The new associate music director at Aldersgate United Methodist Church has some big ideas for the future – and a past even he calls crazy.
Mike Walter, 28, is helping start a new contemporary-style worship experience that he and church leaders hope will hook the tough-to-catch millennial generation.
He’s the right age, for sure, and with tattoos and long hair streaming down his back, he looks every inch the urban hipster. His background includes being a local pastor’s son who has followed in his father’s ordained footsteps.
But Walter’s past also includes something else – playing in a shock/horror/punk rock band.
Just a couple of years ago, Walter was known in some circles as Lamentor, the toothy lead guitarist for the band Grave Robber. Members of the band wore skeleton masks and zombie-like costumes. Some of their outdoor gigs featured "blood cannons" – actually a couple of antique pump-style fire extinguishers filled with a goopy liquid made with corn syrup and dyed red with food coloring.
"They were these old metal fire extinguishers, and they were heavy," Walter recalls. A couple of friends would lug them onstage, and, in a 21st-century version of an altar call, audience members would come forward to get sprayed as the band played songs with lyrics about being washed in the blood of the Lamb.
That’s born-again-Christian-speak for the experience of being saved.
"Grave Robber actually was a Christian band, but it was very strange," Walter says. "For most church people, I think they thought we were demonic. But we were really just kind of goofy."
Indeed, Walter says, the band started around 2005 when some ministry students were joking about how gory Christian terminology sounded. Rising from the dead – were Christians survivors of some zombie apocalypse? Eating flesh and drinking blood during Holy Communion? Were they vampires – or cannibals?
Band members dreamed up some suitably horrific songs and started playing gigs at secular venues, Walter says. But, being really into God and Jesus, after all, they soon came to see the band as a ministry to a sizable subculture of unsaved young people.
Then, Grave Robber was signed by a Christian recording label, linked up with Christian concert promoters – and took off.
"We sort of became the face of Christian Goth culture for a while," Walter says, recalling that the band toured nationally and even internationally. Concertgoers would approach band members after shows and pour their hearts out, he says.
"It was never my subculture," says Walter, whose father is Ron Walter, senior pastor of Colony Heights Church of Christ. "But as crazy as it was, and as goofy as it was, a lot of people came to Christ."
Walter stopped touring with Grave Robber in 2013, though it still exists, led by local pastor Shawn Browning. After Walter got married to Vicci, a musician he had met at a Grave Robber concert, it got too difficult being on the road, he says.
At the time, he was trying to break into church work and getting back from gigs at 6 a.m. on Sundays wasn’t exactly conducive to building his budding career, he says.
But, Walter adds, being in the band taught him a lot about how he wanted to approach music ministry – designing nontraditional total-immersion worship experiences.
At Aldersgate, he’s getting that chance. Walter is now working with pastors Derek Weber and Christopher Millay and music director Chris Scott to develop what they call Genesis gatherings that take place at 11 a.m. Sundays.
The gatherings take place in an informal, non-sanctuary setting, with sofas and chairs instead of pews. There’s special lighting and a big screen with videos and pictures. Rituals, such as Holy Communion, change from time to time, and each gathering is united by a theme and conceptualized as a journey to a spiritual destination.
Music, Walter says, is a mix of everything from old-fashioned hymns to contemporary Christian songs played by a band composed of guitars, drums, piano and occasionally a dulcimer or two. Walter says he arranges much of the music himself, "scoring" each service as a film might be.
His wife plays bass guitar and sings with the worship group, and its drummer is one of Walter’s students who still occasionally plays with Grave Robber.
"What I’m doing at Aldersgate is nowhere as insane as what I used to do" (in Grave Robber), says Walter, who now has an undergraduate degree in music performance from IPFW and master’s degrees in ethnomusicology and worship from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.
He’s also ordained in the Disciples of Christ denomination and teaches guitar students and worship music as an adjunct professor at Manchester and Huntington universities.
Church leaders say the Genesis gatherings have gained followers since their formal launch in November. Although the age of people in Aldersgate’s 400-member congregation probably averages about 60, Millay says, Genesis has been attracting between 65 and 145 people, with attendance usually hovering around 90.
"We’ve had some older folks from our congregation come, and younger people and some younger people that we’ve never seen before. So yes, it’s been meeting the goals," Millay says. "People seem to like it."
And as for Lamentor? Cry not for him, Walter says. "He’s been retired."