By Rick Wolcott*
“It’s exciting – and fun – to do something different,” said Rachel Spak of Vienna United Methodist Church (Mahoning Valley District). “We want people to know we are part of the community and not just shut away inside our church.”
Spak spoke while taking a quick break between Christmas carols at the Vienna Ale House. She played guitar while more than 20 people from Vienna UMC and Fowler United Methodist Church sang to patrons at the bar.
The Vienna Ale House, according to the glowing sign outside, is “Where Friends & Neighbors Come.”
For the past few months it’s also been the Wednesday afternoon office of full-time local pastor Mary Prior, who pastors both churches.
“It’s the table by the fireplace,” she said.
“It all started when a few of us attended the seminar ‘How to Reach New People’ in August. Kim Griffith, a coach, led the two-day workshop at Warren First UMC,” said Prior. “She took us through current realities – like this is not your parent’s church, and 1955 strategies no longer work – to what the community thinks of the church today and how to connect. Those were two days that were well worth the time and $100.”
“They said we should go out of our churches,” said Ron Thompson, who is church council chairperson at Vienna UMC. “They said we shouldn’t expect to see people come to us, that we need to go to them. So Pastor Mary moved her office hours here and people from the church come here to talk with her.”
“Some people wanted to go to the family restaurant down the street, but we agreed that that is where all the church people go,” Prior said. “We needed to go someplace the church doesn’t go. And we’ve had the best time! Folks from Vienna and from Fowler come here. We’ve connected as churches, and we’ve connected with people in the bar. It’s just been a blessing.”
“It’s wonderful! To get together as a social thing outside of the church is exciting,” said Eleanor Clower of Fowler UMC. “We’ve had a wonderful time.”
“We’ve been praying for Eleanor at both churches,” said Prior. “She is recovering from cancer. She was told two and a half months ago to go home that there was nothing they could do. And here she is!”
“It was very easy for me to feel like a part of their group, even though I started out as their waitress,” said Danielle Kiraly. “They asked me the first day I met them if there was something they could pray for me for.”
To share the love of God at Christmas, members from the two churches gathered at the Ale House to sing carols. Danielle took the night off so she could sing with the group.
It was a night of fellowship for everyone in the bar.
“I’m enjoying myself,” said Jim, who was sharing a songbook with Thompson. “I’m not part of the church but I am part of the community and singing here tonight is fun.”
It wasn’t the first time singing has brought Kiraly together with members of the Vienna UMC congregation.
“I heard her singing to herself one day while she was working here,” Thompson said. “She has a beautiful voice, and was singing a Christian song, so I asked her if she would sing sometime at our church.”
Kiraly didn’t accept the offer, at first.
“Unfortunately I had a very bad experience with a church that I used to go to and I kind of shied away from church – and actually I shied away from God a long time ago,” she said. “But God didn’t shy away from coming after me.”
A few weeks later Thompson asked her again to sing, and she accepted.
She sang Selah’s Wonderful, Merciful Savior.
“The song talks about coming to God from where you are,” said Kiraly. “It’s something I wanted to share with a church for a long time but never had the opportunity to. The song speaks about hope and the pastor’s message that day was about hope. She didn’t know I was going to sing and I didn’t know what her sermon would be. It’s just confirmation that that message was supposed to be put out there for everybody.”
Prior said, “Our goal as two churches is to come here and be the church having a great time, loving on the people, being a community in the community, and inviting people to come.”
The message is spreading.
On December 16 the pastor, and some of the members, of Fowler Community Church came to check out the new Vienna Ale House ministry.
“I feel the church will grow from this experience because the people are putting themselves in different environments,” Kiraly said. “When you are in the community you are the voice, the hands, the feet of God, and you are being an example to others.”
She concluded by saying, “They are unashamed of their love of God and they just want to spread that joy wherever they go. How can you not love that?”
*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.