SPRINGFIELD, Ill. | God never told the world to go to church. He told the church to go to the world.
That's the idea behind Bar Church. Organizers say it's a place where people can meet up for worship, socialize and grab a pint at the same time — without judgment.
More than 60 people came out to Bar Church's launch party and worship service Jan. 8 at Stella Blue, 221 S. Fifth St., for live music, drinks and free food.
Worshipping in an active bar that serves alcohol — aka BarChurchSpringfield.com — is an idea started locally by Brandon Damm, 26, a member of iWorshipCenter and a licensed minister through Five Fold International Ministries.
"Jesus was a lover of people and went into the world," Damm said. "That's kind of our mission with Bar Church. It's to go where the people are, to go where people are comfortable."
Turns out, a lot of people feel more comfortable in a bar.
While opening a church in a bar may sound a bit unorthodox, the result, Damm hopes, is not inebriated churchgoers, but rather a weekly get-together focused on spreading God's word.
"Alcohol itself is not really to entice people to come. Mixed with American traditionalism and traditional religion, alcohol has been made out to be all bad. It's just a social gathering point," he said. "Even though 'bar' is in the title and a bar is the location, it's not the pivotal point of what we're trying to do."
So why a bar?
Jesus, Damm said, gathered with sinners, too.
"Maybe you grew up in a church that was really dominant and demanding and portrayed God as this judgmental God with a hammer that's going to lay the smackdown on you," he told Wednesday night's crowd. "That's not the God I know. The guy I know hung out with prostitutes. The guy I know hung out with tax collectors. The guy I know hung out with people that drank."
As Damm's pastor at iWorship, Eric Hansen, who's also founder of Five Fold International Ministries, said he helped Damm in the early stages, but Bar Church is now Damm's project.
"(Damm) came to me a couple of months ago and said he wanted to do something in a bar," Hansen said. "(iWorshipCenter is) very forward thinking, so that didn't catch us off guard at all."
Hansen said he initially received some "push-back" from religious friends about opening a church in a bar, according to an open letter posted on iWorshipCenter's blog dated Dec. 12.
"They think that I'm promoting drunkenness and debauchery," Hansen wrote. "They think that because I host recovery/sobriety programs at the church I pastor that having a Gospel meeting in a bar is somehow incongruent. Nonsense."
Asked by The State Journal-Register to respond to criticism he's received about his leading of sobriety classes while promoting Bar Church, Hansen said he's not promoting drunkenness.
"I can be pro-healing, and not pro-hospital. I can be for sharing the love that comes through Jesus without saying everyone should go out and get smashed," he said. "I can be pro-hospital, which doesn't make me pro-sickness."
A new audience
Damm said a fresh approach to worshiping is needed at a time when mainstream religious congregations continue to dwindle across the country. He believes a younger generation of churchgoers, also known as millennials — people born in the early 1980s through the 2000s — continue to see the church as too old-fashioned or perhaps too political.
"I think the church has been putting this wall between themselves and the rest of civilization. That's not the way I believe it should be," he said. "Mainstream media in general has a negative perception about Christianity with the whole gay debate. ... We're trying to portray an image that is more Christ-like."
Damm said he recognizes not everyone will be on board with the idea of mixing alcohol with church-going. Since the Bar Church's Facebook page launched in October, Damm said he has received "hate mail" via the social networking site.
Beyond the church's critics, however, is the support he's received, Damm said.
On Wednesday, Brock Webb, 38, of Springfield, a congregant of Hansen's iWorshipCenter, said he and his friends came to Stella Blue in support of Damm's idea.
It's a great way to reach people who wouldn't otherwise feel comfortable in a traditional church setting, Webb said.
"A lot of people have stereotypes for church. This blows the stereotypes away," Webb said. "I always had that stereotype, and I never had a desire to go to church until iWorship. Bar Church is a neat idea."
Joshua Cole, 31, another iWorshipCenter member from Springfield, said Bar Church is something he never thought he'd see in central Illinois.
Bar Church plans to host gatherings at Stella Blue each Wednesday night, with inspirational messages, food, drinks and a rotation of live bands and DJs.
People can even buy Bar Church merchandise, including shirts, bottle openers and beer koozies.