BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – The music is pounding, buffeting the thrashing bodies from every direction as lasers swirl overhead, first red, then green, then melting into a disorienting synesthesia. This is the hottest ticket in Birmingham right now – Tuesday nights at “The Basement.” It draws nearly 5,000 teenagers a week to dance, sing, and pray. That’s right. Pray.
The Basement isn’t a club. It’s a youth-oriented church service – part concert, part pep rally – led by 23-year-old Matt Pitt, a self-taught evangelist who’s been preaching his message of clean living, racial conciliation, and sold-out-for-God Christianity since 2004. What began as informal street preaching has become a full-blown enterprise requiring police, security guards, lawyers, and accountants. Mr. Pitt’s life has changed seemingly overnight, and many of the teenagers who flock to Birmingham’s Cathedral of the Cross to hear him speak say he’s changing them, too.
Jeff Malone, 18, has given up drugs and alcohol since he began attending in June. He’s also stopped hanging out with his old friends. “I just couldn’t do it anymore,” says Mr. Malone as he stands in the line of teens snaking toward the door. “Matt’s our age. He’s been through what we’ve been through, and he knows where we’re coming from.”
Zach Everett, 17, agrees. “I get a feeling like butterflies,” says Mr. Everett, text-messaging as he talks. “I feel cleansed every time I go, like everything I’ve done wrong is just dropped.”
Pitt is one of a new generation of young evangelical pastors around the country trying to reach out to kids who feel alienated by traditional churches. Mixing prayer and pulse-pounding music, the services speak to teens in a vernacular and environment they’re used to, often emphasizing personal testimonies rather than authoritative teaching.
“Kids today are savvy,” says Teresa Reed, a religion expert at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma. “They have an insatiable appetite for what’s real. Consider the culture we live in – reality TV. They don’t necessarily want it canned and choreographed.”
Pitt also symbolizes a long tradition in the South of celebrating evangelists who people believe are anointed by the Spirit, instead of theologically trained, as a sign of God’s favor. Indeed, Pitt’s dramatic conversion – after a drug overdose in college – typifies the strong Baptist and Pentecostal influence prevalent in the South since the 1950s, according to Bill Leonard, dean of Wake Forest Divinity School in Winston-Salem, N.C. He says much of the appeal of ministries like The Basement lies in the dynamism. Pitt’s use of MySpace, YouTube, film clips, and other media adds to the attraction.
But in the end, Dr. Leonard says, it’s the personality of the evangelist that draws people. “The role of the youth pastor has always been significant, but it’s more so now because churches are desperate to get the attention of young people,” he says.
Services at The Basement open with roughly 45 minutes of hip-hop performed by local Christian rappers who whip the crowd into a frenzy, encouraging them to dance mosh-pit-style to lyrics like, “Jesus is my rock/ Jesus is my rock star/ Jesus is my rock/ And he’s totally cool.”
Pitt arrives onstage afterward, looking somewhat like a rock star himself as his lanky frame, clad in a black T-shirt, jeans, and sandals, is projected across two large screens. “Look at those Jesus freaks right there who are not ashamed,” he says, pointing to a row of gyrating worshipers. “Jesus is the only way. The Basement can’t do it for you. This is not about a man or a ministry. I’m just the messenger.”
Keeping it real is a big part of Pitt’s message. He addresses issues like school violence, sex, absentee fathers, racism, and suicide. He speaks openly about his personal struggles, as well as those of his family.
“I’m in the business of twisting ears,” says Pitt, perched on a bench in the lobby following a service. “I’m going to be as real as I possibly can. There are things I’ll probably regret later, but you live and learn.”
Pitt’s education began at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He was 20 years old, studying marketing and partying hard. Life came crashing down in October 2003, the weekend of the Alabama-Tennessee game. After a night snorting cocaine, Pitt was shocked to learn his parents were in town to see the game. He reacted by taking more drugs.
As he and his parents entered the stadium, Pitt collapsed. The next time he opened his eyes, he was in a hospital. It was the end of college, but the beginning of his life as a Christian. His parents brought him to their Birmingham home and spent two months nursing him back to health. In December, they laid down the rules: Straighten up or get out.
Pitt says his father took him to the basement – hence the inspiration for his ministry’s name – and told him he loved him and so did God. With tears in his eyes, he told his son how God had helped him conquer a 25-year addiction to alcohol. “I saw it; I’d lived with him,” Pitt says. “I knew his life was totally different, and I knew then there was a God.”
It’s a message Pitt repeats over and over to his followers. “You’ve got to understand how crazy Jesus is about you,” he tells them. “He can’t get you off his mind. He’s not mad at you. He’s mad about you.”
He encourages them to make better choices, to turn away from things dragging them down and be victors, changing the nation one Christian at a time. Services end with a dramatic skit and an altar call. As the lights dim, worshipers close their eyes and lift their hands in prayer, singing along with the music. Some kneel. Many cry.
Andrew Rape, 18, rocks in his seat, cradling his head in his hands. The crowd is thinning, but he’s unaware, fingers clenching and unclenching tightly across the top of his cap as he prays. While some teenagers admit they come to The Basement because it’s fun, Mr. Rape finds a deeper experience. He says he resisted coming at first because it sounded “like a party.” But after the first visit, he was hooked.
“My family has a lot of problems, and I’m caught in the middle,” Rape says. “Coming here gives me my own time and gives me the strength to go home. I just talk to God and get all my issues out, and it really helps.”
Sherry Brazee, 50, enjoys Pitt’s quirky analogies. “You can tell he spends time with God,” she says. “For 23 years old, he’s totally anointed.”
The ministry has grown from a handful of people in his parents’ basement to church after church. It’s gotten so big, he’s formed a nonprofit corporation, Whosoever Ministries, which pays his salary and handles legal and financial issues. “I live every day like it’s my last,” says Pitt, stopping to hug three elderly ladies. “I’m dedicated to this ministry, and it’s taken a lot of the kid out of me, but I’m completely sold out to what I believe. You only get one chance to live. I was given a second chance to spread the Gospel.”
While a few area ministers have questioned Pitt’s interpretations of the Bible, others embrace his services and style. Some, like Pat Perkins, youth pastor at the World Outreach Center, an evangelical church in Oneonta, Ala., even take their young members to The Basement on Tuesday nights. “Matt’s definitely reaching this generation,” says Mr. Perkins.
Wake Forest’s Leonard believes that, at some point, the lack of formal religious training could become an issue when people start asking larger theological questions. He says it’s critical for evangelists like Pitt to find people who can both mentor them and teach the converts.
As for Pitt, he says he’d like to go to seminary, but things are moving too fast right now. His eyes flit over the church lobby, distracted momentarily by the crowd. For the hyperactive kid who could never hold still, life continues to be a rush. But for now, he’s staying put, riding the wave.