(Photo: The Bridge)
A Michigan church has a very unusual ministry outreach – a tattoo parlor housed in its church building.
The Bridge, a non-denominational church in Flint Twp., Mich., opened a tattoo parlor within its building last month. Titled Serenity Tattoo, church members say it's showing people living an alternative lifestyles an avenue toward the Gospel. It's just one of many unusual ministry efforts that The Bridge's eclectic congregation believes is helping to evolve evangelism in the area.
"There's a huge misunderstanding in the American church today that the church is a building," said Steve Bentley, The Bridge's lead pastor. "It's not a physical location. The church is us. We use our space for whatever we can to serve the Lord and our community."
Bentley said he began The Bridge in 2009 to reach the estimated 300,000 people in his church's Genesee County that have never attended a worship service. Opening a tattoo parlor, he said, is just the latest shape that the original mission of appealing to the unchurched has taken. Other non-traditional outreach efforts The Bridge is involved in include poetry slams, pro wrestling events, mixed martial arts classes and even a motorcycle group.
And The Bridge has plenty of room for experimenting with these unusual ministry efforts, given it occupies one third of an old strip mall, spanning about 33,600 sq. ft. Regardless of the tactic, Bentley said all that matters is leading people to glorify God. Just take tattoos – the pastor said they typically honor rebellion, drugs, pornography and even Satan. But now the church is drawing them for positive purposes instead.
"We're making inroads into this subculture," said Bentley, who had his wedding band tattooed around his ring finger and then got an original design of Jesus holding up a bridge on his back. "Love God, love others, disciple all. We try to make sure everything we do encompasses that."
Ryan Brown, Serenity's manager and main artist, is making sure that his parlor's ink work reflects that philosophy. The artist said he's amazed at the healing power The Bridge has brought him. Only five years earlier, he was a drug and alcohol addict running a secular parlor, Live Fast, into the ground financially.
"I was insane for five years," Brown said. "To sum it up, my problem was self-control. My brain couldn't come up with an alternative where Christ wasn't the only thing that could save me. I was somebody who needed to be saved from hopelessness in body, mind and spirit."
Brown found solace in Bridge's branch of Celebrate Recovery, a popular Christian 12-step program started by Californian megachurch Saddleback Church. Tonya Vroman, The Bridge recovery pastor who runs its program, said Brown's story is typical of people battling addiction. Often judged for their choices, they reject help until they find acceptance and support from those around them. As a former addict herself, she said a place like The Bridge is vital in building hurting individuals into better people.
"It doesn't matter who you are," Vroman said. "You're valuable. We get all walks of life coming through the door here. The Bridge reaches people wherever they're at."
Brown, for his part, said he can't believe the transformation his life has taken since joining the Bridge. A tattoo meant to read "hopeless" across his knuckles, for example, now reads "hope" and "love." The artist admitted that it's no longer just a tattoo – it's a mark honoring Christ's profound love.
"It's a positive environment where people aren't looked down on here," he said. "After accepting Christ, this church gave me a place to grow. By having a tattoo shop here, it's a daily testimony to how somebody can be changed by God."