You know the world has turned upside down when one of Seattle’s most popular and infamous nightclubs is going out of business, only to be replaced by a bible believing, Jesus loving church. Yes, it’s true. Mars Hill Church has purchased the property for the Tabella Lounge in Belltown, with plans of creating a downtown Seattle campus for its ever expanding church (click here for the news story).
There are plenty of examples of churches that have been converted into bars, but not the other way around (here’s an example a student sent me the other day). The media are having a heyday with this new turn of events, but I’m wondering if the change is truly that radical. After all, don’t churches and nightclubs have a lot in common?
Let’s take a look at the Tabella Lounge, before its transformation. You can also visit its website here. (They have virtual tours of the facility with 360 degree views of each of the three rooms.)
Now, you’re probably thinking, “That doesn’t look much like any church that I’ve ever seen.” Maybe not, especially with the go-go dancer in the cage (not visible in this photo). I can imagine that the place will undergo some cosmetic work before it becomes church (plus a heavy saturation in anointing oil).
Since I’ve never been there to witness its party scene, I have to rely on second hand information about the place, but I found this insightful review on CitySearch.com by Anna Roth: “Pulsing music, laser lights and hired dancing girls dominate this warehouse-like space, where decked-out 20-somethings get down on the large dance floor to nightly rotating DJs spinning hip hop and top 40. A striking large waterfall divides the main bar in the center of the room in half; a more mellow side room offers pool and a giant aquarium. In the back, booths separated by gossamer curtains give the welcome illusion of privacy.”
The most obvious similarity I see is the focus on music. In our culture, the two largest supporters of people gathering for the sake of music are churches and night clubs/bars. Whereas the church has lost the focus on dancing, music is still a central focus. Likewise, a nightclub without music would be a pretty unpopular place. Different churches have different styles of music, and different nightclubs have different styles of music. But in all, music remains a central feature of the “service.”
Both churches and nightclubs are places people go to escape or solve their problems. They are places of refuge and refreshment for many people. People go to nightclubs to unwind after work, to meet up with friends, and dance and drink away their worries. Churches offer people a sanctuary, a place where believers can go to find healing and peace, to have fellowship with other Christians who can love and support them. While the nightclub’s version might be a temporary and fun distraction, it’s the church’s method that gets to the real heart of the matter and can offer real solutions to life’s problems.
Legal, addictive substances are offered at both places, for the enjoyment of all. Obviously, I’m talking about the alcohol at the nightclub, the staple refreshment of every bar. But, in the church, you’re probably wondering what in the world I mean. It’s coffee of course! Here in Seattle, if you don’t offer coffee to your congregation, you might as well wave them all goodbye, as they run out the door to other houses of worship that will give them their fix. I often wonder which is longer, the communion line or the line for the free coffee before and after the service. At the new downtown church, I wonder if the old bars will be converted into espresso stands. It’s a logical swap.
Another striking similarity between these two institutions is their function of bringing like-minded people together. In the dance-club, this often results in hook-ups. People go to these places hoping to find significant others or perhaps one night stands. When people go to a church, they are often looking for connection with people who are like themselves, people who love God and want to serve Him in similar ways. Some people go to churches in hopes of finding a spouse, but often, they’re simply in search of a family. Both the nightclub and the church are places that draw people together, people who share things in common. They help us all feel a little less lonely, part of something larger, like we belong.
The final way I find similarities between these two seemingly, culturally diverse institutions is their proclivity for inciting worship. The church has long been known as a “house of worship” where Christians go to lovingly praise their maker and Lord. But what about a dance club? The famous novelist Fydor Dostoevsky recognized that all people have the desire within them to worship something. It’s as if we’re hardwired for it. In The Brothers Karamazov, he wrote, “So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship” (Book V, Chapter 5). At a dance club, people worship anything that they’ve made into an idol. No, we’re not talking about a golden calf or statues of Greek Gods (but I’m sure some clubs go for that sort of thing). I’m talking about anything that takes God’s place, something for which we make sacrifices, something we praise and serve. At many clubs, it’s music, drugs, alcohol, sex, or beautiful women. The problem with all these secular idols is that they easily fall off their pedestals. Only God wholly fulfills our desires for worship, and only God is worthy of our praise.
I expect that the transition between a nightclub and a church won’t be so complex, after all. We can only hope that the people who used to frequent the nightclub will show up some night, seeking the comfort and connection they sought at the former business, but willing to try out the new format.