Radical move, man
By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer
Outside the church, teenagers gather every afternoon for speed and air. Skateboarders plunge down plywood ramps, whip across asphalt, grind across makeshift railings and launch into the air.
For the youth, this Salvation Army skate park is a kind of homemade X-Games, a place where a kid on wheels can ride for free without getting chased away. Skateboarders are grateful.
"It's a great place to hang out, skate, meet a bunch of new people," said Josh Gilmour, 15, a sophomore at Pinellas Park High School.
For the Salvation Army, there's an ulterior motive, says Chris Nichols, a Salvation Army captain who helps administer the program: "The skating is just the worm on the end of the hook."
The Salvation Army's Pinellas Park church is among several in the Tampa Bay area that have turned to skateboarding to attract more young people to God.
Skateboarding, a multimillion-dollar industry that strongly influences youth fashions and culture, is a natural draw. The theory is, if skateboarders roll onto the church grounds, some of them will hear the Gospel for the first time, start attending church and become Christians.
But talk to the youths at the skate park and one thing becomes clear. Not everyone who soars off a ramp takes the leap of faith. Many who skate every day outside the church say they don't come on Sundays for the message inside.
Although skateboard programs attract youths, some churches have discovered they also create headaches. The Salvation Army skate park has suffered so much vandalism lately that the group is considering shutting down the park.
Crossover Community Church in Tampa is among those that see skateboarding as an opportunity. It recently began a "skateboarding ministry," with ramps for youths who want to roll in and hear a Christian message. North Lake Family Church, which will be built over the next year off Keystone Road in the Tarpon Springs area, will include a skate park, said Glenn Morris, pastor.
St. James United Methodist Church in Tampa Palms recently received a donation of skateboarding ramps and equipment, and has been carefully deciding whether to begin a program.
"Some of the young people, as young as middle schoolers, see it as a great way of inviting friends and sharing the message of hope with them," said Roz Scott, the church's youth administrator. "It can be used as a way of bringing kids into a greater understanding of the God who made them and loves them. And you know, he wants them to have fun, too."
But Scott said the church is well aware that if it were to begin using skateboarding as an outreach tool, "it really needs to be a well-supported, dedicated part of your ministry. You've got to have people who know about skateboarding, and you've got to have people who know how to reach (youths) with the Gospel."
For about three years, North Dunedin Baptist Church had a skateboard night that would attract 70 to 100 youths, says Dennis Poulette, the former youth pastor there.
"We wanted to reach out to a group of kids that weren't really being reached. They were getting kicked out everywhere else . . . we wanted to model to them that God would accept them and didn't want to kick them out," he said.
Poulette said this was a ministry where "it's hard to see a lot of impact" because "not a whole lot of them received Christ or became members of the church." Church members discontinued the program for a variety of reasons.
Nonetheless, he thinks it was a valuable ministry and thinks skateboarding programs have the potential to work in church youth programs and reach "a group of people that are obviously searching for something."
Skateboards and Bibles may not sound like they go together, but it's not a surprising mix, said Dell deChant, a religious studies instructor at the University of South Florida.
"Religion and especially Christianity have always been pretty good at reaching out to the dispossessed and the alienated," deChant said. "In a way, it's just the next chapter in the story of the missionary impulse of Christianity."
Professor Joseph Price, who teaches a class in sports and religion at Whittier College in California, said combining sports and Christianity is an American tradition.
"It's like a number of programs that were initiated in the last century, century and a half," Price said. "The phenomenon of 'Muscular Christianity,' as it's known, developed . . . with the YMCA, which was the first institution to use athletics basically as a way of hooking folks."
At Crossover Community Church near Lowry Park in Tampa, pastor Tommy Kyllonen said offering skateboarding on a ramp called a half-pipe, as well as using hip-hop music and breakdancing, is a way of reaching youths who may not be going to church now.
"The goal is as the skateboard ministry develops . . . to actually have a skateboarders' Bible study on a separate day," he said.
"We have such an attractive and exciting youth ministry that kids want to come and try it out."
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