COLUMBIA — A projected slide show of song lyrics espousing praise for God lit up the wall in between ads for Bud Light. Sign-up sheets for worship teams and small groups sat among grinning photographs of famous comedians, and the sparkle of candles and stringed lights bounced off posters of the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges.
A small wooden cross and three candles sat on a table in front of a stage typically occupied by comedians peddling their comic wares. A small group of musicians had pushed aside the iconic performer's stool to set up their instruments and a podium.
Doors open Tuesday nights at 7:30 p.m. Worship begins at 8 p.m.
405 Cherry St.
Columbia, MO 65201
For more information, contact Liz Hinz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For The Branch, the ordinarily raucous, irreverent environment of a comedy club is the perfect backdrop for a quiet, intimate worship service.
About 20 people, mostly students, gather each Tuesday, as they have since the fall semester began. The structure of the service is similar to that of most campus ministry groups' worship services, featuring contemporary songs with a live praise band, prayer, Scripture, fellowship, lighthearted icebreakers and informal preaching.
"Anyone can come and praise God in a comedy club," said Sami Owen, a junior at MU and a member of the leadership team.
The group's choice of location, however, is a novel one that worship leader Liz Hinz said has many people asking, "Why a comedy club?"
"Everyone's been asking us that," said Hinz, a sophomore at MU and one of The Branch's two coordinators. "It's comfortable. People aren't intimidated walking in here like they might be walking into a regular church."
The idea of holding a church service in a non-traditional setting like Deja Vu arose from discussions about a new approach to young adult ministry at Community UMC.
"We saw a need for this in the community for people who aren't comfortable going to church," Hinz said.
Tammy Shelton, who leads The Branch with Hinz and coordinates Community's support of the group, said the group had tested the waters with a couple of worship sessions in Community's outdoor worship space before considering different locations. They thought about meeting on the MU campus but decided against it because, Shelton said, "that would so isolate us to campus" — in terms of both location and target audience.
"We're trying to gear this where we're not just focused on student life, but more toward young adults," Shelton said. "That can apply to students as well."
According to Shelton, The Branch's attendance has mostly comprised MU students so far, with some visitors from Stephens College, Columbia College and one coming from as far away as Linn State Technical College in Linn along with leadership team members from Stephens.
In searching for a location in downtown, which would appeal to students and other young adults, Shelton and Hinz said they took a page from a non-traditional ministry of St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Joplin called The Salvage Yard, which meets in a bar.
"We wanted to create a place where these guys had a voice, where people could connect in a comfortable way, where they're totally accepted," Shelton said.
The physical location for that place ultimately turned out to be Deja Vu, where Shelton said the stage and audiovisual equipment were big selling points, and Hinz said staff have been very accommodating.
"The people here are awesome," Hinz said. "They work with us so well."
Part of creating a comfortable space at Deja Vu, Shelton said, is building on its nightclub atmosphere. That means, among other things, leaving the many alcohol ads on the walls uncovered in what Shelton called an effort toward "embracing culture."
The Branch and its unique worship service at Deja Vu are steered by what Shelton calls "a crazy-huge leadership team" of roughly 26 young people.
"These are really leaders," Shelton said. "They're not just coming to be fed, they're coming to give back to others."
Many of the leaders and other attendees are involved with other campus ministry organizations and churches in Columbia.
"We kind of all go to different places, and this is our meeting place," said Owen, who also attends Missouri United Methodist Church's Wesley Student Center and serves as a youth director at New Horizons United Methodist Church.
The Branch hopes to make its presence known throughout the community as time goes on. Shelton said about eight people from The Branch attended Sunday's Columbia CROP Hunger Walk.
The group's worship team plans to lead a youth worship service and help with mission work at the ecumenical Festival of Sharing on Oct. 17 in Sedalia and is also planning a mission trip to New Orleans in January during the last week of MU's winter break.
The heart of The Branch, as well as its calling card, lies in its intimate church service at Deja Vu and its efforts to create a house of worship that Owen describes as "accepting to all people."
"Our bishop is big on radical hospitality," Shelton said. "This is pretty radical."