Zac’s place – Church in A Pub?” is just what it says on the label. It is a church that meets in a pub. This isn’t a church that has bought a pub and now uses it as its church building, but this is a church that meets in a fully functioning public house where congregants (or regulars) can drink, smoke, chat and come and go as they please, just like they would in any other pub and unlike they would in most other churches. And that is what Zac’s place (I will leave out the question) is all about. Not doing things different to other churches but aiming to reach those that would normally feel uncomfortable in a conventional church setting.

I arrived one Sunday at 7pm for an 8pm start to find Sean Stillman, co founder of Zac’s place setting up, placing leaflets on tables and hanging a backdrop behind the stage. ‘Quench the thirst’ It said in big letters, which reminded me that the bar was open. After purchasing my drink, sitting alone for a while, occasionally chatting to Sean as he set up for the evening, the regulars started arriving. To find out exactly who goes to Zac’s place I spent the first hour or so of the evening before the more structured part started, chatting to some of them.

Dave, 18, describes himself as a performing arts student that also plays in a band for the love of music. “It’s the icing on the cake coming here every Sunday. When I first came here it blew me away – my faith has been strengthened. Other churches are often judgmental and false but here Sean puts everything in perspective and uses language we can understand.” He enthused referring to the way Sean is able to add subtitles to the religious language often used elsewhere. Jason a fellow band member of Dave wouldn’t describe himself as a Christian but says: “I enjoy coming here and I’m interested in what Sean has to say.”

Unlike Dave, Jan a native of Norway who arrived in Swansea after a childhood in Cardiff regularly attends a nearby church but has also become a regular at Zac’s place. According to Jan the good things are: “You can have a pint, the people are all very friendly and Sean says such sensible things.”
After Jan, I spoke to Hywel, a middle-aged photographer, once a member of the Salvation Army that has been going to Zac’s place for over two years. He told me that he didn’t go anywhere else. “They’re all too traditional, we need to do something to attract people,” he told me. “There is a great atmosphere here, everything’s on street level and Sean is relevant.”

Jonathon and Rhian are committed Christians who occasionally attend Zac’s place. Earlier in the day they had led the worship at their home church some miles away but often came on a Sunday evening (their church has no evening service) because of “good atmosphere, cheap beer and it’s good to come somewhere that meets people where they’re at”. Mark was passionate to tell me that he knew the Lord. Despite the fact that he was also prepared to tell me he was an alcoholic, I was sure he had a real faith. “I’m currently doing some pre-treatment,” he told me. “Before going on to rehab in Reading in a few weeks time.” Like the others Mark was keen to tell me that he felt part of the group at Zac’s place. He has attended various churches over recent years but told me: “I don’t fit any other churches. God brought me here instead. I’ve come a long way since coming here, but I’ve got a long way to go.”

After about an hour of chatting Sean got to the stage and announced Phil James, the entertainment for the evening. I sat at the back and listened as Phil James, a singer/songwriter entertained us with a number of his own songs and a cover or two. The words were clearly from a man who knows the Lord and his introductions to the songs were simple and clear – there wasn’t an atmosphere of preaching but of one man sharing his journey with others. While he sang those present continued to drink, smoke etc. Some chatted among themselves while others listened intently.

At what turned out to be half way through Phil’s set he handed back to Sean for the talk. Everyone I had spoken to over the last few hours had spoken so glowingly about Sean’s message that I was unsure what to expect. What we got would be difficult to describe as particularly different – just a simple message about the ethos of Zac’s place – it’s aims and values (this was a week after it’s third anniversary) and why God wanted to be part of our lives.

It differed from the standard sermon in that it was less than five minutes long. There were no gimmicks, no jumping up and down but a clear message from someone that clearly connected with the people listening. Apart from the length, there was nothing to differentiate the thrust of Sean’s words or presentation than that delivered by a large proportional of the conventional church a few hours previously. But the environment was one in which people felt comfortable and as a result they listened to what was said. Phil then returned with a few more songs, the rest of us continuing as we had before with our drinks and conversations.

Phil James, also works as a pastor for a church in Bridgend about 20 miles east of Swansea. “I love playing here,” he told me. “Zac’s place is a broad expression of church that non Christians can come into. My aim is to share songs to touch people who are without faith and provoke thoughts about worship to God for those that have some. But I believe non Christians need to hear our heart before they can hear our words.”

Before I left I spoke to Paul who had acted as sound engineer for the evening. He started coming to Zac’s place after he had come to faith through the Christian Brethren after a Catholic upbringing. After flirting with various denominations and feeling disillusioned Lorraine King, one of the co founders, introduced him to Zac’s place. “I liked it straight away, the atmosphere was relaxed and that appeared to be more truth about what went on.” Paul met Joanna, his wife, at Zac’s place. She says about Zac’s place: “It’s more open than other churches I have been to. I’m just more comfortable here.”
Zac ’s place – church in a pub?’ was formed in 1998 from the initial idea of Sean Stillman, an evangelist with Exousia Trust which as well as Zac’s place has a ministry called God Squad amongs bikers and Lorraine King a full time musician. “The initial idea.” says Sean Stillman “was to create an opportunity to invite our non Christian friends to have a chat and create a platform to communicate something. We really didn’t know if it would work but here we are three years later. We wanted people to come along and feel comfortable – not necessarily comfortable with the message but with the environment. We didn’t want them to be put off by the way things have been packaged. I often use the example that the Gospel is like a main meal but people are often put off by the way it is served. The intention at the start was for it to be a bridge into the conventional church but after a while we realised we had the opportunity to do things a bit different.” I pushed Sean to expand exactly what he meant. “It has been a bridge for some people, they have come to us, got a few things sorted out and re-entered the conventional church, hopefully stronger in their faith. For others Zac’s place has become their sole expression of church. Wouldn’t it be good to create a group of converted people whose only expression of church is that of a smoky bar without the hang ups that I and many others with church backgrounds grew up with.”

From this point Zac’s place grew significantly sometimes attracting crowds of well in excess of 100. Earlier this year HTV Wales broadcast a series of programmes hosted by Zac ’s place, which followed the format of the Sunday evening services. Several well-known Christian performers took part including Martyn Joseph, Rick Elias, Tim Vine and John Archer.

After the success of the TV show numbers have dropped off slightly and the core regulars remain. Are there any difficulties running a church in a pub?“

There are some ” says Sean. “Ironically we have attracted many alcoholics. We’ve been able to help many of them and successfully helped them through rehab. We’d be horrified if we thought we encouraged them or if we introduced a younger person to alcohol. Zac’s place is strictly for the over 18s. ”The structure and ethos of the church does make pastoral work a challenge. During the week Sean and other helpers meet with some attendees for Bible study and counselling while others are kept in contact via email, telephone and personal visits. Being a church with a limited target audience means there is no Sunday school, over 50s meeting or other age specific groups for the church to support. This could be seen as a benefit for those that are rushed off their feet organising various events in the church calendar but it does leave gaps in giving people the opportunity to put something back into the community. This hopefully will be addressed by the plans for Zac ’s place.

Current plans for the future are to purchase city centre premises and develop the whole theme of “Zac’s Place – A Place to Belong”. A city centre refuge based around a music venue with other dedicated projects like an under 18s youth hangout. It is also envisaged that these premises could be used to develop the pastoral aspect of the church with rooms available for bible study and support groups and other ministries such as a dry bar for alcoholics. With these ministries, it is hoped to offer employment and openings to those that would find it difficult to gain opportunities elsewhere to put something back into the community.

I was fearful that Zac’s place would be an after church drinking club for evangelicals. Zac’s place is far from that, but a church that is ministering to a section of the community that the conventional church has failed to reach. My memory from the Sunday I attended is of an extremely warm welcome from all those that attended, music of good quality and a message preached effectively – all that I would hope from a conventional church. There is clear evidence that Zac’s place has changed people and presented the Gospel clearly and effectively to many. Singer/songwriter Rick Elias describes Zac’s place with these words “Zac’s place stands out as one of the most unique and effective outreaches into the community I’ve seen. It is unpretentious and non-exclusive; two traits I believe characterised the early church. Moreover, it has proven to be a refuge for both believer and those still seeking, the strong and the weary, young and old, rich and poor. This, to me, is true church.”