view as unsavory ties. As a matter of record, for example, Newfrontiers counts among its core values a “family life” in which “husband and wife embrace male servant leadership and joyful female submission.” Hill also hosts a quarterly Men’s Breakfast, where the “mighty men of Fenway Church” purportedly consume vast quantities of bacon. Asked if this is some kind of biblical offshoot of the noxious men’s rights movement, Hill flips the script and asks me to define the men’s rights movement, then muses, “I don’t know too many women who would agree that men are being held back in some way.”
Though Hill doesn’t overtly align himself with the lunatic evangelical fringe, he also doesn’t seem to care if anybody thinks he’s crazy. He constantly plays the fence; in one of his blog posts, Hill notes that if you feel compelled to speak in tongues at a Fenway service, then you should by all means do so, but try to keep it quiet so as to avoid scaring neophytes. At the same time, fasting is encouraged, whether the old fashioned way or a “media fast,” in which you forsake your iPhone for the same amount of time. Apparently, god appreciates either.
While noting that he doesn’t feel demons should be blamed for all mental illnesses, Hill shares a story about delivering a guy from evil via the power of prayer. “He said he was hearing voices speak to him, basically very negative things,” Hill recalls. “I laid hands on him and prayed, and he had a physical reaction in that he got very tense and fell down … From that point forward, that person said he was filled with a peace and joy that he had never had before.”
He says that such occurrences are rare, but hardly unheard of, at Fenway Church. Then again, one woman we know of credits Fenway with helping her stop doing the homeless drug addict thing through non-mystical methods. Her story, we’re told, isn’t unprecedented. So there’s that.
Even if Mosaic and Fenway Church aren’t working for the exact same earthly overlords, a few similarities stick out. Both identify as inter- or non-denominational, and more-or-less bite their routines from Reform theology. They’ve also both taken some flak from conservative Christians who disapprove of drinking alcohol and watching secular television. Both believe in what those of us outside their fold would describe as “magic.” As communities, both Fenway and Mosaic are places where, at least in my time observing them, straight white married male thirty-somethings do most of the talking.
The similarities don’t end in the liturgical details. Hill and Vezikov both report to be financially self-sufficient to a certain point (Mosaic is almost there), and are independent from their formative-stage benefactors. At the same time, if either ran into a rough spot down the road, their allies could provide. Think of it as the modern response to a high-tech era; in the case of Mosaic, they even have a smart-phone app to keep the flock abreast of parish happenings.
“The money doesn’t just fall out of the sky,” says Piatt, the author who blogs about progressive Christianity. “The reality is, a lot of the time, your first infusion of financial support is not enough to sustain [a church]. Maybe you get started, and maybe you’ve got to ask for more support to keep going. That’s when the caveats start coming out.”
Piatt continues: “[Acts 29’s] whole idea was to help start these grassroots independent churches that would go into these largely unchurched secular areas like Portland and Seattle, and create these churches that, in theory, are independent, but all fit a consistent, very conservative mold. Really, when it gets down to it, it’s the same fundamentalist, ‘Jesus died for my sins’ kind of shit.”