HERMANN — Three times a week, about 10 youths bust ollies, kickflip impossibles and perform other oddly-named skateboarding tricks in a once-abandoned former schoolhouse that has been turned into an unconventional Christian outreach.
The youths do 180s and soar from ramps but spend most of their time falling down; yet they always get up and continue playing. Those who aren’t skating run through the school shooting Nerf guns at one another or play ball tag or basketball.
Robert and Sandi Flaaskog who began the Christian outreach, called Damascus Road and 180, organize the activities. Sandi watches and applauds when the kids perform tricks, while Robert participates in skating and shooting Nerf guns.
The Flaaskogs bought the school in September 2006 as part of a business, not knowing that they would create a ministry in this community of about 2,700.
The Flaaskogs began Glory Homes in November 2005 with the intent of building “green” houses and buying and refurbishing homes in Hermann, which is about 65 miles southeast of Columbia. When they bought the former schoolhouse, the couple noticed almost immediately that it had a window broken, Sandi said. When they went inside the building, they noticed skid marks all over the school’s floors.
Robert, who skateboarded when he was a teenager, recognized the marks. He knew immediately that skateboarders had found a way inside the school.
The couple decided to leave a sign in the school’s window. The sign instructed skaters to call the Flaaskogs if they still wanted to skate at the school. In late October of 2006, the couple received a call from two of the skaters. The youths used fake names because they thought the Flaaskogs were setting up a sting with the cops, Sandi said.
They weren’t. They had decided to open a skate park for the youths because they knew the skaters were running into trouble with police in their attempts to find a legal place to skate. The Flaaskogs were also concerned about the skateboarders’ spiritual lives. They knew many of the youths weren’t going to church and felt a responsibility to tell them about God.
The Flaaskogs open the school Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday afternoons for skating, but on Sunday, the youth attend a worship service at 10:30 a.m. After a 30-minute interactive service, the youths are allowed to go skate while the adults, who number between seven and 10, continue to worship.
“If I’m a Christian and a bitch then they’re not going to want to be a Christian,” Sandi said. “If you have someone who accepts you, and you have Jesus, then they think it’s good to be a Christian.”
The idea of reaching youths by using unconventional methods is called “marketplace ministry.” Its aim is to communicate the word of God outside of Sunday church services.
Authors John Garfield and Harold Eberle wrote a book in 2004 about marketplace ministry called “Releasing Kings for Ministry in the Marketplace.” The book is about bringing one’s personal faith into “education, the arts, commerce, entertainment, journalism, military, etc.,” in a community in order to help others follow God. The aim is to help people create a “life focus.”
The idea of ministering outside of the church goes back at least as far as the 1930s in the United States. Seeing a need during the Depression for a “spiritual revival,” the Christian Business Men’s Committee started in Chicago, the organization’s Web page said. The international organization says its purpose is to show that effective strategies “can be adapted in differing national environments to successfully present the gospel to non-Christians.”
The Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship International, which began in 1951, is another example of a marketplace ministry. “The backbone of the fellowship is its men — men who have a vision inspired by God to reach out beyond their personal lives — to help others find the reality of the spirit-filled walk with Christ,” the Web site said.
Garfield said Damascus Road and 180, with its emphasis on teaching spiritual lessons through skateboarding, is an excellent example of marketplace ministry.
“Marketplace ministry is communicating the message of God to others, and this is done by our example, not preaching, which our culture is turned off by,” Garfield said. “Most of the language in a church setting is about ‘obeying’ God and that we are sinners. It’s a little incomplete. It misses the positive side, that loving God is fun.”
That lesson about love is what Sandi and Robert Flaaskog are hoping to emphasize. They want Damascus Road and 180 to be a place for Hermann’s skateboarding youth to learn about Jesus.
Damascus Road and 180 gets its name from a biblical story about the apostle Paul who met Jesus while walking on the road to Damascus. Paul converted to Christianity on the road and made a 180-degree turn in his life.
On a skateboard, a “180” is trick where the rider makes a 180-degree turn in the air and continues riding after landing on the ground.
Together, Damascus Road and 180 is a metaphor for the Flaaskog’s goals for this new place of worship. Along with helping to shape the spiritual lives of local youths, the ministries helped an old high school make a transition from disuse. Quarter-pipes and grinding-rails now cover the gymnasium, while Christian rock music blares through the Flaaskogs’ iPod.
They want to make Damascus Road fun by appealing to the skaters at a personal level. Rather than preach from a pulpit, they listen to and analyze Christian rock music with the youths at the Sunday service.
“Basically we’re using the genre (of rock music and skateboarding) to get them here,” Robert said.
Each Sunday the Flaaskogs choose three Christian rock songs by a single band — but with different themes — and analyze the lyrics. The first song is usually about a person in despair without God; the next is about seeking God; and the third song tells of the person’s salvation and joy found through believing in God.
“The Christian music isn’t my thing, but at least they’re letting us listen to rock,” said Emily Manzi, a youth who attends Damascus Road.
Sandi and Robert said they think the kids are probably coming to the services so that they can skate afterwards and hang out with their friends.
But in these moments, the Flaaskogs believe they can convey a sense of God’s love to them, so that in future time, the kids will want more.
“We want to be a friend to them and show them God, so that hopefully one day, they’ll become believers,” Robert said.