A church meeting in a building it does not own is not really a new concept. For the first 300 years of its existence, it met in people’s homes. It is likely that during those early years, people gathered in the name of Jesus to worship God in other places in the communities where they lived, including public squares and business establishments. It’s been a while since The Journey, an emergent-type congregation with multiple locations, made news with its Theology at the Bottleworks, a mid-week Bible study meeting in a suburban St. Louis brewery. But then, that’s in St. Louis, the home of Budweiser. The above article references a church called The Well, which meets in a bar in Billings, Montana. It may be the kind of news related to the church that we need to get used to hearing. Taking the church out of a building, and into the community seems to be more than just a trend. It seems to be an effective way of reaching people with the message of Christ’s redemption.
Traditional church has developed such a distinctive culture in and of itself to which many people simply cannot relate. The end result is that the number of people we call “unchurched” in our culture continues to grow, and churches have largely been ineffective in their efforts to win them to Christ. Those who have been raised in this culture have very little understanding of the reasons and the underlying causes of churchlessness among those who do not relate to life involving attendance and participation in an institution that mainly gathers on Sundays. Even our megachurches, whose success we worship and attempt to imitate, have done little more than just gather the already sanctified into larger groups in one place.
Even for those of us who understand the culture, the church experience might not be all that it can be. Though we claim to be governed by the Bible as the authoritative word of God, as a child I was able to see inconsistencies in that claim and the the approach to ministry taken by the church in which I was raised. Many of its prohibitions and rules seemed to be arbitrary, rather than grounded in the scripture, and explanations were rarely forthcoming. Traditions and practices of the church were defended by the statement that “Jesus never changes.” No, he certainly does not, but the church, if it is to be the body of Christ on earth, must be in a constant state of change in order to remain relevant and to have a platform from which to preach its message.
Take the passages in the New Testament which talk about Jesus going to the homes of tax collectors and other assorted “sinners.” Matthew and Zacchaeus would have never come to know Jesus had he limited his appearances to sacred space. Likewise, the image of a church meeting in a bar might horrify some believers, but think of how many people will be exposed to the gospel who would never hear it otherwise. The culture of strict prohibition related to the consumption of alcohol which is practiced by some Christians is just that, a culture that has developed around someone’s interpretation of appropriate church behavior not necessarily grounded in scripture. The excessive consumption of alcohol, resulting in drunkeness and loss of self control, is prohibited by scripture, but in the churches that hold Bible studies and worship services in breweries and bars, there does not appear to be either excessive consumption or drunkeness. Rather, there appears to be boldness of witness and much curiosity on the part of those who are there, and didn’t expect to find a church in the room with them.
Of course, there will be many Christians who may think they will feel better about themselves and their own faith if they are critical of those who don’t do church the way they do. They will find ways to condemn churches like The Well, even though people are being brought to faith in Christ through ministries like this. I don’t really know what that accomplishes as far as advancing the kingdom goes, though.
It seems that, in spite of our best efforts to keep the church small and narrow, and its message secret, God is moving in mysterious ways and people are finding faith as a result of it.