by Win Bassett
NPR published a story this morning with the headline, “To Stave Off Decline, Churches Attract New Members With Beer, and the article’s accompanying audio is available on Weekend Edition Sunday. The writer profiles a few churches across the United States who have begun using craft beer to counter a decline in church membership:
A guy sits at the bar nursing a beer, he overhears the Gospel of Luke, he sees people line up to take bread and wine, he gets curious. Phil Heinze says pub church has now become an official — if edgy — Lutheran mission.
“I think the institutional church now is getting onboard,” says Heinze, “because there’s a lot of anxiety frankly about the church’s decline and they’re trying to think outside of that institutional box.”
One of my Twitter followers remarked that she thought the headline misled readers. “The story is more re: being able to come as you are,” she wrote. Admittedly, one of the church leaders questioned in the article said, “I’m not interested, frankly, in making more church members…. I’m interested in having people have significant relationships around Jesus. And if it turns out to be craft beer, fine.” The general angle of this particular report, however, does focus on recruitment:
The Christian Church Disciples of Christ — a small mainline Protestant denomination — has experienced a steep drop in membership in recent decades. Beer & Hymns is one attempt to attract new people, in this hip, beer-loving city, while keeping a safe distance away from stained-glass windows.
Combining beer and religion — and more specifically, Christianity — is nothing new. Catholic dioceses have used “Theology on Tap” programs for more than thirty years, and I recently wrote about Grace Episcopal Church in Massies Mill, Va., and The Graceful Brewers Guild. Church leadership, in these cases, didn’t implement beer programs to bump declining church membership. “We’re enjoying the fellowship involved with creating an ale that can be enjoyed at special occasions at our parish,” The Rev. Marion Kanour, Rector of Grace Episcopal Church, said. In other words, these churches and others use community-building powers of beer to facilitate fellowship around God and not simply to put more butts in pews.
Introducing alcohol, or anything for that matter (food, travel excursions, book clubs, etc.), merely to increase church membership runs the risk of using idolatry to bring people to God. Paul said in his speech to the Athenians,
The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we too are his offspring.” Acts 17:24-28, NRSV.
God doesn’t live in beer made by human hands. God lives in the hands themselves (“For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’.”) Perhaps the churches mentioned in the NPR piece, to bring more people to God, should encourage wanderers to “search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him” instead of filling the groping hands with pint glasses. “Indeed he is not far from each one of us,” and once we find him, then we may rejoice with the fruit of our neighbors’ labors–not the other way around.
Win Bassett is from southwestern Virginia and is a seminarian at Yale Divinity School. Follow him on Twitter: @winbassett.