You enter the room and get blasted by a guitar-shredding solo, vocals screamed by a singer with leathered lungs, and heavy distortion and reverb, all coming out of an earsplitting tower of speakers.
You might think this is a headbanging, heavy metal performance in a club, except it’s Sunday morning, the lyrics are about salvation and rapture, and when the song is over, the bass guitarist/pastor puts down his instrument to preach a sermon about miracles performed by Christ.
This is Minneapolis Metal Church. Praise the Lord and pass the ear protection.
The church was started in May 2017 in an old three-story brick house in the Phillips West neighborhood of south Minneapolis under the leadership of pastor Jacob Rock. He’s a high school dropout and a former hard-living, heavy metal band leader who came back to Christ, went to seminary school and became an ordained minister.
Rock (yes, that’s really his name) was born and raised in Minneapolis and grew up as a Baptist. But as a young man he played bass for a band called Free Beer that performed in the 1990s at venues such as First Avenue in Minneapolis alongside groups such as death-metal band Cannibal Corpse. Rock, 47, said that Free Beer became the de facto house band for the now defunct Mirage nightclub in south Minneapolis, and that former Gov. Jesse Ventura used the band’s music on his radio show.
Free Beer was known as “one of the more lyrically offensive acts of the time,” he said. “Cross-Country Whore” and “Swallowing Your Own Filth” were among their song titles. “We were just foul-mouthed. We weren’t going for the intellectual.”
Fellow band member Andy Levi said, “We sang about drinking and women and that was it. We celebrated debauchery. We had alcohol problems, drinking problems, took advantage of women.”
He added, “There would be strippers on the stage. We weren’t the best people back then.”
After the band broke up in about 2001, some of its members hit the proverbial rock bottom.
Rock said he became part-owner of a chain of tobacco stores and gas stations, but felt an emptiness in his life. After having a dream about baptism, he started attending churches around his home in Minneapolis. He got baptized in Lake Nokomis and decided to go back to school, earning seminary school degrees. He wrote a thesis for a doctorate in biblical preaching called “From Hell to Hallelujah: The Surprising Influence of the Bible and Christianity on (and Through) Rock N’ Roll Music.”
In it, Rock wrote about how some rock musicians who were condemned in the 1980s for singing about sex, drugs and Satan later turned to religion and “the saving grace of Jesus Christ.”
Rock was basically telling his own story.
He married a woman he met at church. His mother, Donna Rock, said he’s an “awesome dad” to his 7-year-old son, Antioch, even though Rock didn’t know his own father growing up. He also became the board chairman of the Phillips West Neighborhood Organization.
“He lived the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll life,” Donna said. “I’m just so proud of seeing him evolve from a heavy metal player to the pastor he is today.”
But he’s still a metal head.
‘Headbanger for the Lord’
New Hope Baptist Church, the struggling congregation Rock had been attending, was on the verge of dissolving after its pastor died. But Rock kept the former south Minneapolis house where New Hope held its services as a place of worship. Except he decided to rebrand it as the Minneapolis Metal Church.
He got the old band back together to do the music, with Levi on guitar and his brother Royce Rock on drums. Jacob ’s wife, Brittany Rock, helps with vocals.
Some things at Minneapolis Metal Church are the same as any other Christian church. There are crucifixes and images of Jesus, prayers and offerings, communions and benedictions. Rock preaches a traditional sermon of “nothing but the Bible.”
There’s even some traditional music. At one point during a recent service, everyone picked up a hymnal and sang a traditional hymn, “Revive Us Again,” written by a 19th-century Scottish Presbyterian pastor, William Mackay.
But the rest of the music was original heavy metal Christian songs, written and played by the band members to about 20 headbanging, air guitar-strumming worshipers of all ages.
Sample lyric: “I wanna see my name written in blood — in Heaven!”
Instead of an organ, the church has an enormous sound mixing station, a rare synthesizer called the Moog Taurus III, 29 speakers and a mic on every drum.
It’s a lot of sound for a tiny sanctuary of about 800 square feet in what used to be the living room and kitchen of the 1872 house. But the church provides free earplugs to worshipers who want them. It also has protective headphones available for the kids in the congregation.
Rock said his church is for people who may not fit in at other places. They may like church, but aren’t sure if church likes them.
“I’m a heavy metal fan from way back, the Iron Butterfly era,” said churchgoer Larry Lura, 63. “It’s the only church where I can do chair dancing and no one gives me funny looks.”
“I’m a headbanger for the Lord,” said Katie King, 32, who also sings during services. “I like it because it gets me going and I’m ready to praise God.”
Praise ‘with a loud noise’
At Christmas, the church band will put a metallic spin on traditional carols.
“We kind of stole a version that Twisted Sister did of ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful,’ ” Rock said.
But don’t mistake the music for pop-style contemporary Christian or praise music. “We’re not rock ’n’ roll,” Rock said. “We’re heavy metal.”
He said the church sanctuary can hold about 40 people, but hundreds more will watch and listen to services on videos posted on the church’s Facebook page, which has nearly 3,000 followers.
The church’s website and Facebook page give you fair warning of what to expect. They quote Psalm 33:3: “Sing unto Him a new song; play skillfully with a loud noise.”
There’s also the church’s logo, an ichthys (or Christian fish symbol) with a row of sharp teeth.
The “Jesus Shark” represents “boldness in the faith,” according the church’s website. Rock has the Jesus Shark tattooed on his arm. It’s next to some tattoos from his Free Beer days: drawings of women who were scantily clad until the preacher had them re-inked in more modest dress.
Although he insists that his is a legitimate church, Rock doesn’t dress the part. Instead of robes, he wore track pants, a backward baseball hat and a T-shirt and stood in his stockinged feet when he gave a recent sermon about Jesus raising the daughter of Jairus.
“I’m a heavy metal bass player. This is what I’m good at, so that’s what we do,” Rock said. “If we were trombone players, we’d be the Minneapolis Trombone Church.”