Salvation by the Glass
There are three reasons why many people don't go to church: The sermons are often dull, the music's usually antique, and you can't drink beer there. But Church at the Bar atones for all these sins.
For the past six months, Church at the Bar -- presented by the local renegade Christian group Connected Life (www.connectedlife.us) -- has been meeting at an Arvada nightclub, the D Note, on the last Tuesday of the month, when it offers up libations and salvation. "We wanted a place where people would feel more comfortable," says Matt Honeycutt, a founder of Church at the Bar, who greets worshipers with a pint of beer in his left hand.
On a table just inside the entrance to the D Note, there's more proof that this is an unusual night of worship. Keychain bottle openers are emblazoned with the words "Come Join the Party," and a Church at the Bar handbill features a 1794 William Blake poem that crystallizes the group's philosophy. "The church is cold, but the ale-house is healthy and pleasant and warm," Blake's "The Little Vagabond" reads. "But if at the church they would give us some ale...we'd sing and we'd pray all the live-long day, nor ever once wish from the church to stray."
As Honeycutt greets visitors, the church band, Phantom Handshake, takes the stage. The young musicians look like members of an MTV-ready rock band, all baggy pants, T-shirts and crooked baseball caps. They warm up the fifty or so folks gathered here with some amplified Christian rock, while the God-loving lyrics of the band's songs flash on a pair of giant screens flanking the stage.
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Mike Shepherd, leader of the group, then takes the stage and welcomes everyone to Church at the Bar. His mention of the church's title elicits a collective hoot from the largely twenty- and thirty-something audience, which includes a number of stylishly dressed, attractive women (a good draw for both bar crowds and church congregations, apparently). About half the parishioners are enjoying beers or cocktails, while others sip soft drinks. A few children sit with their parents.
Shepherd's a handsome fellow who sports a Western-style plaid shirt, a beard and a close-cropped '50s-style haircut. His gaze is captivating, and so are the opening points of his address: "If you farted for six years straight," he says, "you'd release the energy of an atomic bomb." That gets the congregation's attention, as does a tidbit about a pig's orgasm lasting thirty minutes. "These are things you'll only learn here at Church at the Bar," he notes.
Next up is Trevor Bron, the night's guest speaker, who admits he's never delivered a sermon in a bar before. "The more you drink, the better I get," he says, borrowing the joke of many a bar musician. "Me, I drink a little beer and then I fall asleep, which makes it exactly like church." The crowd chuckles.
Bron's sermon on finding your identity, on determining the handle that God intends for each one in his flock, is short and sweet, peppered with good humor, references to The Bourne Identity and quotes from the Bible. "Your identity only becomes a crisis if you don't have a real one," he says.
This rocks. For the first time, I'm at a church having fun and a glass of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I'm getting a stirring, to-the-point message and rock and roll -- without a word about why I'll go to hell for dancing, drinking or voting Democrat. In my mind, I can see the pastor at the Baptist church where I found salvation, all the while wondering why Christianity's namesake drank but my folks could not; the pastor's face is blood red. And I can see Jesus tilting back a glass of wine, smiling down from on high.
For Shepherd, holding church in a bar makes perfect sense. "That's where believers are more likely to go," he says, "if they're disconnected with God and the traditional church, but still have a tugging in their heart for something more." Such people need to know that "there's more to life than this life," he adds. "There's more to life than eat, drink and be merry and then you die."
Shepherd had been worshiping at a progressive church that lost its appeal last year; after that, he and a few fellow Christians began meeting at each other's homes. In August, they moved that meeting to the D Note, which typically books live acts whose music ranges from indie rock and blues to salsa and bluegrass. "It's a different sort of expression," says Adam DeGraff, who owns the bar with his family. Church at the Bar rents the room once a month, and its attendees make for a good night of bar business. The religious group's "subversiveness" is appealing, DeGraff adds, and matches his establishment's policy of being "open and accepting of all belief systems."
Shepherd can trace his belief systems back to the Southern Baptist church, where he was ordained as a minister seventeen years ago. But his new congregation rebels against Southern Baptist thinking and is part a growing group of Christians who are tired of the finger-pointing and facades at some churches. "We don't wear any masks," he says. "One thing about this generation is they're tired of BS. And they call it when they see it."
And they order alcohol when they see it. Shepherd says he asked area churches to partner with Connected Life but found no takers because the group likes to make alcohol part of the service -- and not just during communion, either. "We knew going in we were doing some pretty radical things," he admits.
That "radical" thinking involves a wholehearted embrace of the practices of Jesus, from forgiveness to fun. "In a lot of churches," Shepherd says, "you make mistakes and you're done. No one's 'done' in our church. If you read the gospels, people said, 'Jesus must be a drunkard and glutton, because all he does is hang out with people who drink. He is always at a party.' And he was. We've heard people tell us, 'You're at the bar just to justify your drinking.' We're not there for that; we're not about having some drunkfest."
In fact, he says, the D Note is a wholesome, family-run place that doesn't tolerate excessive drinking or hell-raising. Shepherd knows a lot of Christians abhor alcohol -- "In excess, like a lot of things, it can destroy you," he acknowledges -- but he also recognizes that a bar is sometimes the best place to reach out to an alcoholic. "People say to us, 'You've got some drunks in there, some DUIs.' Well, sure, that's where I want them. Because I believe God can penetrate their hearts and reach them. I want the drunkard, the struggler. Whatever your vice is, bring it. And let's engage. It's okay to say, 'I struggle with this.'"
For the rest of the congregation, going to an alehouse of worship has other benefits. "A bar is a place where a lot of people go to get away from the troubles of life," Shepherd says. "I've had some of the greatest spiritual conversations of my life in bars. 'Truth serum' helps sometimes. And there are a number of people who come here that have never darkened the door of a church."
Of course, serving spirits along with the Holy Spirit is a good way to reach a broader audience thirsty for more than cocktails. "There are a lot of bars in town," Shepherd admits.
Phantom Handshake plugs back in and closes the service with a few more Christian rockers. When those are done, members of the congregation stand and mingle with guests; some head for the restroom. A few minutes later, the band returns to the stage, this time for a set of secular music for the bar's regulars. The first song: "Back in Black."
"Having alcohol here helps people break the stereotypes," says church member Pax Magnon as AC/DC's anthem fills the bar. "It's not so much about beer; it's about meeting people where they are. There's a large population that will come to hear about Christ at a bar, but they wouldn't go to Sunday service at a church."
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