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Church at the Bar idea spreading

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image Church at the Bar meets at 7 p.m. on the fourth Wednesday of the month at O'Brien's Irish Pub. Photo Nathan Deward

Young pastor, Brandon woman started group at O’Brien’s Irish Pub

By KEVIN BRADY

Jesus did change water into wine but few people expect to find him in a bar; however, once a month in Brandon, that’s exactly where you will find some of his disciples.

Church at the Bar is the brainchild of Nathan DeWard, a young minister who was looking for ways to bring his message to those who are more comfortable surrounded by Budweisers and bar stools than crosses and pews.

“It’s attractive to people who often feel judged by churches,” said DeWard, 36, whose idea has caught on with pastors in New York and Iowa. “It’s a simple model that doesn’t require a lot of programming or money; in fact, it requires no money. I think that simplicity appeals to people.”

Born in Grand Rapids, Mich., DeWard, 36, attended Calvin College, meeting his future wife, Andrea, there. He went on to attend Western Theological Seminary in the Wolverine State.

DeWard took pre-seminary courses in college with “the idea that I would go that way but it wasn’t until after college that I had a profound experience that saw God speaking to me through a time of prayer that led to seminary.”

Graduating in 2003, DeWard and his wife, also a minister, spent eight years as co-pastors at a Michigan church. An offer to join the Reformed Church in America starting a new church in Florida came in 2011.

Holding services in a small room at the corner of Boyette and Bell Shoals Roads, DeWard began to explore his new surroundings. Last April, during Holy Week, he found himself at a Greater Brandon Chamber of Commerce event in Riverview where he came across a woman who would inspire him to take a radical new approach to ministry.

Brandon marketing guru Irma Davila was emceeing the event.

“She walked up and said, ‘You are a pastor, you don’t want to talk to me, I am having a drink,’ but I told her she was exactly the type of person I wanted to talk to.”

Discussing ways to attract younger people to faith, Davila jokingly suggested a novel approach.

“I told him ‘the only way you are going to get me in a church is if you hold it in a bar.’ I figured that was my brushoff line for him,” said Davila, CEO of Brandon’s ID Marketing & Events.

DeWard called her bluff.

“He asked if I could find a bar, he would do it. Then he kept emailing me and asking when we would hold the first meeting. I knew Sean Rice (co-owner of the pub) would be open to it because it is in line with his idea that O’Brien’s should be modeled on an Irish pub, which is a public house where everyone can meet.”

The pair agreed on a format, invited a few friends and began meeting in a small side room at O’Brien’s Irish Pub and Family Restaurant, 701 W. Lumsden Road, in what DeWard calls a “non-judgment zone.” Meetings begin with the reading of a short Bible passage and the discussion flows from there.

“We simply wanted people with no prior faith experience to be able to come and learn about Jesus and his message and not feel like they needed to apologize or feel judged for not having previous experience,” DeWard said.

The first meeting last April saw 10 people gathered around a table with Bibles but as many as 30 have shared a table. “It functions like a small group of friends and of course it is open to anyone.”

Although his fledgling Brandon church closed in January — DeWard is now working with a new church in Michigan — the innovative ministry is still going strong at O’Brien’s.

“I think there’s a real hunger for a life with God and when people are reluctant to go to a church worship service but are open to a faith experience it means Christ’s followers do exactly what Christ did and interact with folks,” DeWard said.

Tim Dowd is now chairing the monthly gatherings at O’Brien’s.

“I am an Irish Catholic so drinking and religion are not opposites in my world,” said the FishHawk resident. “We grew up in that mindset that just because you drink a beer every once in a while it’s not a spiritual death sentence.”

Dowd believes it can help a significant part of the population who are hungry for a spiritual experience but are turned off by traditional churches.

“Everyone has an internal mechanism that tells you if you are OK and some of those walking around who are not OK don’t know they have a hole in their soul. Our mission is to at least give them an opportunity to come and share with people who will not judge them.”

Karl House, a pastor at Riverview’s JesusChurch, is also assisting with the effort but in the background.

“We don’t want (Church at the Bar) to be pastor-run but people-run. It creates a safe place for people to check out a life with God without all the trappings of a church which can intimidate some people. It’s taking the church to them,” said House who runs a Sunday service for JesusChurch at The Regent, 6437 Watson Road.

Thanks to Facebook, the idea has drawn attention beyond Florida.

“People saw our Facebook page and I am now having conversations with pastors in New York, New Jersey and Iowa who also want to start their own Church at the Bar.”

The gatherings have been the start of a new life for Davila.

“It helped me crack open a Bible and explore my faith in a comfortable environment. I am now looking around for a church where I feel comfortable,” she said.

For more information, visit Church at the Bar on Facebook or call 813-719-5397.

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