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Can millennial pastor Nick Hall bridge the generational divide among evangelical Christians?

Nick Hall at Pulse Twin Cities at U.S. Bank Stadium this May

Nick Hall at Pulse Twin Cities at U.S. Bank Stadium this May courtesy of PULSE

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.

courtesy of PULSE

courtesy of PULSE

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.

Nick Hall at Together in Washington, D.C. in 2016

Nick Hall at Together in Washington, D.C. in 2016

“They’re frustrated with the guilt by association that is happening right now,” he continues. “I think there is a large feeling that we are taking a short-term ‘win,’ which isn’t even a win, for a very long-term loss. There is so much baggage that we are accumulating right now.”

Still, Hall is cautiously hopeful. “This has been festering under the surface for so long,” he says. “You hate to say anything good comes from things that are awful. But every time there is an act of injustice it forces a conversation about justice.”

Hall has been having these conversations about justice with evangelicals for the past 10 years. He first made a name for himself speaking to 5,000 of his fellow students in 2006 at North Dakota State University. Two years later 7,000 young people came to his talk at the Bismark Civic Center, which began with a prayer from the Republican governor and first lady, John and Mikey Hoeven. Hall’s nonprofit, Pulse, opened a national office in Minneapolis in 2010; its revenue neared $10 million in 2016, almost entirely from direct donations.

Hall’s work has also earned him a seat on the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents 45,000 churches—that’s the evangelical equivalent of being on the NBA Board of Directors. “It’s not something I lead with—‘evangelical’ has a very negative connotation,” Hall admits before adding quickly, as though anticipating the next question, “but there are people on that board who aren’t Republican at all.”

Hall’s rise to prominence has coincided with a shift in values among younger evangelicals. While still more conservative than their peers, they’re much less so than their parents. For instance, a Pew Research study showed 47 percent of Generation X/millennial evangelicals now favor gay marriage, compared with 26 percent of their elders.

“Diversity is a huge value for millennials and Gen Z,” Hall has noticed. “Abortion is a big issue for younger people but it isn’t a central issue.”

And that’s had an effect on partisan identification. “I don’t think there are many millennials who think, ‘How can you be a Democrat and a Christian?’” Hall says. “People have a lot of friends on different sides of the aisle.”

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Hall smiles whenever he talks about connecting people, a topic he’s clearly more comfortable discussing than the specific causes that divide them. “Obama’s chief of staff coming to NAE meetings, Melinda Gates talking about women’s issues, issues of World Relief, advocacy of refugees—those are the good things happening,” he says.

But in 2016, the year of Hall’s greatest success to date, he also discovered how hard some divisions can be to overcome.

As the 2016 presidential election approached, American evangelicalism was gearing up for a war along generational lines. Its most prominent conservative leaders—including Jerry Falwell Jr., the 56-year-old president of Liberty University; and Franklin Graham, evangelical legend Billy Graham’s 66-year-old son—had rallied around Trump and Pence. But Hall, along with many of his generation, was increasingly uncomfortable with the evangelical embrace of the Republican candidates. “None of these [NAE] leaders were thinking, ‘This is my guy,’” he recalls.

Hall decided to throw another big event. But rather than endorsing either candidate, he characteristically decided to seek middle ground. He planned Together, an event at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. that would encourage evangelicals to get past traditional partisan divides.

The plan struck a note with his generation. Hall enlisted a racially diverse team of evangelical leaders from Francis Chan to Rev. Samuel Rodriguez. A diverse slate of musical performances was scheduled, including Lecrae and singer Michael W. Smith. A thousand churches from across the country agreed to send young people to the rally.

And Hall invited both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

“We wanted to have both candidates on stage together in 2016, and our proposition was that neither would speak but that we would pray for them,” Hall explains. “We didn’t want people having microphones saying who knows what.”

The Together rally was a success, with approximately 300,000 evangelicals, most of them young, pouring in from across the country. They gathered to sing, to hear a diverse array of speakers ask them to get beyond party politics, to pray for unity and civility, and to pledge to work for justice in America. Even Pope Francis sent a video of support.

Some of the figures onstage were much more explicit than Hall in their political stances. Lecrae rapped about being black in America: “It’s hard to dream when your water ain’t clean,” Lecrae rapped; evangelist Lou Engle led the crowd in a call for God to “break racism.” “They shut it down five hours early because they didn’t believe so many young people where coming and we blew their infrastructure to serve a crowd that big,” Hall says with a smile.

But not everything went according to plan. While Trump had agreed to come, Clinton, a life-long Methodist, refused the invitation.

“Trump and the right side wanted to be there and we couldn’t get Hillary’s party to be there,” Hall says. “But we were not going to have one side without the other.” So Hall did something so few evangelicals were willing to do: He uninvited Trump.

Some divides, it seems, were just too wide to bridge.

After Together, Hall returned to Minnesota to find another challenge waiting. The community was reeling from the police killing of Philando Castile. Again, Hall sought to bring people together, working with Pastor Steve Daniels from Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in St. Paul and suburban white ministers.

“We tried to be a convener, to have some of the black churches in the Twin Cities meet with some of the white suburban churches,” he says. “We had a couple forums. Hearing a black pastor going for a walk with this wife, with his hoodie up, and having four cop cars pull up on him in Apple Valley—hearing stories like that gives everyone more empathy and understanding.”

When asked if he attended any of the Castile protests, Hall pauses. “There are people who feel called to be on the front lines confronting things,” he says at last, choosing his words carefully. “And then there are people who are helping people get meetings with people who they couldn’t—a neutral convener around a neutral table.”

Hall continues, speaking with more conviction. “You can’t be neutral on everything. Racism is wrong.” Then his tone changes. “But I have family members who are in the police force and I want to remain in my family. I think there are complex things, if I am rallying with people it’s a slippery slope of becoming guilty by association.”

“Jesus was guilty by association.” I reply, unable to hide the frustration in my voice. “Jesus was arrested and killed for protesting.” Hall doesn’t get mad or indignant, or talk about how much more he had to lose. He just listens.

At moments like this, Hall reminds me of the church kids I’d grown up with: polite, kind, warm... and very guarded. The tension between his desire to remain “in the family,” whether among his own blood relatives or the larger national evangelical family, is palpable, and it defined so many of the people I knew from evangelicalism. They’re caught between the conviction to stand against injustice and the desire to remain connected to their more conservative family and religious communities, between their desire to be able to show up for their friends of color and still be welcome at their own family Thanksgiving dinner table and church on Sunday.

But many evangelicals of color think Nick Hall and his brand of bridge-building white evangelicals are playing it far too safe. “I need white evangelical leaders to be honest from the stage.” says Brandi Miller, a black writer for HuffPost and campus pastor at the University of Oregon. “I need them to explicitly say that Trump does not embody evangelical Christian values. They need to stop pretending to be neutral. I am tired of white people worrying about alienating other white people’s feelings, when people of color are being alienated in reality by unjust policies.”

Hall sees such demands to choose sides as interfering with his goal to start conversations that will build relationships inside and outside of evangelicalism. “The challenge is to put skin on the other side of the issues—pro-Trump, against Trump, pro-life, pro-LGBTQ issues,” he says. “Do you know anybody? Do you have a friend? Stop talking about immigration or Muslims. There are so many issues because people don’t have relationships.”

Hall’s methods are destined to frustrate those to his left and to his right, but he insists that his tricky tightrope walk is necessary. “There is an undercurrent that wants to see hope and love, the best things that people see in Jesus. And there is a movement that wants to see those things manifest,” he says with a smile. “And that will result in more discussions of justice and reconciliation and a better way of how we disagree. You can lower the bar for partnership. You don’t have to agree on everything to work together.”

He says with the conviction of someone who really believes it. And at least one hundred thousand evangelicals who agree with him will descend on Texas Motor Speedway later this month.