Bread, fishes and beer

Bar None is a church in a pub. Chris Coffey, one of the founder members, comments. “The bar staff in the pub really want to work in the basement room we hire, on a Sunday evening. They love the atmosphere. They get involved in the discussions, and they’ve even asked for prayer. I guess that’s always been a bench mark for me. If those guys aren’t stood there cringing, hating every minute of it, when they have to be there, then that’s pretty good…

Bar None grew out of a chance meeting at Spring Harvest. Chris met up with Bill and Rachel Taylor-Beales and started discussing ideas for new ways of doing church, in a “non-churchy” sort of way. As Chris describes it,

“We just looked at what we were all good at. Rachel and Bill are skilled musicians, and we wondered how we could make that work in a cafe type setting. I’m very keen on discussion-based stuff, because that’s how I came to faith, so we wanted to work that in too.”

The idea of “church in a pub” came from there.

Things only started to happen when Chris came to live in Cardiff, near Bill and Rachel, and they got the backing of Glenwood, a local independent church. A couple of people from the church went round local pubs, suggesting the idea, and the group were amazed with the positive response they got from all of them. They’d expected it to quite a battle, but most pubs were enthusiastic.

They eventually settled on The Oz Bar, in the city centre, which had a good basement room. Chris says

“It was really important to create an atmosphere that we personally all felt really comfortable with. It’s got to be a genuine expression of who you are. If you like hanging out in wine bars, then creating something in the darkest, dankest pub around, is just not going to work”.

Bar None was created – and has now been running for two years.

For the first evenings Bill and Rachel played their own music, with bibles and newspapers set out on some of the tables. They soon realised that people were so interested in talking, that most people just weren’t listening to the music. This did cause some tension, once other local musicians began to come and play.

“We end up calling for quiet, so they can at least play a couple of songs while people listen” Chris comments,”We were really, really nervous that first evening, but it was amazing the way people just took on board what we were doing.”

One Sunday a month, Bar None hold a dedicated discussion night. A recent example was a debate started by a young Christian just off to join the army, and a Christian pacifist, about the rights and wrongs of going to war. Each said a short piece, then the floor was open for debate. On the other Sundays in the month there will be a short ten minute talk – maybe a story, or someone playing and talking about a song they have written. The discussion will tend to flow from that.

“Some of the best nights have been unexpected.” Chris says “The last night before the summer, we didn’t really have anything planned. There weren’t going to be that many people there, anyway, because a lot of the students had gone home. We started off talking about what had been happening over the year in Bar None, and a couple of guys started asking “why do you believe what you believe?”, which was great. It was really powerful. It just went off in a completely different direction to what we had planned. People were opening up about all sorts of massive issues in their lives. There is no real science to it. It just sort of happens.”

To begin with the group were attracting about 100 people per night – many of them curious Christians from local churches. They’ve now dropped to a steady 30-40. They are mostly people who don’t regularly attend a “normal” church, because for whatever reason, they don’t feel that they fit. Some have been hurt by the church in the past. Some have never been involved. A substantial number grew up going to church, but just drifted away, because it didn’t make much sense to them.

Bar None form the fourth, city-centre, congregation of Glenwood church. It’s important to the leaders that they are considered a congregation in their own right. They don’t exist to be a “feeder”, moving people into the more regular congregations. For the people who go along, Bar None is their church.

“The biggest obstacle we’ve had to overcome has been our own preconceptions of what church is”, Chris explains, “On a regular basis someone will say to me, “It sounds great, but it’s not a real church, is it?” and as much as we can defend and answer that question, we go back to the early church and what they were doing.

“Church, to us, is a community of people, a genuine community, who are seeking after God and putting him first. Loving God, loving each other, loving our neighbour and putting into practice some of the fundamental parts of what it is to be a Christian, worship, service to other people, reading the bible, taking the bible seriously, and engaging your brain a bit when you read it.

“We’ve introduced some of the key symbols of the church, the Lord’s Supper, and baptism. We were very careful about how we introduced communion, and were very unsure about how it would work, but people have been much more willing to accept it than we expected. We thought it would be a big hurdle, but the first communion we had was amazing. It was a genuine act of people remembering together what Jesus did.”

Worship has been an ongoing issue for discussion, for the leadership of Bar None. There is a smaller, midweek group that meet like a house group, and worship together. While Chris, Bill and Rachel are keen that worship isn’t just the preserve of an “elite group”, they also don’t want to push the issue on a Sunday. The majority of the Sunday regulars wouldn’t necessarily call themselves Christians. The team are keen not to cheapen worship by pushing people into expressing something that isn’t true for them. Prayer does happen on a regular basis, on a Sunday, though, arising out of the discussions all round the room.

“One of the main things we’ve learnt is not to be so paranoid about having to answer every question that comes our way, justifying everything we do.” Chris says. “If the core of what we’re doing is good, then that’s enough. Sure, there are some areas where we need some help, or need to move on, but we don’t need to explain ourselves away the whole time.”