By Kyle Patterson, photos by Matt Brown
Church in a bar. It happens every week in downtown Buffalo. But, they really aren't there to goof off. Quite the contrary, the 60 or so people that make up Church on Tap, a relatively new church (about 4 years young) that meets at one of Buffalo's most popular bars, Pearl Street Grill and Brewery, are all from different backgrounds, yet have common threads that hold them together—Christ, community and living out their faith incarnationally. Some come seeking, others come wondering, still others are seasoned in their faith and committed to raising their families in God's word. Whatever background they may be from, all have a desire for real community and putting their beliefs into action and by doing so are challenging the status quo of American church life.
For the families and individuals who make Church on Tap their home church, it comes down to a matter of values for the predominately young group of 20 and 30 year olds, many with young families. You see they don't even have a staff pastor that they put on the payroll, and it's not that they can't afford it, they purposely decided against it. For this group of believers, it's about doing the most good with what they have been given. Instead of spending church resources paying a pastor and paying for a building and then maybe a bigger building down the road and running building drives or the bigger and better, this church has chosen to give it all away. And it’s not that Church on Tap believes something is inherently wrong with buildings and staff. It’s just they believe this is what God has called them to do and who can argue with that? Over 80% of what comes in to the church goes right back into the community in one way or another. This model has allowed Church on Tap to support everything from overseas missions, to helping a neighbor in need of a car repair to fixing up an abandoned East Side home. Their model of doing church encourages everyone to participate in the ministry, not just the ones with the most visible gifting of speaking or playing music. The vision is to see the values of Christianity lived out without the constraints that often times come with large building initiatives and six figure pastor salaries.
For Jim Sproull, one of the founders and many times the one teaching on Sunday mornings, he experienced church staff cutbacks when his job was eliminated at a mega church. Sproull found himself out of a job after the church made staff changes due to an over budget building project. The church couldn't keep up with the salary demands and Sproull found himself without a job and wanting to rethink church. He began asking some hard questions and defining what he understood from Scripture church to be. It was during this season that Sproull with a couple of friends decided to try a new type of church experience. At first the question was whether to even have a Sunday service, but after consideration they determined it was a must. A paid pastor though they decided to forsake and as for a building? A mutual friend happened to be the manager of Pearl Street Grill and Brewery, “As long as we didn't interfere with business as usual, we were welcome to use it,” explained Erik Eustice, one of the founders of the church and a leader in the community.
“The church is composed of people, not a building and not a staff. If the church is truly composed of people that are doing ministry the only way to do that is eliminate the hierarchy of those who get paid to do it and those who watch it, we wanted to change that whole mindset,” explained Sproull. And that is exactly what they are doing. The church is empowering and mobilizing organic forms of outreach and missional strategies to reach into the community including forming a partnership with other East side inner city churches. Even Pearl Street Grill and Brewery is catching on with the formation of a community outreach team from the restaurant that works with Church on Tap to make a difference in the community. For Church on Tap the name is symbolic of what it means to be the church. “On Tap” for them means availability and accessibility. For a Church to be on tap means when there is a need in their growing community, they have the accessibility to hear about it and the means to act, something they pride themselves on and something any church should pause and learn from. Erik Eustice explained, “A lot of it is about accessibility. Access to Christ, access to followers of Christ, access to resources, access to real tangible impactful parts of the kingdom. You aren't just sitting down and saying OK there are a handful of professionals who we will pay to do ministry and we will watch. It puts you back on the hook and says everybody has a role in this.” And that shared role translates into a high percentage of Sunday morning attenders involved in the weekly ministry.
In terms of the bar setting, it wasn't something the church leadership even pursued but when the opportunity presented itself they saw the opportunity to attract people who may never come to a typical church setting. “It’s where life happens, its not removing church from everyday life. It’s a familiar place, we aren't separating church from the rest of our lives. We are intentional about breaking down barriers between the church and the world,” explained Eustice and Sproull in a recent interview. “We are about removing the icons, and removing the wall between paying people to do the ministry and the rest of the people who open their checkbooks to support it. Instead it’s about everyone getting involved.”
Church on Tap’s strategy is to utilize the gifts and talents of their members and work together to glorify God, after all they are all in this ministry together. They are raising families, running businesses, starting businesses taking care of their spouses and Church on Tap provides a place to intentionally build relationships with like minded people, enjoy community, have a meal together and encourage one another. Throughout the week various bible studies and play groups for the many young moms are available. Because of this community comes natural because they have committed to doing life together.
TJ Stewart started attending Church on Tap with his wife Leslie and young daughter after moving back home to Buffalo from Denver, CO. The Stewarts came out of a traditional church setting and were looking to get connected again locally when they ran into some friends at Church on Tap. TJ explained, “The whole notion of church being a structure was losing its appeal to us. Church wasn't the structure, it is the body of believers. My cousin said come check it out we do church in a bar. Curiosity gets the cat and what I found was close personal connections and in a really personal way demonstrating what the body of believers looks like. The people were friendly and outgoing and love you where your at, and a lot of times big churches have lost that. Here is the thing I realized, when you talk about the big C church of the U.S. there are people who wouldn't be caught dead walking into church in a bar. After going large and being a part of a large church and serving in various capacities, I don't know if I could go back to a big church setting. No bureaucracy, no politics, no one person in charge of it. The body sees a need and the body steps up to fill the need. Everyone chips in and I think it is a close representation of the early church. There is something beautiful in the simplicity.”