Rockin’ on Heaven’s door

What radio station does God listen to?

I’m not trying to be flippant, I just want to clarify something — because depending on who you talk to, God exclusively likes somber chants, wailing guitars, raucous choirs or mellow jazz. Sometimes He only wants to hear the warm tones of an organ, and other times it’s a whole band. And yet, for all the confusion about what the Man Upstairs keeps on his iPod’s Favorites list, nearly everyone seems to agree He has pretty specific tastes.

And here we are, mere moments away from Dec. 25 — a time when you’d think people of all faiths would set aside any aural and theological hairsplitting because Christmas is the one thing they agree on — and the argument only grows hotter.

Maybe it’s because sacred music is so vitally important to so many people. Faithful or not, almost anyone can feel its message. When performed successfully, it might even make you believe.

What is it about the sound of a voice in praise that touches us inside? Why does the harmonious appeal for acceptance, for forgiveness and for thanks give us the idea we are conversing with the divine?

And, if this music is so universal, why is it that almost no one agrees on what the Big Guy wants to listen to in the first place?

Not being content with the dangling quality of these questions, I set out on a Christmas crusade to find some answers.

Super-sizing the Spirit

The lights in the gym are low, and the mood is halfway between reverent and giddy. On a stage along the wall, backed by a lighting-and-sound rig half the rock venues in town would sell their souls for, jams a group of teenage musicians. Their sound is aggressive, raw and immediate — a primal howl for meaning filtered through thunderous drums and screaming guitars.

To most older people, there’s little here that sounds sacred. And yet the feeling in the room is — the truth will out — uplifting.

For the dozens of teenagers at [R]nation, The Rock of Asheville’s youth group, these earsplitting outpourings are their way of touching God. Something tells me they would mosh in the name of Jesus if they could.

It’s a little easier for a novice like me to pinpoint the praise when they get to a slow number. With hands outstretched, the congregation lets their collective jaded-youth masks drop away to reveal something between bewildered bliss and pleasurable agony. Here, frankly, is ecstasy — a high you can only get through an unquenchable need to believe.

When the music ends and the actual service begins, my thoughts turn inward. Sitting in the dimly lit back row — outside the ring of colored stage lights, and one seat away from a kid who’s spent most of the service sending text messages on his cell phone — I fall to pondering the greater implications of this service. I’ve seen big-name rock bands put on less of a show.

Or course, not everyone can be expected to get into this hardcore groove, and even some members of The Rock’s own congregation describe the youth-service music as “a little too extreme …”

But I was also told that, if I really wanted to see what The Rock was all about, I needed to come to this Mega-Worship.

Mega-Worship: It sounds so industrial-sized — something you’d buy at Sam’s Club. It carries with it the threat of putting mere regular-sized evenings of worship to shame.

Here at The Rock, though, it fits. People were straining, exploding to worship — and the bigger the blast the better. Religion has become an event for this crowd, rather than a chore.

The Rock’s sanctuary is laid out like a concert hall, a large stage dominating the space where you might expect an altar to be. Four cameras — three stationary and one hand-held — record the service, and members of the sound-and-lighting crew swarm everywhere, bent on perfection.

Presently, the stage is filled with a six-piece rock band, a choir of at least a dozen, and several singers taking songs in turn. It is religion by way of arena rock.

And yet, for all the modern trappings of The Rock as an institution, it’s impossible to observe their music as anything but sincere. The feeling of devotion and praise in the room is undeniable, as if the amps themselves were powered by belief alone. It’s quite a sight.

“If you go to a rock concert and give it all you got, why not do it for God?” offers Music Director Ashley Zimmerman. “If you listen to this style of music in your car, there’s no reason that it has to be completely different when you come to church.”

Taking their lead from progressive ministries like Hillside Church in Australia, The Rock of Asheville has dropped most of the traditional trappings of faith in order to bring a more “real and relevant” style to their congregation. A large part of that philosophy involves their style of praise music.

According to Zimmerman, the main reason for The Rock’s modern sound is the makeup of the church itself.

“We don’t really have a large older population at our church, and we never really have,” she says. Free from the expectations of older, more tradition-steeped members, The Rock has tried to focus their holy message on a generation that reveres Mick Jagger far more than Pat Boone.

Young people, admits Zimmerman, “are who we target the most.”

Because, she quickly adds, “that’s the future. That’s who will be leading our church in the next 10 years. We go where they are.”

Just how contemporary are they? Well, to start, The Rock has a Starbucks in its basement. Really.

Ain’t no Savior like the one I’ve got

There’s something about being at a pre-Christmas choir practice that’s infinitely more interesting than being at an actual church service. No words, no dogma, no collection plate — in short, no filler. Just music. With the machinery of faithful expression laid bare, the message is a lot easier to understand.

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