The way Mike Unverzagt sees it, Jesus said in Matthew 28:18-19, "Go into all the world and make disciples"—he didn't say, "Open a church and hope folks show up."
So Unverzagt, a minister in Vancouver, Wash., with a small Pentecostal church called the House, asked himself how best to "reach the unreached." Zeroing in on the words "go" and "reach," he aimed for the most likely spot to find the "unreached" on a Sunday in the fall: a sports bar. His idea, Sports Church, kicks off Sept. 9 at Cascade Bar and Grill (15000 SE Mill Plain Blvd., Vancouver), during halftime of the 10 am NFL game.
The 30-minute service will run past the usual halftime length. Strange as a bar setting may be, it's a logical step for Unverzagt, who was ordained in 1986 by the Pentecostal Assemblies of God, and his wife, Val.
"We can't change the Bible, but we put everything else on the table,'' says Unverzagt, who doesn't drink. "There's got to be a better way to preach to people who don't normally come to church."
Unverzagt, 44, has the House, a low-key "cafe-style" gathering on Saturday nights at Glad Tidings Church in Vancouver. He has served as its minister for two years.
He says taking that approach to Cascade Bar and Grill will be just as friendly and low-key, especially since business will go on as usual in the bar.
"We'll have a half-hour service in one side of the bar," Unverzagt says. "The first five minutes we'll be high-fiving and connecting, and then we'll have a 'sideline reporter' with announcements. Then we'll have a 15-minute 'coach's talk.' I feel like a pastor is a life coach, and I'll offer an encouraging word to help them be a champion in life."
Steve Pike, Assemblies of God's national director of church planting, says his group "plants" some 250 churches a year. Pike wasn't familiar with Sports Church. But he says it's typical of the creative energy in a movement that traces its origins to a late-19th century religious revival that today claims 35 million members in 175,000 congregations worldwide.
"We're interested in whatever it takes to help a church get going in a community," Pike says. "As long as our people aren't behaving immorally or seen to be endorsing immorality, the form the church takes is entirely negotiable."
Cascade owner John Laughlin says he "was kind of leery" at first about how church and (drinking) state would mix. He doesn't normally go to church, but "will definitely start" on Sept. 9.
"Mike's style just seems very easygoing, and I think it's a great idea to bring a lot of new people in," Laughlin says. "These [Sports Church] guys are pretty laid-back, and I don't see them throwing the book at anybody."
To limit interruptions, there will be a person appointed to the role of referee, to toss a red flag and stop the talk in case something exciting happens when the game resumes. Laughlin says some of his longtime customers are OK with the church coming in. But he also adds, "I didn't want it to disrupt our regular clientele for football, and I didn't want the games interrupted. People watch a lot of games for fantasy league stats, and if that's being disturbed, [the church] might go somewhere else."
Unverzagt insists his goal is simple: win fans for Jesus. He says most congregations are about 60 percent female, in part because "we've kind of feminized church a little." In that light, church in a sports bar makes perfect sense.
"Our goal for Sports Church is to see sports lovers be born again," Unverzagt says. "We want to go to them, look like them, and talk like them."
Unverzagt insists this isn't an act; he grew up in Seattle and calls himself a huge sports fan: "The Seahawks are my team, and I love the Mariners and Huskies, too."
Still, he realizes that "traditional" churches turn off a lot of people.
"It seems like churches sometimes get to the point where they focus more on fundraising," he says. "Only one in 20 churches are actually reaching people who don't normally attend church. I told one woman to tell her husband, 'Pastor Mike will buy you a beer if you come to church.'"
Sports Church isn't his last idea, either. He talks about fishing church, hunting church, hiking church…"It's really limitless." He says he has a born-again Ultimate Fighter (Matt Horwich) lined up to come tell his story. And he says his wife is considering a mall church to attract even more women.
"It's just a matter of going to people where they are," he says.