RiverTree welcomes 'unchurched' at services in Bourbon Theatre

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Jim Kirby, left, smokes a cigarette outside the Bourbon Theatre where RiverTree Community Church holds services every Sunday at 9 and 11 a.m. Led by Pastor Greg Loy, RiverTree welcomes anyone who happens to walk down O Street.

Story and photos by Michael Todd, NewsNetNebraska

Jim Kirby stands among the hundreds of spent cigarettes from the weekend on Lincoln’s downtown sidewalk. He smokes one more outside the Bourbon Theatre then joins the other parishioners of RiverTree Community Church walking into the chapel: a coffee shop by day, music venue by night.

To most, Kirby is just another homeless person without a name, but when he bellies up to the bar inside, he’s greeted warmly by Cindy Christ who pours him a glass of water. It’s here, among the hundred or so spent souls tired of the dogmas of traditional churches, that Kirby and others take solace. After all, he says, he comes to RiverTree because it doesn’t have the “pomp and pageantry” of a regular church.

“I like it because anyone can come without having to act a certain way,” Kirby said.

That’s the philosophy at six-year-old RiverTree: the belief that God took on everyone’s flaws so that everyone could come to God as they are. Each Sunday, a wide array of people comes to church as they are, in regular clothes to an irregular church that will take in anyone.

Christ says quite a few people she knows at services are homeless while others are alcoholics and addicts. Some are college students who come to the Bourbon the Friday or Saturday night before for a concert and on Sunday see the theater transformed into a worship center. She says she has seen the congregation grow and evolve “since day two,” having before gone to the Evangelical Free Church where she came to know Pastor Greg Loy, who started RiverTree.

“He had a heart to start a church in the center of Lincoln for people that are ‘unchurched’: That’s terminology that I don’t like to use especially, but it was meant just for anybody who happens to be walking down O Street,” said Christ, a grant writer for the Brain Injury Association who calls herself a servant volunteer at RiverTree. “So we followed him here to RiverTree, and as you can see, the bar setting is just the beginning of us being not a regular church.”

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Jim Kirby, right, bows his head as the band at RiverTree Community Church leads a worship song within the Bourbon Theatre. With two bars and the aura of a music venue never fading, the Bourbon hosts RiverTree every Sunday.

Loy said the church gets criticism loud and often about holding services in a bar. Mostly, it comes from those who he terms as “churched,” people brought up following faiths practiced in traditional settings that might not be as welcome to parishioners on the periphery. He said what RiverTree’s critics might not consider is the perspective of the alcoholic and how, perhaps paradoxically, they are less likely to fall victim to their illness at the Bourbon Theatre.

It is when alcoholics are alone that they are more apt to pick up the bottle.

“We laugh because what we’ve been told is that [the church] is not very tempting for alcoholics,” Loy said. “There’s temptation all over, of course, but they say the real temptation is when they’re home, all alone and empty.”

Loy added that it was the church-goers of Jesus’ day, the religious Pharisees, who were most critical of Him.

“So we’re in pretty good company there,” Loy said.

One of RiverTree’s main initiatives is to welcome the homeless community, too, but Loy said that’s easier said than done. Many of the homeless are independent and nomadic, Loy said. They are difficult to reach, skeptical and not willing to commit. While a handful, like Kirby, have joined the People’s City Mission and do chores to help carry the burden, Loy said a greater number of the homeless are on the street because they want to be.

“You’ll see panhandlers all over Lincoln who have no real reason to panhandle,” Loy said. “They have the Matt Talbot Kitchen and similar places to go, so that’s not an issue. So we try to reach out, incorporate and bring them in, but there’s a lot of reluctance.”

Loy said he started the church with the intention of preaching to folks in the suburbs, but as the Rococo Theatre first and later on the Bourbon Theatre were the most economical buildings available for rent, the congregation changed. It ended up being people with very little or no church background, a group of people unfamiliar with the stories churchgoing people would know.

As RiverTree has developed itself as part of the downtown community, the four words echoed by both Loy and Christ — “not a regular church” — bind together those who attend the service. Services start sometime around 9 or 11 a.m., but depending on the day, it could be 10 or 15 minutes past the hour. That’s when the music ministry plugs in and begins with a song. The words fall on the large screen behind the stage, but you won’t see everyone joining in for the chorus; one parishioner might raise her hand as she sings, but most simply stand and listen, not feeling obligated to emote any more than they normally would.

When the last chord ends and the musician at the microphone calls for everyone to meet a new friend, people get up and mosey about the floor, getting to know one another. Another song, then the band breaks for a reading of a story, but there’s no introduction, just a title projected behind them. Much of the narrative is ostensibly secular, and only toward the end does it hint at the sort of spirituality-in-commonness ideology other churches might portray in plainer terms.

Often, even the sermon departs from the norm. Pastor Loy might have a conversation with someone on stage in order to elucidate a concept. Guest speakers might ask for prayers sent in the name of young women being sex-trafficked around the world. And when the minister for the day gives the stage back to the band, communion is simply there for the taking. This consists of wafers and grape juice. The ritual is not given special attention by the group but rather given significance at the discretion of each individual.

As the church’s mission statement says, that’s kind of it: no organ postlude, no snuffing out of candles, not even an offering. Christ said it’s this last exception to the rule established by other church services that presents as a problem to RiverTree’s well-being. Many of those who attend are students and the homeless, who don’t contribute to the bottom line.

“We do live on a shoestring here, but we’re going on about six and a half years because God is good,” Christ said. “Right when we’re really hurting, a big check will come in, something will happen, and so we just seek God’s hand.”

Looking forward, she said RiverTree will never own its own building. Being able to turn a bar into a place of worship is important, and if the church became more established, its priorities might involve getting people in the door simply for their money. Above all, RiverTree just wants to keep it simple and retain its reputation as not a regular church.

“A lot of churches in Lincoln, if God left, they wouldn’t know it. Part of that is all the processes, all the committees: They have this whole function set up, but the people don’t spend time worshiping God, and that’s what we’re about.

“We’re big on grace, which is what allows us to open our doors to anybody and accept anybody.”

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RiverTree Community Church’s information board sits in front of the Bourbon Theatre’s front room bar. With homeless people, alcoholics and addicts as parishioners, RiverTree holds services accepting of all people.

1 Response

  1. Hey, Greg:

    This is Buff. I’ve been following your ministries on Google and appreciate the work you are doing among the “forgotten.”

    Please send me a note and I’ll add you to my mailing list to receive my weekly column, REFORMATION RUMBLINGS. Too, I think you would enjoy reading my Website about the modern-day, traditional church.

    God bless.

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