What’s the likelihood that Jesus would hang out at a bar? Pretty darn good if you ask me. For ten years the North Brooklyn Vineyard (now Vineyard One) hosted a gathering every Sunday evening at the Trash Bar, best known for its PBRs, tator tots, loud punk concerts, having an underground bathroom that was truly unacceptable, and managing to be one of the grungiest dive bars in all of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in its pre-Whole Foods era. Salvaged car seats were used as makeshift booths around the pool table, that always felt a bit crawly, with hanging Christmas lights that added a weird sense of cheer to what was an otherwise dark and dingy spot. Hardly the kind of place you’d expect to find people tuning into God. But something very special went on there. I called it inreaching.
Inreaching is different than outreaching. It wasn’t bar evangelism. By “inreaching” at Trash we joined an existing bar community, in contrast to “outreaching”, that is, as outsiders, inviting them to join us. Although we held services it wasn’t so much that we were trying to get Trash staff and patrons to join us, it was more us joining them! Pretty subversive, like Jesus.
By becoming a human being Jesus joined the community of sinful humanity. He became one of us. His strategy was pretty straightforward – one human living with and making friends with other humans, pointing them to his Father by loving and caring for them. Gaining the reputation of being, a friend of sinners.Make a friend, set a life free, change the world. Jesus’ friendship was literally a lifesaving and life-affirming experience. He wrapped love, forgiveness and acceptance in friendship and it was just what the doctor ordered.
It went viral, becoming the trademark of the new kind of community he eventually established. “All people will know that you are my followers if you love one another.” The New Testament calls this special kind of Spirit-inspired community experience koinonia.
I guess you might say inreaching at the Trash Bar was our brand of koinonia. It wasn’t complicated. We came and made friends. As friendships formed walls came down. We were confident that if someone became our friend the likelihood of them eventually becoming a friend of Christ was very high because as followers of Christ we were his emissaries. His kingdom bringers. Wherever we were, no matter what we were doing, be it praying and worshipping or simply chatting over a beer, the Spirit was there with us at work in our actions and conversations, breaking down stereotypes, connecting lives, opening-up opportunities for God to work in naturally supernatural ways. Over time a number of patrons, bartenders and sound people became believers.
As we became more at home at Trash it wasn’t unusual for people find themselves belonging before they believed. Take Allen for instance. He was a pretty lonely guy, wandered in one Sunday evening. He told me he was an atheist and that religion was a big waste of time. Yet he came and hung out with us week after week. He never actually came into the service. He’d sit at the outer bar, drink beer and wait for our service to finish. Then he’d chill out and enjoy the rest of the evening with us. I finally asked him why he kept showing up? His answer was revealing. “This”, he said, referring to the good vibes of acceptance and love he was experiencing, “doesn’t happen out there”, pointing to the street outside the bar.
He was right. What he was experienced at Trash was special, something that happens when the Spirit of Jesus, the friend of sinners is around. An experience of koinonia-community that is healing and life affirming, bringing hope to a dark and despairing world that’s longing for love, craving for attachments and belongingness – but looking for it in all the wrong places. It’s what we all yearn for and have been created for. It’s what Jesus freely offers to us all.
Church at Trash became a place where anyone from anywhere could experience the goodness of God at their own speed, on their own turf.
In the spring of 2016, after ten years of inreaching and impacting the lives of hundreds of some of the unlikeliest folks, the Trash Bar lost its lease, ending one of the richest seasons of ministry I’ve ever experienced.