Churches Are Thinking Outside the Box to Reach New Members; Some Are Having Church in a Bar

New Brookland Tavern is as different on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings as, well, night and day.

Once a month, the gritty West Columbia venue known for its metal and punk bands transforms from a Saturday night house of rock to a Sunday morning house of worship.

With ears still ringing from late-night jams, late-morning brunch-goers pass by the open bar door while, inside, a few dozen people ranging from kids to senior citizens sip coffee and play pool before gathering in front of the band stage for worship singing, prayer and preaching.

When people hear about having church in a bar, “Everybody just goes, ‘What?’” said Jody Ratcliffe, pastor of the 2-year-old Church at West Vista. “And then they think and go, ‘Wait a minute, that’s really cool. … Our model meets the needs of folks who have ever been hurt in the past and they just don’t want to go to church ever again.”

At a time when traditional Protestant churches are losing thousands of members each year and dozens of them are closing their doors across South Carolina, some churches like West Vista are meeting in unconventional places and taking new tacks to continue their age-old mission: to reach people with the Christian gospel.

Come to Jesus — in a tavern

Ratcliffe had been a Southern Baptist preacher who sensed a desperate need for change in the church he led. But by the time he drew up his ideas for what he’d like to see change, Ratcliffe realized he was dreaming of a whole new church.

“The traditional church has the mentality that everyone knows we’re here, and if we just open our doors, people will come if they want,” he said. “Millennials don’t value legacy. … A lot of our older churches, they’ve been relying on legacy for decades.”

Once a month, the church meets at West Columbia’s New Brookland Tavern to worship together. The rest of the month, members meet in smaller groups in several homes across Columbia and Lexington County.

When it’s in house-church mode, a dozen or so West Vista congregants share a meal together at someone’s home and study and discuss Bible-based teaching and life application.

When it’s in bar-church mode, several dozen members gather at New Brookland and sing along with a small band, hear Ratcliffe preach a message and spend time mingling in the bar.

The house/bar church is a place “for people who have had negative religious experiences who are looking for a place to search and explore and doubt,” Ratcliffe said.

“No one gets lost in the crowd, and during the week, we’re able to keep up with one another as needs arise,” Ratcliffe said. “There’s room for lots of different sizes of churches and kinds of churches. There’s room for everybody.”

Since it began meeting once a month at New Brookland this spring, the church hasn’t yet seen much of a bump in attendance from people walking in off the street, Ratcliffe said. Its growth model continues to rely on building relationships with people the members already have connections with — friends, neighbors, coworkers, family members.

“What we fail to realize sometimes is that God has placed us where he wants us already,” Ratcliffe said. “There’s a lot of people in our circles that don’t know who Jesus is and don’t attend church. … We tend to overlook these folks, maybe, and go after the masses.”

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Source: the State