By Carl Stagner
“Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came. You wanna be where you can see our troubles are all the same. You wanna be where everybody knows your name.” The theme song from the 1980s sitcom Cheers portrayed positive imagery of the bar scene, imagery that accurately reflects why many people are drawn back to taverns, pubs, and bars. What would happen if those song lyrics accurately portrayed life in the church? Unfortunately, it’s just not always the case. But Burlington Church of God in Burlington, Michigan, stepped into what is often uncomfortable territory for Christians and made a mission field of the local bar and grill. Even as patrons have turned to Christ as a result, the church has learned a lot about their community and authentic relationships by spending time with the kind of people Jesus would hang out with.
It all began with the most unlikely of partnerships. After Donna and daughter Julie bought the bar not far from the church, they made intentional steps to make a difference in their community. If someone in the community had a need—a family dealing with the loss of a house to fire, parents struggling to pay for their child’s mounting hospital bills, or providing Christmas presents for needy families, for example—JD’s Country Connection would hold a fundraiser. Instead of re-inventing the wheel or doing their own thing, Pastor David Rails led his church to get involved with what the community was already doing. Burlington Church of God began to partner with a bar to make a difference in the community.
At an outreach to firefighters, Pastor David and his wife Dale began to get to really know Donna and Julie and their family. Julie’s husband Bob serves as a volunteer firefighter. They began coming to the church and bringing extended family with them. As the church’s partnership with the bar strengthened, more and more patrons began showing up on Sunday morning at Burlington Church of God. Donna, Julie, and several members of the family, as well as a truck driver and other bar patrons, have since surrendered their lives to Jesus Christ. Some are now serving as leaders in the church!
Not content just to hold a Bible study at the church, the church now holds a Bible study at the bar. People who would otherwise never set foot in a church building are given the chance to come and learn about Jesus from God’s Word. No question is off limits. People are asking questions, and people are softening to the gospel. And the ministry is expanding, too, as JD’s Country Connection isn’t the only bar the church is touching with the message of Christ.
“You love on people, and you see people transformed,” David explains. “I’m kind of thinking that’s what Jesus did. He hung around with sinners that others simply wrote off. People need the Lord. You find them not just in your pews on Sunday, but all over you community. The people that go the bars are regular people—good people, even loving people. They’re just lost. But they might just be your next best friend! When you show them you really care, their defenses drop. Out of relationship, they become more willing to risk coming to church. They find out that the church of all places can be a place where you can fellowship and have fun.” They find out that church can be a place where everybody knows your name—and they’re always glad you came.
Just before Pastor David moved from sunny Florida to the cold north, Pastor Phil Palmer began to revitalize the church’s ministry, which stretches back to 1890. David was brought on as an associate as the church saw true revitalization—spiritual and numerical growth. Very little of this happened without intentional community outreach, a practice which they continue to this day. Not all of the growth is related to the church’s ministry to bars, but the bar ministry has brought several under the influence of Christ. So has the church’s teaching emphasis on Christ.
“Jim Lyon has been an inspiration,” David explains. “We borrowed the theme of ‘Jesus is the Subject’ and I’m currently preaching a series through 1, 2, and 3 John. Jesus must be the subject of all we do.”
For Burlington Church of God, “Jesus is the Subject” isn’t just a fancy catch-phrase or the subject of a sermon series. By building lasting relationships with those Jesus welcomed, Burlington Church of God is living it out.
Were you blessed by reading this story? Support the ongoing work of Church of God Ministries with your gift to the World Ministry Fund at http://www.jesusisthesubject.org/world-ministry-fund/.