Missionary Position

It's a Monday night at North Hills Church in Phoenix, the pulpit has made way for a drum kit and couple of guitars. Young fans crowd around a stage to scream, jump around and yell out lyrics. The walls of the church hall reverberate with the pounding fuzz of simple chord progressions. Moms and dads hang back and gently bob their heads, a few wearing ear plugs, a few pretending not to know the words. The concert simmers down, and bass player Daniel Biro takes a break on stage with the other members of Christian power pop/punk band Hawk Nelson to say a few words about a missionary organization they're supporting. By the end of this concert, a dozen audience members decide to sponsor a child in Africa, and several dozen more go home with T-shirts, CDs and autographs.

It's a scene that perfectly sets up the Christian Band Paradox: promoting the band vs. supporting a cause; glorifying God vs. adoring the spotlight; wholesome image vs. looking hot; playing at arenas vs. packing out church halls.

"When we started, [being a Christian band] wasn't really a big goal," says Biro. "Then we got signed on with Tooth & amp; Nail, and suddenly we were in this whole sub-culture of Christian music. At first, I struggled with the whole 'making money off the name of Jesus.' I thought you could just have your faith, and then have a band."

Biro knows that walking the walk of a Christian band is tricky. First you have to be at peace with the fact that you're a money-making ministry. That's not unlike most ministries -- but while, say, a pastor is fundraising with congregants for a new fellowship hall, you're buying a tour bus with proceeds from your ticket sales. And talking the talk can be even trickier. As soon as you start singing about girls and stop singing about God, get ready to receive a backlash from concerned fans. Just reading through reviews of Nelson's last two albums by amateur critics on Amazon.com, you'll find gems like, "Hawk Nelson is purported to be a Christian band, but I heard nothing in this album that would validate that. Some of the songs are boy-girl love songs," or, "While they are fun, and sometimes deeply meaningful, I'm still disappointed with the lack of God's name in lots of these songs."

Hawk Nelson's music sounds a lot like their influences -- Blink 182, Green Day, MxPx, maybe a couple brief hints of the Ramones -- yet their influence on the "sub-culture" of Christian punk rock isn't quite as pronounced, and they're fine with that. Since their record deal in 2004, Hawk Nelson (not anyone's name in particular, by the way) has sold nearly half a million albums, appeared on an episode of NBC's American Dreams and the Nickelodeon movie Yours, Mine, and Ours, and gained high-profile song placement ("Bring 'em Out") on NFL Sunday Night Football. In 2006, they were voted "Favorite New Artist" by Contemporary Christian Music Magazine (CCM).

After their concert in Phoenix, Biro sits in the band's tour bus heading to Fresno with a large pink homemade sign hanging in the back, colored by an eager preteen, declaring, "Hawk Nelson Is My Friend" (the title of their upcoming album). "I guess we have groupies," he laughs, "but they're pretty harmless. They're just out there showing support. It's not like they're jumping on the bus and trying to sleep with us."

Biro and his band mates understand that the majority of their audience is young and impressionable. They're pretty young themselves. So rather than embed overtly Christian messages in the lyrics, or develop the perfect ratio of "God" mentions per song, they get practical. "It's not so much about being separated from [mainstream] culture," says Biro, "but finding out how we can affect culture."

While touring together last year, Hawk Nelson was inspired by fellow Christian band Audio Adrenaline. "We learned from them that being a band is really what you make of it and what goals you want to accomplish. They got us talking about how we wanted to use our platform [as musicians] to make a difference."

Lead singer Jason Dunn has talked to audiences about suicide, about how Jesus is the answer. Their new album is centered on the theme that we all need a friend, and God is a friend to all. They encourage concertgoers to support the orphanage mission in Haiti founded by their Audio Adrenaline pals, and they have latched onto the major child-sponsorship organization, Compassion International -- a route many Christian bands take in attempt to harness their fame and effect change in the Third World.

"It's all about channeling our fame the right way," says Biro. "We just try to stay humble. Because really, what we're doing is nothing new. In the grand scheme of things, we're pretty insignificant."

Hawk Nelson with Run Kid Run at the Service Station on Sunday, March 16, at 6 pm. $15; $12.50, groups of 10 or more. Visit ticketswest.com or call 325-SEAT