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Ministry occuring in unusual setting

TWO HARBORS, Minn. -- A guy walks into a bar and starts a church. For some, that might sound like the set-up for a punch line. But for Chris Fletcher, there's no joke.

He likes to relax and chat at Dunnigan's Pub & Grub in Two Harbors. He also is finishing a degree in Christian ministry at Bethel University in Minneapolis through its adult studies program, which requires him to commute to class one day per week.

"I was going to Dunnigan's with no intention of talking about ministry," he said. "When I told people I was getting a degree in Christian ministry, they would say, 'How come you're at a bar having a drink, then?'-- as if those two things were mutually exclusive," Fletcher said.

"Very few of the people I was talking to actually go to a church, for one reason or another," Fletcher said. But he found they still were interested in religion. "Everyone's looking for a community, a place where they feel safe."

So he came up with the idea to hold a "Bar Church" gathering Sundays at Dunnigan's. It would be a casual meeting where people could talk about their beliefs, listen to music and find a spiritual community outside of a traditional church.

He floated the idea to Dunnigan's owner Matt Davitt.

"When I first heard about it, I said 'absolutely not,'" Davitt said. "There's two things you don't want to talk about in a bar, and that's religion and politics."

Fletcher told him about a Twin Cities area bar that has a church event with huge turnouts each week. "Chris is a real honest, nice guy, so I said we'll give it a try," Davitt said.

Fletcher organized the first meeting for last Sunday and 13 people showed up. Michelle Jordy provided some music. There was coffee, donuts and drinks. And conversation with the overtones of religion.

"It's people looking for a way to discuss issues in their lives, and if they want to do that around a Bloody Mary, I don't see anything wrong with that," Davitt said. The Bar Church begins at 11 a.m. Sundays. There is no age restriction for joining the discussion. Regular business hours for the pub begin at noon.

"I asked everyone how often we should do it, every couple of weeks or once a month, and they all wanted to come back next week," Fletcher said. They'll continue to meet every Sunday with a different musician each week.

Addison Houle, who recently graduated from North Central University in Minneapolis with a degree in youth ministry, helped Fletcher organize the event. He said most everyone who came last Sunday had been to a church at one time or another, but many of them simply didn't feel at home in a regular church setting.

"It's a real casual thing ... a real comfortable place to be," Houle said of the bar. "For many of them it was like nothing they'd ever been to as far as something organized for Christians. Everyone was very open about their feelings -- it wasn't uptight; you don't have to put on a face."

Fletcher said church-in-a-bar gatherings have taken place in Duluth and Minneapolis. Houle said he'd been thinking about doing ministry in bars but, until he heard about Fletcher's plans, didn't know exactly how he wanted to do it.

Fletcher emphasizes that the "Bar Church" gathering is about offering people somewhere they belong, filling a need. "We talked about the Scripture where Jesus says, 'If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink,' " Fletcher said. "Everyone's thirsty for something, even if they don't always know what it is."

Sonja Peterson is a reporter at the Lake County News Chronicle in Two Harbors, Minn., which is owned by Forum Communications Co.