FORT WORTH, Texas – On a recent Sunday evening, Elizabeth Ruiz slipped through the front door of her church, selected a dark beer from a handwritten menu on the wall and found a seat among worshippers.
Churchgoers sat in chairs at mismatched tables instead of in pews, sipping beer and sharing thin-crust pizzas. In the front of the room, near a pair of dartboards, a singer crooned about growing up in West Texas.
This small church bears little resemblance to the one Ruiz attended as a girl in Oklahoma. In what’s known simply as pub church, the congregation meets every Sunday at Zio Carlo Magnolia Brew Pub to worship, chat and enjoy craft beer.
“A lot of young people don’t feel comfortable going to church because it’s so formal and stuffy,” said Ruiz, 30, of Fort Worth. “This is nothing like that.”
Precisely, members said.
Pub church started two years ago at Zio Carlo’s when two area pastors bemoaned a trend in religion. Young people were leaving their churches in droves, many never returning. The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion is growing, according to the extensive Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project. One-fifth of Americans – and one-third of adults younger than 30 – are not affiliated with any religion.
So Calvary Lutheran Church in Richland Hills, Texas, and Trinity Lutheran Church in Fort Worth teamed up to create a new kind of church.
“There are people who will never walk through the front door of a church at 8:30 in the morning Sunday, and we realize that,” said the Rev. Erik Gronberg, pastor at Trinity Lutheran. “So the question is, How do we connect with those people? How can we reach them?”
Gronberg shares the pulpit at the pub with the Rev. Phillip Heinze, pastor at Calvary Lutheran.
Leah Stanfield, a leasing agent in Fort Worth, attended the same Lutheran church for most of her childhood in Hurst, Texas. As an adult, she attended services at 10 churches but struggled to find a good fit.
When she learned about pub church through a friend, she decided to try it. Immediately, she found solace and inspiration in the easygoing services and fellowship.
“I find God here,” she said. “I know for a fact my faith would not be where it is if I did not have this church.”
Services begin at 5 p.m. and include live music from local musicians and about 10 minutes of Scripture. After the service, members stick around for about an hour for fellowship, where conversations range from sports and weather to spirituality and God.
Unlike many traditional churches, Communion is open to everyone.
“There is no membership card,” Gronberg said. “You can walk in off the street and take Communion. We are open and inclusive.”
Members range from 20-something hipsters, artists and musicians to older people who simply enjoy craft beer and the relaxed atmosphere. On a typical Sunday, the congregation numbers 20 to 40 worshippers, but it has drawn up to 60.
Many members grew up in a church and became disaffected, but others knew little of the Bible or its teachings, Gronberg said. Pub church reaches out to both groups.
Sean Lynch, 33, said the church has struck a chord with young people.
“For a lot of people, it’s easier to walk into a bar than a downtown cathedral,” Lynch said. “It’s less intimidating.”
The idea is gaining momentum. A few similar churches have popped up around the country, and a former intern at Calvary Lutheran has started a pub church in Alliance, Ohio. Pastors hope to start more pub churches across North Texas, Gronberg said.
“For a long time, churches sat back and waited for people to come to them,” Gronberg said. “That is no longer working. We need to leave the safety of our buildings and go to the people.”
That philosophy has invited heckling on only one occasion at Zio Carlo’s, when a patron of the bar shouted for more music instead of the sermon, Gronberg said. But for the most part, the reception has been positive.
For Ruiz, who joined after a particularly bad breakup, pub church has become a sort of second home.
“People my age sometimes get lost in our electronics and busy lives,” Ruiz said. “We forget to connect with each other and take care of ourselves. Pub church has reminded me what’s important.”