From Last Call to My Call

February 1st, 2011
This article is featured in the Holy Conversation (Feb/Mar/Apr 2011) issue of Circuit Rider

After more than ten years of on-and-off bartending, I made the leap and accepted my call to ordained ministry. From the time it was suggested to the time the Bishop placed her hands on my head took about thirteen years. I can be a slow mover.

What I first thought was a sure liability turned out to be a huge asset. When I was talking to people “over the wood,” I got to hear what was really on their mind . . . including the subjects of religion, church, and God. Now that “Rev.” is part of my title, I am shocked by how different what I am hearing now is from what I heard when I was pouring drinks. I often wonder how open and honest people are now that they are speaking to me as a pastor. It is hard to get an honest response from people about how they think the church is doing when you are between services or leading a class. Inside the church is not the place to be if we want to hear the truth about how we are doing. This means one thing; we need to get outside the church.

The church has always praised the brave souls who go to a foreign land and serve as missionaries. These are amazing people who do extraordinary things. Many times there is tremendous training that goes on prior to the trip. Many hours are spent learning the customs, language, habits, and culture of a foreign land and its people. It is holy work.

I was recently amazed by the statistic that there are roughly 300 million people in the United States and 200 million of them don’t go to church on Sunday. This made me wonder, how many missionaries are we preparing to go to foreign lands when here on our own continent, two-thirds of the people we see on the street don’t go to church? Are we sending missionaries out to faraway lands but missing the opportunities within our own borders to talk about God and faith?

If there is one place we will find a huge concentration of people, it is in our nation’s bars, pubs, taverns, and drinking establishments. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2006 (most recent year with data available), 75% of adults age 18 and over in the United States had used alcohol at some point in their lives. 61% were current drinkers, meaning that 14% were former drinkers who had made the decision to stop using alcohol. The remaining 25% of the population were lifelong abstainers. This says to me there are a lot of people who, on a given Friday or Saturday night, might very possibly be out on the town, having a few drinks and starting up conversations with the person next to them at the bar. Are you part of that conversation?

There are few places in the world where it is easier to talk to strangers than sitting next to them in a bar. Barstools have the tendency to make strangers into friends. Bartenders, coaxed out over time, will engage in conversation across a wide range of topics, including God. Believe it or not, I have had many a conversation about religion standing behind a bar. Honest conversations. Hard conversations.

With this in mind, here are a few dos and don’ts to think about when and if you decide to do ministry at the bar.

Do your homework. If one is going to go into this environment, like going into a mission field in a foreign country, it helps to learn the local language, customs, and habits of those whom we are paying a visit. We should be able to compliment someone on their ink, ask them if they think Jack White is overrated, and order a PBR with a Jamies back and understand that whole conversation.

Do be polite. In the same way that we sample the local cuisine when we go to a faraway land, especially if it was offered to us, we need to do the same when we enter our local watering hole. While drinking isn’t for everyone and in no way am I suggesting drinking to excess for anyone, if a drink is offered, accept it out of courtesy. This will break down walls and barriers to those with whom you are talking faster than anything. The United Methodist Book of Discipline gives guidelines for drinking and says: with regard to those who choose to consume alcoholic beverages, judicious use with deliberate and intentional restraint, using Scripture as a guide.

Don’t try to save them. I usually wait until I have ordered a drink to start talking. Almost 90% of the time someone will ask, What do you do? This is a theological entry point. Just by saying you are clergy, with a drink in front of you no less, you have broken down stereotypes that have existed for years. In the conversation I also mention that I was a bartender for years. They almost always ask how I made the leap and suddenly I’m giving my call story. Let me be clear, the point of the dialogue is NOT to convert anyone. The people who spend any time at all in bars have a pretty strong bull detector. If they think the reason for the conversation is to save them, they will run for the exits. This is not about sales. It’s about learning about other people’s needs and quite possibly making new friends.

Don’t be freaked out by rough language or rough topics. Speaking of conversations, understand that on occasion, the dialogue might be a bit more raw than what you hear during fellowship time. Suck it up. If they see you cringe when they drop a few swear words or taboo topics, they will probably stop the conversation in its tracks. They will perceive you to be judging them (are you?) and that will be the end of that dialogue. Someone holier than us came and said that he did not come to judge the world. That is good advice for us doing this sort of ministry. In fact, that is good advice when we do ANY kind of ministry. Judgment from the church is probably what drove them out of it in the first place. I’ve sat in bars and heard stories of arrests, abortions, sleeping around, and DUIs. Our love is what they need, not our judgment.

This type of ministry is not for everyone. If you are in recovery, the temptation may simply be too great. Although the fact that you are in recovery, AND a minister, would speak volumes to the people you talk to and very likely open up some amazing conversations. If the very idea of walking into a bar and ordering a drink makes you cringe, this might not be your cup of tea. If that’s the case, you should probably stick to the tea and do the same type of ministry at the local diner. Everything I mention here would apply there as well.

For the past three Christmas Eves, two other clergy and I have gone to a local neighborhood bar to do a service at last call. We start after last call around 2:00 a.m. and invite anyone who wants to, to stick around and enjoy the service. We tell the Christmas story, have communion, and sing “Silent Night.” It is amazing how many people stay and experience Christmas Eve that way.

What’s even more amazing is how many confessions we hear right after the service. So often we think people don’t go to church because they are mad at the church, and some of them are, but more often, they think the church is mad at them. What we hear more than anything else is that I’m not worthy. They think church is for perfect people. Not for them.  

There is so much misinformation about religion floating around bars and pubs. That misinformation could very likely be keeping people away from getting to know God and Jesus better. The author Marcus Borg has a great line when he is talking to people who say they are atheists. He says: Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in that God either.

If we are going to engage in outside-the-box thinking, we need to start going out into a world other than our own. Jesus never said, If you need me, I’ll be in the temple. Much like Jesus, we have a tremendous opportunity to engage people where they are and, quite possibly, to help pave the way for people to enter into a stronger relationship with God. There are spirit-filled conversations (insert joke here) that the world is waiting to have with us. We might be amazed at where we find church and holy conversations.

Based on the company that Jesus kept during his short time here on earth, I am certain that if Jesus were with us today, his steps would lead him to the corner bar.

Let’s follow in his footsteps.

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