It's Saturday night in Minneapolis's warehouse district, and the revelers are on the loose. They're staggering from one bar to another, shouting and belching and gallivanting in a booze-fueled bacchanal. But at the biggest venue of all, Club 3 Degrees, a different scene is unfolding. There's no cigarette smoke, and the only spirits around are the ones you can't sip. Up onstage, gospel singer Karen Clark-Sheard is glorifying God with rich vocals and personal testimony. "Give Jesus an ovation," she tells the audience. "I don't know what you come to do, but I come to get my praise on." Her fans whoop and holler in response, their arms outstretched and their hands trembling. Says Clark-Sheard: "I think I'm in the right place."
The devout have found their den of virtue. At Christian nightclubs like Club 3 Degrees--believed to be the largest and longest-running of the bunch--churchgoers can gather and groove in an environment free of the perceived sinfulness of secular spots. Though there's no industry group to track the growth of such clubs, anecdotal evidence suggests they're proliferating in cities like Dallas, Nashville and, most recently, Tamarac, Fla. They range from small coffeehouses with occasional acts to cavernous concert halls featuring rock bands like P.O.D. (Payable on Death) and DJs spinning hip-hop tracks by KJ-52. "The quality [of Christian music] today is so much better," says Bud Cool, who's hoping to start a club in St. Louis. "You don't have to be a dork if you're a Christian."
At a time when the cultural Zeitgeist is seized with "The Passion of the Christ" and the "Left Behind" book series, the rise of Christian clubs should come as no surprise. "There's a whole world of people who live at night," says Nancy Aleksuk, 38, pastor and codirector at Club 3 Degrees. "Part of our mission is to take the Gospel into that world."
Enter her three-level, 18,000-square-foot club--a new space inaugurated in October--and you won't find any overtly religious symbols. In the lounge below, patrons can shoot pool and order pizzas and smoothies from the bar (the closest you'll get to a stimulant is Red Bull). Upstairs, they can experience acts with a state-of-the-art sound and light system. The price tag for all the renovations: $3 million, raised through donations and loans guaranteed by the club's founder, the Living Word Christian Center. A nonprofit organization, Club 3 Degrees is still trying to become financially self-supporting--not an easy task when you don't sell liquor. There are other official prohibitions as well: no mosh pits, no slow songs, no secular cover tunes. Bands must play Christian-themed music and share their faith onstage.
After all, Club 3 Degrees is a ministry. Its aim ever since it was started in an old dive bar in 1989: to use a funkier form of praise to lure those souls who might be leery of a traditional church. Twice a week, the club offers church services. One recent Sunday evening, after the house band had fired up the flock, Steve Aleksuk, 47--Nancy's husband and also a pastor--delivered a sermon about "tactics of warfare" against "the Kingdom of Darkness," sounding as much like a surfer as a preacher (on the topic of angels: they're "bad-looking dudes," not "fat little babies with wings"). When he asked whether any congregants were unsure they were headed for heaven, two raised their hands. Aleksuk led them in a prayer of salvation and afterward they received Bibles. Since the club's October opening, 146 such people have ushered Christ into their lives. Among them: Scott Strandberg, 31, whose reckless benders nearly killed him until he found God at Club 3 Degrees. "I don't see any way I would have found my way out of my lifestyle without a place like this," he says. The club has become his sole church--as it has for most of those saved there.
But by and large, the club serves as a social space for the already converted. L. C. McCoy, 28, shunned mainstream nightlife because of its pernicious influences. At Club 3 Degrees, "I've seen every race, every denomination of Christian," he says. "They're all out here having a ball in a very safe, inclusive environment." Though ultraconservative Christians may grumble about the dancing, times are changing. The nightclub phenomenon shows "a softening of evangelical identity," says Jeffrey Mahan of Denver's Iliff School of Theology. Young adults "are looking for forms of Christianity that are culturally coherent for them."
Not that all Christian clubs strike the balance in the same way. At Station 3:16 in Bakersfield, Calif., the evangelizing is more manifest. Every concert involves a Gospel presentation, and audience members receive response cards to fill out if they decide to choose Christ. But at the Door in Dallas, non-Christian bands mix with Christian ones. "We call it 'religious desegregation'," says founder Russell Hobbs. "We're not afraid of people being exposed to other things."
Club 3 Degrees sits somewhere in the middle. On that Saturday night after the Clark-Sheard concert, DJ Smoove began spinning gospel R&B, hip-hop and house. "Get your praise on!" he urged from his booth, as partyers carved the dance floor in small groups. He used to play at secular clubs in Baltimore, until the lyrics about booty and bling-bling became intolerable. Now he lays down only Christian beats, and even still, he recently won a secular DJ contest. "He didn't have to compromise," says his wife, Cindy. Nor, it seems, do the faithful who come to hear his grooves.