Applebees. I returned to my faith over late night appetizers.
It's not an uncommon story. The location may vary, but many people find or re-engage their faith around fire pits, at pubs, and through relationships with friends.
I had a friend named Jay that kept pursuing me and allowed me to openly question the things I grew up believing. He was one of the few Jesus-obsessed people I knew that would openly say "I don't know" to the faith questions I was having. I trusted him because I knew he wasn't making things up. I could usually tell when someone from the church just wanted me to believe and didn't have the answers themselves.
Honey BBQ boneless wings, root beer, friends, and Jesus. Over the course of a summer Jesus became more clear to me. I felt close to God again.
Fast forward quite a few years. I had successfully ruined the lives of countless teenagers as a Youth Pastor through ultra-competitive dodgeball and paintball events and moved across the state to be a lead pastor at a church that experienced quick numerical growth.
We were in the talks of a building campaign and I preached multiple services for this country church about 30 minutes from the state capitol of Pennsylvania. The problem is, with all the growth in numbers we were experiencing, almost all of that we attributed to transfer growth. People were coming from other churches. That was good for our budget and my ego, but I'm not so sure it was good for God's kingdom.
I desperately wanted to reach people far from Jesus but increasingly felt distant from the Holy Spirit, disengaged from mission and a little dirty about seeing so many people come from other churches. This was an inward struggle masked by outward faked confidence.
A week before I married my lovely bride I went to an EFCA leadership conference in San Diego. While there, I connected with a group of people I had been talking over the phone and facebook with. They called themselves the "Missional Architects". These new friends were pioneering innovative forms of church and attempting to reach people far from Jesus.
We all met up at a pub in San Diego called, "The Blind Lady Ale House." A group of about 10 of us were seated at this long pub table and ordered some appetizers and drinks. One of the men at the table leaned over and told me that all of my food and beer was on them because I was getting married in a week. They simply wanted to bless me. I immediately felt loved and comfortable all at once.
We talked about a variety of things (from beer to sports and culture) before the conversation shifted. One of the men at the table spoke up and asked everyone to share one piece of advice with me because I was getting married in a week. Each man at the table took time to share wisdom with me. I felt invested into.
After everyone shared for a bit, we laughed and shared stories for a bit ordering another round. I felt at home with this group of men. One of the guys then suggested that each man share one ridiculous mistake they made in their marriage relationship. One by one each man at the table started to confess. The stories were vulnerable and hysterical at the same time.
After everyone had confessed (which resulted in me feeling incredibly safe) one of the guys said he felt the Spirit of God impressing on him that he should buy a round of beers for the table next to us (complete strangers.) After getting a free round of drinks the table next to us asked us who we were. When one of the guys responded that we were a group of missionaries and church leaders the guy didn't believe it. He threw out a few expletives (jokingly) and then we asked these men to join our table. They scooted their table onto ours and joined us. These outsiders were treated like insiders and soon we discovered that a few of them were agnostics and we talked very openly about our different ideas of faith and Jesus. It was a really dynamic conversation.
With these new friends at the table one of the men suggested that with my wedding coming up in a week they pray a prayer of blessing over me for my future marriage. One of the agnostics said, "that's a really meaningful idea." Each of these men began to pray a prayer of blessing for me. I sat back in my seat and thought, "I have never felt so loved by a group of men in my life."
Then an entire flood of thoughts came rushing into my mind. Breaking of bread, prayer, engaging those who don't believe, confession, generosity. I felt that I had just experienced a better version of church than the one I was leading. It felt like Acts 2 to me.
A week later on my honeymoon I shared the whole experience with my new wife and told her that I felt God was calling us to start "blind lady ale house church". She agreed. Through a number of events and conversations my wife and I left the church I was at and started Narrow Road Communities. We yearned for environments like what I experienced at the Blind Lady Ale house to be the norm when it came to church community and mission.
And here we are. Seven years later with 17 micro churches that have a similar vibe of that 73 degree San Diego night.
I yearn for every person to engage their faith in community and see people from outside the church come around the table to experience Jesus and his grace.
Mike Jarrell serves as the founding and lead pastor of Narrow Road Communities in Summerdale PA and as the Director of the Creo Collective.