News

Tainted love?

At Zootown Church, a new appeal for abstinence taps into some very old fears

comment

Zootown Church was founded in the Zootown Brew coffee shop in 2008 and recently expanded to the former Vann's warehouse on Brooks Street. An estimated 1,500 worshipers pack the evangelical church for Sunday services, and the church is planning a major renovation so it can accommodate even more. On Nov. 11 and 12, Zootown Church hosted a youth abstinence conference titled "Waiting. Dating. Mating." The Independent sent two non-abstinent reporters to see what they could learn.

Where love is like lint

Zootown Church on a Friday night feels like a concert venue. WDM conference attendees—mostly teenagers—mill around the lobby while a DJ blasts electronic music. Inside the main hall, there's a full band kit on a large stage beneath three huge projector screens.

As a woman who was raised Catholic, I'm intrigued by this deviation from the stiff formality of a traditional mass. Nobody's wearing robes or carrying candles. Instead, teens dance near a fog machine. Pastors wear baseball caps and black T-shirts.

After settling into our seats we're handed small stickers printed with emojis. I get a cactus. My colleague, Derek, gets women holding hands. We're instructed to peel the backing off the stickers and wear them on our shirts.

After a rousing introduction, pastor and primary conference speaker Kyle Smith and his wife, Dani, step onstage and describe falling in love in high school. Smith says he'd never kissed a girl before he started dating Dani. Dani explains that Kyle was upset when he found out she'd had "experiences" fooling around with previous boyfriends. "But I was a virgin when I got married, thank God," Dani says. They now have three kids and will celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary next year.

Last weekend, Zootown Church and pastor Kyle Smith, pictured, hosted a two-day conference focused on encouraging abstinence. “Waiting. Dating. Mating.” was aimed at teens, college-age students and their parents. - PHOTO BY DEREK BROUWER
  • photo by Derek Brouwer
  • Last weekend, Zootown Church and pastor Kyle Smith, pictured, hosted a two-day conference focused on encouraging abstinence. “Waiting. Dating. Mating.” was aimed at teens, college-age students and their parents.

Kyle tells the crowd that they too can look forward to such a blissful union and, presumably, great marital sex, as long as they stay "pure," as God intended, in the meantime.

Between sermons, Derek and I are escorted around the church by the cheerful head pastor Scott Klaudt. Scott, beaming, tells us that Zootown's goal is to welcome everyone, even those who might disagree with the church's stance on abstinence, homosexuality or abortion. Scott decries street preachers and abortion-clinic protesters for being too off-putting.

"We believe the Scripture that says God opens people's hearts and our job is just to give the message," Scott says. "We don't push it on anybody."

Every half an hour or so, Kyle Smith asks the crowd to peel off the emoji stickers and trade them with someone. Derek and I swap stickers.

Kyle's sermons deploy Bible quotes, jokes about Instagram and movie clips to explain why God doesn't want us to even think about sex or masturbation until He assigns us the person we should marry.

"If you get Jesus on the inside, abstinence is not going to be a problem," he says. "If you get Jesus and the Holy Spirit directing you and guiding you ... He's going to tell you what you should and shouldn't do."

Kyle tells us to take a look at our emoji stickers after we've traded them a few times. The stickers are now covered in lint and don't stick very well. Kyle says the same thing happens to our souls every time we indulge impure thoughts or actions. But if everyone comes to Jesus and asks His forgiveness, Kyle says, we'll be made pure again. Kyle produces a Brita filter and pours dirty water into it. Jesus is our Brita filter. The Lord will remove every impurity—even, he says, if we've been molested or assaulted. Kyle invites everyone to take communion or be baptized in a horse trough. Some families huddle up in small groups to pray with their arms around each other.

While Zootown Church's rituals are unfamiliar to me, nothing about its core teachings on sexuality is different from anything I learned as a teenager attending Catholic Bible study. Zootown Church might be new, but its ideas about gender and sex are very old.

On my way out of the conference, I step into the bathroom. A teenage girl is standing at one of the sinks, crying.

Kate Whittle




Backstage access

I met pastor Kyle Smith on Saturday, after he'd finished his fourth sermon of the past 20 hours. He found me in my seat and led me through a door at the auditorium's far end, past a volunteer checking credentials and into a sort of green room backstage. The room was no bigger than a walk-in closet, but it offered a respite from the music—a Selena Gomez song, maybe—booming through the rest of the church. Smith moved a bass guitar from the couch and sat down. The couch's dark leather matched his bomber jacket.

I hadn't asked to interview Smith, assuming that the conference host would be too busy for a sit-down between the six sermons and three "breakout" sessions he'd scheduled for Friday night and Saturday. But church staff seemed eager for the meeting, just as they had been welcoming and unusually attentive the night before. We talked for the next hour.

Smith, 31, is short and fit with a hairstyle similar to Macklemore's. Head pastor Scott Klaudt and other church leaders tease Smith for the "Hitler Youth" hairdo—a description coined by an online commenter who saw Smith's photo in the Missoulian. It doesn't bother Smith. "I know there's a good community that knows my heart more than my haircut," he says.

Smith says that Zootown is about building authentic faith.

"I think the problem is that a lot of the church world is fake," he says. "We're trying to be something that's not really who we are, and I think that is such a turn-off." It's in that spirit that Smith decided to launch #wdmconf with the proclamation that "God is for sex."

Smith grew up in Missoula during the height of the American evangelical purity movement. Smith remembers reading Joshua Harris' influential I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which set a tone that Smith says was perhaps overly onerous.

"I remember the first time I kissed my wife when we were dating, I felt this pressure, like, 'Oh no, I have to marry her,' which is insane to me," he says.

Rather than just lecturing teens on the sinfulness of sex, Smith tries to convince them to keep their gazes fixed on Jesus, who will guide them through their romantic decision-making. Instead of signing abstinence pledges, attendees take home a blue tassel, a reference to the Book of Numbers and a reminder of God's plan for them.

A booklet distributed at the “Waiting. Dating. Mating.” conference asks attendees to consider, “Am I currently treating my purity the way that I want my future spouse to treat theirs?”
  • A booklet distributed at the “Waiting. Dating. Mating.” conference asks attendees to consider, “Am I currently treating my purity the way that I want my future spouse to treat theirs?”

"Our goal is not to keep everyone just sheltered and protected and naïve," Smith says. After all, as church leaders like to joke, Zootown once ended up on a list of best places for Missoula singles to mingle.

Protecting young people from the harm and hurt of heartbreak, however, had been central to Smith's pitch the previous night. From the stage, he crowdsourced a dating pro/con list, shrugged off pros like "emotional support" and "understanding God's character" and concluded flatly that contemporary dating culture isn't worth the trouble. Smith described sexuality as a gift from God, only to compare the guidelines accompanying it to rules of the road designed to help drivers arrive safely at their destination. Those rules include no sexual contact before marriage, no masturbation, no lustful thoughts and no flirting with or dating of non-believers.

Smith acknowledges that such strictures have the "potential" to make teens feel shameful about their bodies, though "that's not the goal."

Throughout the conference, attendees were invited to anonymously text questions to the pastors. During a breakout session aimed at college students, one person asked, "Why is it when a woman tries to get close to me, I run?" The host, thinking he was being punked, tried to laugh it off, before eventually chalking up the feeling to past hurts.

Fear, though, can come from many places. It can come from experience. And, I found myself thinking, it can come from church. As the session ended, the young man texted again to clarify that his question wasn't a joke.

Derek Brouwer

Tags

Add a comment