God at the Pub – A Case Study in Fresh Expressions
On Monday nights in Toronto’s Bloor West Village, the Yellow Griffin Pub’s upstairs room hosts “God at the Pub”. A ministry of Runnymede Community Church for seven years, “God at the Pub” is the result of the church leadership’s fervent prayer and missional impulse to lower the “barriers to entry” posed by their traditional church building. By bringing the Alpha course, and a homegrown curriculum called “Jesus Who?” to this non-traditional environment, the church and its pastor, Mike Wilkins, hoped to share the gospel with the unchurched in their community. Has it worked? Is this a fresh expression of church, of evangelism, or something else?
All the textbook prerequisites for reaching the unchurched seem to be present. A welcoming, neutral venue, good food and community, and accessible, biblical content that presents the great news of Jesus Christ. On opening night in September, there were 18 participants, 2 leaders, 3 visiting pastors (guilty as charged) and 1 bartender in attendance. Drink orders were taken immediately, nametags distributed, and participants struggled in their first small group exercise, deciding among the pub’s vast selection of burgers. The first night is free, but the $150 course fee, payable if you decide to stay for the ten week session, covers all the food and drink expenses. Yes, people are paying and committing up front to learn about Jesus, and to enjoy some great food and drink!
After rushing to eat, Mike stood at the front of the room under a small projector screen to introduce the course. “Jesus Who?” is an exploration of Jesus’ identity, what Mike described to me as a “Pre-Alpha” course, to introduce the “who” of salvation history before the theology of salvation covered in Alpha. It’s designed to connect with those who are open to Jesus, but have little interest in organized religion. The course begins with some of the most universally accepted ideas about Jesus, as a teacher, rabbi, guru, friend and revolutionary, before dealing with more challenging aspects, like Jesus as master, Christ, Saviour and Son of God. The first week’s content was shorter than usual, and meant to get people thinking about how Jesus is portrayed in culture and media, and in their own minds. Normally there would be a half hour talk, followed by a half hour of small group discussion, but not the first week.
Instead of small group discussion in the first week, Mike asked each participant to introduce themselves, and tell the group why they’ve come. Person after person introduced themselves, and nearly every person said they attended Runnymede Community Church, or were visiting from another church. Many of them were new members, and could be described as “de-churched” people exploring their faith once again. What was missing, however, was the demographic we could call “unchurched” – those with no past or present involvement in Christian faith and/or the church.
Is “God at the Pub” a fresh expression of church? That is defined as “a form of church for our changing culture, established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church. It will come into being through principles of listening, service, incarnational mission and making disciples. It will have the potential to become a mature expression of church shaped by the gospel and the enduring marks of the church and for its cultural context.”
The first part applies – it was established to reach those who are not yet members of any church. However, those it was intended to reach (the unchurched) are no longer present. Past sessions have included unchurched people, and hopefully future courses will also, but none were present this time. Perhaps we can call “God at the Pub” a fresh expression of evangelism, since it explains the faith to new attendees at the church, and then feeds them back to the established congregation, with no intentional plan for a mature expression of church to arise in this context.
“God at the Pub” is a creative, fun way to teach Christian basics. However, even with the barriers presented by traditional church buildings removed, it appears that there still exist other barriers to entry for the truly unchurched. It’s possible that the content, explaining the identity of Jesus, is still too advanced for the truly unchurched, and that a more general introduction to the “unknown God” of Acts 17 is in order. It’s possible that the icon of Christ used as the course’s logo and on posters turns people off, and they ignore the advertising. Another possibility is that “God at the Pub” has even more barriers to remove to truly reach an unchurched audience. It still relies on participants intentionally coming to a space set apart (the pub’s upstairs room), to commit to any pay for a complete session, and to join an unfamiliar group of people. A truly incarnational approach to pub ministry might arise downstairs, in the pub itself, with Christians sharing the content of “Jesus Who?” one on one, where people truly gather.
The formative journey of fresh expressions describes a movement from loving service to community to discipleship to worship. “God at the Pub” jumps right in with community and discipleship. Loving service exists, but in the form of basic Christian education or discipleship, which likely meets the needs of those consciously wishing to explore Christianity. They are tapping into the needs of church members, those on the fringes of church, but not the dechurched (those with a history of Christian faith, but who have drifted away) or even unchurched (those with no such history). This reinforces the importance of “listening” to and knowing our communities before responding with any form of church, fresh or not, and that this listening must continue throughout the life of the ministry, as the community’s needs change and the church adapts its response.
My congratulations go to Runnymede Community Church, Mike Wilkins and God at the Pub. This is a creative and fun extension of the church’s ministry, and has reached countless unchurched and dechurched people for Christ in the last seven years, and continues to engage and disciple newchurch members. As with every church, their challenge is to keep the gospel and the principles of incarnational ministry before them, and to constantly proclaim the gospel afresh in a rapidly changing world. “God at the Pub” is lightweight and nimble enough that I won’t be at all surprised to hear how God uses and adapts it transform lives for many years to come.
Link: This article from the local community paper from the same evening.