Churches in Bars, Movie Theaters, in the Bible Belt, As Other Churches Close

church in a bar
House church leader Chris Garduce preachers during a service for The Church at West Vista inside New Brookland Tavern in West Columbia, SC. |

Amid dozens of church closures in the heart of the Bible Belt, some in South Carolina are planting congregations in bars, movie theaters, and in homes.

South Carolina newspaper The State reported Thursday that across the traditionally conservative state, many churches have closed — 97 since 2011 — and others are slowly dying, reflecting a nationwide trend, yet there is new growth amid the decay.

Reflecting on the article Thursday, Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington D.C., noted that the South Carolina newspaper's account of the unconventional ways of doing church shows that stories of decline are "more complicated than church shrinkage ... as people leave old denominations, especially Mainline Protestant, in favor of newer churches."

In West Columbia, New Brookland Tavern, a bar that features punk and metal bands on Saturday nights, hosts services on Sunday morning once per month.

"Everybody just goes, 'What?'" when they hear about having church services in a bar, said Jody Ratcliffe, who had been a Southern Baptist pastor and now leads Church at West Vista.

The church is a network of home groups that worship in homes three times per month and meets in the bar on the remaining Sunday.

"And then they think and go, 'Wait a minute, that's really cool,'" he said.

This particular church speaks to people who have ever been hurt in the past and do not want to go to church ever again, he said.

"The traditional church has the mentality that everyone knows we're here, and if we just open our doors, people will come if they want," the pastor continued, explaining this is an ineffective approach to ministry particularly among the younger generations.

"Millennials don't value legacy. ... A lot of our older churches, they've been relying on legacy for decades."

The Church at West Vista's model for growth is relying upon people with whom members are already connected, such as their friends, neighbors, and work colleagues.

In recent years, considerable analysis has taken place among pollsters and political pundits concerning the rise of the "nones," those who identify themselves as religiously unaffiliated. Some have suggested that with the decline of institutional religion in the United States, marrying "conversational" Christian gatherings with America's favorite beverage, beer, in an unconventional setting, is the answer.

A recurring theme that seems to bolster the idea of doing church outside the confines of a traditional church is that the traditional setting has been an atmosphere where people have had negative experiences and crave a space where they can explore their questions and doubts more openly.

Though often regarded as a project of more progressive Christians, some distinctly evangelical initiatives, such as Fresh Expressions, "an international movement of missionary disciples cultivating new kinds of church alongside existing congregations" are engaging a growing post-Christian society and changing culture by establishing "expressions" of churches in unlikely places "primarily for the benefit of those who are not yet part of any church."

The State also mentioned OneLife Community Church, also in Columbia, which in 2016 moved its weekly meetings from the local gym to a movie theater, complete with plush, reclining seats.

"You've never been to a church with a more comfortable chair," said Derrick Boatwright, who is a member of the church's leadership team. On on a "good" Sunday, they attract more than 100 people.

"We feel like it's a safe space. ... You're less intimidated than you'd be walking into a typical cathedral building."

For preaching, OneLife presently streams in sermons from the national Life.Church network, founded by Oklahoma pastor Craig Groeschel. They are looking for a full-time pastor to preach on-site.

2,132 churches are currently listed as "active churches" on the website of the South Carolina Baptist Convention's website.

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