When Pastor Samuel Wheatley arrived in Salt Lake City, Utah, to take the helm of New Song Presbyterian Church, he saw almost instantly the need to revamp the way the church thought about ministry.

“The models of success were ‘if you preached well and engaged on a personal level, talked about the gospel, and had creative music and innovative outreach, the people came to church,’” he says. “We were doing all that stuff here and not seeing a lot of people come to church.”

In a state where only about eight percent of residents profess an affiliation with any branch of Christianity, and where the Mormon church is tightly woven into the cultural fabric, the traditional seeker-sensitive model of evangelism was simply not working.

“We have several [seeker-sensitive churches]. What they tend to do is attract transplants to Utah—existing Christians who have moved here—rather than people who have grown up here,” says Wheatley. “Those churches are growing because the population of the state is growing, but the percentage of Christians in our state is stable or declining.”

The more Wheatley understood Salt Lake City’s culture, the more he recognized the “build it and they will come” model of ministry was not going to work. To minister well to the people of Salt Lake City, New Song had to empower its members to take ministry to a community of skeptics who were yearning for something more.

“We realized a lot of people don’t want to leave God; they just want to leave the way they’ve been forced into worshiping God,” Wheatley says. “Eternity is written on the hearts of humans, so there’s a spiritual impulse in all of us that can’t really be suppressed. Often, they want something more, they just don’t know what the more is.”

To that end, New Song has developed a ministry model that focuses on building relationships with people of all backgrounds through dialog, mutual respect, and friendship.

A Discussion Open to All

Wheatley developed Barstool Seminary shortly after he arrived at New Song. The discussion group, now meeting weekly at Piper Down bar on State Street, is open to anyone who wants to talk about just about anything.

“It’s not just Christians who control this deal; whoever shows up is a stakeholder in the conversation and running it,” says Wheatley, who is always unapologetic about his own faith. “I’m a pastor, I can’t hide that, [but] we’re upfront about saying this is not a form of proselytizing.”

The idea caught on quickly, and now the group is in its second iteration, with New Song member Mario Alejandre at the helm.

“[Barstool] is designed to create an environment where people from different backgrounds and beliefs can just come, talk, and know that it’s a safe space to do so,” says Alejandre. “We have found that those who are attracted to Barstool … come from conservative, liberal, communist, socialist, free-market capitalist, evangelical, atheist, agnostic, and happily pagan backgrounds.”

To help keep things civil amid such a diverse crowd, some basic ground rules guide the group: No personal attacks or insults, no monologues over two minutes, no interrupting, tip generously, and “if you use a big word and someone calls for a definition and you can’t define it, you have to buy,” says April Keene, a 40-year-old mother who was one of Barstool’s first regular attenders.

Keene, who doesn’t consider herself religious, values Barstool’s community and open dialogue, and often finds herself sitting across the table from someone with diametrically opposite views on religion, politics, and the world.

“When someone is saying things that you think are so wrong, and you just have to listen …. There have been nights where it’s really a struggle to keep your fists to your side, let alone your mouth closed,” she laughs. “I think its good for all of us.”

Discussion topics at Barstool have ranged from the spiritual (the existence of Heaven and Hell) to the practical (how to gracefully navigate the holiday season) to the downright comical (Ginger or Mary Ann?).

“[That] actually turned into a pretty decent discussion,” says Keene. “[We] talked about stereotypes and what each woman symbolized.”

Barstool hasn’t changed Keene’s religious views, but it has given her a new perspective on Christians.

“I had no idea that in my own Salt Lake Valley there was a Christian group and a Christian pastor that would be interested in doing something like this,” she says. “We could talk so openly and we agreed on so many things.”

And, as far as Wheatley is concerned, that’s the goal of Barstool Seminary.

“Barstool in and of itself is not going to be enough for somebody to grapple with the claims of Christ, so the key thing is building relationships with people,” he says. “If you treat them like future heirs of grace, you begin to not treat them like projects. People begin to get a sense that they are valuable, that somebody cares for them, that they’re not just a project.”
Coffee and Worship

New Song has found value in meeting people where they are in the community for discussion and friendship, but Wheatley hasn’t lost sight of the importance of worship in the Christian life.

While Sunday mornings continue to be a vital time of worship and fellowship for members, equally important is making worship accessible to those in Salt Lake City who may not feel comfortable stepping into a sanctuary. 

“In a place like Salt Lake City, a large portion of the population is skeptical about religion, and often see Christians as trying to sell them a product,” says Mark Peach, assistant pastor and church-planting apprentice at New Song.

Peach leads a Sunday evening coffee shop worship service called New Song @ Nobrow, which meets in Nobrow Coffee and Tea Company in one of Salt Lake City’s artsy downtown neighborhoods. By doing ministry in the public square, Peach has found a way to reach out to Utah’s most skeptical citizens.

“For many who visit the coffee shop, they have never been inside the doors of a church and I believe that their skepticism is at least partly due to a lack of seeing what goes on behind closed doors,” he says. “I explain why we do what we do and I explain that we meet there because we don’t have anything to hide.”

Since New Song @ Nobrow began in October 2010, Peach has seen the service attract fellow Christians, agnostics, atheists—and everything in between. He’s also seen hearts—seemingly hardened against any mention of God—soften as the gospel does its work. “The folks at New Song @ Nobrow see the folks at Nobrow as partners in our community and have sought to develop relationships with them, not in order to sell them something, but rather to love them as Christ would,” he says. 

New Song @ Nobrow is one example of how New Song is reaching out to the community and rethinking the way it does worship. For Wheatley, the downtown church plant is just the beginning.

“We’re talking about starting other worship venues around the city that may or may not turn into church plants, but they’re just places where people are wanting to hear more and experience grace and actually worship more regularly,” he says. “Why not just go to them and start stuff?” 

New Ministry for a New World

Wheatley is the first to say that it is not by his—or anyone else’s—power that New Song has carved a niche for itself in the challenging religious climate of Salt Lake City. He has seen the hand of God at work on a daily basis over the last 10 years, and is convinced God can do the same kind of work all over the country where His people are faithful.

“Places like Salt Lake are the R&D department of our church,” he says. “If I can get 20 people to come to a Barstool conversation to talk about all kinds of things, including Jesus, at a bar in Salt Lake City, of course we can get hundreds of people around the country. If it works here, it’s going to work in other places.”

In addition to being a good ministry model for the larger church, Wheatley believes Utah is a microcosm of the greater United States, which is in many cases is losing its ties to historic Christianity.

“We live in America’s future here,” says Wheatley. “Christianity [is becoming] a minority faith, not a majority faith.”

Indeed, according to a 2008 Pew Research study, 28 percent of American adults have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion, or no religion at all. In addition, one-in-four 18-to-29-year-olds are unaffiliated with any particular faith.

Instead of being intimidated by the nation’s growing lack of faith, Wheatley encourages Christians to heed the call of the gospel on their lives that compels believers to go out into the world and make disciples—even if that world is less than receptive to the message.

“Stop being afraid of the culture; there’s nothing to fear here,” he says. “Being a minority faith is so much more liberating because we don’t have to maintain the status quo, we can actually move back into the role of being a provocateur and a question-asker. Our questions, Wheatley says, coupled with a willingness to dialog, becomes this roadway [through which] the Spirit begins to work in someone’s heart.”
Freelance writer Sarah Asp Olson Makes her home in Central, Ind., where she writes lifestyle and special interest articles.