HUNTERSVILLE – The Rev. Jeff Hathcock is comfortable sitting at a bar and sharing the word of God. And after years of conducting unorthodox services in taverns and tap-lined barrooms, he’s well aware his approach doesn’t align with some long-held beliefs about what church should be.
But it doesn’t deter him from hitting the road each Sunday, on a motorcycle if the weather allows and the spirit moves him, to lead informal discussions about biblical messages from a pulpit framed by pool tables and pinball machines; and to fill any other role – engaged listener, spiritual adviser, hospital visitor or simply a shoulder to cry on – his duty as The Barstool Pastor requires.
“Look, I get it. I understand completely this doesn’t fit some folks’ image of what ‘church’ should be,” Hathcock, 59, said during a weekday conversation at In The Wind Bar & Grill in Huntersville, his newest meeting place. “But it always comes down to one issue: What is a church? Is it the building, the pews, the steeple? No, the church is us. It’s the people. And what I do is take the message where the people are.”
Hathcock is quick to note that his approach isn’t a condemnation of “traditional” church settings.
“It’s just different,” he explains. “I say all the time this isn’t ‘or’ in terms of regular church, it’s more of an ‘and.’ Many of the people who take part in these services, for whatever reason, don’t go to regular church services, but they have faith and they want that spiritual connection. And this allows them to take part, at a level that’s comfortable for them, in a welcoming and familiar setting.”
Humbled and revived
Hathcock, a north Mecklenburg native and an ordained minister, took the first steps on his path to barroom preaching about nine years ago. He was affiliated with Lake Forest Church in Huntersville and received the church’s endorsement to pursue the unusual idea. The first home for services was Harvey’s tavern and restaurant in the Vermillion neighborhood.
The Sunday morning gatherings attracted interest and a steady congregation, but the seeds Hathcock hoped to spread withered.
“In 2015, things dried up, interest faded,” said Hathcock, admitting the setback unsettled his resolve and caused him to question his vision for the outside-the-box – and beyond-the-church-walls – ministry.
“There was a time, I guess, I was a little lost,” he said. “In terms of what to do next, I hit a wall. But it turned out God used that experience, that lesson for me, to help teach me what I’m doing now.”
Almost a year after services at Harvey’s ended, Hathcock was at the Westside Tavern in Charlotte.
“I guess it could be described as a ‘biker bar’ and the kind of place some people might judge from the outside as a place they wouldn’t feel comfortable,” Hathcock said in describing the establishment.
A conversation with bar patrons and the owner grew into the concept for a new trial of Sunday morning services.
In the months that followed – a period that included presiding over weddings, baptisms and funerals for members of his Westside Tavern Church – Hathcock said the regular congregation grew to about 50 loyal participants at twice-a-month services.
The program at In The Wind, not far from Hathcock’s home and, fittingly, the previous home of Calvary Chapel church, evolved in a similar fashion. In November, Hathcock was at In The Wind and, during a discussion with friend and bar owner Judy Ellis, the topic turned to potential services.
“She said what about starting next Sunday,” Hathcock said, “and I said great. Let’s pray on it.”
At the first services on Dec. 8, at the outset of an early winter storm that blanketed the region with snow and ice, eight people showed up. Two weeks later, 28 people attended. Two weeks after that, 32 took part in the 11 a.m. Sunday morning program.
“It’s been going gangbusters,” Judy Ellis said. “It has taken off and people really seem to like it.”
A faith refresher
Hathcock – now leading services on the first and third Sunday of each month at Westside, and the second and fourth Sundays at In The Wind – said Lake Forest Church continues to support the ministry and he feels the outreach matches the “mission-ality” emphasis many traditional congregations are adopting.
“Going to where the people are, taking the message to them, that’s what missions do,” Hathcock said. “What we do is talk about how the message applies to their lives. I don’t preach at them, we discuss things together. I guess a way to describe it is demystifying spirituality, bringing the message into focus.
“Everyone is welcome, Pope or pauper, and what I’m doing, in a spiritual fashion, is taking water to the desert for those who want to drink.”
And that blends well with the theme Hathcock has adopted for the revival of Barstool Pastor services: “For the thirsty in all of us.”