Church as ‘doing life with all kinds of people’: Review of ‘On the Brühl’

On the Brühl, a documentary short profiling the work of Carrickfergus native Rev Barry Sloan in the German city of Chemnitz, has won the best short film documentary at the 2020 Burbank International Film Festival.

The film is framed by images of far-right anti-immigrant protests in Chemnitz in 2018. Between the scenes of police in riot gear, On the Brühl juxtaposes those violent events with the warm, welcoming community-based meeting hub, ‘Inspire’, that Sloan helped establish in the city in 2014.

Described by Sloan as ‘a living room on the Brühl’, Inspire is open to people of all faiths and none, and all ethnic and national backgrounds. It is presented as a gentle and quiet witness against the division that has rocked Chemnitz in recent years.

Sloan comes across as a thoughtful and compassionate pastor – with the endearing quality of being able to poke fun at himself: he says those visiting Inspire ‘get to hang out with some really cool Christians’, before dissolving into laughter.

Inspire is located on the Brühl Boulevard. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Brühl had been a buzzing thoroughfare in this east German city. But it experienced hard times in the decades after unification.

The film’s contemporary images of the Brühl depict a regenerated part of the city, with Inspire at its very heart.

You can watch the film, which is 15 minutes long, here:

Watching the film with my sociologist of religion hat on, Inspire reminds me of other faith communities in what has been called the ‘Emerging Church Movement (ECM)’. In some of its manifestations, the ECM has eschewed conventional church services for creating fellowship in unconventional (Christian) venues like pubs and cafés. Indeed, Inspire features a regular whiskey-tasting event that echoes other ‘pub churches’.

(I have co-written a book on the ECM. The ECM is more prominent in the United States than Europe, and encompasses a diverse range of theologies and approaches.)

In the film, Sloan, a Methodist minister, reflects on how Inspire has stretched his own conceptions of ‘what mission is, what ministry is, even what church is’.

Sloan describes Inspire’s Monday music night for singer-songwriters as an act of worship. But this perspective is not forced on those who attend. Eucharist is offered unobtrusively at the bar. Some of those who were interviewed for the film confess that they are not Christians, but they have found a place to belong in Inspire. One man simply states: ‘We are a real community now’.

What On the Brühl ultimately illustrates is that church does not necessarily have to take place inside a church building. Rather, Sloan’s final words in the film could be understood as a redefinition of church in the divided city of Chemnitz: ‘building bridges, breaking down walls, doing life with all kinds of people’.