TWO HARBORS, Minn. – It was a Sunday during Advent, and inside a small pub a few blocks up from the north shore of Lake Superior, 17 people gathered around four bar-top tables shoved into a ring.
Betsy Nelson, the bar's cook, lit two candles with a cigarette lighter as Addison Houle strapped on an acoustic guitar and sang a slightly off-key rendition of "We Three Kings." Curt "Fish" Anderson sipped a beer as TVs overhead flickered with NFL pregame shows.
"Father, thank you for this time we can share on Sunday morning with new friends," prayed Chris Fletcher, an emergency medical technician, part-time bartender and seminary student who has led this service every Sunday morning at Dunnigan's Pub & Grub since last summer. "We're getting to know you, and getting to know each other better."
Spending Sunday mornings in a bar sounds like an activity for those running from God. For this small group in a watering hole in Twin Harbors, about 160 miles northeast of Minneapolis, it's about chasing God. It's one unconventional place of worship around the country fostered by an evangelical movement known as "the emerging church."
"I feel closer to God here than I do at a conventional church," said Nelson, 56, a lifelong churchgoer who until recently could be found every Sunday morning in the pews at First Baptist Church nearby. "Jesus said we're supposed to be a light to the world. What better place to do that than at a bar?"
After the opening prayer, Fletcher read a brief passage from the Bible before opening the floor to a group discussion. Gene Shank, a 68-year-old retired police officer making his first visit after reading a notice Fletcher put in the local newspaper, confessed to a bit of discomfort.
"I'm a reality person, and I'm finding a little too much established religion here to be honest," Shank said. "I believe, I pray — but I don't like structured religion."
Fletcher responded that, while he wants to be as informal as possible, the main goal is still "creating an open space for Jesus to come into our lives, then he does the transforming work."
He quickly adds that anyone who questions the way he's running the service has come to the right place.
"We're all messed up," he said. "We're all screwed up some way."
Fletcher, a stocky, balding 43-year-old with a bristly goatee, is his own first example. The native of Sudbury, Ontario, grew up in the Worldwide Church of God, a small evangelical sect he described as "almost cult-like." He left religion behind as a young man, but was drawn back as he was hitting 40 and experiencing a series of personal crises: the death of a close friend in an auto accident and the dissolution of his marriage.
Last spring, Fletcher was accepted in Bethel Seminary in St. Paul; he now commutes 150 miles south one to two times a week for classes. Initially he intended to incorporate work as a chaplain into his job working with an ambulance crew, but as he began his seminary studies he found common ground with a recent wave of evangelical thinkers including Brian McLaren and Shane Claiborne.
McLaren and Claiborne have criticized some of Christianity's more conservative traditions as they try to attract people disinterested in traditional Sunday attendance — in particular, younger people.
"I don't feel welcome in a regular church," said Kayla Edwards, 25, who has been to most of Fletcher's Sunday gatherings. "A lot of churches, I feel judged. Here, I feel welcome — it's laid back, you can say what you want and no one will be disgusted."
One Saturday night a few months ago, Fletcher was having a drink at Dunnigan's when a stranger approached and asked to talk. She shared some personal problems and as Fletcher lent a sympathetic ear, and an idea was born. Six months later, Sunday attendance at what Fletcher calls "Bar Church" ("For those who are thirsty" reads a poster on the wall in Dunnigan's) has grown to as many as 25 people.
Lately, Fletcher said, strangers have regularly been approaching him around town in search of guidance, or just someone who will listen. "They'll say, you're that bar pastor," Fletcher said.
Fletcher wasn't the first student of the emerging church to hold a weekly service in a tavern, nightclub or other such establishment. Such gatherings have popped up around the country in recent years, as well as "home churches" that serve much the same purpose. While it might seem perverse, Fletcher said he likes the message it sends to worship Jesus in a place where alcohol is served.
"I often find the people in the bar are a lot more authentic than people in the church," Fletcher said. "If Jesus was in Two Harbors, he'd want to be with the people in the bar. He'd probably get kicked out of the church."
The Rev. Scott Nelson, pastor at First Baptist Church Two Harbors — which Fletcher himself attended before his new venture — is happy to see Fletcher reach people unlikely to set foot in a traditional church. But he's concerned by the linking of Christian worship and alcohol.
"For me personally, I have seen so many marriages and families fractured by alcohol," Nelson said. "In moderation, there's nothing wrong with wine with dinner or a beer at a football game. But it's such a problem for so many, and that's a line I don't know if I want to see blurred."
Fletcher himself is no teetotaler, but he doesn't drink during the Sunday morning service. Most of the participants usually choose coffee, but alcohol isn't forbidden: at this particular gathering, Anderson — a local resort employee and a musician — downed a couple brews as Fletcher preached.
"It's kind of nice to go to church and have a couple," said Anderson, attending for the first time. "I'm not exactly a churchgoer." Anderson, who grew up Roman Catholic, said he realized the church wasn't for him the day he wore a Ted Nugent T-shirt to Mass and was reprimanded by the priest.
"This ain't bad compared to that," Anderson said.
Fletcher isn't sure how long he'll continue the Sunday gatherings.
"There's no five-year plan, there's not even a five-minute plan," he said.
As the service on this Sunday wrapped up, he solicited prayers from the group — for sick relatives, suffering friends, and from Anderson, a prayer for the Minnesota Vikings. Then Fletcher wrapped it up.
"Let's pray," he said. "Then we can eat."