The sign outside the building reads: "Every Saint Has a Past, Every Hellion a Future." This must be the place. I park next to a stack of motorcycles and pickup trucks, alongside a bus with "The First Heavy Metal Church" written in the same font that Iron Maiden uses."Woo!" says the enthusiastic man greeting me at the door. "Welcome to the Heavy Metal Church, bro!" He puts up his hand to give me a fist-bump.
"Woo!" I offer in response. I'm wearing an outfit that I hope will make me blend in—a sweater with a large skull on the front and a rocker headband—and it turns out that I've nailed it. I'm surrounded by a sea of tattooed bikers. We're all here to put the Jesus pedal to the heavy metal at the First Heavy Metal Church of Christ in Dayton, Ohio.
FHMCC was founded three and a half years ago by Pastor Brian Smith, a heavy metal musician who became disillusioned with the Christianity of his youth. "I used to go to a church where every Sunday I was told I was going to Hell for wearing shorts or going swimming in coed swimming holes, or listening to any other music than hymns," he said in a recent radio interview.So he left that church and, armed with a cheap PA and a stack of discount Bibles, started his weekly FHMCC services in the back room of a venue where he played with his secular metal band, across the street from a strip club."Go to all corners of the Earth and baptize all men in the name of the Holy Spirit," says Pastor Brian. "What better place to do that than a bar?"As the popularity of his metal church grew, Pastor Brian moved the service to a biker bar called Jackass Flats, which soon became a standing-room-only affair. The congregation eventually grew big enough to hold regular Sunday services in both Dayton and Greenville, Ohio, inside the auditorium of a former elementary school, with a different band performing every week.
This place rocks for Jesus. But according to Pastor Brian, the name has a double meaning: It also refers to the " full metal [or armor] of God." And unlike some churches, the First Heavy Metal of Christ makes a point of saying its house of the holy is open to all. In the words of its website:
"This is a church for people who might not feel comfortable in a traditional church setting," says Pastor Brian, looking around at the crowd of people studded with piercings and tattoos. "Most people want God in their lives, but think they must clean up first before coming to Christ. You don't clean up before you jump in the shower, do you? No. God wants you exactly the way you are at this very moment."
Prostitutes, drug addicts, bikers, gang members, metalheads, felons. It doesn't matter what you've done, or where you come from. Here at the FHMCC, everyone is welcome with open arms.
The FHMCC service begins at noon. I don't know how many have arrived at the church hungover, but I can count at least one. (It's me.) After fist-bumping another biker, I'm handed a FHMCC program with Jesus riding a Harley on the front."This is truly a cross-section of what the body of Christ should look like," says Pastor Brian, referring to the crowd. If you squint, the long-haired, bearded bikers do look sort of like old-timey biblical characters. There are roughly 300 people packed inside the auditorium; there are bikers and bikers' girlfriends, but there are regular-looking folks too, and little kids. There are tons of people wearing black FHMCC T-shirts, which are sold at a merch table near the back.
"We're going to have healing, redemption, salvation, and deliverance take place here today," says assistant Pastor Ron, from the front of the auditorium. Pastor Ron is a bearded guy who, if he were in a motorcycle movie, would probably be nicknamed "Tiny.""Woo!" goes the crowd.Then the music starts. It's a head-thrashing, blood-pumping tune, with decidedly Jesusy lyrics: "I believe / How about you / I believe / It's true / I believe in him!" We bang our heads."Get your hands clapping! Come on!" says the guitarist wearing black who plays Judas Priest–style guitar with his combo."Woo!" goes the crowd, throwing their hands up."WE SAY HOLY, HOLY, HOLY!"When the opening act is over, Pastor Brian takes to the black pulpit, which is adorned with a large red heavy metal cross. The self-proclaimed "Rebel for Christ" makes an Angus Young reference about the guitarist and mentions that FHMCC is forming a house band and they're currently looking for a drummer.And then: "Last Sunday, four confirmed people came to Jesus for the very first time in their lives," Pastor Brian says. "We've had three hundred baptisms in seven months. There are churches that don't get three hundred baptisms in a decade. Isn't that amazing? God rocks!""Woooooo!" everyone screams. I "woo" with them and accidentally make devil horns with my fingers."God is using this church in amazing ways, and it's plain just ticking the devil off!"
And then we rock some more. More metal. More head-swaying. If Gospel music is a mainstay of Southern Baptist churches, then heavy metal plays the same role here in blue-collar Ohio.When the metal concludes, Pastor Brian delivers a classic rock sermon: "Pink Floyd's The Wall came to me when I read the book of Philemon. It's like, Tear down the wall," he says. Everyone gets silent. "That is the theme song of the book of Philemon—tearing down the wall."
Pastor Brian believes that there could be a Heavy Metal Church of Christ in every major city, if led by the right pastor. But surprisingly, he's found that the church's main opposition is other Christian groups. He gets hate mail: "You need to quit the First Church of Satan. You're leading your congregation to the pits of hell. Repent!""A lot of people, when they hear the name alone, automatically judge us," he says. "We've been called a cult. I've heard everything from 'They serve beer at their services' to 'They're nothing but a bunch of hell-raisers who want to live the way they want and play church on Sunday.'" He pauses. "Nothing is further from the truth. The Devil is alive and well, and he'll use Christians and non-Christians to do his bidding."Taken by this, Pastor Brian penned a pamphlet called "Christians That Give Jesus a Bad Name," which he passes out at secular metal shows to connect with people who have had a bad experience with church. The catalyst was a Marilyn Manson concert in 2006, where he saw a group of "super-Christians" with bullhorns and signs yelling at the kids walking in that they were going to burn in Hell.
"The kids were yelling obscenities back—it was just horrible," Pastor Brian recalls. "They were just doing it all wrong. If you want to win kids over to Christ, you attract more bees with honey and not vinegar. I'd rather love the hell out of you than scare the hell out of you."Pastor Brian thinks that this was the way Jesus would have done it. "Let's get together and save these lost souls because the world is going to hell in a bucket right before our eyes. The devil is the real enemy," he says. "That's what I've learned from this ministry—I can forgive sinners all day long; sinners and saints alike—we have to forgive them."Pastor Brian's secular metal band was less forgiving, though. They recently parted ways, after complaining that Brian was mentioning FHMCC too often during gigs.
The service concludes with a story about Led Zeppelin. "I was up at five in the morning working on my sermon, and I thought, I hope Robert Plant makes it up to heaven," Pastor Brian says.Heavy metal laughter."Robert, I hope you make it to heaven and we can be singing together on the streets of gold," he continues. "Then it dawned on me—what about that homeless man on the corner? I put Robert Plant on a pedestal up to here because he is one of my vocal heroes—but I want that same kind of passion for everyone out there, even people who hurt me and spit on me. We need that passion for all people."
There are "amens" from the crowd."This is where I'm going to leave you today," says Pastor Brian. "If you want easy, go live like a rock star. Being a Christian, it's not easy—it's not. But I'm telling you, it's worth it."Then there's a final song—and once again, we rock out. People are head-banging, singing along, and hugging the big bikers who are praying for us at the front of the auditorium. A few tough guys are crying as the music builds, with their heads and hands lifted upward. Looking around, I think if I had to believe in a big magical invisible man in the sky, this would be my go-to place.I start talking to a man wearing a motorcycle patch that says "Satan Sucks." He tells me he's the lead singer of a punk band that does Dead Kennedy and Clutch covers, and he compliments my skull sweater."I used to do shows and all I could think about was getting the show over so I could go meet my drug dealer," he says of his life before FHMCC. "Then I met Brian at a metal show. When I first met him, I had a beer in each hand—and he still invited me to his church."He tells me he's now sober and still plays in his punk band—and he attributes the FHMCC with saving his life."Have you changed your set list at all now that you've found Jesus?" I ask."I won't do the Rage Against the Machine song 'Killing in the Name,'" he says. "It has all that swearing at the end."Follow Harmon Leon on Twitter.