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Revolution on the rock

  • John Drage preaches gospel with an edge at the alternative campus services

By CHRIS BIRK, Missourian staff
September 3, 2000

It is 10:55 a.m.

They patiently stand, in sundresses and suits, khaki shorts and tank tops, in the corridor outside Mark Twain Ballroom.

The poundings of a drum and the heavy notes of bass guitar bleed through the double-doors of the ballroom, as discussions of fantasy sports and the tribulations of the first week of school echo off the hallway walls.

Suddenly the doors swing open. The deluge of students pours in, quickly swallowing up the 260 empty chairs as the band, jovially bouncing on the stage, offers up a unique version of “Eye of the Tiger.”

A banner, proudly hung with kite string on the wall behind the stage, reads: “The Rock: Experience the Revolution.”

This is not your ordinary church service.

Pastor John Drage wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Rock, a nondenominational Christian service of Valley View Community Church and its campus ministry, Tiger Christian Life, offers young people an alternative to the more typical forums of organized religion.

The services, held Sundays at 11:04 a.m. in Mark Twain Ballroom, emphasize a casual, realistic approach to issues of faith and spirituality.

The inaugural Rock service at MU, held Aug. 20, drew more than 200 students.

“We talk about what’s meaningful in our culture, and we translate it into our culture,” Drage said. “At the Rock, young people get to have a real worship experience, and we bring the message in a style they understand.”

A self-proclaimed revolution in style, content, music and purpose, the Rock was created to help young people investigate their faith in nontraditional ways.

“A lot of people grow up thinking church is boring, and a lot of churches haven’t kept up to speed with what people connect with,” said MU senior Lindsey Miller. “This service does.”

With a nonexistent dress code, popular music, hot coffee and a willingness to talk about tough issues, the Rock is a custom-built church dedicated to the needs of college students and 20-something singles.

“It’s a contemporary message, music, issues and questions young people have,” said Christian Cepel, MU senior and member of Valley View. “Hopefully we’re hitting, filling a niche people are looking for.”

That niche, Drage says, is the result of hypocritical institutions engulfed in meaningless liturgies and empty traditions.

“Hypocrisy’s a problem. We’ve got to change it, and it starts with us,” he said. “There are plenty of good churches in this town, but our revolution is against hypocrisy, to say ‘enough is enough.’

“We’re dying for the real, and there may be hypocrisy at the Rock, but if there is I hope we hit it head-on.”

Drage’s “head-on” attitude mirrors the realistic, straight-talking philosophy of the Rock, which has a distinctive appeal to a generation often characterized as apathetic and cynical.

Bringing the Rock to the MU campus, however, has been more evolution than revolution.

Tiger Christian Life, which meets every Thursday at 8 p.m. in Memorial Union, started to attract a large number of students to the Sunday services at Valley View last year. Drage, formerly campus pastor at the church, noticed that the community congregation often had to battle students for seats.

The 33-year-old pastor, who has a degree in math, quickly put two and two together.

“I thought, ‘What if we do something on campus targeted to students?’” he said. “And here we are.”

Yet Drage is quick to point out that the idea, while novel, is not his own.

Valley View is associated with Great Commission Ministries, a nondenominational Christian service with more than 40 groups on campuses across the country. Drage based his vision on the Rock at Evergreen Community Church in Minnesota, which had successfully connected with the young people in the congregation and on the campus of the University of Minnesota.

Drage raised $10,000 at Valley View and $3,000 personally and has a $3,000 grant from GCM. Checks continue to come in from friends and supporters across the country.

“Finances aren’t really a problem,” he said through a smile tinged with relief. “Maybe God just wants it to happen, and I feel like the most blessed man.”

Day planners, Bibles and car keys lie scattered on the table tops as the crowd begins to settle down. The lights in the ballroom slowly fade, the bright red “Exit” sign above the double doors casting a glow on the ceiling.

It is 11:04 a.m.

The crowd stands, a guitar chord strikes and words to “Be Glorified” are projected onto a screen adjacent to the stage. As cymbals crash, people continue to file in and are immediately swept into a sea of clapping hands and smiling faces.

Drage, dressed in a blue button-up shirt and khaki pants, blends in with the ocean of students. Arms crossed, voice now lifting up the words to “Open the Eyes of My Heart,” he gives a silent, friendly nod to the latecomers who take their place alongside the wall.

Tardiness never poses a problem at the Rock.

“If we said the service starts at 10:59 a.m., we’d communicate, ‘Don’t be late!’” he said. “With 11:04 a.m., it says, ‘Get here when you get here, this is for you, this is different.’”

The song ends, the students melt back into their seats and “Compassions,” a new Rock TV skit, begins playing on the screen. These skits, parodies of television, movies and other forms of popular culture, serve as a lighthearted preface to every Rock service.

Through a mix of Bible verses, props and analogies from pop culture, Drage seeks to translate the message of the Gospels into something meaningful and relevant to today’s students.

“We want to be real. That’s what we want at the Rock,” he said.

It is 12:11 p.m.

The words of “Bed of Lies,” a Matchbox 20 song used to close the service, still hang heavy in the ballroom as the students head home.

“I thought it was completely different from any church I’ve ever been to,” said MU junior Natalie Hinds. “The music was a lot better, and it had a good message.”

Drage, a relentless self-critic, mulls over the service minute by minute at the back of the ballroom, searching for a means of improvement.

Thirty or so students remain, sharing their feelings about the hour they have just experienced.

“There are different translations of the Bible to reach different people, and that’s kind of how the Rock is,” said Brian Blank, a sophomore at MU and member of TCL. “The church can be the rock, the foundation from which their spirituality will grow on.”

“Jesus is the rock.”