"Let me get this straight," said a confused Garry Kinder to the Bent Tree Country Club manager. "You want me to teach the Bible study … in a bar?"
The manager had explained that the ballroom, which Garry had requested, was in use every Sunday morning. So it was either the bar or nothing.
The Bible study that Garry, a successful Dallas businessman, had been holding in the Cosmopolitan Lady Fitness Club, had quickly outgrown its space and desperately needed a new home.
But a bar?
Garry discussed their options with other members of the Bible study, who immediately said yes.
"Really, when you think about it," says Garry, "it's the perfect place. Our entire ministry is set up to be non-threatening and non-churchy. A bar definitely fits that order."
A Bible study is born
In October 1979, Billy Weber, then pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas, and Garry Kinder decided to start a Bible study on Sunday mornings to reach "up and outers," Dallas's wealthy business people who had never been to church or who were turned off by formal religion.
They held a dinner party in a lush, wealthy home for the kick-off. Billy invited ten couples to attend, and Garry taught a 20-minute Bible study.
It was a success. One of the couples that attended, Anton and Donna Skell, offered to host the Bible study at their business place—the Cosmopolitan Lady.
For the next nine weeks the couples met every Sunday morning to hear Garry teach on different Bible characters. The same ten couples attended—and brought other couples.
Because the meetings weren't held in a church, Garry discovered these couples felt more comfortable and less threatened to study the Bible and ask questions about faith. The group grew quickly, completely by word of mouth, to more than 50 people.
Soon, the rapidly growing Bible study moved to the Bent Tree Country Club, and Garry decided he would teach the entire Bible, verse by verse, from Genesis to Revelation.
In early 1980 the group, now with more than 100 people, officially named itself the Bent Tree Bible Study (BTBS). By 1987, BTBS outgrew the Bent Tree bar and relocated to the Prestonwood Country Club's ballroom.
Today, the group has 400 members. It has worked completely through the Bible twice—it takes ten years each time—and is currently working on its third time through.
BTBS began to grow so much that many of the members and visitors needed pastoral care, such as counseling, marriage or funeral services, and baptism—which Garry didn't have time or energy to handle. "I'm not a pastor—I'm a businessman who happens to teach a Bible study. Pastoring is not my gift."
In stepped John Gillespie, a businessman from Springfield, Missouri, who had visited BTBS and felt called into the ministry. He was ordained by his home church, moved his family to Dallas, and stepped into the administrative pastoral role for BTBS, as well as heading another outreach program, Roaring Lambs.
Garry insists BTBS is not a church, even though it functions like one. "It can't be a church," says Garry, "because BTBS was based upon the premise that it would reach people who aren't interested in church."
"We view BTBS as a drive-thru," explains Janet Kinder, Garry's wife. "We encourage people to become involved in a local church."
Yet many people still view BTBS as their church. According to the Kinders, BTBS ministers to three types of attenders: people who come for a while, then leave to find a church home; people who use BTBS as their Sunday school/Bible study, then go to church afterwards; and people who view BTBS as their church.