Skateboards and rock take message to Scots children

Dumbarton, Scotland - ON A dilapidated industrial estate by the Clyde, death-metal music blares out across a warehouse. Among the graffiti tags and murals that cover the walls, an occasional scrawl mentions the devil's name.

Daubed on a crude placard in garish pink and yellow spraypaint is a quotation from 2 Thessalonians 3:5. Around it sit scores of children, mostly about eight or nine years old. In one hand, they hold on to skateboards and BMX bikes. In the other, are free copies of the Gospel of John.

This is Deeper Skate Church, an outreach ministry of an American evangelical organisation that is using skateboarding and youth culture to attract children to Christianity.

It is just one of a wave of evangelical ministry projects from the United States that have set up in Scotland in the past two years, with some hoping to "re-evangelise" a country where "the people have turned away from God".

The groups are setting up house-churches in cities and towns across Scotland and using novel messages and techniques to get their message across to children and adults alike.

Their activities are starting to get the attention of local politicians, with claims some groups are using "sinister" methods of attracting youngsters to religion. But the Church of Scotland welcomes the newcomers and says it is even looking at setting up its own "skate churches" to connect with young people.

For Bob Hill, 53, a Texan pastor whose religious attire is a simple black T-shirt and jeans, youth culture and the gospel go hand in hand.

It is just after 7pm on a Thursday evening at a network of industrial units in Dumbarton and Deeper Skate Church is in full flow. In Unit 23, the largest indoor skatepark in the UK, young people whirl around the half-pipes and jump ramps, performing tricks to a soundtrack of heavy metal and hip-hop music.

Mr Hill sits in the middle of the sprawling hall, watching over this most unorthodox of congregations. He exchanges the occasional high-five with the youths. There is a warm affinity between all present.

Most weeks, upwards of 120 children attend Deeper. When it began last July, only 16 turned up. These days, some come from as far afield as Edinburgh, Dundee and Stirling, but the majority are from West Dunbartonshire, one of the most economically and socially deprived parts of the country. Mr Hill and the skaters also go on outreach visits to skate centres across Scotland, performing tricks and handing out Bibles.

The youths are encouraged to speak of their problems at home and at school, and to listen to how God's son might prove their saviour. Some children, who were once caught up in petty crime and substance abuse, now call themselves Christians.

The notion of a skate church outreach ministry, though novel in the UK, has thrived in the southern US. There are about 300 ministries there, affiliated with churches nationwide.

As the music in the warehouse dies down, Mr Hill addresses the crowd of young people. "We're just a group of guys who love Jesus," he says in a languid, Fort Worth drawl. "He's got things for you that can blow your mind. We pray for you every day, and if you need to pray with us, we're here for you."

There is a pause. He surveys the crowd and asks a straightforward question: "Why do you think we're here?" A young boy in a Rangers top raises his hand. "Because God loves us," he replies.

Mr Hill works for the Florida-based Globe International. Ordinarily, the missionaries' work takes them to South America and Africa, but Scotland is seen as equally fertile ground on which to target the "unreached". The group's work here, which costs about £2,000 a month, is funded almost entirely by donations from the southern American states.

David Caleb Reasbeck, 28, a Las Vegas-born professional skateboarder and missionary who has been in Scotland for the past seven months preaching the gospel alongside Mr Hill, says: "We're not trying to sell anything or brainwash children. We're just offering them an absolute truth. Scotland was once a great Christian country and now so many young people have a negative attitude about Jesus. We're here to show them he's there for them."

As the night draws on, Mr Reasbeck, wearing a baseball cap and with a trimmed goatee beard, addresses the skaters in a small function room. First , he shows them a DVD of skating tricks. Then, microphone in hand, he asks for silence. "Who here has told another guy that you love him?" he asks. Sniggers come from the audience. "Hey, no, it's cool," Mr Reasbeck says. "This isn't gay, guys. Let me tell you about a guy I'm in love with. He's called Jesus. He wants to change your entire life, and he'll do it when you ask him in your heart."

He asks who among those present have either lied or stolen. A scattering of hands go up. "So have I," he says. "But, you know what, God is after you tonight. He's crying out to you."

With that, Mr Reasbeck asks children who "want in on what God has for them" to come up beside him and put out their hands. A cluster of about 40 youths gather round him, their hands reaching out. "I want you to experience God in a way you never have before," Mr Reasbeck says.

The children shout "amen". Some then go back to the ramps and half-pipes. Others opt to stay and ask about God. One 11-year-old boy later describes how his mother has recently divorced his alcoholic father, and how he has been having problems at school. "Bob and the skate church gives me somewhere to talk about it," he confides.

Not everyone is enamoured by what Mr Hill is doing.

George Black, an independent councillor for Dumbarton on West Dunbartonshire Council, says concerns have been raised at the local authority over the pastor's activities.

"Pastor Bob's heard the call, but I find what he is doing disturbing," he told The Scotsman.

"He's luring in very young kids off the streets to an area that's isolated and off the beaten track, and trying to convert them. It's a sinister way of getting people to believe in his religion, and there are misgivings about what he is doing in Dumbarton.

"Hollywood couldn't script what he's done. I'm not a holy man, but surely the days of the Victorian-style missionaries has come and gone."

However, David Currie, the Church of Scotland's regional development officer, said it, too, planned to set up skate churches, as well as similar ventures in other venues, in order reach a wider audience. He said: "If it wasn't for [the US evangelist] Billy Graham, the Church of Scotland would have far fewer ministers than it does today. We're delighted with the support the US churches have shown us over the past decade.

"I applaud the skate church idea. It's the kind of innovative outreach initiative we are keen to pursue. We're looking at similar ventures in skate parks, line-dancing clubs, public houses - basically, wherever you are will be where Jesus is."

For his part, Mr Hill is aware there may be criticism but believes his Scottish mission, to save a generation he calls the "last hope", to be God's work.

"We're not after evangelical notches in our belts, and the kids' parents can come along any time they want," he says. "We just want to show we love these children. By skating, their heavenly father can see them do something they enjoy."

American groups are on a mission to convert

NUMEROUS American-based evangelical organisations have stepped up their presence in Scotland in recent years, seeking to strengthen the nation's faith.

Their aim is to save a nation memorably described by Pat Robertson, one of the most high-profile evangelist preachers in the world, as a "dark land" run by homosexuals.

Much of their work - like Deeper Skate Church - takes place outside traditional church buildings, and focuses specifically on young people.

Pastor Bob Hill has been in Scotland since 1994 but has recently expanded his missionary work as US families have arrived.

As well as inviting US-based Christian skaters to Scotland for the Skate Church, in the last two years, two US families have joined him at Overtoun House, the dilapidated gothic mansion on the hills above Dumbarton which is his base.

Globe International, the evangelical group which funds Pastor Hill's work, is also moving into other areas of Scotland.

Jack and Ann Chalk from Florida arrived in Aberdeen last autumn from the war-ravaged nation of Sierra Leone, where they had been setting up a network of churches.

Seeking to emulate their African mission in Scotland appears an urgent priority. In his newsletter published last month, Mr Chalk writes: "We know that the Aberdeen area has much witchcraft and occult activity. We want to be used to set people free in Christ."

That mission to convert the "unsaved" can be found in other ministries which have arrived in Scotland recently.

One such project, Caledonian Ministries, founded in Stirling last autumn by Brandon and Shawna Gay from Arizona, explicitly seeks to re-evangelise the nation.

"People have turned away from God, and it has been said that Scotland is now a post-Christian society," Mr Gay said, adding that his aim was to "work toward the evangelisation and re-evangelisation of Scotland".

Similar ventures to emerge in Scotland include a branch of the World Baptist Fellowship - a separatist, fundamentalist Baptist organisation - in Arbroath, run by the Carruth family from Texas.

The Sanders family, also Texans, have run a ministry in the Shettleston area of Glasgow since 2006, where, they say, "in the midst of resilient and proud people, there is a desperate need for God's grace".

Other ministries include branches of King's Kids International, a youth ministry, in Paisley which holds outreach sessions in housing estates, and Agape Missionary Alliance in Stirling.

However, some of the organisations exhibit a zeal for bringing ordinary Scots back within reach of God that has sparked concern. Earlier this year, teenage evangelists from an unidentified group handed out chocolates to schoolchildren outside Edinburgh's James Gillespie's High School. The group were asked by school staff to leave the area.

David Currie, regional development officer with the Church of Scotland, said that some brands of US evangelism can at times be a "quick fix".

"If they come over here thinking Scotland is a failing Christian nation, they would be wrong. There are a lot of fascinating, fragile Christian communities in Scotland working outside traditional boundaries. It's quite insulting to ministers, priests and other faith leaders to suggest otherwise."

Rev Prof George Newlands, the principal of Trinity College, the University of Glasgow's school of divinity, said: "Problems have arisen when evangelical groups from the US get involved in missionary activity in cultures which they may not fully understand.

"There has been a lot of pressurised evangelism. But it would be quite unfair if all mission groups came under suspicion just because they came from America."


SCOTLAND's Presbyterian roots, laid down by John Knox, have been a strong influence on religion in the US, and it could be argued that therein lay the roots for modern US evangelism.

At the time when Scots were emigrating en masse to the States, they took Presbyterianism with them. Today, the church has over three million members, and is one of the largest mainstream Protestant churches in the US.

In addition to the efforts of Knox, Samuel Rutherford's 1644 text, Lex Rex, in many ways influenced the American Revolution. A central maxim of the work stated the law preceded even the monarch. With that view transported to the US by migrating preachers, by the time King George III denounced the American Revolution, he called it a "Presbyterian rebellion".

The church flourished in the post-colonial years. The only Christian minister to sign the Declaration of Independence, Reverend John Witherspoon, was a Presbyterian. Afterwards, Presbyterians were instrumental in the socially progressive movements for women's rights and the abolition of slavery, as well as their more puritan pursuit of temperance values.

During the Civil War, American Presbyterians divided into southern and northern branches, which reunited in 1983 to form the Presbyterian Church (USA), the largest presbyterian denomination in the United States.

In Scotland, the Act of Settlement of 1690 ensured the establishment of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, whose continuance was enshrined in the 1707 union of Scotland and England.

Since then, the church has suffered a series of fragmentations, with smaller factions calving off over disagreements principally regarding the roles between church and state.

The most significant break occurred when the Free Church of Scotland was formed in 1843. Four years later the United Secession Church joined with the majority of the congregations of the Relief Church to form the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

Despite the relatively progressive stance of the modern-day Church of Scotland, presbyterian factions continue to be associated with "hardline stances" on the observance of the sabbath, homosexuality and the roles of women.

Attendance across the Church of Scotland declined by almost a fifth between 1994 and 2002 to just under 230,000 Sunday worshippers.

An estimated 5 per cent of Scots attend Presbyterian church services regularly.