TULSA, Okla. (RNS) — When Brant Lozano was 13, he thought the idea of a church for skateboarders was stupid.
But a friend kept inviting him, and eventually, Lozano gave in.
To his surprise, “Skatechurch” — a ministry hosted by the First United Methodist Church in downtown Tulsa — turned out not to be so lame, he said.
“Everybody was really good (at skating), and the facility was really nice, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is really cool,’” said Lozano, who was not a Christian when he first showed up.
Nearly two decades later, Lozano, now 32, leads a regular Sunday afternoon Bible study amid foosball and ping-pong tables in the Methodist church’s fitness and sports building. Afterward, dozens of skateboarding enthusiasts — mostly males, ranging in age from 8 to 40 — perform flat-ground tricks, grind on rails and jump over ramps in the church’s gymnasium.
“It’s nice — a fun place to be,” said Noah Lusk, 13, who listened quietly to Lozano’s 30-minute lesson on guilt and forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ before taking his skateboard into the gym.
The ministry in Oklahoma’s second-largest city started in 1997 as skateboarding grew in popularity — and as skaters nationwide often were pushed off street corners and out of town squares.
According to skatereview.com, there are an estimated 16 million skateboarders in the U.S. and an additional 4 million skateboarders around the world.
“Over the years, other skate parks opened in the area, but the kids that valued the community and ministry remained, creating an outreach … ministry to youth who may never attend a traditional youth group,” said the Rev. Jessica Moffatt, First United Methodist’s lead pastor.
In recent decades, numerous faith-based outreach efforts designed to appeal to skateboarders have popped up all over the United States and Canada — and beyond.
“In both North and South America, skate ministry is huge,” said Nathaniel Muench, 24, founder of Skaters of Christ Skateboard Ministry and a skateboard missionary to Germany, where he has lived for the last three years.
And the ministries come in all shapes and sizes.
“It can look like anything from a guy pulling some ramps and a rail out of his garage every week and opening up his Bible to 10 kids showing up at a skatepark with 15 pizzas and sharing the gospel,” said Muench, who works with the global movement Youth With a Mission.
Mike Steincamp, of North Carolina-based MS Skate Ministry, travels year-round to do events and produces gospel tracts and materials such as a 14-day “Landing Bolts” devotional guide — all geared toward skateboarders.
“The skateboarding culture is a very dark one that is very against Christianity and, really, faith at all,” Steincamp said. “So Christian skateboarders feel very burdened to take a stand for their faith in the skateboarding culture.”
Steincamp, 28, said he’s been a skateboarder most of his life. And since all of his friends are skateboarders, he said, it was natural to want to share the gospel with them.
In 1988, John Barnard was an eighth-grade skateboarder who weaved in and out of the teens playing basketball outside a Baptist church in his hometown of Houston.
Then church leaders invited him to skate inside the church gym, and the acceptance he felt changed his whole outlook on life, he said. He began going to church events, became part of the congregation and started dating a minister’s daughter, Mandi, whom he married.
He went on to become a minister himself.
More than 30 years later, Barnard serves as executive director of Waco, Texas-based Middleman Skateboard Ministries. After serving for 19 years as a Baptist youth minister, he now works with a team of mentors who go to skateparks across the nation and engage with teens, handing out free skateboards, T-shirts and Bibles with skateboard graphics on the front.
Barnard’s goal: to introduce skaters accustomed to being treated as outcasts to a misfit named Jesus.
“I can tell them, ‘You know what? Christ was a rebel,’” he said. “He went against what so many religious leaders were saying back then.’”
Here in Tulsa, each skater pays $3 per week to cover expenses, such as hiring crews to set up the ramps and equipment in the gym. That process takes an hour before and after each week’s session. Skateboarders — or their parents — also must sign liability waiver forms upon entering the building.
“For the longest time, we never had a place to go and skateboard,” said Jeff Hutto, who was 12 when he first came to Skatechurch and remains a regular.
Now a 33-year-old financial adviser who trades his suit and tie for shorts, checkered shoes and a Misfits brand skateboard on Sunday afternoons, Hutto said he tries to serve as a positive role model for the younger skaters.
“It’s a good place for kids to come. Parents know when they drop them off that they’ll be safe and taken care of,” he said. “They get to participate in the Bible study, which is a good thing for them. And they’ve got people like Brant that they can talk to about whatever.”
Another regular, Brandon Morrow, 28, said Skatechurch has helped make him a better person.
“I love the Bible study,” he said. “It always hits the notes that I need.”
On a recent Sunday, only a handful of the 40-plus skaters came into the game room for the Bible study. Recalling his own skepticism as a teen, Lozano said he has no complaints about that.
Nobody skates while he’s teaching, but the Bible study is entirely optional. Anybody is welcome to come and skate, he said, so long as they wait until the praying and discussion of Scriptures are finished.
“The whole thing about this is to introduce kids to Christ and church,” said Lozano, a mechanical engineering graduate who works during the week for a company that makes natural gas compressors. “For some of these guys, this is the only building they step in as a church.
“For me, that’s kind of a big win,” he added. “If they feel comfortable enough to walk through those doors and hang out for a while, I feel like I’m doing all right.”