Dec. 15, 2005 — -- An Alabama church holds a "Fear Factor" youth ministry event, where teens swallow goldfish and try to escape a locked coffin to learn how to overcome fear in their lives. Actor Stephen Baldwin sheds his bad-boy image, finds God, and starts a group called Livin' It, which encourages young people to skateboard for the Lord. Dozens of Christian rock festivals across the country draw millions of revelers to events that rival the bawdy Lollapolooza.
Since when did being a Christian teen become so cool?
"The day of the Christian kid being viewed as a nerd are long gone," said Bill Graening, the director of the Alive Festival, a three-day Christian music festival held each summer in Ohio that draws up to 20,000 people a day.
At least 80 percent of U.S. teens between the ages of 13 and 17 identify themselves as religious, with the majority identifying as Christian, according to the National Study on Youth and Religion, a six-year project funded by the Lilly Endowment.
Being devoutly religious doesn't preclude being edgy, say many Christian teens. Andrea Machlan, 17, of Fort Wayne, Ind., is a devout Christian but also part of what she calls the "hard-core scene." She and her friends are into tattoos, piercings and heavy-rock music.
"A lot of those lines are really blurred between Christian and non-Christian," she said, especially when it comes to music. Machlan says she and her group of friends are open to all sorts of people.
Wendy Schuman, an editor at Beliefnet.com, says that faith is a lot more nuanced for many teens than it is for their elders, especially when it comes to hot-button topics like abortion and homosexuality. "They don't always tow the party line," she said. "They can't see Christian faith quite as monolithic as it might seem. There's a huge middle ground."
But Machlan admits that some teens "latch on to Christianity … like it's a fad."
"It's an alternative to partying, so there is a way out for kids who don't want to be in the party scene but want cool friends," she said. "It's a safe environment, there's the relaxation of knowing there's not going to be those pressures of drugs, alcohol, sex."
Schuman said that while the baby-boom generation shunned the rules and restrictions of religion, young people today were looking for something to hold on to. She said college students seemed to be becoming more religious as well, as more choose to attend religious schools or join faith-based groups on secular campuses.
"Post-9/11, there was a sense of upheaval and anxiety that brought a lot of people closer to their faith," she said.
Brandon Schmidt, 20, of Canton, Ohio, leads a growing youth group at his church, and he believes more young people are looking for meaning in their lives. "So many kids in high school, they're just trying to search for something real, because there's just so much fake in high school," he said.
Schmidt said the group started out relatively small but when he and other leaders introduced games, open question-and-answer sessions, crazy lights and loud music, the group began attracting more people.
"It's no fun just sitting in pew," Schmidt said. "It seemed to evolve. … It's more of a cool thing to do."
That push -- to make Christianity and religion more appealing by introducing games and music -- has some youth ministers worried.
Chanon Ross is a youth minister in Naperville, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, who recently wrote an article called "Jesus Is Not Cool." He says that all the focus on fun and games waters down the real message -- and hard work -- of following a faith.
While many youth ministries organize trips to Christian music festivals to attract more kids, Ross does not.
"It confuses what it means to follow Jesus. Are you passionate about loving your enemies, or are you really passionate about what you felt at the rock concert?" he said.
Ross also complains that "cool" youth ministries based on going to rock concerts and mission trips is making religion a "commodity-driven thing" with youth as their consumers.
"These concerts are moneymaking events," Ross said. "There's a drive to market Jesus as cool, make Jesus a rock star … then you can get the kids interested."
But the push to fit religion into the culture at large is nothing new.
"It goes back to the roots of Christianity … how to make faith relevant within the context of capitalism," said Lynn Schofield-Clark, an assistant research professor at the University of Colorado's School of Journalism and Mass Communication who studies youth culture, marketing and religion.
"There's always the argument that things are too commercial," Schofield-Clark said. "It's always kind of an interesting negotiation -- how to make religion relevant and appealing."
Schofield-Clark says that current religious branding, which extends much further than Christian rock music -- to things like "cool Jew" apparel and Muslim pop music -- helps young people born into a certain faith distinguish themselves from their parents and their generation. It is a way to rebel -- but still stay within the faith.
"Religious groups are trying to find ever new ways for young people to see themselves as different," she said. "It enables a young person to be more expressive, but it isn't exactly countercultural."
Big companies and advertisers are not overlooking the profitability of the religious youth market. Bill Graening, director of the Alive Festival, said that with nearly 25 big festivals a year, there were probably 2 million to 3 million kids in attendance, and the numbers are growing.
Graening said he and several other festival directors recently talked about working together to market the events, and Graening said he'd been contacted by several large companies interested in sponsoring the Alive Festival.
"Companies are seeing the size of the youth evangelical market growing, with growing disposable income, growing education," Schofield-Clark said. "They're seeing the evangelical Christian market as a viable market."