No animal ever invented anything so bad as drunkenness – or so good as drink. – GK Chesterton
Nearly 20 years ago, I recall reading that a church in a small rural town in Victoria, Australia, had taken an interesting step toward engaging with its community. A Melbourne newspaper reported, “Patrons of the Hamilton hotel will soon be offered spirit of a different kind. In an unusual conversion, the town’s Baptist congregation – who are teetotallers – have taken over one of the six pubs in town.”
The Hamilton township watched in bemusement as the pub, located in the main street opposite the local post office, was bought by the Baptists and renovated into a church and conference center.
The front bar of the former drinking establishment was turned into a recreation area for young people, and its dance area was repurposed as a chapel and meeting room. The back bar became a coffee shop, and the defunct Hamilton Hotel was now an alcohol-free church zone.
In the article, various church leaders from Melbourne, and the pastor of the Hamilton Baptist Church spoke of the relocation as innovative and creative and, even, daring. However, one sour note was sounded. Midway through the news report, a Hamilton local was quoted: “One of the hotel’s former regulars, farmer Bruce McKellar, 71, said he would miss his corner of the bar. ‘I would walk in and straight to it; we all had our own space,’ he said.”
The nostalgia behind his comment wasn’t lost on me. Farmer McKellar had been displaced from his personal seat at the bar, and although he had probably moved on to one of the other pubs in town, he would never again be welcomed at his favorite watering hole. The drinkers had been shooed out of the Hamilton pub to make way for the Baptists.
Now, this got me thinking. This project, though appearing innovative, is in fact standard church operating procedure. Hamilton Baptist Church used to meet elsewhere but their building was sold as a development site. The Hamilton Hotel had gone bust and their building was vacant. Why wouldn’t the Baptists buy the centrally located premises and move right in? It’s no different to buying an old warehouse or shopfront, right?
But around the time I was reading about Hamilton, I came across another story of Christians buying a pub, although for a very different reason.
The Cock and Bottle is a yellow two-story English pub at the bottom of the high street in Bradford, England. It’s warm wooden interior and plush upholstered seating have been used as a setting for various British films.
Bradford is a hardscrabble, working class town. In recent times, it has been known for its racial conflict and street violence. The Cock and Bottle has long been a place of sanctuary and solace. But when a four lane freeway, or ring-road, was built next to the pub, the neighborhood began to change. People moved away, and the pub was struggling for patrons. That’s when the Christians stepped in.
In 1999, a number of local Christians formed the Bradford Christian Pub Consortium and secured the licence for the Cock and Bottle. They employed Malcolm Willis to manage the hotel, and he and his wife moved into an apartment upstairs. At the time, Willis was quoted in the local press as saying, “Jesus said, ‘Go into all the world.’ And this includes pubs. He didn’t say sit in your church and wait for people to come to you.”
The Willises and their staff (all Christians) then set about creating a loving, welcoming environment where locals are cared for, listened to and ministered to. Says Malcolm Willis, “Initially, many won’t accept you talking about Jesus. Maybe after you’ve listened to them ten or twenty times — which can be exhausting — they might say, ‘Can you pray for me?’ And then you see things happen.”
Naturally, the question about whether Christians should be serving alcohol came up. Willis himself is teetotal, but he has an earthy and realistic outlook on the issue. “Yes,” he admits, “we’re selling booze to people who could do without it. But if we don’t, they’ll just go somewhere else. At least if they’re here we can get alongside them. I knew when I came here that I personally had to be seen not to drink, but I’m not everybody.”
He continues, “Someone once showed me Proverbs 31, which says, ‘Beer and wine are only for the dying or for those who have lost all hope. Let them drink and forget how poor and miserable they feel. But you must defend those who are helpless and have no hope.’ So I have to ask, What would Jesus have done? I think the Lord would have been here in the pubs.”
There is a world of difference, and not just geographically, between the Cock and Bottle and the Hamilton Hotel. The former is incarnational and missional, and quite risky. There are the risks of being misunderstood, and of compromise or syncretism, and there’s the chance of failing in the high-risk hospitality industry. The latter is the safer option. It is an example of sound financial management, and the repurposing of a highly visible building.
But the strategy employed at the Cock and Bottle prioritizes relational engagement with locals. Mal Willis and the Bradford Christian Pub Consortium are willing to embrace the risks because they are committed to serving their neighbors and revitalizing their community. Whereas the Hamilton pub renovation excludes locals and does nothing to bring business to the center of town.
In making this comparison, I’m not casting any aspersions on the good folks at Hamilton Baptist Church. I don’t think they did anything wrong. In fact, I pray their presence in town is a strong witness to the community, and adds something of value to the life and culture of Hamilton.
But the Cock and Bottle feels more Jesus-y.
Meanwhile, yet another world away, my old friend Hugh Halter has been involved in the restoration of another much-loved building. Several years ago, Hugh and his wife Cheryl moved to Alton, Illinois, a charming old town on the banks of the Mississippi River, shrouded by limestone bluffs, not far from St Louis. But Alton had seen better days. Lots of industries, including the glass bottle works and the cardboard box factory had closed down and people started to move away. Many of the stores in the main street were empty, and the historic buildings along the river were falling into disrepair. Alton was in the doldrums.
But then, through various ways and means, Hugh was offered the opportunity to take over the historic Alton post office and turn it into a restaurant and nightspot. If you know Hugh you’ll know these crazy things seem to happen to him all the time. Anyway, he seized the opportunity and set about converting the imposing old government building into Post Commons, with a world-class coffeeshop, a brunch kitchen, a whiskey bar and event space.
Post Commons is a thriving hub in the center of town, and it has helped touch off the beginnings of a renaissance of the downtown area of Alton. Sure, they serve more whisky than lager, but they have the same philosophy as Mal Willis and the Cock and Bottle. This is where the Lord would be, hanging out with people who might never attend a church.
And then there’s another friend of mine, Joey Turner, a pastor and former youth worker, who launched Brewed, a bar, restaurant and coffeeshop in a former furniture store in the Magnolia district of Fort Worth, Texas. Magnolia was a suburb that had seen better days. Many of the stores in the main street were shuttered, including the old furniture store, when Joey decided to open Brewed. He created a really cool venue, with multiple rooms, a huge bar, and a firepit in the patio area out back.
And, just as Hugh had seen in Alton, the presence of a thriving nightspot meant that Magnolia started to come back to life.
Anyone who works in the hospitality industry will tell you it’s enormously hard work with no guarantee of success. Brewed struggled in its early years, and Joey ended up having to work in real estate to make ends meet. Under Mal Willis’ management the Cock and Bottle served patrons for over fifteen years before finally closing in 2015. But each of these businesses have been oases of grace in neighborhoods that are doing it tough. Mal, Hugh and Joey have served their customers with grace and treated them with dignity. All three of them love Jesus and felt God was calling them to fashion these businesses in order to make Jesus known and to serve ailing communities.
And all three of them know how to pour the perfect glass of lager.