MONTGOMERY, Ala. – It's a rainy Sunday morning at Rock Bottom American Pub. The neon signs are turned off, and the only drinks on the tables are coffee and water. There is fellowship going on, but there is no sports event on the big screen.
The patrons that fill the tables in this restaurant/bar are here to hear the word of God, to find comfort without judgment, and to be told, over and over, that God loves them, regardless of their past lives and deeds.
This is a regular Sunday at Grace Life Bar Church, a satellite campus of the non-denominational Grace Life Church in Prattville. The Bar Church, as it's called, has been meeting here at Rock Bottom for a few weeks now, reaching people who have either given up on traditional houses of worship, or who perhaps have never been inside a church and would feel too intimidated to do so.
Phil Bevilacqua, the lead pastor at Grace Life Church, and Paul Lammon, the site pastor at Bar Church, say what they're doing here at Rock Bottom is meeting people where they are in their lives.
"That's what we're out to do -- just let people know, no matter where they're at in life, no matter what they do, no matter what people have told them in the past, God loves them unconditionally," said Lammon, who worked with Rock Bottom owner Brad Gill on the idea for Bar Church.
Lammon was a customer for years at Rock Bottom and got to know Gill. After Lammon became a pastor at Grace Life Church, he had the idea to start an outreach ministry, and talked with his friend Gill about it. Gill was familiar with Worship on the Water ministries in coastal areas, which hold casual services on beaches and bars, including the famed Flora-Bama in Orange Beach. But the idea touched him on a personal level as well.
Gill said he's felt the judgment of those who look down on people who work at bars and nightclubs.
"It's pretty hypocritical to me," Gill said. "They want to be the first ones in the pews on Sunday morning, and then they want to be the ones to judge me, or somebody that works in a bar?"
The acceptance and unconditional love is what sets Bar Church apart, they say.
"We never preach from a place of hurting people, or calling out their sin. Never preach from a place of condemnation. We want everybody who walks through the doors to feel welcome and feel love," Lammon said.
Judgment and shaming, Bevilacqua said, won't change a person's heart, and that's what some churches don't understand.
He makes sure to point out that all churches, regardless of approach or vision or doctrine, are all part of one body in Christ. "But their concept of church is to find someone's sin and preach about it. You've got to be able to realize that the only way that that's going to change is when their heart changes."
Making them feel guilty is only making things worse, the pastors say. They employ what they call a "one-hit theology."
"One dose of love changes your whole outlook on life," Bevilacqua said.
Both pastors have personal experience with what they're preaching. Bevilacqua is quick to give his testimony about the years he spent both as a drug addict and a drug dealer. Both men say they've been saved through the grace of God.
But both also found that conventional approaches to staying clean, by simply trying to live a life that others would describe as "Christian," didn't work for them.
"I got radically saved," Bevilacqua said, but felt that he was constantly being pressured to "perform" for God, and that he could never live up to the expectations of God and the church. As a result, he got "wore out in church and religion, always trying to perform."
"Then I got freed into what real Christianity is," Bevilacqua said. "He loves me regardless, and because he loves me regardless, I'm no longer white-knuckling," or trying to stay clean through sheer will power. Will power, he said, only lasts until a person becomes weak.
"The empowerment to not do it is an internal grace that God gives us, rather than our own will power," he said. When someone slips up, he beats himself up, feels ashamed, feels condemned, tries again and fails, and the cycle continues.
He quotes during the service from John 3:17: "For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him."
It's when a person is freed from condemnation that he can breathe, and he can receive God's love and power.
"He thinks I'm awesome, so I'm going to live like that," Bevilacqua said. "That's really a spiritual way to live. I'm strong. I can say no. . It's so much easier to find out who you are."
That different way of thinking about how people live is finding an audience. Jonathan and Michelle Flahive have attended Bar Church with their four children since it started in June, and came over from the home Grace Life Church.
"(Bar Church) is not institutional," Jonathan Flahive said. "It's not a sin management program. It's all about God loving you."
The Flahives have been in ministry before, and got burned out. "This is nice for people who are burned out, or who have never been to church because they feel judged," Michelle Flahive said.
The pastors have heard the criticism that you might expect. "We had one guy who said, it's just a big gimmick," Bevilacqua said, shaking his head. "A gimmick to what? To love on people? To watch their life change?"
Lammon said some pastors can't agree with their philosophy -- love with no strings attached.
"They just wouldn't agree with the fact that you can simply love people, and just by loving people it causes change in their heart, which inevitably causes change in their actions."