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That might have been Bethke's intent, but his lyrics sound a lot like a fight against organized religion. His fans on YouTube--on which he has more than 130,000 subscribers--might be surprised to learn that Bethke likes church. He attends a Seattle megachurch called Mars Hill and strives to practice what it preaches. Raised by a single mother in a rough part of Tacoma, he drank, smoked pot and had sex in college, where he also played baseball. "I would wear the cross around my neck and pray before games, but I was living two different lives," he says. It wasn't until his girlfriend dumped him and he was kicked off the baseball team for being on academic probation that he says he developed what he calls a personal relationship with Jesus.
Now this cool prodigal son goes regularly to a church that features rock music and preachers in skinny jeans. Bethke is adopting some of the techniques the Internet-savvy Mars Hill uses to attract young members, and he is repackaging the words of big-name pastors in an art form that appeals to disaffected youth.
Because of his YouTube videos, Bethke is fielding book deals and job offers, traveling the country on a speaking tour and selling JESUS RELIGION T-shirts. He has taken a leave from his day job (running an after-school sports program) but still lives in Tacoma with nine other guys and sleeps in a bunk bed underneath his best friend, who is now his manager.
He says that while his fan base continues to grow, his challenge is to keep the focus on Jesus. "We are so quick to elevate anyone, to latch onto something to believe in other than God," says Bethke. "I want to leverage my platform to say, Don't latch onto me--latch onto him." His newfound celebrity might make that more difficult than he bargained for.