By Peter Delevett

San Jose Mercury News

SAN JOSE, Calif.

Ah, that Sunday quandary: Go to church or relax with a brew before the game?

A church congregation that meets in downtown San Jose, Calif.’s Loft Bar and Bistro makes that question moot.

“Church in a Bar” is the brainchild of Bill Jenkins, an ex-firefighter from London. He boldly proclaims in a Cockney accent that many people “find traditional church about as useful as a ham sandwich at a bar mitzvah.”

So for a while now, he’s been living a longtime dream to have services in a setting more folks can relate to. The theology lasts for about an hour every Sunday morning, he said, “then we hang around for a pint or two.”

His flock varies in number, but ranges in age from their late 20s to their late 60s. Most, like their pastor, wore jeans and casual shirts.

Jenkins — burly, bespectacled and a bit unkempt — read some Scripture from an iPad, then launched into a brief homily.

“My role, which took me a long time to get my head around, is apostolic,” he told his listeners. “God’s called me to plant churches.”

Later, as the congregation broke into groups to discuss Jenkins’ lessons, he spoke more about his calling.

Jenkins left school at 16 to play professional soccer, but after bouncing around the English minor leagues for a decade, he became a firefighter. Embittered after growing up with a churchgoing but abusive father, “I was a rampant atheist until 35,” he said. When his wife declared that she’d become a Christian, Jenkins said his first thought was to divorce her.

While on duty in the firehouse one evening, Jenkins started reading a spiritual treatise his father-in-law had given him; by the end of his shift, he’d undergone a full-blown conversion. A Baptist church in Kent, England, asked him to begin a “soccer ministry” aimed at attracting young men of faith; in 1994, that duty brought him to Stanford, where parts of the World Cup tournament were being held.

A year later, he was back, bringing his wife and three children to join the staff of South Valley Christian Church in Gilroy, Calif. Eventually he found his way to Gold Country, helping the international nonprofit Stadia launch a new congregation.

“That was church in a trailer,” he recalls. He says he helped launch nine congregations during his time with Stadia, most of them overseas. But when he finally returned to the Bay Area, it was because “I had an itch that I wanted to scratch: to start a church in a pub.”

To Jenkins, it all makes sense. “Much of community life in England used to revolve in and around the local pub,” he pointed out. “I think pubs and churches should share a lot of common denominators.”

Jenkins isn’t the first to mix booze and Bibles: Three decades ago, the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago launched Theology on Tap, a monthly gathering for Catholic 20- and 30-somethings to talk about faith and morality in a relaxed setting outside of church — usually a bar or restaurant.

Jenkins said he learned of Theology on Tap only recently, and while he called it “a great idea,” his goal isn’t to woo people back to a mainstream church.

The brick walls, high ceilings and vaulted windows in the Loft’s upper room suggest a traditional sanctuary, but instead of pews, the worshipers sit at cocktail tables. In place of stained glass hang paper sheets torn from the oversize tablets common in corporate brainstorming sessions.

Jenkins implored his listeners to “commit to God where you can,” even if that means turning their morning jog into prayer time. As he preached, the restaurant staff noisily readied for brunch.

Jenkins’ congregation has grown slowly thanks to word-of-mouth, sidewalk signs and Facebook.

“I think it’s exciting, bringing the church into a new environment,” said Glenn Ballard, who with his wife Vicki attended a service.

Jenkins says he has no idea how long his pub ministry will last. At the end of the year, a consulting contract with another local church will end, leaving him with only a small firefighter’s pension. To keep the church going, he’s looking for a full-time job.

But in the end, he said, “It’s not my business how long it lasts. That’s up to him.”

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