By Meredith Sell
"There are a lot of ways that people can come to Jesus," Rob Neel, pastor of Upland United Methodist, said as he sat in his church's library. "There's only one person that got blinded. There's only one person that he met at the well."
Rob sees no reason to limit God's saving power to altar calls within church buildings. Jesus met people where they were, and that's what Rob seeks to do. Most recently, he's done this by starting a Bible study in the Bull Pen Bar & Grill on Main Street in Upland.
Every Wednesday at 7 p.m., Rob meets with one or several people in the bar to look at the Bible and discuss the relationship of God and man. He calls the Bible study "Theology on Tap."
"Probably . . . three years ago, I had a burden to (start the Bible study)," Rob said, "and so did one of the pastors at (Upland) Community Church."
They talked about it and approached the then bar owner. He wasn't interested.
"But that just kept stirring in my heart," Rob said. "How could we do something to, in a winsome way, connect people with the truth and the love of Christ?"
This past year, when Chris and Tammy Witt bought the Bull Pen and started remodeling it-putting in a kitchen, adding a patio-and building up a clientele, the idea for a Bible study returned to Rob's mind.
One day last fall, after leaving his car at Upland Tire, Rob started walking home and noticed the bar's front door standing open. He went inside, introduced himself to the Witts and asked about doing a Bible study there on the bar's slow days.
"Don't answer yet," Rob said to Chris. "You and your wife talk about it, think about it. I don't know if you're people that pray, but you may pray about it."
Then, Rob left.
A week or so later, Chris called Rob and decided to give it a chance. Not long after, Rob started coming to the Bull Pen with a backpack of Bibles and one other man from his church, Steve Hatland, for support. He told the rest of his church members-many of whom were excited about the opportunity-not to come.
"I don't want this to be invasion of the bar snatchers," Rob said. "'All the sudden, I can't go to my own bar because all these churchy people are going?'"
He told his parishioners to invite their unchurched friends, instead.
Rob is a pastor and the son of a pastor, but the bar scene isn't foreign to him.
Growing up in Hartford City, Rob wanted nothing to do with the church. He went to Taylor for one year before transferring to Ball State. At 21 years old, he was kicked out of the Bull Penn, and he bartended in Muncie while he was studying at Ball State.
"It's not a foreign turf," Rob said. "It's a turf I haven't been on in a long time."
When Rob originally imagined Theology on Tap, he pictured himself at a table with a crowd of men asking questions about Jesus and discussing the Bible.
"That's not what happened," Rob said. "Right now, (it's) go and be my witness. Go and be my presence.'"
Initially, Chris was part of the weekly Bible study. For Christmas, Rob gave him a Bible.
"I want to bless him 'cause he's been a blessing," Rob said.
In the past few months, a change in Chris' work schedule, giving him 12 and 14 hour days, prevented him from coming to the Bible study. This caused an overall disconnect in Rob's presence there.
Many times, it would just be Rob and Steve. Days Rob knew this would be the case, he'd tell his wife, "I don't want to go to the bar again. Please, don't make me go to the bar."
Leading up to Easter, Rob was looking for a way to get out of the Bible study completely. He wasn't seeing any results, and he told his wife Theology on Tap wasn't doing what it was supposed to do.
"God's not released you from that yet, has he?" she asked. Rob admitted she was right.
"I was releasing myself because I was feeling like this was not particularly fruitful," Rob said.
At 11 a.m. the Saturday before Easter, Rob was again walking home from Upland Tire when he decided to walk into the Bull Pen to see if Chris was there. Chris wasn't, but his wife was, and a man was sitting at the end of the bar with $40 laying on the counter.
"This guy's just trashed," Rob said.
Rob came in and told Tammy, "Easter blessings."
"What's this Easter blessings stuff?" Rob remembered the man at the counter asking. "Are you a preacher or something?"
"Well, yes, I am," Rob said.
"What are you doing here?" the man asked.
Rob talked to him for a little while, and the man offered Rob a $20. "Put this in the plate!"
"Why don't you put it in the plate?" Rob said, going on to tell the man about the services, which the man complained were too early and too long.
When the man asked if Rob could shorten a half hour service, Rob answered by saying, "Yeah, I can. Did you know God loves you and he has a wonderful plan for your life? Easter blessings."
Theology on Tap has been fruitful: it's put Rob in contact with people he otherwise may never have spoken to.
"I don't know what's going to happen down the road," Rob said. "I do feel like God will open doors."
Can God use a Bible study in a bar?
"He could use a fortune cookie if he wanted to," Rob said. "He knows what each of us need."