Can Young Evangelist Nick Hall Bridge the Generational Divide Among Christians?

Bounding enthusiastically across the stage at U.S. Bank Stadium, Nick Hall could easily be mistaken for one of those young pastors you see popping up around Justin Bieber. The rising evangelical star affects an “urban” voice. He wears a black leather jacket. His jeans are tight and distressed.

And his self-deprecating jokes about being a “white boy from North Dakota” are clearly landing well with the crowd of around 40,000. The black family next to me, Bibles in hands, laugh and nod along.

But if, like me, you were an evangelical kid who spent the ’80s and ’90s being carted by the busload to Christian events, Hall raises some red flags. He looks like the latest incarnation of the “cool” pastors who lured teenagers into stadiums with Christian rock bands—and then indoctrinated them on the need for prayer in public schools, the dangers of teaching evolution, the rise of the gay lifestyle, and, of course, the mass murder of the unborn.

At 35, Hall has been recognized as a leading voice among a new generation of evangelicals. Fox & Friends went so far as to call him “the Billy Graham of the next generation.” And that’s not just hype: Hall and his evangelical organization Pulse, based in northeast Minneapolis, have been drawing stadium crowds across the country. His pre-election “unity rally” in 2016, Together, filled the National Mall in Washington, D.C. with hundreds of thousands of young evangelicals. And this past May, Hall came home to fill U.S. Bank Stadium for a free event dubbed “Pulse Twin Cities.”

The billboards advertising this event had touted its potential for diversity, showing Hall, in a shirt that read “TOGETHER,” next to the black Christian rapper Lecrae in a “STAY WOKE” shirt. Lecrae was a bold choice: His white evangelical listeners had all but abandoned him after he spoke up about racial injustice after Ferguson, and Lecrae in turn had publicly distanced himself from the term “evangelical” after 82 percent of self-identified white evangelical voters went for Trump.

Looking around the stadium, it’s fair to say Pulse Twin Cities has delivered on the stadium’s promise. Around 30 percent of those in attendance are people of color—an impressive number when you consider that evangelicals, like much of the country, are deeply divided by race, and it’s gotten worse since the 2016 election.

As for Hall, he can clearly work a big room. He interviews a crew of Vikings players, including a video of Kirk Cousins. He plays hype man for Lecrae. Finally, it’s time for the pastor, Bible in hand, to begin his sermon. I brace for impact.

But Hall begins with something unexpected: “I want to start by apologizing to anyone who has ever felt judged by anyone calling themselves a Christian.” His short sermon centers on connecting with a loving God. Healing from the scars of self-harm, hatred, and judgmentalism. How Jesus calls people to love your neighbor as yourself. There’s no gay-bashing. No abortion-condemning. No hellfire. “I want you to know that God loves you,” Hall says. “And your life matters.”

Those last three words bring to mind Lecrae’s “STAY WOKE” T-shirt and, of course, Black Lives Matter.

Hall pauses again, and I lean forward, wondering if Nick Hall is about to do something truly remarkable. Maybe this white millennial evangelical is about to explicitly condemn the racism and sexism that plague our country, say the words “black lives matter,” maybe even call out Donald Trump by name.

He doesn’t. Hall’s sermon focuses instead on love, forgiveness, and unity, and the closest he comes to mentioning racism and sexism are vague references to “judgment and hatred.”

Nick Hall may jump and dance with joyous abandon onstage, but he’s considerably more cautious in what he chooses to say than his demeanor suggests. That’s maybe to be expected. Hall leads a movement that tries to address the social justice issues important to many young Christians without alienating their more conservative elders—and that’s a tightrope walk that gets trickier every day.

One hot afternoon, two months after Pulse Twin Cities, Hall sits across from me at a picnic table outside Spyhouse Coffee in northeast Minneapolis, just about a mile from his HQ. He’s close enough that I can see him sweat through his “TOGETHER” T-shirt, and in conversation his hip-hop hypeman voice is gone. He now sounds like an actual white boy from North Dakota.

Hall lives in Maple Grove with his wife and two kids, but he’s hardly embraced suburban isolation. He gets his hair cut at a Muslim-owned barber shop in northeast Minneapolis. “Part of the story of me even going there was confronting a weird sense of fear, and I would equate that to growing up not being around a lot of Muslim people and watching too much 24,” he says, with a racial self-awareness rarely heard from evangelical pastors. “But now every other week I’m in there hanging out with those guys and it’s right next to the mosque in Northeast. And I’m the only white guy I’ve ever seen in there.”

Hall’s barbers even helped him promote Pulse Twin Cities. “For them it was a promotion for their haircuts,” he says. “They were so excited. ‘Our haircuts are on billboards!’”

Hall was born in 1982, the middle child of two stoic Midwestern parents in a small town outside Fargo, North Dakota. Like many white evangelicals raised in such places, Hall grew up in a sheltered, conservative home. “I didn’t have a lot of friends who were liberal or Democrat,” he says. “It was the age of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and it was easy to pigeonhole liberals as more loose on values.”

Hall’s father was a manager at a fire protection agency and his mom stayed at home raising the kids. “My parents were pretty strongly pro-life,” he says. “They would vote according to that. The political spectrum revolved around Roe v. Wade.”

But as with many evangelicals his age, Hall gradually discovered that the world was more complicated than he’d been led to believe. He started attending nearby Oak Grove Lutheran High School, which had a large population of international students. Hall studied alongside Sudanese refugees, teenagers who’d survived the Rwandan genocide, Japanese students who’d lost family at Nagasaki or Hiroshima.

His new friendships expanded the issues Hall cared about, which he describes as “human trafficking, clean water, systems of poverty, racism, issues of privilege. The response of anyone claiming to follow Jesus should be to alleviate suffering,” he states.

Such values had been on display at U.S. Bank Stadium in May. Booths lined the stadium raising support for urban mentoring program the Man Up Club and clean water in the developing world with World Vision. But when asked directly about the role of evangelicals in politics, Hall reverts to generalities. “Millennial evangelicals are frustrated and concerned about politics right now,” Hall says, and while the look on his face suggests he is too, he’s not prepared to be explicit about his political opinions.

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SOURCE: City Pages, Nathan Roberts