Atlanta -- When he drops to his knees at night, when it's just him and God in the quiet before sleep, Jamie Charles "Jay" Bakker refers to Him as "Dad." It just feels right. Far more personal than, say, "Lord" or "Our Father who art in heaven...."
"Seems to make sense," he says, then shrugs. "I mean that's who He is, you know."
This intimacy defines the gospel according to Mr. Bakker, whose informal theology and non-denominational Revolution church is as much about matchmaking as ministry. "I want you to fall in looove with Jesus," he stresses to a dimly lit room crowded with 32 rapt listeners, many of whom resemble Mr. Bakker - dark clothing, multiple tattoos, pierced ears and lips and eyebrows.
"I want you to have an intimate relationship with Jesus, to know Jesus on a personal level ... to feel the illogical, unconditional love that Jesus Christ offers all of us."
Preaching from the upstairs floor of a two-story brownstone here, in the shadow of downtown high-rises, two blocks from a strip joint, is the only son of Jim and Tammy Faye, charismatic leaders of the now-defunct PTL (Praise the Lord) television ministry - he of the slight build and round cherub face; she of the long eyelashes and bouffant hair.
But Jay Bakker's seven-month-old ministry is vastly different from the pew-and-pulpit church of his youth. This is coffeehouse evangelism, a casual introduction to God that Bakker attempts to yoke to salvation. Seed planting, he calls it.
"God will meet these kids wherever they are at in life," says Mr. Bakker, who at 23 is a shade younger than many of his charges. "If they will just accept God's love, embrace it, it will change them from the inside. It is the message for the lost."
MTV called Mr. Bakker this fall for an interview. So did Nightline, Dateline and the Today show, Newsweek and Time magazines. When a former prince of conservative Christianity re-emerges in the public eye looking like a punk rocker and preaching a hip brand of gospel to a motley flock, "it's a sizzling story," says Bakker family spokesman David Brokaw, unintentionally selling the story while deflecting interview requests. "He just wants to be left alone with his work."
Yet, in an effort to reach his ministry's target ("punks, travelers, skins, goth, homosexuals, ravers, homeless, straightedge, etc.," says a Revolution flier), Mr. Bakker agreed to an interview with Rolling Stone magazine. The Sept. 16 story stirred attention in the general media with this gem gleaned from the last paragraph: "I dropped out of high school. I can barely write. I'm white trash. I wear leather bracelets and tattoos. But God has given me a gift - to relate to people and see the common sense of the Bible."
Versions of the quote showed up in newspapers from Los Angeles to Detroit to London. Seeing this, Mr. Bakker cringed. "Everyone is printing that I can't write, but they don't say why. They don't say that I'm dyslexic."
Reading from Galatians during a Bible study in October, he makes no effort to hide the genetic flaw that frequently causes letters and numbers to appear flip-flopped: "But when Peter came to, to ... OK, help me here."
"Antioch," someone hollers.
"Thank you. See, I would've said Ant-chio"
Unlike Jim Bakker, who has divorced, remarried and begun a new ministry in Charlotte, N.C., Jay Bakker typically dodges attention. During his father's fall from grace, reporters cast the first stones: Jim Bakker admitted to an extramarital tryst with church secretary Jessica Hahn only after The Charlotte Observer reported it in 1987; two years later he was convicted on 24 counts of fraud for bilking PTL supporters of $158 million.
The night after Jim Bakker was sentenced to federal prison (45 years, later reduced on appeals to 41/2), his choirboy 13-year-old son began drinking alcohol.
For nearly a year, Jay and older sister Tammy Sue, now married with two children and helping with her father's ministry, watched in horror as late-night talk shows and TV comics jabbed shticks at their wounds. "This family was literally destroyed ... and everyone was laughing," says Mr. Brokaw, a Los Angeles-based spokesman hired by Jim Bakker following Mr. Bakker's release from prison in 1994.
The first time Jay spent an entire day alone with his dad was only after his father was incarcerated, recalls Jim Bakker in his 1996 tell-all I Was Wrong . By then Jay was 15 and drinking excessively, taking LSD, smoking marijuana and running with skateboarders and punk rockers.
Even after graduating from a Bible school in Arizona and starting the Phoenix branch of Revolution in 1994 with classmate Mike Wall, Jay was drinking heavily. He moved to Atlanta in 1996 where he met his wife, Amanda Moses, and moved in with a childhood friend, the Rev. Donnie Earl Paulk, who has an outreach ministry similar to his.
Mr. Paulk, 26, also the son of a preacher, would sit with Mr. Bakker in nightclubs while Mr. Bakker got drunk. He'd listen but never criticize. Today, Mr. Bakker credits Mr. Paulk with having the greatest influence on his spiritual development.
"He taught me that God's love is unconditional," recalls Mr. Bakker, who felt so guilty about his drinking that he once believed God hated him. "If sins could keep us out of heaven, no one would go to heaven. What God wants from us is a relationship."
Right now the prodigal son of the PTL is sipping orange-carrot juice and reading from the New Testament, holding his Bible under the ominous green glare of a lone lamp. Others at his weekly Bible study drink soda, juice or bottled water, though from their comments it appears many are acquainted with a stronger brew.
"For when I tried to keep the law, I realized I could never earn God's approval. So I died to the law so that I might live for God," Mr. Bakker says, reading from Galatians, then looking up to expound.
"You see, we can never earn our way into heaven. If you believe you can earn salvation then you are saying Jesus died in vain. We are all going to sin, every one of us; it is in our nature. ... That is why Jesus died on the cross for us, for you, for our sins."
The mood is carefully manipulated: low lights, lava lamp, bean bag chairs, hand-me-down couches, heavy-metal rock posters, black and red Revolution banner with skull and crossbones. "It just seems cool," explains Mr. Bakker, who is wearing baggy dress slacks with a chain attached to his wallet and belt loop, dark T-shirt, canvas Converse shoes, long sideburns. The look of the nonconformist.
There's something about Mr. Bakker that draws an unlikely crowd to the Bible - his relative fame, benevolent message, life experience, something. The cavernous room at the Mount Paran Safehouse, a mall of inner-city social services that doubles as his church, is full. Word-of-mouth keeps it this way every Tuesday for his Bible study, even on this night when gusts send a cold rain horizontal.
Professional body piercer Justin Green, 29, a heavily tattooed Revolution regular who told the room, "I love God totally, but I still want to drink," is most comfortable here. So are his friends.
"Instead of a (conventional) church, this is the place I bring people from the (tattoo) parlor who are going to church for the first time," he says. "This isn't as intimidating for them. ... It's a beginning."