By Linda Gastreich
For some time, Sunday nights at a popular college hangout in St. Louis have been pretty quiet. That was then. Now a band starts warming up around 6:30 pm. At the same time, some tech equipment is set up and a team of volunteers moves into action. Welcome stations are established. Audio-visual settings are tested. Wine is poured. Seems normal enough for a bar. Except the band plays Christian music. The monitors project song lyrics and a sermon. And the wine will be used to serve communion. One hour later and The Gathering United Methodist Church is ready to lead worship at Humphrey’s Restaurant & Tavern right next to the St. Louis University campus.
You can call it Bar Church if you would like. But Dave Merrill, Director of College-Age Ministries and Site Pastor of The Gathering’s SLU Site, says the location is secondary to its purpose. “The new worship space came about because the church was committed to reaching adults ages 18-24, explains Merrill. “We are serious about living into our vision statement. We are committed to creating a Christian community that is compelling for new generations of people in St. Louis.”
According to Lead Pastor, Rev. Matt Miofsky, the new site is in alignment with the church’s approach to ministry. “The Gathering has always been committed to being experimental, trying things that most established churches can’t or won’t try. This falls right in line with that commitment and I am excited to see what we learn with this new ministry." Miofsky defines the Gathering’s SLU Site as a primary pillar of the church’s college-age ministry. He explains, “The Gathering is committed to ministry with new generations. We knew that to fulfill this vision, we had to figure out how to connect with college-age people. We cannot expect college students to come to us, we have to go to them, creating community for and with them.” The church hopes to duplicate this model at other universities within St. Louis.
Dave Merrill began leading the college-age ministry of The Gathering about a year ago. He acknowledges that as ministries go, it is still very young. “We’ve been able to make a name for ourselves fairly quickly.” Making the decision to launch a site near a campus grew from the church’s experience of developing its college-age ministry. “We held a mid-week service at our McCausland Site, but it was difficult to get students to leave campus and drive to us.”
Merrill shared that the original college-age worship service was well received. “It was a separate and unique service specifically for that age group but we learned that holding it at the church limited attendance.” Transportation is often an issue for students. “We don’t want to settle for having dozens of college-age people engaged in worship and more,” says Merrill. “We want to connect with hundreds of college-age people and to do that, location matters. By bringing a worship site to campus and coupling it with campus CoreGroups, our small group ministry, we now have multiple ways of reaching out to students.”
Merrill describes the new site as a typical bar, complete with neon signs, dartboards, video games and background noise. “It’s an awkward but awesome worship space,” he said. Among the challenges, not everyone can see everyone else and the worship leader needs to work in a 360° environment. “And yet,” Merrill said, “It works.” We’ve already connected with people who came in to be customers of the bar but also joined in the worship experience.” Merrill says the bar is open during the service. “We don’t encourage or discourage drinking. If someone asks we just say, ‘The bar is open.’ And we have found that the two worlds of bar and worship exist together beautifully.”
The Gathering believes only one other church meets on or near the campus. St. Louis University is a Jesuit school located in mid-town St. Louis, close to the Grand Center Arts District. The church is excited about providing convenient opportunities for people to attend worship. Says Miofsky, “Meeting in a bar allows our service to be less intimidating and more casual than a typical church environment. And, while we want to connect primarily with college-age people, the location allows those who have written off church, been jaded by the church or never experienced the church to give it a shot with a fresh perspective.”
When Merrill began looking for a space to launch a new site, he had a very short timeline and a dream of finding an affordable space in a strategic location. “We wanted to bring a compelling worship experience to students and knew it needed be launched on or very close to a university campus.” Merrill said he was surprised and delighted when the owners of Humphrey’s, John Manglesdorf and his mother, Jan Mangelsdorf, invited him to use their establishment. Says Merrill, “This couldn’t have happened without them. They have made it possible for us to transform a bar into a worship space on Sunday evenings.” Merrill says the owners offered the use of their space, assisted with set up and collaborated on marketing.
One example of collaboration came on Super Bowl Sunday. Merrill made the decision to lean into the experience and not try to pull people away from the game for worship. “That just didn’t make sense considering our location,” says Merrill. “We decided to encourage people from The Gathering to show up at Humphrey’s to enjoy the game and Humphrey’s agreed to support ‘Wings for Wells.’” One dollar of every order of wings was donated to the church’s safe water projects in Mozambique. Merrill said, “We’re still waiting to learn how much was raised, but we know the bar sold out of wings that night.”
The site is geared to connect with the college-age population living near the SLU campus, but is already drawing from multiple colleges and university campuses, including Washington University, Webster University and the University of Missouri St. Louis. “We were excited when our launch brought in over 100 people, primarily young adults,” said Merrill. “This is happening because we have a dedicated leadership team. We only had nine weeks from the day we decided to launch to the day we began. Our team of 40-plus people, mostly students, was deeply committed to making it happen and to doing it with excellence.”
The SLU Site is The Gathering’s third site. Seven years ago the church launched in what was a closed church on McCausland Avenue. In 2012, The Gathering merged with the former Clayton United Methodist Church and created an additional site. With the SLU Site and a new 9:00 am worship service at its Clayton Site, the church now offers seven worship experiences each weekend.
Miofsky says the church was highly motivated to launch quickly. “Historically January is an important month at The Gathering,” he explained. “We usually reach a new high mark of attendance at the beginning of the year. We wanted those coming to the new site to be able experience a relevant sermon series and to be part of a season of growth.” With the launch of the new series, two additional worship times and a third site the church has been counting over 1,100 people in worship each week.
Merrill is pleased with the response so far and believes attendance at the new site will grow. “Students are telling friends about the service.” Dave recognizes that having church in a bar has some initial appeal but to build the community they will need to offer more. “Our SLU Site offers a full worship experience,” Merrill said. The entire service is live with the exception of the sermon. The sermon by Rev. Miofsky, which is pre-recorded, is shown on monitors within the bar.
Volunteers have formed rotating teams to support the new site. Merrill describes the process of setting up the worship space as ‘The Gathering in a box.’ “Each week we carry in some equipment from our cars and bring some stored equipment out of Humphrey’s attic space. The bar set up remains the same, we just use our equipment and props to create a worship space that is uniquely The Gathering.”
The volunteer teams work together to handle set up, tear down and run sound, computers and video and lead worship. Volunteer musicians join with the site’s worship leader. Volunteers also greet guests and follow up with those who choose to provide their contact information.
Social media has been a key part of the church’s outreach efforts for its SLU Site along with personal invitations from college-age people and support from The Gathering community and leadership. The Gathering’s SLU Site meets at 7:30 pm on Sunday nights at Humphrey’s Restaurant & Tavern, 3700 Laclede Avenue in St. Louis. For more on The Gathering, go to www.gatheringnow.org