Yes, you can drink in church
At the start of a recent Sunday morning service, the bar still has a lingering odor of stale liquor and faint smoke. The floors are clean, if a little sticky, and the only food comes from a hangover-friendly omelet station. On the stage where that bikini contest sign hangs, musicians are uncasing their instruments as they might to warm up for a Sunday afternoon gig at the famous stateline roadhouse. But as they get ready in front of a small cross, the gig right now is church.
The bar is open during both the 9am and 11am services, so you’re welcome to mosey up and order a Bloody Mary before finding a seat in one of the rows of plastic chairs. As the service revs up, a familiar ker-CRACK can be heard as someone near the back opens his second beer of the morning.
The bartender smiles when asked if he ever thought he’d end up bartending a church service. “Can’t say that I did,” he says as he mixes a woman’s morning vodka and V8. “But it’s a helluva lot easier than some nights we have here. And just different.”
Though this well might be the rare Sunday service where you can open a bar tab, nobody ever gets out of hand. “There’s been a time or two where someone has gotten a little loud but it's never been something that has caused a problem,” says Dan Stone, Worship on the Water's pastor.
It’s OK to not be OK
Services here date back to 2011, when owner Pat McClennon was approached by members of his United Methodist Church about moving the Worship on the Water service to the Flora-Bama. The congregation has anywhere from 600 members during the winter to upwards of 1,500 during peak season. The space in front of the stage has a few hundred plastic chairs, but the crowd can stretch back onto the beach behind the bar on busy days. People literally come from all over the world for church here. They even do baptisms in the Gulf of Mexico.
The service isn’t the fire-and-brimstone, shame to all ye sinners act that some southern churches can be. You could say, rather, that it has a high tolerance. The church crowd nursing beers on a Sunday morning are just living Worship on the Water's motto: “It’s OK to not be OK."