David Ellefson, bassist for the heavy metal group Megadeth, is studying to become a pastor in the Lutheran Church Missouri-Synod:
Ellefson grew up in the church. Each Sunday, his family drove from their farm in southwest Minnesota to Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, where David attended Sunday school and was confirmed at age 16. His mother sang in the choir. His father was active on the building committee.
Just a few years after his confirmation at Our Savior’s, in the summer of 1983, Ellefson moved to Los Angeles. Within a week of arriving, he had formed a band and named it Megadeth for the unit of measurement equal to the death of 1 million people by nuclear explosion. Soon, he was playing bass on stage in front of thousands of heavy metal fans in New York with other bands like Metallica and Slayer. In 1985, Megadeth released its first album, “Killing Is My Business … And Business Is Good!”
In “The Skull Beneath the Skin,” Ellefson and his bandmates sang:
“Mean and infectious the evil prophets rise
Dance of the Macabre as witches streak the sky
Decadent worship of black magic sorcery
In the womb of the Devil’s Dungeon trapped without a plea”
In the 1980s and 1990s, Megadeth gained a reputation for an intelligent take on heavy metal, earning several Grammy Award nominations, and was known for its album covers, many of which depicted a character named Vic Rattlehead, a skeleton whose eyes, ears and mouth were fused closed with metal.
But by the time Ellefson was 25, the rock star lifestyle had caught up to him. In a 12-step recovery program, he was reintroduced to his faith and embraced it. He moved to Arizona, married and had children. He also began church shopping, eventually landing at Shepherd of the Desert Lutheran Church, a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregation in Scottsdale.
“I came from a good family, not a broken home,” said Ellefson, 47. “That became a model for me, and I saw church at center of it.”
The Rev. Jon Bjorgaard , pastor of Shepherd of the Desert, asked Ellefson to start a contemporary worship service. Ellefson began to use lyrics from the Old Testament as a springboard for songwriting, penning praise music — worship songs with a soft-rock hook.
“For a Christmas service, I remixed some classics, not quite in a Megadeth fashion, but in a pretty heavy rock fashion,” Ellefson said.
Combining his musical abilities and his faith led Ellefson to a deeper exploration of Christianity, he said. And it led him to start a new music ministry within the walls of Shepherd of the Desert.
He called it MEGA Life, partially a play on Megadeth. But it’s also a reference to a verse from the Gospel of John: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
MEGA Life became so popular in Scottsdale that Shepherd of the Desert bought a new space for the ministry.
And last year, Bjorgaard asked Ellefson and MEGA Life director Jeremy DaPena to enroll in Concordia’s Specific Ministry Program.
“Most people want to become a rock star,” Bjorgaard said. “David’s a rock star who wants to become a pastor.”
This has sparked some controversy in the LCMS not because a heavy metal musician is going to become a pastor–Lutherans generally wouldn’t have a problem with such things–but because the route he is taking, an online seminary lite, that qualifies him to serve just in a specific place, is taken by many confessional Lutherans as violating the pastoral office. (If you’ve been ordained, you are ordained and should be able to serve anywhere and should have the thorough seminary training all other pastors have.) Also, some Lutherans who don’t mind heavy metal DO mind contemporary Christian music, and the suspicion is that the future Rev. Ellefson is being trained to go from Megadeth to Megachurch.
STILL, I appreciate the way Ellefson has gone from mega-death to mega-life, through the mercies of Christ, and I pray all blessings on his call to the ministry, adding also a petition that after getting a taste of good theology online that he will take the normal route after all and come to appreciate the greater heaviness of liturgical worship.