“I believe God invented music” she said to me over the music, and shrugged almost apologetically. “I’m here to dance and enjoy it.” Her previous words floated like soap bubbles in the atmosphere around us, delicate and strange against the backdrop of rising techno. I tried to grasp at them, stammering as I realised I was repeating myself. “You’re a Christian?” She nodded patiently again and casually surveyed the dance floor, smiling slightly as the beat dropped and the floor jumped beneath ecstatic feet. I scrambled amongst the alcohol fumes for an insightful, clever reply and found nothing. Instead, I looked bewilderingly around the nightclub, a space I knew well; dark and fractious, a stained and crumbling palace layered in sweat and pheromones, sticky with eau de parfum and caked rum. Shattered lives bounced to transient euphoria and everyone looked vacant and alone; anxiously searching for the next good time amidst the sonic tumult. My new friend took a sip from her water as I turned to speak to her again. “But what….” I stumbled, suddenly wanting to tell her everything and simultaneously fighting the urge to disappear out the fire escape. “But what is a Christian like you….” I drew back and with a desperate flourish, pointed at the writhing dance floor, “…doing here?”
It’s a question that I’ve heard frequently in the years since this encounter; wrapped in the same disbelief and doubt accompanied by quizzical and curious eyes trying to understand. It’s a question I’ve heard from other Christians too, reframed and echoing in church halls immeasurably removed from the club contexts in question. Why would you want to go to these places? It’s a legitimate query. Is God really interested in nightclub culture? Is He actually going to bother with a community consumed with hedonism, sensuality, hubris and vice; openly indifferent to the seemingly archaic values of the Christian church and avid purveyors of an aggressively progressive, liberal New Age approach to spirituality? Many assume not. I’m not so sure.
My role as a DJ Ministry Coordinator at Third Space Ministries is grounded in defence of this scepticism and fuelled by my own incontrovertible experience to the contrary. My lone conversation on the dance-floor of a club resulted in an admittedly slow, yet deeply transformational and painful journey back to faith. Unbeknownst to the stranger on the dance-floor that night, she was talking to a very lost and hurting prodigal son, ashamed and disgusted with himself; someone who knew the truth of Jesus and had chosen the path of least resistance only to discover that all the fun and pleasure that the World had promised came laden with vast and merciless reams of savage small print and a crippling APR scheme.
Corridors of drugs and alcohol were beginning to narrow and darken around me; guilt and disappointment were scratching on the doors of my nightmares, waking me up in cold sweats of panic and oppression. And it was in the midst of this broken rebellion that Jesus showed up, alive and peaceful in the life of the girl in front of me. She didn’t realise it, but in that moment I understood: no matter how far I ran, how bad it became and how much I tried to forget about God, He hadn’t forgotten me. He was still there, in the most unlikely of places. So potent was this moment of grace that sobriety uncomfortably descended and I realised, just for a fleeting second of emotion, how much I desperately wanted what she had. As the party raged around me, I heard His heart, camouflaged in a language I didn’t yet fully understand; a small and irresistible call in the turmoil of my absconsion. Time to come home, He said.
I’m always fascinated to read about Jesus choosing to associate amongst the apparently humbler contexts of the societal strata. His own band of disciples were rough talking fishermen, tax collectors and zealots. He pronounced forgiveness upon sex workers (Luke 7.50), invited himself to dine with the crooked and devious (Luke 19.5), had compassion for the aimless crowds (Matthew 9.36) and confronted the possessed and broken (Luke 8.29). He didn’t avoid the dirt and the grime, the uncomfortable and the crowded, the noisy and the clamorous. He controversially and beautifully declared that “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners…” (Mark 2.17) Would Jesus have gone to a nightclub? Would He, to the great offence of those around Him, have nevertheless positioned Himself amongst the hurting, the searching, the needy; unfazed by the smoke and mirrors of offensively loud music and bright lights literally hiding a multitude of sins? I completely believe He would be there. In fact, I think He would probably have been the last to leave.
And despite all my convictions, I’m still amazed that when we do dare to go, God does indeed emerge from the sidelines, as He did for me all those years ago. Only recently I watched with astonishment at an outdoor event at which I was DJ’ing as God opened conversation after conversation, specifically on this occasion with men ravaged by the fallout of lockdown. Divorce, trauma, abuse, substance misuse, gambling, it spilled out in flurries of pain and covert tears through trembling cigarettes and eyes avoiding direct contact. I was suddenly required to listen, provide hope, offer gentle encouragement as God colours began to bloom between the disco beats and empty wasp filled pint glasses. I prayed for a man in the car park as he wept and hugged me, his atheism temporarily parked at the tiniest promise of breakthrough. A strange favour shaped the atmosphere; the music I played and the manner in which I performed seemed to touch people and sparked questions and discussion. Everyone somehow seemed to know I was a Christian and worked as a chaplain before I’d said a word to them. The fact that I was a DJ too didn’t seem in the least bit incongruous to anyone. At one point, I practically had a queue of people wanting to talk. None of it had anything to do with me at all. All I really did was pray and go.
Of course, it is not for everyone. No one is pretending the darkness isn’t real in these spaces. As a chaplain, I walk alongside DJ’s and creatives who are often at the sharp end of this scene, facing the temptations and the ramifications of a culture founded on financial strongholds and occult persuasions. This is not an arena for lone rangers and missional mavericks. Rather it is best approached prayerfully and respectfully with the support of a committed, accountable community.
And yet, as challenging as the environment threatens to be, my own testimony reminds me that it is a demographic that the church cannot ignore. Whether we choose to confront it or not, the fact remains that a huge percentage of young adults have found their church amongst the lasers and smoke. It is where they find community, it is where they go to worship, it is where they find joy, it is where they experience transcendental moments. All of it may be counterfeit, chemically enhanced and corrupt but that does not negate its spiritual legitimacy in the hearts of those who go.
Simultaneously, it is an experience that naturally comes with a high price tag and little reward. It does not satisfy but merely offers momentary gratification before evaporating in an oily memory, leaving a snail trail of shame and disappointment in its wake. Mental health statistics are staggeringly poor amongst the DJ’s whose careers are built in the club culture. We have a generation of young clubbers at breaking point with body image insecurities and social media fuelled lifestyle pressures. It is in this vacuum of disillusionment that the Kingdom of God appears as a desperately beautiful alternative. New Age doctrine, as twisted as it may be, nevertheless means more and more individuals are quite prepared to consider and discuss the spiritual realms. Crucially, they have also discovered the painful limitations of these pseudo faith deviations. Make no mistake, people are hungry. They just don’t know what to eat.
So as debate continues to rage about the future of post-covid nightlife and the community tentatively dances on a knife edge of uncertainty, I believe we have an opportunity to present the glorious alternative of God’s great dance floor to a group of people who are constantly searching. Maybe, like me, one simple conversation, barely audible over the madness of an all out rave, could change a life, end an exile, offer a moment of grace to step back into the arms of our Father, already running to meet us in the darkness of the nightclub, clutching a VIP pass for unashamed access to the greatest, purest party in existence. I know He did it for me. And He’ll do it again.