Jay Bakker walks the campus of the Minneapolis school where his famous televangelist parents Jim and Tammy Faye first met and fell in love.
Bundled in a black leather jacket and hat, he sits on a bench in the park next to North Central University where his parents stole kisses. From the campus bookstore, he buys a pendant bearing the school’s insignia to give to his father.
“I wouldn’t be here if not for that school,” said Bakker, 37, over a cup of coffee. “I do feel a kindred spirit here.”
Bakker is not just here for the memories. After nearly seven years as pastor of a popular New York church, Bakker has moved to Minneapolis to start a new congregation — in a bar.
His move here reflects Minnesota’s growing prominence in the Emerging Church movement, an unconventional, broad-minded brand of Christianity that questions traditional religious labels and practices.
Covered in tattoos and piercings, Bakker looks more like a hipster than a minister — quite different in style and beliefs from his evangelical parents, who made headlines in the 1980s for their PTL ministry and subsequent fall from grace amid scandal and fraud. Bakker is liberal-leaning on social issues and a fervent gay rights supporter. He has married same-sex couples in New York where the practice is legal.
Keeps in touch with father
While Bakker spent his early youth in North Carolina where the PTL ministry was based, he has strong roots in Minnesota. His mother was from International Falls. His parents met at what was then North Central Bible College. His father served nearly four years in federal prison in Rochester for his part in the PTL fraud, and Jay visited him there as a teen.
He keeps in touch with his father, who leads a church in Branson, Mo. His mother died from cancer in 2007.
Bakker said he and his wife were drawn to Minneapolis for a number of reasons, chiefly the thriving Emerging Church presence. Leaders count close to a half-dozen Twin Cities area congregations.
“In Minneapolis, I’ve seen so many intellectual believers,” Bakker said. “People are open-minded. I’m excited to dive into that and see more of that in the city.”
In Brooklyn, members of Bakker’s Revolution church meet at Pete’s Candy Store, a hip bar where Bakker has delivered a sermon from a stool or talked about religious questions he’s wrestling with. Up to 75 people attend; others find his talks online.
Bakker is looking for a Minneapolis location where he can mimic this stripped-down form of worship. No live band or music, no ornate trappings or traditions. Participants can talk about most any religious subject matter. Members of Emerging Church congregations like Bakker’s have often become disillusioned with institutionalized religion.
“For some people, they’ve been so hurt by the church that the fact they can have a beer or drink in order to come back to church is a baby step,” Bakker said.
Falling away, finding faith
Bakker himself became disillusioned following the fall of his parents’ ministry. He said pastors and other supporters abandoned his family when they were in need of help.
“No one wants to have anything to do with you,” Bakker said. “Your dad’s sitting in prison. Your mom is trying to raise you as a single parent. ... It wasn’t the Christian message I’d heard growing up. My parents were always real positive. ... They were like, ‘God loves you, he really does. And you can make it.’ Life hands you a lemon, make lemonade. That kind of stuff.”
“When we went through this, I didn’t see any of that. So in a way I got real disillusioned because I thought, that must be just talk. It’s all talk.”
Bakker fell into alcohol and drug abuse. But eventually he and a group of friends formed a Revolution church in Arizona in 1994 — considered among the first emerging churches in the country. He established another in Atlanta, which operated from 1998 to 2006.
Since then, Bakker has been a pastor at Revolution in New York. For now, he says that location will keep going under the leadership of his co-pastor while he starts a new congregation in Minneapolis.
Gerardo Marti, a sociology professor at Davidson College who’s writing a book about the emerging Christian movement, said Bakker attracts attention because of his parents but has also made a name for himself.
Opposite of megachurch
“Jay Bakker has become the antithesis to the seeker megachurch,” Marti said. “The emergent church movement is a reaction to what many perceive to be the excesses of conventional Christianity.
“On the one side, I think it speaks against the large megachurches. But I also think it targets what they perceive as an apathy and rote religion that exists in the mainline [Protestant churches].”
Tony Jones, a theologian-in-residence at Solomon’s Porch in south Minneapolis, one of the most prominent emerging churches in the country, is close friends with Bakker and believes his brand of Christianity will be attractive in the Twin Cities.
“Jay has had every reason to leave the church,” Jones said. “He has every reason in the world to quit Christianity, to never look back. But he has come back. He was the prodigal son. He dropped out of high school, he got into all sorts of drugs and alcohol, got a lot of those tattoos during his sojourn away from Christianity. But I think he just couldn’t ignore the calling in his life.
In Bakker’s latest book, “Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed,” he writes about his doubts about the existence of God and where he is now on his faith journey.
“Doubt is something that needs to be embraced with faith, because doubt is an element of faith,” Bakker said. “Faith is not fact. It’s like hope.
“My faith was gone and I didn’t know what to do ... and [when it came back] what happened was my faith became bigger. To me it’s mind-boggling and beautiful, and I can’t even begin to know what it is.”