"Church at the Bar" Combines Booze and Good News in O'Fallon

click to enlarge WWJD: What would Jesus drink? - Courtesy David Rispoli
Courtesy David Rispoli
WWJD: What would Jesus drink?

Every Wednesday night in O'Fallon, a pastor walks into a bar. And for the next hour and 45 minutes or so, it becomes church.

"I buy everyone at the bar a round of drinks on me just kind of as a hook to say, 'Hey, just wait and listen,'" " says Pastor David Rispoli. "Jesus drank."

If that sounds like your kind of church, read on.

Rispoli is a Lutheran pastor whose church, Joy Community, has always been "portable." They currently meet on Sunday mornings at Francis Howell Middle School. So the concept came from the fact that the nomadic church held their staff meetings on Monday nights in a bar.

"You say, 'Wow, these are some of the greatest people we've ever met -- the staff and the people frequenting it. Wouldn't it be great to have a church service in a bar?'" Rispoli recalls. "It'd be geared to people who either can't or won't come to church on Sunday morning...it'd be a service to meet people where they're at."

click to enlarge David Rispoli - Church at the Bar Facebook page
Church at the Bar Facebook page
David Rispoli

So this fall, Rispoli convinced the owner of Brewskeez (4251 Keaton Crossing Boulevard, O'Fallon; 636-329-0027) in O'Fallon -- who is not a congregant -- to let him give it a shot. They brought a band that performs religious rock, and in fact, the service originally began as an opening act for the dance rock group Dr. Zhivegas.

Since then, the concept has kind of taken off. Rispoli says on any given Wednesday they bring in between 60 and 120 people to drink while they hear the word. And he says he doesn't see anything inherently contradictory about that.

"Jesus was called a friend of sinners," he says. "I believe if Jesus walked the earth today we'd find him in just those places."

Rispoli -- whom friends call the "beer-drinking pastor" -- wants to make a few things clear about the concept. He says it's not about recruiting new members to Joy, it's not about "bringing Jesus to these drunk heathens," and it's not a fundraising gimmick. He doesn't take an offering. Nevertheless, he says some insist on contributing.

"I say, 'Hey, buy me a beer,'" he says.

click to enlarge "Church at the Bar" Combines Booze and Good News in O'Fallon
Courtesy David Rispoli

While Rispoli says he and his staff are careful not to overindulge, it does happen to attendees from time to time. Which is not always a bad thing in the pastor's mind.

"Sometimes people get drunk and they start to heckle," he admits. "What's so nice about heckling is they're somehow participating with the serivce and the message. I just go with it."

This is not unheard of -- there are "church at the bar" type services in Florida, Tennessee, and Oklahoma. And at a time when more young people than ever are turning away from religion, it doesn't seem like a bad time for churches to be open-minded about the concept.

Don't mistake the bar setting for "liberalism" though -- Rispoli preaches a pretty conservative interpretation of the Bible, and Joy is part of the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ denomination which, for example, ordains female pastors but does not bless same-sex marriages.

"We're about as liberal as Jesus was," says Rispoli.

Check out the group's Facebook page here.

Follow Jessica Lussenhop on Twitter at @Lussenpop. E-mail the author at [email protected].

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