From devotion to debauchery

From devotion to debauchery

James Tregonning investigates what it’s like to have your church become the grossest bar in Dunedin.

When you think about it, it’s a bit weird that Monkey Bar used to be a church. It seems kind of disrespectful. I sat down with Trevor Geddes, one of the leaders of Dunedin City Baptist Church – the folks that used to be in that building – and asked him what he thought about the whole thing. 

Short answer: he didn’t care. For the young and stupid among us, Monkey Bar was a rank little monster on Hanover St that got shut down a couple years back. Because I’m a good thorough journalist, I whacked a post up on Facebook asking for Monkey Bar stories, and was immediately flooded with filth. Here’s one person’s highlights:

“First time I went in, a girl vomited on me in the bathroom, a guy pushed me down the stairs, and I stepped in something white and gooey. The second time, I almost got peed on outside, and someone whipped his penis out on the dance floor and tried to make me touch it.”

Ew. By all accounts, Monkey Bar was utterly disgusting: it was dark, dingy, smelly, sweaty, drunken, stupid, and boorish. It was a squirming dank pit of vomit and spilt liquor – one of the true dark places of the Earth. Apparently the floor was always sticky from all the spillage. I heard one story about a girl who had the sole of her shoe get stuck to the floor and detach from the actual shoe-part. You hear all these stories, and then think  “this seriously used to be a church?” We have this idea that a church is a sacred space, somewhere holy and reserved that demands respect and shiny black shoes. Thing is, Christians themselves aren’t always super attached to the idea.

In the case of Dunedin City Baptist Church (DCBC), that lack of sacred space is largely due to practical conditions. In what can only be described as the second Exodus, DCBC has been nomadic for the last twenty years. They’ve been renting out various buildings around Dunedin, which makes it difficult to create a committed sacred space. Most recently they were holed up in Otago Boys’ High School: it’s damn near impossible to find sacred space in that sweaty little man-prison. The situation is not entirely unheard of within Christian circles: many churches find their home in repurposed buildings. Equippers Church, on Union Street (also known as ‘that church that can’t decide what they want their name to be’), are set up in what used to be a warehouse, and Arise (also known as ‘Super Glam Hip Wow Zam Zam’) are set up in the town hall. 

As of December last year, however, DCBC have moved into a new building over the southern motorway. You’d think they’d whack up a permanent altar, but no - even in this custom-built brand-spanking-new church building, there’s still no area set aside as a quote-unquote sacred space. They just don’t seem that bothered. Where many churches set aside an altar space, or a permanent communion table, DCBC just “pull out any old table”. In part, this attitude is informed by one of the senior pastors, Trevor Geddes, who has led the congregation since 1984. He notes that the Hanover Street building did include a communion table – but as far as he was concerned, there was nothing particularly mystical about it: it was “just a table”.

When asked about the Hanover Street church, Trevor begins by admitting he never liked the building. It was impossible to heat in winter, due to the high ceiling, it was an earthquake risk, the floor was uneven – there was a whole raft of issues. Trevor characterised the building as cold, impractical, and uninviting. The lack of on-site parking meant that “we’d be holding a funeral and people would be running out to check the meter”. The pipe organ, due to the temperature, would warp during the service – apparently it could shift a whole tone, all the time failing to even stay in tune with itself. The music couldn’t be too exciting either – the balcony wasn’t particularly stable, so you didn’t want people jumping around on it. 

Despite all of these issues, Trevor was clear that the building held a good deal of significance for the church: without the building, “there’s nothing that marks you out as a church except the people themselves”. The shift away from Hanover St was a big problem for many people, and numbers at DCBC dropped sharply as they moved out. Many people didn’t believe the church would survive without a permanent building in which to root their identity. Trevor discussed how it changed the culture of the church by foregrounding the role of the community: “hospitality became a bigger focus”. By contrast, when they moved into the new building, the congregation jumped up by about 90 people: “When you own your own building, people suddenly think you’re a real church”. Obviously the sense of identity located in the physical building is important for how the congregation perceive themselves and the community. Towards this end, Trevor was enthusiastic about marking the arrival in the new church: “it’s good for the congregation to mark those moments. It helps bind the congregation together… gives them a sense of identity, belonging, community. Those things are good”. When I pressed him on whether or not there was anything spiritual in it, he shrugged: “Spiritual? I don’t know”.

This article first appeared in Issue 17, 2016.
Posted 11:42am Sunday 24th July 2016 by James Tregonning.