I’ve recently been re-reading a book written in the 60s that I first read in college in the 70s, and that has had an impact on me ever since. It’s a short little book and a quick read, but one that leaves you with a lot to consider. (And here’s a tip of my hat to Dr. Mark Berrier, my professor at Dallas Christian College, who shared the book with me.) It’s called A Drink at Joel’s Place, and it was written by Dr. Jess Moody, a native of Paducah, and later Muleshoe, Texas, and graduate of Baylor and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He later received his doctorate from Campbell College in Kentucky and became the founder and first president of Palm Beach Atlantic College in Florida. He wrote a total of seven books before his death in 2018 at the age of 93.
In this book, Dr. Moody makes a startling assertion – there are many qualities that a neighborhood bar has that a local church needs. Someone who is willing to listen without passing judgment, for example. Bartenders do it all the time. Pastors usually feel the need to teach or correct, and there is certainly a place for that when the time is right, but many times, people just need someone who is willing to LISTEN to them without condemnation or rebuke.
Another thing is enjoyment – or as Moody calls it, “Pure, old-fashioned fun.” He points out the many exaggerations that Jesus makes in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere – lines that would have drawn genuine laughter from his original audience. He talks about how the early church was able to make fun of death, because, as he says, “all heaven had broken loose through Jesus’ victory on the cross.” He adds, “One wave after another of joyous Christian laughter washed upon the shores of time and finally caved in the Roman house of sand.” Sad to say, real joy isn’t found in very many churches today.
Genuine fellowship is another quality he lists: the idea that you are part of a community that matters, and that your congregation is a place where love lives, and where acceptance is the rule of the day. Another is anonymity and the opportunity to be left alone, if desired. If a bartender detects that someone doesn’t want to talk, that wish is granted. Many times, churches fail to recognize that newcomers just need some quiet time. The congregation tries to bury new folks with programs and activities, but busy-ness is no substitute for godliness.
One final feature that bars have that churches could use – they deliver what they promise. So should the church. How long would a bar stay in business if all they sold was warm milk? As Dr. Moody points out, the early church found success on the Day of Pentecost when Peter stood up in Acts 2 and announced to the stunned crowd, “This is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel,” referring to the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit, and the accompanying signs and new life.
Joel’s Place – get it?
In other chapters, he goes on to point out the need for genuine community in the church – not a fake, feel-good, phony substitute, but a true demonstration of the power of love. As he says, “We will win the world when we realize that fellowship, not evangelism, must be our primary emphasis.” Jesus was willing – even eager! – to reach out to the rejected and to minister to the marginalized. Or, as one speaker I heard recently expressed it, “Jesus calls us to follow his example, and reach out to the least, the last, and the lost.” Another chapter talks about the need to pursue and promote real and true peace – not just the absence of conflict but restored relationships and genuine, meaningful interactions with others. I enjoy this book because he is blunt when he needs to be, but also visionary when appropriate. As he says in one place, too many churches “have been dusting the furniture while the house is on fire.”
It’s fair to say that I don’t agree with every word in this book, but even then, I appreciate his point of view and the way he makes me think. Towards the end, he has a chapter about qualities that a good minister should have, and he says that anyone who shows “a lack of Christian love and New Testament fellowship has no business preaching about Jesus.” Good stuff.