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August 10, 2003, Sunday, BC cycle

Churches offers teens a place to skate, and a sermon, too

BYLINE: By BOBBY ROSS JR., Associated Press Writer

SECTION: State and Regional

LENGTH: 807 words

DATELINE: ROCKWALL, Texas

Punk and alternative music blasts through a sophisticated sound system as plastic wheels crash against wooden ramps at the Lake Pointe Church’s Pier 419 skate park.

The 6,000-member Christian megachurch east of Dallas opened the elaborate park earlier this year as part of an $8 million, 48,000-square-foot youth center.

More than 500 miles away, the First Baptist Church in Lexington, Tenn., a small town 100 miles north of Memphis, offers a more no-frills approach, pulling church buses out of a metal barn and setting up homemade ramps to create a skateboarder’s paradise each Wednesday night.

But in each case, the goal is the same: reaching young people with the message that Jesus Christ died to save them from their sins.

“Yeah, we built a skate park. Cool! Whew! But that’s not what we’re all about,” John Mark Seelig, the Lake Pointe Church’s 27-year-old “skate pastor,” told a few dozen teenagers on a sweat-drenching Tuesday night.

“My deal is, I want to connect with you guys in any way,” said Seelig, sporting a white T-shirt, faded jeans and unshaven face. “More than anything, I just want you to know Christ.”

Buoyed by the growing popularity of skateboarding, similar ministries are popping up across the United States and Canada.

Such ministries offer skaters – often pushed off street corners and out of town squares – a place to practice their moves without fear of harassment.

The catch: In exchange for a skate pass, teens must take time out for a Bible study.

“It’s a bait-and-switch technique,” said Jake Phelps, editor of Thrasher magazine, a San Francisco-based skateboarding publication with 200,000 subscribers. “It’s like, ‘Here, kids, you want to skate, well, listen to the sermon.’ It’s corn beef, in my opinion.”

But skate ministry leaders make no apologies for their 21st century brand of proselytizing. And the approach doesn’t seem to bother most skaters, said 15-year-old Drew Beilman of Rockwall.

Beilman wore ripped jeans that showed off his plaid boxer shorts and carried a graffiti-covered skateboard to a recent skate night at Pier 419. The park’s name stems from Matthew 4:19, the New Testament verse in which Christ promised to make his disciples “fishers of men.”

“They’re pretty cool with it,” Beilman said of the skaters and the Bible study. “They don’t really mind. Some don’t really pay attention.”

The Skate Church in Portland, Ore., is the nation’s best-known skate ministry. It has mingled skateboard stunts with what founding minister Paul Anderson calls a “no holds barred” gospel message since 1987. According to the ministry’s Web site, Anderson has preached to more than 5,000 Portland area skaters and converted hundreds to Christianity.

Many other skate ministries have developed in recent years, although the exact number is unknown.

“It’s very hard to keep track of. There’s all kinds of little churches … and they see these skater kids and go, ‘Ah, we should put up some ramps in our parking lot,”‘ said Dean Dahl with Young Life Skateboarding, a Canadian ministry that recently hosted what it billed as the world’s first-ever skate ministry conference.

More than 40 ministry leaders from throughout North America attended the conference, held in conjunction with the Slam City Jam, a skate contest that draws thousands to Vancouver, British Columbia.

Chris Probasco, who spent five years on the Skate Church staff in Portland and now is skate pastor at Peninsula Covenant Church in Redwood City, Calif., flew to Vancouver to share ideas.

Probasco grew up in the skateboarding culture and “ended up doing drugs and partying,” he said, before adopting a Christian lifestyle at age 20.

“Everyone I looked up to was trying to be as bad as you can be,” said Probasco, now 29.

Through his ministry, he offers skaters a different perspective.

“It really is a good fit for me,” he said. “When I skate with them, it’s not like I’m some guy pretending to be a skateboarder. I am a skateboarder.”

Jay Butler, a 34-year-old mechanical engineer, helped start the First Baptist Church of Lexington’s skate ministry about five years ago after skaters were banned from the town square.

“This is not your typical Sunday crowd,” Butler said as skateboards whooshed along ramps to the beat of contemporary Christian rock music.

He’s welcomed skaters with dreadlocks, dyed hair and Marilyn Manson T-shirts.

But the idea isn’t to “clean them up.”

“Our purpose is to be here, get to know them, develop some relationships with them, find out what they’re all about,” Butler said, “and mainly to present the gospel and let God’s word do the work in their lives.”

On the Net:

Lake Pointe Church: http://www.lakepointe.org

First Baptist Church of Lexington: http://www.fbclexington.com

Skate Church of Portland: http://www.skatechurch.net

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