Spring Breakers, Snowbirds, and Barflies All Worship at the Water

October 8th, 2012
This article is featured in the Outreach 2013 (Nov/Dec/Jan 2012-13) issue of Circuit Rider
Worship under the tent.

When speaking to locals about the outreach worship service meeting in our Gulf Coast community’s world-renowned bar, the Flora-Bama, it becomes evident that things are not the way they used to be. Shocked laughter, anger, and outbursts of disbelief are some common responses we receive when someone reads our T-shirt, “My Church is @ the Flora-Bama,” or hears the invitation to join us for worship.

Deep within people’s memory banks of lived experience, they really want to believe that God is present—even in the bar of their past or present—but they never imagined a worship service would be there. The perplexity on their faces speaks volumes about what God continues to do when we move beyond the structures of main campus programs and show up where we know God has always been.

One of our leaders on the visioning team for the service, an outreach of Pensacola’s Perdido Bay United Methodist Church, commented, “We have been here since 1995. There is something wrong with this island when there are eleven places to drink and nowhere to go for worship.”

I am certain his frustration was shared by many of the permanent residents on the island, as well as those who frequent the pristine beaches during their vacation times. Many of our locals want a place to come as they are and worship God without being disqualified by the messiness of their lives. The tourists and snow birds want a place conducive to their laid-back schedules, which usually have an hour on Sunday designated for worship, if the service is close enough and convenient. Both of these groups are drawn in. The place we are being called to worship is known for providing a safe space where everyone is welcome without having to meet any qualifications. Now, under a tent in a world-renowned beachside bar, they can worship God and have a drink.

Over the Fourth of July weekend we celebrated our one-year anniversary. From January 2012 to the present we have averaged over four hundred in worship each Sunday, with our largest attendance being Easter morning when over eleven hundred children of God gathered together to proclaim, “Christ Is Risen!” The compilation of each person’s story of how and why they ended up joining with us to worship our risen Lord is being logged in a database in the hopes of putting it into a book one day. Our daily prayer is that we don’t mess this up, and regardless of how long we are here, everything we do will be a visible sign to the broken world as we “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way [fulfill] the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). If and when we are faithful in fulfilling the law of Christ, the numbers simply fade away into eternal relationships sharing this life together as we battle addictions, broken families, wounded faith and financial woes.

Reggie McNeal, in his engaging book Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard of the Church, identifies three shifts required for churches to go missional. Each of the shifts require a new scorecard beyond the typical counting how many, how often and how much, but the new scorecards must be embodied if we are to “join the missional renaissance.” The first shift he wants us to embark on is the transition “from internal to external in terms of ministry focus.” Most of the churches I have served, including the military chapel context, tend to focus solely on life together within the boundaries of a physical campus or building. When this is a foundational practice of the church, by default we claim the typical scorecard as our litmus test for success.

What continues to be life-giving about our outreach service is the support of our family who makes up Perdido Bay United Methodist. As the dissenting voices come forth, their response is consumed by grace. They struggle to understand why anyone on earth would have a problem with the service. From the founding moment forward they were organic and missional before those terms were even popular. When the entire church claims their identity as those who must fulfill the Great Commission, they know this means beginning a thrift store or after-school program or even worshipping in a bar. They will go!

I was blessed to receive an assignment to be a shepherd among a specialized group of Army soldiers and their families in Okinawa, Japan. From the outset a group of us got together and began to lift up those within our ranks who we thought God would use us to help bring about conversion. I intended to spend as much time as possible with the young man God led me to. Every deployment, all the adventures and extra-curricular events provided us the much-needed male bonding space. After two years of building this relationship, he never came to chapel or attended a local church service. Not once did he join us for a Bible study or prayer group. A couple of months ago, he came to Pensacola for two weeks of training. He had heard about the Flora-Bama and asked if it would be alright to join us for worship. As the service started, the family of faith joined with me in thanking him for his service to our nation. Worship continued and our God snuck up on him in a place he believed was just another bar. Grace and mercy engulfed him and he received forgiveness and new life. He thought his past was too dark and that what he had done disqualified him from a relationship with God. Using the cover of a bar, the Creator of the universe reminded him otherwise.

How might you reach out to the not-your-typical-church crowd? What would it look like to show up where the broken and messy folks hang out? Where is that within your community? A roadside bar or tourist trap? Are there one or two within your church who would be willing to go there with you? Our experience has led us to believe that if we are faithful in joining with God out there in the transforming and redemptive work already in process, we are in the right place. Our prayers will continue to be fervent for you and yours as you answer this call to go and be among them.

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