To the Church in [America]:
“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.”
COVID-19’s impact on the church has made me reflect regularly on what the church is (hint: it’s not a building) and its purpose during these times (hint: it’s us as Christ-followers). With thousands of churches shutting its doors permanently (including my own local body where I served as an Elder) and projections that up to one in five churches could permanently close due to contribution declines,  I’ve continued to wonder what the lasting impacts will be on Christendom—will the church strengthen and grow or weaken and shrink?
According to a Barna research survey conducted during the height of the pandemic (April-May 2020), approximately a third of practicing Christians stopped attending church altogether (in-person or online). These statistics are concerning in and of themselves, but they’re even more concerning if the third who stopped attending church never had a shift from a Church mentality to a Kingdom mentality. Said another way—if for this group, there was no real difference between a church building and their personal faith in Christ, then attending church was the sole expression of their faith; thus, closing the church building took away that expression, potentially resulting in disengagement from their personal faith in Christ and with others in community. Could it be possible that God is cutting off lukewarm Christianity and pruning his Church to be even more fruitful during these times? Have we, the Laodiceans…I mean American church become complacent in our ways— acquiring great wealth, investing in buildings, and possibly placing our trust and security in those buildings (and the institutions they support)? In other words, have we (tragically) built American Christianity on weak foundation and not on Christ, our Chief Cornerstone?
Beyond the 4-Walls of the Church
I grew up in a traditional (legalistic) church, not dissimilar to many Christians in the West. Church was a building, and being a good Christian meant attending church (a building) regularly and practicing the spiritual disciplines. Church and building were interchangeable in my mind, and without a building, I had no definition of church. It was only after I met my spiritual dad, Larry Titus, divinely on an airplane that I was exposed to a Kingdom perspective. I learned that the Church is who we are as Christ-followers—we are the ekklesia, the “called out ones,” and the Kingdom of God is what we do.
Larry Titus elaborates:
“[Being plugged into a local church community is important]; corporate worship, fellowship, prayer, and teaching of the Word are critical to one’s spiritual health. [However, the purpose of the local church should be that of a] ‘refueling station’ rather than the final destination. When I read Matthew 28:18-19, it becomes clear to me that the Great Commission is a “go” gospel, not a “come” gospel. “Come to our church, come hear our preacher, come and be part of our worship experience, come see our children’s department, come and enjoy our Christmas pageant and Easter presentation, come to the altar for salvation and prayer.” I don’t disparage any of these programs. I believe they are important and may be necessary. However, it still begs the question, where is the church most effective, in the small enclave of the building or out in the real world? Where are the diseased, disenfranchised, destitute, demon possessed, and discouraged located? For the most part they are in the world, needing to hear the message of the kingdom.”
Is it possible that God used the COVID-19 pandemic to get us out of the church building to be the church body—for not only our own good, but for the good of others? Perhaps we are to take care of the poor, weak, and fatherless and to visit orphans and widows—to have an outward view of the world and others and to go to them, rather than having an inward view of hoping they come to us (and our church buildings).
So what could this look like in practice? For me personally, it required getting out of my comfort zone and venturing into 75215.
75215 is the zip code for South Boulevard-Park Row—statistically considered the most dangerous neighborhood in Dallas, TX (USA), which has a population of nearly 1.4 million. With total and violent crime rates higher than the national average by 284% and 777%, respectively, and income per capita 47% lower than the national average, it’s fair to say there is brokenness and poverty in this community. Having lived in the greater Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex for nearly 10 years, I’d never stepped foot in this zip code. Why would I? I live in a nice, safe suburban community in the Dallas metro area (that once had the largest self-identified Christian population in the nation at 78%)— you can call it my comfortable “Christian bubble.” There’s never been a reason to go anywhere near the inner cities, until recently…
The Bar Church
If worship services were held at a bar, would that be considered a “church”? And, if that bar was located in the aforementioned South Boulevard-Park row neighborhood, would you attend a service?
As mentioned earlier, the gathering of believers (the ekklesia), is the church. If that particular ekklesia decided to meet in a bar in South Dallas (or anywhere else for that matter—coffee shop, business, public park, etc.), that meeting place would simply be that, a place or location…nothing more, nothing less. And this is where I recently found myself (March 2021)—amongst a body of believers gathering and worshipping God at a bar. Seeking God in this environment moved me deeply as I sensed His pleasure and connected with His heart…for the unlovable, unwanted, and forgotten—those created in His image.
The story of the bar church begins with a young, recent Bible college graduate named Nate Smith who has a heart to serve the homeless, having spent time before college volunteering for a homeless ministry in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. He carries this burden for the poor from the Tenderloin to inner city Dallas where he begins making regular trips to hand out food and build relationships with the homeless and local residents. He uses all of his income from one of three part-time jobs to purchase the food, and to him, this is ministry with God, not simply for God. He partners with God, dreaming together about revitalizing this broken community.
The homeless, prostitutes, and drug addicts on the streets call him “Pastor Nate,” as they see him enough to know he’s invested in the community (and in them). An elderly woman in her 70’s called Mrs. Kathy owns a bar in the neighborhood and regularly asks Nate to pray for her and her husband. With a shared heart for the community that she’s been a part of for nearly 25 years, she offers to host church services at her bar to not only meet the physical needs (through meal distribution), but also the spiritual needs of the community. The Bar Church is born.
The Dream to Revitalize South Dallas
The dream is big and goes far beyond distributing meals and holding worship services. It consists of buying an abandoned apartment building to serve as a transitional home for the broken who are recovering, buying an abandoned warehouse to repurpose as a community and food distribution center, and opening up a barber school to train young men in a trade that gives them the purpose and dignity of work. The overarching goal and method of realizing these dreams is centered on identifying, discipling, empowering, and releasing local community leaders to become all that God created them to be. This asset-based community development (ABCD) strategy focuses on resources and abilities that the community already has (abundance vs. scarcity mindset) and develops/deploys those within the community to accomplish transformative change.
Comparing the Bar Church with the traditional Church model through the lens of The Great Commission:
Bar Church – The Kingdom American Church – The Building
Go – To South Dallas
Come – To our church building
& make disciples – Mrs. Kathy and eventually others
Of all nations – In many ways for most people, the inner city in our backyards is further away than other countries
Baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – The poor and broken are saved, delivered, and transformed
& experience a great service – Worship production and Word from our preacher
With your family and friends – Fellowship over coffee in the foyer
Getting ready to go out for a meal afterward – Personally encouraged and inspired by the service and looking forward to next weekend’s message
There is nothing wrong with the “American Church” model. As previously quoted, it’s important to gather together for corporate worship, fellowship, prayer, and hearing the Word. The danger is when that model is the end all be all and replaces the believer’s call to seek first God’s Kingdom and His righteousness.
A Call to be Uncomfortable
We aren’t called to be comfortable. The disciples weren’t comfortable in their persecution and suffering. Abraham wasn’t comfortable taking Isaac to be sacrificed on the mountain. Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, Esther walking into the king’s throne room, Job, Jonah, Joseph, David…we can go on and on. We’re called to be the hands and feet of Jesus, and that will likely be uncomfortable at times. But, if I can take a small step out of my comfort zone into a Bar Church, anybody can.
You may not be called to go to the “front lines,” but chances are you’ll know somebody who is. We can use our incredible wealth, influence, experience, and skillset to become active participants (not comfortable spectators) in the work that God wants to do through us in our respective spheres of influence— the marketplace, media, arts, education, government, etc.
Find your “Nate(s).” Come alongside them. Pray for them. Invest in them. Invest in their ministries or businesses. Support them. Mentor them.
Let’s ask the Holy Spirit where and how He wants to use us. And finally, let’s go to them and be the church!
- Aaron Cho, KGM Ordained minister
 Revelation 3:15-17, NIV.
 https://outreachmagazine.com/resources/research-and-trends/59661- research-1-in-5-churches-may-close-due-to-pandemic.html
 https://www.barna.com/research/new-sunday-morning-part-2/  John 15:2, NIV.
 Luke 6:49, 1 Corinthians 3:12-15, NIV.
 Isaiah 28:16, Psalm 118:22, Acts 4:11, NIV.
 Kingdom of God by Larry Titus at CFNI: https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=CGdSLLskKLk&t=85s
 L.E.A.D. (Lead Effectively and Differently) by Larry Titus
 Psalm 82:3-4.
 James 1:27.
 Philippians 2:3.
 https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/29/major-u-s metropolitan-areas-differ-in-their-religious-profiles/
 Strategy promoted by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert in “When Helping Hurts”
 Matthew 6:33, NIV.
 2 Timothy 3:11-12.
 It’s estimated that Christians manage over 150 trillion dollars, more than half the world’s wealth: https://www.faithdriveninvestor.org/executivesummary