KENNESAW, Ga. -- Voices hush around the patio table as Rick Lamborn poses his first discussion question during a Christian youth group meeting at a popular restaurant.
The topic this night is consistent relationships, and Lamborn begins by asking the college-age group, "How does inconsistency negatively affect your relationships with others?"
As responses sprinkle in, a blonde in a tight white tank top and orange hot pants quietly scoots up to the table. She joins the discussion for a few minutes then has to scurry back to her boisterous customers inside.
Interactions like these, that bring faith to the uninitiated, are one of the reasons why Single Focus Atlanta has chosen to meet at a Hooters restaurant every week for the past four years.
"We've seen a few of the waitresses become Christians. One of the former managers here became a Christian. So it's worked. The whole object, in reality, is that this is just to get inside the door," said Lamborn, whose nondenominational group invites all those who are curious to join their Hooters sessions.
Some Bible study members initially resisted holding meetings at the restaurant known for its scantily clad waitresses.
"Somebody comes up to me and says, come to a Bible study at Hooters. And my first reaction was ... I can see McDonald's or another restaurant, but why Hooters?," said 21-year-old Charles Bailer III.
But Bailer, who joined Single Focus two years ago, said he quickly began to appreciate the casual, nonjudgmental atmosphere at the meetings.
On a recent night, rock music blared from the restaurant's speakers, as the group of about a dozen - more than half of them women - sipped sodas, smoked cigarettes and snacked on chicken wings and burgers while Lamborn read passages from the Bible and provoked a discussion about how to weather social and spiritual turmoil.
Some took the opportunity for personal reflection, while others joked around, but the topic never strayed too far from God.
Single Focus, which has about 90 members, also holds a more traditional Bible study at a house each week, as well as mission trips and ski retreats, but Lamborn said the Hooters gatherings provide an option for people who wouldn't necessarily accept an invitation to a church.
Lamborn left his job as a computer software technician two years ago to take over as full-time executive director of the group after its founder, Nelson Foster, who was a youth minister at several local churches, died in a car accident. Lamborn attends a Methodist church but is not a minister.
"We're about reaching the lost, and I think we're called to do that," he said. "Our attitude is to go where the un-churched and the de-churched are."
Still, some say Single Focus' presence at a Hooters sends a mixed message, since the overt sexuality of the restaurant doesn't fit with Christian ethics.
Mike McNeil, spokesman for Atlanta-based Hooters of America, said the company's restaurants aren't usually host to Christian meetings, but "it's not our job to be judgmental of any group that comes in there. Our job is to wait on them and provide food, fun and great service."
Despite Hooters' recent attempts to reposition itself as more family friendly, it has been a frequent subject of protests. Social conservatives say the restaurant corrupts young children and attracts sexual predators, and feminists say it objectifies women.
"Everyone thinks it's hypocritical," said Victoria B. Pierce, president of the National Organization for Women's Cobb County chapter. "Why would any church group go there?"
Some criticism has also come from conservative Christians.
Terry Erickson, director of evangelism for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a national campus ministry organization, questioned whether a Hooters Bible study could be effective.
"The whole idea is wanting to go where people are at, but the question is, can the place where you're meeting, can it enhance what you're trying to accomplish or does it distract?" he said. "I think someone who comes to Hooters is looking for something else."
Kristin Brooks, a 20-year-old Kennesaw State University student, said she values the weekly sessions at Hooters for their "practical life lessons" and opportunities for evangelism.
The Rev. Dennis Rogers, a Southern Baptist and member of Single Focus' board of directors, added that the spirit of the group is to go where conventional ministries do not.
Said Rogers: "It's something Jesus would've done because he looked past what people may think and looked at what people's needs are."
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Single Focus Atlanta: http://www.singlefocusatlanta.org
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