By Eddie Pipkin

I have a good friend, a ministry friend, who has a dream of opening what he calls “ChurchBar.”  In his vision it would be an operational bar during regular business hours and a co-shared space for worship and ministry, as well as a safe place for people exploring faith to gather at any time.  It’s a kooky, quirky hipster-faith-feeling premise that has actually been around for a while (and we’re not talking here about former churches that have died out and been converted to drinking and eating spaces – we’re talking more along the lines of a hyper-version of the “pub theology” movement.

Pub theology exists to provide a non-threatening venue for people to gather, ask deep questions, express themselves and build relationships.   As the article from The Wisdom Daily at the above link explains,

Interestingly, these contemporary pub churches haven’t used beer to induce religious experience, but rather, as a way to attract people. Meeting in bars over beer (some groups set two-drink limits), they create an alternative physical and psychological space to institutional religion with its pastors, pews, sermons and traditional prayers. Those who might not feel comfortable walking into a formal place of worship may find it easier to walk into a bar.

The groups who organize these gatherings stress the part where all are welcome.  An additional quote within the article reproduces the welcome message from a pub theology group in Boston:

Welcome to The Pub Church! We are a church in a pub and the Spirit is with us. In this place, feel free to move about, help yourself to food and drink, and express yourself openly! We come together with a variety of thoughts, stories, talents, hopes, and hurts; All we bring is welcome. We pray that in coming together with all our differences and with Spirit, we participate in a new divine reality. This is sacred space.”

You can feel free to comment to your heart’s content (in the comments section) about the genius or folly of such groups, although if it’s a topic of interest to you, I would recommend linking to Bryan Berghoef’s defense of the practice against those who argue it’s a waste of time.  My point in this blog is not so much to explore the philosophy and logistics of pub groups as to encourage us to think about what they might teach us about our own more traditional worship and ministry environments.

Their focus very clearly is on creating a welcoming space in which people can be free to be who they are without the weight of expectations that is frequently associated with our worship spaces.

  • How can we make our spaces less intimidating? What aspects of our lobbies and narthexes, our signage and bulletin boards, our worship seating and setting might make people feel less than welcome?  What could we change that would communicate very clearly just how welcome they are?
  • How can we create more options for people to engage with us in ways that make sense for them? The pub groups share a common interest to draw people in (beer), but it is the rise of craft beer and its hundreds of varieties that has made the premise possible.  When people show up at our worship services to learn more about the life of faith, do we then shoehorn them into one mode of expression or do we offer options?  Are we employing all of their senses in worship?  Are we utilizing different styles of learning?  Are we giving them a chance to interact (or are we forcing them to interact, even if that’s not their thing)?
  • How can we communicate that people are free to be themselves? What words can we say that make them comfortable at whatever stage they are on their spiritual journey?  Whatever their religious history, ethnic background, educational or income level?  What words should we avoid that inadvertently communicate the opposite?
  • How can we truthfully live out the statements we communicate? Beyond the “welcome and be yourself” words we print in newsletters and on websites and speak in our gatherings, what actions do we initiate that clearly communicate we mean what we say.  Who shares in worship leadership?  What voices are represented?  In what ways do we clearly show that we embrace “spiritual beginners” or even “doubters”?

My inspiration for this blog was not even the idea of pub groups.  It was a bartender I met on St. Patrick’s Day.  She was such a professional, so invested in doing her job well, that I had a sudden epiphany about the parallels between worship hospitality and bartending – I wanted to sign her up to lead hospitality seminars for churches!

Here name was Ericka, and she salvaged a bad start to my pub experience.  My wife and I had gone out for an early lunch of shepherd’s pie and corned beef and cabbage at the local Irish pub, thinking we would beat the crazy St. Pat’s Day crowd.  When we got there, they had completely reconfigured the place for the anticipated crowds, and the lady I encountered when I went over to inquire about some food and drinks was a total sourpuss.  The menu was also different for the day, but all these modified logistics caused confusion, and she treated me like the confusion was my fault and my presence was a bother (turned out she was a friend of the owner who was just helping out) – it reminded me, unfortunately, of a couple of recent church visits.

But I fought the urge to leave (because I really, really wanted that corned beef and cabbage) and persevered in placing the order.  And when the food came out, it was brought over by an energetic, youthful serving of sunshine.  She was wonderful.  She began with an apology, explained the chaos of the day, chatted us up, and asked repeatedly if there was anything she could do to make our meal more awesome.  When she walked away – our visit transformed – I said to my wife, “Ericka is a professional bartender.”  And it turned out she was!  She was a pro, not a volunteer, and every word she spoke, everything about her demeanor communicated that she was a master of her vocation.

Well-trained, highly motivated, clearly-focused, and experienced, she demonstrated the skill set that would be the dream of any hospitality team leader.  Here are some of the things that good bartenders can teach us as we struggle to deliver effective hospitality:

  • They know how to engage people. They look you right in the eye and make you feel valued.  They make you feel glad you’ve come in.  They ask good questions.  They’re interested in your story.
  • They know the appropriate amount of engagement, and they respond to you accordingly. They have a strong sense for whether you need a lot of attention or would rather be left to yourself.  This is a valuable skill that would translate well to worship hospitality (and it’s tricky).  Some people really want to be engaged in conversation at length.  Others, having been acknowledged and offered assistance, would much rather keep to themselves, quietly.  It is equally as disappointing to a guest who wants to chat if you ignore them as to a guest who is shy if you are too aggressive.
  • They are attentive to the needs of their guests. Not only do they enthusiastically do everything they can to meet those needs with an extra touch of enthusiasm, but they often anticipate those needs and make interesting suggestions.  (Imagine a hospitality team member who, knowing the quirky air conditioning of a worship space, asks guests if they want to be in the cooler spot or warmer seating for worship!).
  • They are proud of their territory. They love the place they work and the community it represents.  They can give you insights into the local culture, and they’re happy to do so.  They can give you tips on the neighborhood and the history of the place.
  • They are specialists who take pride in knowing their craft. This is for many people the number one attribute of a good bartender – that they know their stuff.  But there are two parallels to hospitality worth noting.  First, they know their craft because they have studied and practiced it, and our hospitality teams should be well-trained enough to understand the importance of their work and how to do it well.  Secondly, as a bartender has an encyclopedic knowledge of spirits and ways to mix them, there should always be at least one person on your hospitality crew who knows your ministry inside and out and can answer people’s questions as well as connect them in meaningful ways.  A welcome center with a person standing there with nothing to offer but a smile – no knowledge of programs or people or the layout of the facility – is like a bartender who has run out of scotch (just sayin’).

That’s plenty to chew on friends, so belly up to the bar of commentary after drinking your fill of ideas and throw in your own two cents worth.  We love to hear your thoughts.  If I can get a pro bartender to come do a hospitality training for your team, would you be up for it?