Church in a bar? SC churches are thinking outside the steeple to reach new members

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Losing Faith: Why South Carolina is abandoning its churches

At least 97 S.C. churches have closed since 2011. Other churches are dying slow deaths, losing thousands of members. What’s happening to the Bible Belt?

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New Brookland Tavern is as different on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings as, well, night and day.

Once a month, the gritty West Columbia venue known for its metal and punk bands transforms from a Saturday night house of rock to a Sunday morning house of worship.

With ears still ringing from late-night jams, late-morning brunchgoers pass by the open bar door. Inside, a few dozen people ranging from kids to seniors sip coffee and play pool before gathering in front of the band stage for worship singing, prayer and preaching.

When people hear about having church in a bar, “Everybody just goes, ‘What?’” said Jody Ratcliffe, pastor of the 2-year-old Church at West Vista. “And then they think and go, ‘Wait a minute, that’s really cool.’ ... Our model meets the needs of folks who have ever been hurt in the past and they just don’t want to go to church ever again.”

At a time when traditional Protestant churches are losing thousands of members each year and dozens of them are closing their doors across South Carolina, some churches like West Vista are meeting in unconventional places and taking new tacks to continue their age-old mission: to reach people with the Christian gospel.

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House church leader Chris Garduce preachers during a service for The Church at West Vista inside New Brookland Tavern in West Columbia, SC. The Church at West Vista is a house church network which meets at separate homes during the month except for the last Sunday when they go to New Brookland Tavern. Gavin McIntyre gmcintyre@thestate.com

Come to Jesus — in a tavern

Ratcliffe had been a Southern Baptist preacher who sensed a desperate need for change in the church he led. But by the time he drew up his ideas for what he’d like to see change, Ratcliffe realized he was dreaming of a whole new church.

“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,” he said. “Millennials don’t value legacy. ... A lot of our older churches, they’ve been relying on legacy for decades.”

Once a month, the church meets at West Columbia’s New Brookland Tavern to worship together. The rest of the month, members meet in smaller groups in several homes across Columbia and Lexington County.

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Family and friends bow their heads in prayer during a meeting for The Church at West Vista at the home of Pastor Jody Ratcliffe in West Columbia, SC. The Church at West Vista is a house church network which meets at separate homes during the month except for the last Sunday when they go to New Brookland Tavern. Gavin McIntyre gmcintyre@thestate.com

When it’s in house-church mode, a dozen or so West Vista congregants share a meal together at someone’s home and study and discuss Bible-based teaching and life application.

When it’s in bar-church mode, several dozen members gather at New Brookland and sing along with a small band, hear Ratcliffe preach a message and spend time mingling in the bar.

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“No one gets lost in the crowd, and during the week, we’re able to keep up with one another as needs arise,” Ratcliffe said. “There’s room for lots of different sizes of churches and kinds of churches. There’s room for everybody.”

‘You’re less intimidated’ in a movie theater

The plush reclining chairs at the Columbiana Grand movie theater are, arguably, a step up from the hockey locker room at a nearby indoor sports complex — smell-wise, at least.

OneLife Community Church moved its weekly meetings from the local gym to the movie theater two years ago.

“You’ve never been to a church with a more comfortable chair,” joked Derrick Boatwright, a member of the church’s leadership team. “We feel like it’s a safe space. ... You’re less intimidated than you’d be walking into a typical cathedral building. ... It fit the culture of our church.”

If someone’s comfortable going to the movies, they should feel comfortable walking into OneLife, Boatwright said. (They even have popcorn!)

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Chris Rao laughs during a sermon for OneLife Community Church as he leans back in his seat at Regal Columbiana Grande Stadium 14 in Columbia, SC. Gavin McIntyre gmcintyre@thestate.com

The church has worked to create an environment that offers the comfort of a high-quality experience with the intimacy of close-knit relationships. Those are two things that don’t always go together in a church, Boatwright said.

For now, the church relies on video preaching from the national Life.Church network. But OneLife is searching for a full-time pastor who will preach on-site every Sunday. “I think people are looking for authenticity, and I think you have an advantage of being authentic when you are in person,” Boatwright said.

On a “good” Sunday, more than 100 people might come to worship, Boatwright said.

They range from newborns to grandparents. They include people who have come from other churches who were looking for a different church experience as well as “people who have stepped away from the church, maybe been hurt by the church,” Boatwright said. “We want to show them what the church is supposed to be like.

“I think it’s less about what you do and more about who you are when it comes to a church.”

Praising Jesus in a dance studio

Every Saturday night, there’s no room for dancers at the Bluffton School of Dance.

That’s when the Beaufort County dance studio morphs into the nondenominational Live Oak Christian Church.

Each Sunday, 250 to 300 people shuffle past the hallway lined with dance recital photos, and sit in studio rooms with ballet bars and wooden floors, dented from tap shoes.

Pastor Michael Beaumont, with Live Oak Christian Church, preaches before his congregation on Sunday, August 5, 2018 at Bluffton School of Dance in Bluffton as he discusses the Scripture of Titus. In the foreground rests communion trays which sit upon make-shift table that cover a ballet barre along the wall. The church stores their equipment in a shipping-type container on the dance school grounds in which five volunteers with the church hang up signage, unpack chairs, cover mirrors and windows in little more than an hour. The church pays a nominal rent at the dance facility and have vowed to leave much of the digital infrastructure they installed when they build their own facility. Drew Martin dmartin@islandpacket.com

They listen and sometimes dance to the live worship music, which might be a full band or just an acoustic set depending on the week.

And they listen to sermons.

Michael Beaumont, lead pastor at Live Oak, said the Live Oak congregation hopes to build its own building by the Bluffton Post Office, where they already own a plot of land.

The dance studio works fine for now.

“We’re a laid-back, come-as-you-are kind of church,” Beaumont said. “There’s zero pretense in our church, and we don’t rely on our location as an identity. Our identity has more to do with the people in our church.”

Worship by the water

Surrounded by beachgoers, fishermen and the Atlantic Ocean, Cat Baynes happily hands out church bulletins as more than 100 vacationers and residents look for seats under the awning on Myrtle Beach’s Apache Pier.

Worshipers can be spotted wearing sunglasses, hats, flip-flops and Hawaiian shirts as the chaplain delivers his sermon.

Baynes has been living on the Apache Family Campground and attending these weekly services for more than two years. Her mother was one of the ministry’s first members.

The setting allows her to see and feel God’s wonder while she prays, she said, such as the waves and occasional breeze. On this particular Sunday, she was able to enjoy the warmth of the sun, but she always feels the warmth of her fellow churchgoers, she said, and the ministry’s longtime chaplain, Richard Jenkins, is like family to her.

Jenkins calls the congregation the Church of the Bad Sheep because people are all wandering, but God comes to get us, he said.

Services average about 250 attendees in the summertime and 125 during the off season.

The history behind campground ministries stems from local churches sending out lay people to perform services because they found that vacationers often didn’t bring dress clothes to the beach, Jenkins said.

Nondenominational churches have become the norm throughout the Grand Strand area, and Jenkins theorized that people have just gotten tired of playing the political games that sometimes come with denominational churches.

“I think people want to get to the heart of what gospel is about, instead of rules,” he said. “Some churches only love people just like them. There’s more acceptance in a nondenominational setting.”

Baynes, raised Baptist, said she recalls a lot of finger-pointing in her former church, but she’s always greeted with open arms on the pier.

“It doesn’t matter where you worship,” says Ray Jackson, who has been attending these services for 20 years. “We’re all together in the house of God.”