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The minister and his music

The pastor of the fledgling Hope Church - who once played guitar in bands that opened for Kenny Rogers, Alabama and Kool and the Gang - now mixes music with evangelism.

By JOSH ZIMMER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 16, 2002


KEYSTONE -- The music is about to begin, which means Dwayne Ingram and Clinton Marks have scant time for small talk.

Marks straps on a guitar. Ingram, a vocalist, claims a spot at one of the microphones. In rows of folding chairs at the Keystone Park community building off Gunn Highway, about 100 members of Hope Church, Presbyterian eagerly await their weekly dose of rock and religion.

An upbeat contemporary Christian ballad quickly gives way to the real thing. Backed by Ingram, Marks and the rest of the five-piece band, Hope Church's minister grabs a pick and dives into a lively rendering of religious text.

Dressed in black jeans and a loose-fitting white cotton shirt, the Rev. Mike Jones, 43, plants his black-shoed feet astride in a confident stance, looking every bit the experienced performer. Soon, the spiritual leader with professional-quality chops has the faithful on their feet. Congregants clap their hands, tap their toes and sway to South African rhythms.

A Teleprompter displays the words on a nearby screen. "The name of the Lord be praised . . .," Jones sings. "Ahh-ahh-men!"

In style and substance, the congregation at the 2-year-old church is a reflection of Jones, an enthusiastic leader who arrived from Memphis with strong ideas about mixing music and evangelism.

A graduate in jazz guitar from the University of Maryland, he toured around the world with bands throughout college and opened for some big-name acts before latching onto Christian rock. The son of a military Presbyterian minister, Jones struggled with his own faith before a painful break-up with his college girlfriend helped draw him closer to God and, in a matter of years, a life in the ministry.

The married father of two is informal both at church and away from it. Following his lead, church members -- parents with children mostly -- leave their formal wear in the closet. Standard worship attire: shorts, casual pants and open-collar shirts.

Hope's slogan is "Leave the ties behind," said Patti Blass, a former Catholic. She recently joined the church's leadership committee.

"I got (a flier) in the mail," she said. "I just felt immediately comfortable."'

Ambitions are running high for the Hope Church, which is considered a "church plant" by the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church hierarchy. Officials saw room for growth in Hillsborough County, Jones said, and sent him down to test the waters.

Currently financed by the administration, or Presbytery, Hope Church is proving its potential to attract people and could be recognized as an official church as early as September, Jones said.

He is actively looking to relocate the congregation to new space in northwest Hillsborough "asap," he said.

Jones is used to moving. Born in Spotswood, Va., his family hopscotched from place to place in typical military fashion. He attended high school in Okinawa, Japan. At 9, he took up the guitar, an epiphany for the youngster who struggled on the baseball diamond.

By the time he was enrolled at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, where he majored in music and business, he was spending about half of every month touring with a band opening for big time acts, such as Kenny Rogers, Styx, Alabama, Julio Iglesias and Kool and the Gang.

Jones was loving life. Graduation brought painful change, however. Friends moved on and a two-year romantic relationship ended, leaving him feeling terribly alone.

"That kind of thing . . . just kind of shakes you," he said.

Music and a broken heart brought him closer to God.

He was working in a music store when he ran into some customers combing the racks for Christian rock. It was the first time he ever gave much thought to the idea of hip Christian music.

Curious, Jones tapped into a network of Christian rock performers, then began playing at Calvary Chapel in St. Petersburg. He began cultivating a dynamic style that combined Scripture and music.

Several years later, in his late-20s, he married Gina Jones, an elementary school guidance counselor, and decided to attend the Erskine Theological Seminary in Due West, S.C. He graduated and took over as Presbyterian campus minister at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga. A stint as associate pastor at a Presbyterian church in Memphis followed.

Jones praises the Rev. James Ward, a blues artist with whom he worked after seminary. Ward, he said, showed him how to mesh music and religion "and make it rock."

"It was high energy -- good music that communicated with God," Jones said. "That's what we do now. It communicates with Christ, body, soul and mind."

Services at Hope are similar. They mix entertainment with a deep reliance on Jesus to make sense of a world full of mystery. Jones leads services in a conversational style, encouraging closeness; congregants refer to themselves as family.

Jones, who continues to play non-Christian music at private affairs, quotes Jimmy Buffet and makes casual references to non-Christian rock bands. During the Sunday service, he introduces one hymn by saying the authors "are some of the great writers of theology. I just don't know if they had Blues Traveler back in the 1700s."

James F. Strange, a professor in the Religious Studies Department at the University of South Florida, estimates that half of all churches incorporate modern music into their services. Surveys of 20- and 30-year-olds "found these people never listen to choral music, organ music," he said. "What makes it Christian is the words."

Incorporating music in the service strikes a chord even with the toughest crowd: youngsters. Mark Fleming, 13, and Michael Fox, 11, say they enjoy attending.

"I like the music a lot," says Fleming.

Marks, the guitarist, has found a spiritual home.

"I love him," he says. "I think he's an awesome pastor and a great musician. I came because I love the way we worship here. It's lively and exciting."

- Josh Zimmer covers Keystone, Citrus Park and the environment. He can be reached at 269-5314 or zimmer@sptimes.com.

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