THE NEON lights on the disc jockey's turntable flickered yellow, red and green across the spacious nightclub. The deafening music pounded the eardrums of people milling around the dance floor and tables.
At the club entrance, owner Lemont Mears quickly scanned the few names scrawled on a sign-in sheet before disappearing behind a pair of swinging doors.
Moments later, he re-emerged with several Styrofoam cups and handed them to a group of elderly women wearing large, flower-rimmed hats. The women, along with their companions - men of a mature age wearing three-piece striped suits and flashy watches - absently sipped their drinks as they bobbed their heads in time to the music.
It was the start to another night at Club Destiny, one of the few Christian nightclubs in Philadelphia.
Christian nightclubs - the very name raises eyebrows - are dismissed as an oxymoron by some churchgoers. But fun-loving Christians see them as an alcohol-free alternative of faith-based entertainment.
Clubs with a pious nature began taking root in the '90s, at first in the South but also in New York and even across the pond in London.
In Philadelphia, a few have sprouted in recent years, although Mears, who co-founded Club Destiny in Southwest Philly almost two years ago, wasn't sure how many are still around.
His goal was to promote gospel music. "We wanted to create a platform in Philly for gospel music on a steady basis," he said.
A gospel recording artist, Mears billed his Saturday night events as "praise parties," targeting Christians in Philly who were struggling to find wholesome social gatherings.
"I wanted to do something with religion and not compromise religion," he said.
At the club on Lindbergh Boulevard near 66th Street, clubgoers sip nonalcoholic drinks called "Pearly Gates Pina Colada," "First Lady Fizzle," "Power Packin' Preacher Punch" and "Missionary Margarita" as they dance the "sanctified electric slide" and the "gospel cha-cha" to Christian rap and reggae. Most of the music is recorded, but he sometimes books live artists, like Grammy-nominated singer Tracy Shy, who sang at the club during a recent event, and Christian comic Chris Clark.
Disc jockey Bruce Johnson ("DJ Praze") is a regular fixture at the club.
Parties at Club Destiny are held two Saturdays a month and on some holidays. The average cover charge is $10.
Families attend the praise parties, but so do Christian singles scoping out potential dates, Mears said.
Some say Christian nightclubsare an inevitable step in the Christian social scene, an outgrowth of the more common coffeehouses and gospel cafes.
Keith S. Goodman, pastor of North Philadelphia Seventh-day Adventist Church on 16th and Oxford streets, said that entrepreneurs have noticed the burgeoning Christian retail market - the Christian Booksellers Association says nearly $3 billion a year is spent on faith-based items - and seek to capitalize on it.
"There's a market selling to Christians, creating the services for Christians - sometimes for the good, sometimes not-so-good," he said. "Not everything targeting believers are of a positive source."
There are religious leaders who worry that the line between secular and faith-based entertainment is becoming dangerously blurred.
Goodman expressed concern over what he believes is the church bending to secular culture."The general purpose of a club is to hook up," he said. "The club scene is an anti-Christian lifestyle."
But Kathy Christian, the executive director of the Tennessee-based club The Fire Escape, defends the get-togethers as nothing more than a "safe haven" for believers.
Established in 1996, The Fire Escape, in Kingsport, Tenn., which targets teens and young adults, was one of the first Christian nightclubs in the United States. Initially run by a Methodist church as a community outreach program, it became independent last year, she said.
"Those who come in would come into the love of Jesus," she said in a recent phone interview.
Even this well-established club struggles to stay afloat, Christian said, and it's open only on weekends. Twelve years ago, a typical night would find 150 people packed into the club, but now they consider it a blessing if they can attract 85, she said.
She said "stubborn churchgoing saints" who refuse to change with the times, have the wrong idea about the club's purpose. Her mission, she said, is to enhance, not diminish, the role of the church.
"Some churches think we're trying to take the kids away," she said, "but [we] hand them off to local churches.
"Attendees are encouraged to spend intimate time with the Lord," she said. "We're just evangelistic in nature, we want to bring kids into the kingdom of Christ." *