Where everybody knows your name

Were you a fan of the most famous tavern on TV, the Cheers bar in Boston? The show ran from 1982 to 1993 and launched the further acting careers of a number of its alumni, including Ted Danson, Shelley Long, Rhea Perlman, George Wendt, Kelsey Grammer, Bebe Neuwirth, Woody Harrelson, and Kirstie Alley. My favorite part of the show was the opening song about going to a place where everybody knows your name.

My hometown, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has a deep tavern tradition. Our earliest historian, James Buck, was a teetotaler and prohibitionist and often lamented all of Milwaukee’s saloons and “rum holes” already in the 1840s. Blogger Edgar Mendez recently did an article on the surprising death of 46 taverns that had closed on Milwaukee’s near south side since 2012. Most of the buildings were not reopened by new operators—the buildings now house day care centers, homes, storefront churches, and small retail shops.

Why did they close? These taverns had been community mainstays. They hosted block parties, Christmas dinners for people with no family nearby, pool leagues, and free counseling from the bartenders. For people with small houses or apartments, they were community living rooms. Why did they close? Have people in Milwaukee lost their legendary thirst? Well, no. The number of tavern licenses in the city actually increased during that same time period from 1,096 to 1,356.

Mr. Mendez ascribes the death of these places to several things: first, the decline in manufacturing. Guys used to come out of the factories after all three shifts and drain down a beer or two before returning home, even if it was 8:00 A.M. Manufacturing jobs in the old part of the city have been in decline for decades. Second, the social passion for shooting pool or playing foosball is gone. Third, these taverns were usually run by one strong-willed workaholic whose kids didn’t want to work that hard for so modest a return. Fourth, those individuals were too stubborn to change. One place named Richie’s insisted on closing at 7:00 P.M. because the bar owner wanted to go home. Hmm . . . They wanted a clientele just like them, and they didn’t know how to build relationships with younger people or other ethnic groups.

I have always wanted the vibe in my church to be the same as that of the Cheers bar. I wanted people not only to be welcomed but to feel welcome—that they were home—that somebody cared about their names. I have a hypothesis that people can’t listen to the pastor’s message until they are relaxed and comfortable.

My city has lost not only taverns but dozens and dozens of churches. Every one is a pain in my heart. Every church building that goes dark means that the Word of God is spoken and sung a little less often. It strikes me that the same dynamics that put taverns out of business can do the same for churches. Mr. Mendez’ story inspires me to focus on caring about the continuing relevance of my own congregation. God does not guarantee the permanence of our congregations. The same complacency and self-absorption that killed those taverns could kill us too.

1. We need to care as much about our visitors and community as we do about catering to our members.

2. We need to learn from other churches that are successful and growing and pay attention to what people tell us they are looking for in a community. The message never changes, but the way in which we deliver that message and organize around its mission are always negotiable.

3. We need to choose intentionally to get comfortable reaching out to people not like us.

4. We need to have age and class and ethnic diversity in our leadership and give them the power to make changes.

How’s the health of your congregation?

Pastor Mark Jeske has been bringing the Word of God to viewers of Time of Grace since the program began airing in late 2001. A Milwaukee native, Pastor Jeske has served as the senior pastor at St. Marcus, a multicultural congregation on Milwaukee’s near north side since 1980. In addition, he is the author of several books and dozens of devotional booklets on various topics.

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