Seattle’s new Bar Church welcomes beer, agnostics, and service

Maybe you’ve been to a religious service before. But have you been to church in a bar?

That’s what you’ll find at Queen Anne Beerhall some Sundays when people enter the 7,000 square-foot space, order from the menu’s 60 or so brews, and listen to its 32-year-old pastor lead something he calls — very simply — Bar Church.

Is this really a church? Yes. What’s it doing in bar? We’ll get to that. Isn’t it unusual to have church outside a church building? Apparently not. Forty-four percent of the new Christian churches founded in Seattle between 2001 and 2014 met in non-traditional spaces like community centers and living rooms, according to research by professor Christopher James of the University of Dubuque. Fascinating, right?

Despite the prevalence of innovative churches in our innovative city, Bar Church is (as far as Christopher knows) the only Seattle church housed in an actual bar. To know more about Bar Church, you have to know more about its founder, Nate Stone.

Nate didn’t grow up going to church. That changed quickly, though, when he was 25, and he found himself showing up at Eastlake Community Church in Bothell week after week, sitting alone in the back, and crying through most of the service. Nate had cheated on a girl he was dating — not for the first time, either — and realized he didn’t like the person he’d become.

He stopped drinking and dating for six months, just to see if he could do it. He started spending more time listening to and helping out the employees at the 2 Union Square Starbucks store, where he was the manager. And he stopped going out to clubs so much with his friends. When he told them it was because he wanted to change, some of them thought Nate had gotten “weird.” Others got curious and started going to church with him.

About 200 people made lunch bags for disadvantaged Seattleites at the January meeting of Bar Church. (Photo by Mónica Guzmán)

When an internship came up at Eastlake Community Church to explore what it would be like to work in the church, Nate took it. When the church opened a Seattle campus, Nate led it. He wanted to always be doing the most he could to help people, he said, and at some point, he decided he could do that better by starting his own church. So on Christmas Eve 2013, Nate outlined his idea for a church he thought he and his friends would most want to go to. It would be in a bar.

Nate knows how this whole “church in a bar” thing might sound: strategic. “What a smart way to reach people,” other pastors tell him. But he insists that’s not what it’s about.

“I didn’t sit down and think, ‘How can I trick people into coming to church?’” Nate said. “I was thinking, ‘How can I create an environment where normal humans talk about human things, and feel comfortable doing it?’”

This is a good place to go back to Christopher James’ research. When he studied new churches in Seattle, he split up what he found into several categories. One of them — the one he sees Bar Church fitting into nicely — is what he calls “neighborhood incarnation.” That refers to churches that meet in non-traditional spaces not so much as a reaction to the idea that “churches are a drag,” as Christopher puts it, but because of a conviction that the church’s space and resources should be an asset to the surrounding community. Nate put it another way in a recent Facebook post: “Less talking, more doing.”

So what does a Bar Church service actually look like?

At the first three, in October, November, and December, about 150 people came to hang out at the Queen Anne Beerhall and listen to Nate give a 30-minute sermon over a tall glass of beer (you can watch them all here). In October, he talked about why he was starting Bar Church – “not because we could use more churches, but because we could use different churches.” In November, he talked about the election. In December, he talked about the importance of slowing down.

The fourth is the one I (Mónica) visited. And it wasn’t a service so much as, well, service.

Heather Jones prepares lunches for the homeless at the January meeting of Bar Church, done in partnership with Hashtag Lunchbag. (Photo by Mónica Guzmán)

There was no sermon. When the 200 or so people came in at 10 a.m., they were organized into work stations. On each table was food — fruit, sandwiches, cookies, bottled water — and lots and lots of brown paper bags brought in by the organization Bar Church partnered with on the event, Hashtag Lunchbag. By 11:15, the group had assembled 1,200 lunch bags for homeless Seattleites. By 11:45 a.m., most of those bags were out the door on their way to be delivered to shelters.

Who’s coming to Bar Church? I met Kelsey Bourne and Lauren Nielsen at the January meeting just after they’d ordered their brunch Radlers (grapefruit juice and light beer).

Kelsey, 26, grew up in the Church of Nazarene but didn’t feel comfortable with it because it didn’t accept gay people. She heard about Bar Church on Facebook, came to the November service, and kept coming back. Lauren, who just turned 27, didn’t grow up religious at all. But she likes the community feel here. “Our generation is a little turned off to church because it’s not…inclusive,” she said.

Javon Hood, 37, brought his fairly rambunctious 8-year-old mentee to the lunchbag making session. Javon was a member of Eastlake Community Church and got pretty discouraged when a lot of its members left after the church said it would let gay people hold church office. Javon’s sister is lesbian. “Church should be your community,” Javon said.

And then there’s Heather Jones, 31, who until Bar Church hadn’t been to church at all since she was 13. She’d ordered a beermosa and a coffee that sat off to the side while she assembled bags with Javon and his mentee. She’d been missing a “spiritual base,” she said, since she left her Methodist roots behind years ago. Bar Church is easy to fit into her day and she loves the vibe. “It’s allowed me to have this part of my life back,” she said.

I asked Nate who Bar Church is for, and he told me he’s building it as a safe place for anyone who wants to explore their spirituality, no matter what they believe, and to explore those big questions about what life is all about — “What is this place? Where do we go after here? Is there something else?”

Nate Stone, in the backwards baseball cap, addresses the crowd at the January meeting of Bar Church. (Photo by Mónica Guzmán)

Nate also told me this: He knows of agnostics and even atheists who have come to Bar Church, and he’s found that he often relates to that group more than he relates to some of his fellow Christians.

Why? “Because I don’t believe in the God they don’t believe in either,” Nate said. In other words, he doesn’t believe in a God that would want certain people to be excluded from church life or would not support what he views as important work toward a more equitable society.

Thirty-seven percent of people who live in the greater Seattle area say they have no religious affiliation, according to a 2014 report from the Pew Research Center. That’s the most of any major metropolitan area. But as for the idea that Seattle is a relatively godless place because of that, Nate isn’t having it.

“The concept that Seattle is not a godly center is bullshit. It’s a copout. I don’t believe it. I’ve lived here all my life,” Nate said. “Seattle if nothing else is a city that prides itself on caring for other people, specifically people who have not been cared for historically.”

Want to check out Bar Church? The next meeting is at 10 a.m. Sunday, February 12, at Queen Anne Beerhall. Learn more about Bar Church on their Facebook page.

Curious about new churches in Seattle?

  • Here’s a great Seattle Met piece about Christopher James’ research and why “godless” Seattle is actually a hotbed for church innovation. He found 105 new churches in Seattle that started between 2001 and 2014.
  • Bar Church plans to start twice monthly Sunday meetings in March, with regular meetings devoted to community service. Another newer church with a similar rhythm is Union Church in South Lake Union.
  • Witness Bar in Capitol Hill is not a church and has no religious component. But its owner, Gregg Holcomb, does deliver secular “sermons” every Saturday night. We wrote about him here.

Know of an interesting community we should share with the city? Let us know at [email protected].