Solace is a Baptist Union sponsored church plant in Wales which started in 2007.
Church and bar: two public locations that you would not necessarily associate together. One is the meeting place for God’s gathered people, a hallowed building intended to inspire and encourage the faithful to worship; the other is an often run down, dingy place, where the smell of stale bitter hangs in the air and the only spirits present are those of Smirnoff, Jack Daniels and Bacardi. No, two places that are not often associated together.
I first encountered the crazy idea of ‘pub church’ (literally, church in a pub!) in the guise of a Cardiff based group, calling themselves ‘Bar None’. Bar None is indeed a pub church, set up by its founding members – Chris Coffey, Bill and Rachel Taylor-Beales – after they had begun to despair of ever finding a church that they felt authentically expressed their spiritualities. I can’t remember how I first heard about them, but I do remember the first meeting I attended. It was in the basement room of a Cardiff city centre venue. The place was packed, and there was a queue for the bar as wearisome as any Wetherspoons I had ever been in. That night, there was a debate being held – ‘is there such a thing as a just war?’ – that comprised of two speakers giving alternate opinions before the discussion being opened up to the floor for questions and comments. Talking to Bill and Rachel afterwards, I was immediately bowled over by their honesty, totally non-judgemental attitudes and sincere desire to seek after truth. They wanted to create a church where people could just be, without any prerequisites or pre-conditioning. I was hooked.
Jump ahead a few years, and the ethos of pub church was still with me. The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that this is what church should be all about. Some time later, Bar None moved out of the city centre and established itself in a more local situation. Although the ethos remained the same, the dynamic totally changed due to the change in geography and I began to chat to Bill about the idea of establishing another city centre pub church that in effect would fill the gap left by Bar None. Thus began a long process over the succeeding months of praying, talking to people and pushing doors. By this time, I was in my final year training for ministry at South Wales Baptist College and was thinking about settlement. A significant point in the journey was when Gareth Evans, minister of Ararat Baptist Church where I was placed, made a proposal to me. He knew of my vision and was as enthusiastic about it as I was. He suggested that the recommendation be put to the church meeting that Ararat take me on part time as assistant minister, and at the same time apply for Home Mission funding to plant a pub church. I need not need to think long before excitedly agreeing.
Looking back, it is amazing to see how God was really in everything from the start. Not long afterwards, I met a lady named Wendy Sanderson. ‘Sister Wendy’, as she is affectionately known, is employed by the Church Army as a nightclub chaplain in Cardiff. After an initial meeting, it became apparent that God had given us both a near identical vision. For my part, it was amazing to find someone to be able to pray, talk and share the work with. We began to meet regularly, to pray, fast and plan. Cutting a rather long story short, some months later, on 1st April 2007, Solace-Church in a Bar was born.
The philosophy behind Solace remains true to that which I first encountered in Bar None. We strive to create a place where people can come, whatever state they are in emotionally or spiritually, have a pint and ask questions about God. The meetings are every Sunday night from 9pm and take a ‘menu’ approach – i.e. there is a different activity (for want of a better word) each week, but they all revolve around a monthly theme. We see regularly between twenty and thirty people at these meetings. On the second Sunday of the month, which is our acoustic night, Centre Stage, we can see anything up to fifty or sixty people. At this stage (only three months in!), many of these are Christian tourists from other churches who are intrigued by what we’re doing, and we want to encourage them to come. However, Solace was really intended for those who are seeking God, but would not be seen dead on the inside of a church: the un-churched and de-churched. We are slowly attracting more from these groups, and just recently a number of people have started coming from a local spiritualist church. Well, if you create a church for anyone, then you can’t be surprised when anyone comes!
The first months of Solace have been a roller coaster. Church planting is generally a dynamic and exciting ministry, and our experiences have been no exception. It seems like every week some new and unforeseen event occurs that we have to respond to! Sometimes these are negative, and we have had a lot of less than constructive input from more ecclesiastically conservative Christians. On more than one occasion we have had to defend the ministry against those who are sceptical and suspicious. However, God has been faithful to us and the encouragement we receive greatly out-weighs the discouragement. We are about to begin a mid-week bible study/take away evening, and a few weeks ago began a Friday night mission to the homeless around Cardiff city centre. In all these things the hand of God has been evident ad we look forward to see what he has planned for Solace in the future.
Some questions arising from the Solace story...