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interview with pastor bill  stukenberg

Pastor Bill Stukenberg, Cody Perkins' religious mentor, founded Grace Fellowship Church, a nontraditional Evangelical Free Church in Prestonsburg, Ky. that Cody attended. Pastor Stukenberg talks here about how he struggled with Cody's heavy metal Christian music, the meaning it has for Cody, how today's teens are seeking religion and spirituality in different ways, and how the youth of eastern Kentucky compare to young people elsewhere. Pastor Stukenberg left Kentucky in 2003 but returned for Cody and Jessica's marriage the following year. He is now pastor of student ministry at Southern Lakes Evangelical Free Church in Elkhorn, Wis. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Dec. 12, 2005.

Cody described Grace Fellowship Church as "nondenominational." What did he mean?

It actually is not a nondenominational church. It was affiliated with the Evangelical Free Church. I think that his feeling of nondenominational is that in the eastern Kentucky area and a lot of the South, churches are real stuck on their titles and the Southern Baptist Church is big down there. And not only are they kind of stuck on their names, but they're also very traditional.

For that area, we would have been considered a very nontraditional church. It was more of a contemporary church. These days, there's churches like that all over the place in eastern Kentucky. But I think in Cody's thinking, it was a nondenominational because we were not traditional. …

What do you think Cody saw in Grace Fellowship that he liked?

I think one of the things that was there in the church -- maybe because of me or just because the church just had it -- I think that we're real. We're a bunch of people who didn't claim to have it all together. It doesn't mean that we're not people who are desiring to do what God wants us to do, but the reality is that life is real, and it hurts sometimes, and that was one of the realities of Grace Fellowship, is that people were allowed to be their selves. It didn't mean that we didn't have standards, we didn't seek after Biblical truth and holiness and things but yet realizing that hey, we're going to blow it, we're going to make mistakes.

What was your church attendance in general, and what percent of it was young people?

The church is not real big. Even big churches in eastern Kentucky aren't big. We probably were 45 people on a very good Sunday and maybe 10-16 teens attending on a regular basis. And on every Monday night or so, we had high school Bible study with sometimes 15-18 kids. They were friends of Cody's or friends of friends of Cody's. …

The first time I talked with Cody about having a Bible study group, he came up to me in Cody fashion, "Do you think we could do a Bible study some time?" And I said, "Yeah, that would be fine. When do you want to do it?" "Well, let's do Monday. We'll do it at my house." So we did it at Liz's house. And I had no idea what was going to happen.

I think younger people are seeing that life isn't like a 30-minute sitcom that solves itself.  Sometimes your problems are still there even if you're a Christian.

And so I go to Cody's house. And at the time all I knew was Cody and Jessica, and maybe one other. I might have known Jason at that time. But I went to the study that night, and all of a sudden, here's this parking lot, and there were, I don't know, eight or 10 kids, all Goth. I'm thinking, "Oh, here I've got all these Goth kids. What did I get myself into here?" But, you know, it was basically Cody's crowd.

How long did the kids regularly attend the church?

The kids didn't come every Sunday. Cody and Jessica and Jason were involved with the music, so they were pretty consistent. A lot of their friends did come for a couple of weeks, and then they wouldn't be there for a while, and they'd be back again. It's not like people left the church. It was more a matter of if they were going to go to church, that's where they would come. But they didn't necessarily go to church every week. … Cody and Jessica were pretty faithful. …

How did the young people in Kentucky compare with other young people you've worked with?

It's kind of a hard question because the group of kids that I was working with primarily didn't compare. ... Cody was so unlike the culture there. Cody's crowd for the most part didn't want to be thought of as hillbillies, and they kind of fought their culture a little bit. You can see it in the way that they looked … even in their accents. You hear the difference between Cody and Chris in the film. Chris is real Southern drawl and Cody and his friends, a lot of them, you hear the accent, but not near as much. It's like they're just almost rebelling against the whole eastern Kentucky culture.

But in answer to your question, how do they compare? Kids are kids. The needs that they have are the same, the desires are the same. One of the things I would say is that probably kids up North are more motivated probably [for] a couple of reasons, but partly because they just have more opportunities. You give me a motivated person in eastern Kentucky and there still may be nothing for you to do. It's just because of the economics in the area and things.

By all accounts there's a nationwide rise in teens' interest in religion and spirituality. Do you see that?

Yeah, definitely. … And yet there's an interest in spirituality that doesn't necessarily mean Christian spirituality. I know there are a number of people in eastern Kentucky who are Wiccans, which is kind of a witch thing. And [people are] interested more in Eastern-type religions. And so I think that there is a hunger in people for spirituality, although not necessarily for Christianity. … Like looking in different directions and trying to find it.

Is the rise in spirituality and religion among teens linked to the popularity of Christian music?

Certainly, although one of the things that's happening in Christian music is that's it's becoming good enough that non-Christians like some of it, even if they don't necessarily care for what it's saying. For years, Christian music was just kind of less than what secular market was offering. And I think in the last 20 years, you've gotten a lot of Christian artists out there who are every bit as good or better than anything the secular world has to offer. And there's been a lot of Christian artists who have crossed over, people like Amy Grant.

And I find that new teenagers coming up Christian, even Christian kids like my son being included in that, they're as knowledgeable about non-Christian music as they are Christian. They'll listen to both. And I'm kind of speaking for my son [David Stukenberg; listen to his music on]. He signed with a Christian publisher, but he doesn't like contemporary Christian music. He says it's all kind of bubblegum, it's a little too easy, and I think younger people are seeing that life isn't like a 30-minute sitcom that solves itself. Sometimes your problems are still there even if you're a Christian. I think that music is starting to reflect that a little bit more.

You are going to find that Christian music over the next 10 years is going to be taking a real turn, because it's where churches are going. They're becoming more real. You know, one of the things that the upcoming generation wants more than anything is they want people who are real.

And I think Christian music is going to start reflecting that more.

How much was music a part of Grace Fellowship?

… One of the things that's going to define a church more than anything else is going to be the music. And whereas most of the churches in eastern Kentucky would have been doing the piano, and one person standing up behind the pulpit leading the worship with a hand counting off the beats of the music, we had acoustic guitar, electric guitar, drums, and keyboards, a number of people singing, It was part of what made us a little more appealing to young people, perhaps, and that was intentional.

In the designing of the church, if you want to put it that way, music was an intentional thing that we did. We were going to have a certain kind of music. And yet, I remember doing a poll a year and a half into the church's existence, to see what people liked best. And [for] young people, it was preaching God's word that they liked best. I was surprised, because I thought they would say it was the music, but music came in second or third. But it had a big part of it, I think.

One of the other things, too, that I thought was good about the music, it was an opportunity for the young people to be involved. Cody played some. He didn't play every week, but he would play some. Jason, he's one of the guys in the film. He played just about every week. He played keyboards. James was their drummer for a while, played the drums in the church most of the time. Jan who was Jason's girlfriend, his wife now, she played flute a couple of times.

Music was an opportunity for the young people to be involved in the church instead of just being spectators.

There are probably some church people who would regard rock 'n' roll as more or less the devil's music. How do you answer that?

… The church has always picked up on the popular music of the world. They're just usually 20 or 30 years behind. There was a time when they first came out with the pipe organ, and the church thought that that it was the devil's instrument. And now you have churches where that's all they really use. A lot of the old classic hymns were apparently all bar songs that they just put different words to.

Music is not intrinsically good or evil. I think that the words define it a lot. And then I would go beyond that. There's a verse in the Bible that says that everything is to be done decently and in order, and another verse that says that God is not the author of confusion. And this is one of things that I did struggle a little bit with Cody's brand of music. I would not have allowed Cody's music to be played for Sunday morning service. Because [his music] is pushing the line of confusion, you know? He's beyond what was heavy metal and the death metal and so that's kind of a struggle in me.

But, music reflects culture and God is a God of all cultures. My background, before going to eastern Kentucky, was as a missionary. And one of the things that I looked at a lot as a missionary was what parts of what we do in church are biblical and what parts are cultural? And music is definitely a cultural thing. You know, if I was to go into Papua New Guinea, I'm not going to make them play pipe organ and sing songs. That's not their culture. Music touches your heart more than anything else. It's a part of who we are. And yet to say that we can't worship God in the culture that we're used to is wrong. I just wholeheartedly believe that.

And so, that's why even getting a young person to worship, worship to rock 'n' roll -- they can. Can they worship to Cody's music? [Laughter] I'm not sure about how far I want to stretch that.

And one thing -- this was not in the film -- I decided I was going to let Cody's band have an opportunity to do a Saturday night thing. So they came and they set up all of their stuff, and they did some advertising. And the way it was set up is we were going to do just some regular worship music first, and then I was going to preach, and then Cody's band was going to finish up with a 30- to 45-minute set. I remember, as they were practicing, thinking, "What have I gotten myself into?" I had heard Cody's band a bunch of times, but here, not only was I hearing it, but they were in my church, and it's a church-sponsored event. I was just struggling in myself. "Oh, is it the right thing to do?"

And yet, that night I think there were like four people [who] basically dedicated their lives to the Lord as a result of that. And of those four, several of them, four years later, are still walking strong with the Lord. So God used Cody's music one way or the other to reach people.

So, my argument to people who say it's the devil's music is that I'd have to say prove it, because I won't fight the point on either side, but I don't think so. I think they're in error.

How did Cody view his heavy metal music? What was its meaning for him and his faith in God?

Cody's band, Seven Rise Up, praying before a gig

Cody Perkins and Seven Rise Up praying outside before a show

I remember talking with him about his long hair and all his piercings and his tattoos and everything. And he says, "I feel like that's what God wants me to do, because it allows me to reach people that other people wouldn't reach." I don't know where he stands on all that right now. But he would go to heavy metal fests with all the other bands, none of them Christians. And he would get up and he would play, and then he would share his testimony. And if you've heard his testimony, it's relatively powerful.

If Cody were a clean-cut guy playing, you know, playing Mercy Me worship music, they wouldn't let him into those places. And yet he comes out there with his long black hair, his piercings, his tattoos, his loud guitar, and he basically gains the audience to where they listen to him. … For him, it was very much a mission. He saw it as an opportunity to reach people for Christ.

In the film, the Fellowship band plays at a festival called Mega-Worship. What is the background on that?

There was a relatively large church in Hiseville, a small town, and that church experienced a revival among their young people because of a couple of deaths in the school. It really woke a lot of people up and a number of young people just got radically saved and got on fire for the Lord.

I think it was their initiative that started Mega-Worship. It's like, "Hey, let's get together with other Christians and worship large." There were probably, 10, 12 churches originally involved. Their young people would get together once a month, and they would have these Mega-Worships. …

It had grown to where there were probably 500 kids coming. For eastern Kentucky, that's a lot of kids. And it went really strong for maybe a year or so. By the time we were there, it was actually starting its decline. … A core group ended up going to college to get into the ministry. And then ... the adults decided to take it over. In the beginning it was a ministry of kids to kids -- the worship bands were kids, the speakers were very young adults. ... They were running it, they were doing it.

As some of those additional teenagers grew up and moved on, some of the adults started saying, "Oh, no, this is something for us to keep going." And they started orchestrating it like they did everything else, and it started losing some of its appeal, and then all of a sudden, the preaching got longer, and then the services got a little more organized and, kids just get bored too, so it started dying out…. The last time that we were there, it was down to 75, 80 kids, something like that. So it just kind of ran its course. But it was a really cool thing for a long time there. …

Grace Fellowship closed after you left?

Yes, not by my choice. We knew that we had to leave. There were just a number of different things, most of it was financial. … So they closed it.

And one of the things that had happened is that about the same time there were several key families in the church that ended up leaving the area. … They were the mature, committed adults that were behind it. The young people, I think, would have liked to have kept it going, but financially they didn't have any [way to contribute]. …

So for the teens that would have come to your church, what do you think they're doing now?

Good question. Some of them may have plugged into other churches, there's more traditional churches there. Some of them are going to be not doing anything at all. They're doing whatever they would have been doing before, which is pretty hopeless sometimes, especially in an area like that. …Even from a physical, financial way, it's a pretty destitute area. So, I don't know. It's a sobering question. …

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posted jan. 9, 2006

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