Fearless Church Brings Hip Music to Clubland
Christy Johnson, left, with Worth Dying For
PHOTO BY RYAN ORANGE
It's Sunday night, and the crowd at Hollywood club Lure is losing its shit. People are singing and yelling, dancing with their palms raised and their eyes closed. Women crouch near the stage with their foreheads pressed against the dance floor. The music is so loud that you can barely think. The lights overhead change from green to red to purple as the song peaks.
"Jesus," the band sings as images of the L.A. skyline flash on LED screens, "let your love rain down upon us."
Though it's reminiscent of a decadent nightclub soiree, this is actually a church event, so there's no booze, no drugs, no scantily clad women. There is, however, a large cross on the dance floor. Hosted every Sunday at a different local club, Fearless is a nascent local, nondenominational congregation with ties to a Modesto megachurch.
Few in the multiethnic crowd look older than 35; many are teenagers. They're stylish, and wouldn't look out of place on Abbot Kinney. Fearless' 10-person house band, Worth Dying For, plays anthemic rock with electronic dance music and hip-hop influences. Jeremy and Christy Johnson, the church's married founders, are a handsome couple: He's 34, with a surfer tan and a long fauxhawk. She's 32 and blonde with big eyes. He's Fearless' pastor; she sings in the band.
Despite its hip veneer, Fearless's message is one of traditional values birthed directly from the Bible. Christy's father, Glen Berteau, presides over a congregation of thousands at a Modesto-based megachurch called the House. (Formerly known as Calvary Temple, the House recently was listed as the 40th largest church in the United States by the evangelical Outreach magazine.) The House is affiliated with the Assemblies of God, a loose-knit, worldwide Pentecostal denomination. Pastor Berteau preached at Avalon for Fearless' inaugural event, and the House has provided some funding. (Jeremy says Fearless also is influenced and partly funded by Planetshakers, an Australia-based mega-ministry and international church network.)
Fearless services last for hours, featuring the crying and spontaneous "healings" typical of Pentecostal services. The music, however, is a fresh twist designed to appeal to the EDM generation; the roving church hosts weekly services at nightclubs including Lure, the Belasco, the Exchange and Avalon.
"The method isn't sacred, but the message is," Jeremy says of holding events where Lady Gaga and Skrillex have performed.
While numerous local churches feature live, Top 40–leaning bands combined with a sleek visual aesthetic, Fearless seems to be the only one doing it in big-deal music venues.
The Johnsons met as teenagers and later led nearly 700 adolescents in the House's youth-ministry program. Worth Dying For was born, and the Johnsons encouraged many of these kids to develop their musical talents in the group, which performed regularly at the House.
It was during this period that Jeremy says God spoke to him directly and told him that, in five years, he was to start a new church. Jeremy says Planetshakers founders and senior pastors Russell and Sam Evans received similar directives from God, and that they thus became mentors to the Johnsons.
The Johnsons' youth ministry evolved into Fearless, and in the spring of 2012, about 20 young volunteers moved with them from Modesto to Southern California.
That's a startling number of people willing to uproot their lives; some got involved through a YouTube contest, in which entrants performed cover versions of Worth Dying For songs. Winners were given scholarships to come to Modesto to "intern" with the band. This segued, for some, into the move to L.A., and Worth Dying For came along.
"I wanted to hear why these people were leaving their comfy homes in Modesto to go to L.A., basically to a foreign land, where Christians are prosecuted by Hollywood," volunteer Andrew Sinclair wrote in a 2012 blog post. "I asked one person in the greenroom, 'Why are you going to L.A.?' He answered 'I wanna save Hollywood!' "
Indeed, influencing the entertainment industry is a fundamental goal of Fearless. Many of the volunteers are musicians and performers, and the Johnsons believe God sent them to L.A. to help imbue the messages found in music, movies and television with "the perfect love of God."
While they'd love to impact influential celebs like Miley Cyrus, as Jeremy says, "There's also that person who just moved here from Kansas that's going to write a movie that will shape the world." The church's entrance even has a red carpet.
If all goes according to the Johnsons' plan, Hollywood will be a little less blasphemous.
First settling in Orange County after arriving from Modesto in spring 2012, the congregation originally held services on the beach in Newport Beach, until the events became too large and authorities asked them to leave. They moved to an Irvine coffee shop but soon outgrew that space as well. In early 2013, the whole crew moved again, this time to L.A., which they felt made the most sense considering their mission.
But they needed a venue, one that could handle the sounds (and light show) of Worth Dying For. Walking by downtown's Belasco theater, Jeremy was inspired after seeing the words "prayer changes things" painted on the side of the venue, a remnant from the 1950s when the building was used as a church.
"They're extremely professional," says Preston Gaspar, the Belasco's director of special event, "and the nicest group we've ever worked with."
Venues like the Belasco cut Fearless a deal, charging only staffing costs. Jeremy concedes that it's expensive to rent out a club each Sunday, and the church is seeking a permanent location. Like most churches, they pass the collection plate (in this case, a bucket) during services, and also accept online donations. Utilizing music and social media outreach (hashtag "fearlessla"), the group has found a fast following; several hundred people typically show up for a service.
Fearless also hosts community events on Dockweiler Beach and sometimes gives away coffee on Hollywood Boulevard. Their methods can be unconventional: They provide a bus that picks up kids from USC and UCLA for Sunday services, and a bar-hour pancake giveaway in early September on frat row near USC was shut down, Jeremy says, for drawing too many drunk students to an already rowdy part of campus. (Campus security did not respond to L.A. Weekly's request for comment.)
Fearless also makes weekly visits to Fairfax High School and East L.A.'s Roosevelt High, bringing pizzas and working with students from each school's Christian club. Roosevelt happens to have an on-site Planned Parenthood clinic; the Johnsons contend that pregnancy rates at the school have tripled since the "abortion clinic" opened in 2008, and say they hope to inspire pregnant teens to keep their babies. (Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Serena Josel says pregnancy rates have actually gone down since the organization opened on campus and notes that the clinic provides only preventative care, not abortions.)
Many Fearless volunteers share living spaces; one group of five inhabits a two-bedroom apartment. Some work two or three day jobs to make ends meet. Several volunteers are married, and a few women are pregnant.
This past September, the Johnsons, along with their baby daughter and newborn son, moved into a house on Manhattan Beach. The space was offered to them by family friends in exchange for a low monthly rent and a tax write-off, Jeremy says. He also earns an income by speaking at other churches and religious conferences throughout the country, usually along with Worth Dying For. At a recent event in Orlando, the band played for a crowd of 4,000.
Before tonight's service in Hollywood, Jeremy and Christy dash around Lure's patio in preparation, locking down AV logistics and greeting the congregation noshing on coffee and donut holes. They know most everyone by name and rarely stop smiling. At 5 p.m., the doors open and the event kicks off with a five-song performance by Worth Dying For, who sound a bit like The Killers if that group sang exclusively about the Lord. (Christy, on lead vocals, has Kelly Clarkson–esque chops.) The crowd is quickly on its feet, with many rushing toward the stage.
Next, Jeremy delivers a sermon on personally encountering God, devoting one's talents to the church and how Jesus loves everyone — promiscuous college students and pregnant teenagers included. He mentions that the church recently prayed and raised money for a girl who wanted out of the porn industry. At one point he asks everyone to hug and repeat, "Jesus, I want to encounter you tonight in a new way." Folks take notes, shout amens and follow along on versions of the Bible downloaded to their iPhones. The sermon is followed by a rousing talk by Planetshakers' Sam Evans.
At this point in the service, the congregation is invited to the foot of the stage, where Fearless volunteers take guests into their arms and pray with them. People are sobbing and hugging. Complete with the uptempo music, it is, in a way, not all that different from the peak moment of a Swedish House Mafia set.
During the after-party on the patio, the crowd peruses Fearless merch and buys hot dogs from the food truck parked on Ivar while Christian hip-hop artist Iz-Real plays expletive-free hip-hop. In a few hours, the Fearless crew will be gone and local electronic scene DJs Clockwork and Just Blaze will be onstage at Lure. The bar will open, the standard crowd will assemble and another, antithetical, form of worship will begin.
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