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Bar beckons bikers for church services

Faithful get their fill at Salvation Saloon.

The founder of the Salvation Saloon , Paul White, shares a laugh with his congregation during his ministry's service at Steve's Cape Cod bar. The service has been attracting about 100 each Sunday.
The founder of the Salvation Saloon , Paul White, shares a laugh with his congregation during his ministry's service at Steve's Cape Cod bar. The service has been attracting about 100 each Sunday.Read more

OZONA, Fla. - The pastor wears a sleeveless black T-shirt, blue jeans and a baseball cap turned backward. The collection is taken in a motorcycle helmet. And the first thing you see as you walk in the door of this makeshift church isn't a cross or a stained-glass window; it's a bar.

Steve's Cape Cod, a seafood restaurant and bar known for all-you-can-eat snow crab on Monday and ladies-drink-free night on Wednesday, is reborn each Sunday morning as the Salvation Saloon. Worshippers who go by names like Curly Joe and Wild Bill file in by the dozen - many holding plastic foam cups of coffee, some biting at doughnuts - for a service they say is unlike any other.

"This is not your parents' church," Paul White, who created the service and serves as the pastor, tells those gathered. "This is going to bless your socks off."

White started Salvation Saloon three years ago in this Tampa Bay area town as an attempt to bring a unique, low-key spiritual experience to others who shared his love for motorcycles. The occasional service has grown into a weekly gathering, the congregation has grown to roughly 100 each Sunday, and attendees now represent more diverse demographics than bikers alone. Organizers have even taken their ministry on the road, offering a service in another Florida bar every couple months.

"I feel very drawn to this ministry," said Bill Spellman, a 61-year-old advertising salesman from Dunedin. "It is so powerful to be able to come here and hear people talk about the miracles in their lives."

Christians have long sought to bring their faith to places outside the traditional church, from the rapid growth of skateboarding ministries to smaller-scale outreach to circus and carnival workers. While particularly evident among evangelicals, such efforts are seen across Christianity.

Salvation Saloon is nondenominational. Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Columbia University, said it is one of countless endeavors seeking to attract congregants who otherwise might not be reached.

"It strikes me as a fairly good illustration of the ability of evangelicals to speak the idiom of the culture no matter where they find themselves," he said. "I see this kind of thing as the successor to the megachurch - to try to be all things to all people."

It is, admittedly, a motley bunch of black leather vests and Harley-Davidson T-shirts, of tattooed arms and patches that say "In Memory of Jesus."

Congregants' own personal experiences are a centerpiece of Salvation Saloon. The ministry's Web site acknowledges many attendees are former thieves, drug dealers and addicts and murderers - "a bunch of outcasts and misfits."

The service includes, at its start, a performance by the "Posse Band" which gathers on a small stage with swordfish mounted on a paneled wall at the back. They sing "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" by Green Day as a projection screen features cartoon characters Ren and Stimpy with the message "Welcome Saloonatics."

White says they try to keep discussion of Bible stories or Jesus' works simple and relevant. There are no church songs; communion is served once a month.

There are, however, jokes ("This big gnarly biker walks into a shop ..."), trivia ("Name that Saloonatic," complete with a member's baby picture and the theme music from Jeopardy!) and the reading of the "Saloony Report" (comical, fake classified advertisements).

"We don't have any spiritual superstars here," White says. "We believe that serving God shouldn't be a spectator sport."

Several people leave their seats among lines of tables to share their own spiritual stories - of overcoming hatred for a former spouse, of overcoming a drug habit, of accepting Christ.

White takes the microphone at the end of the testimonies. "You know where Jesus is?" he asks. "He's right here, baby."

As the service closes, White hands out three shiny gold trophies with a cross on top to the winners of the Salvation Saloon's bike show. Outside, motorcycles rev up, hugs are exchanged, and burly men and women say things like "stay blessed" and "love you, bro."

One of the members, Mark Perryman, says he can't imagine spending his Sunday any other way.

"I can't think of a better way to worship the Lord," he said, "than the way we get together."