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Beer to Attract Church Members? No.
To Celebrate God’s Grace? Yes.

Beer to Attract Church Members? No.
To Celebrate God’s Grace? Yes.

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.

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Donald Schell

Sorry for any unclarity Win. To my ear the particular Blake poem, the verses from Psalm 84, and at least some of the description of mission-minded folk who’ve taken Jesus’ feast into bars embrace a dilemma for something church has become for at least some people – cold, NOT “healthy, pleasant, and warm” or not a place where even a sparrow may find a home or a swallow lay her young. At least some of the people in the NPR interview sound to me like they mean to go where people are unafraid to be and to make the enactment of holy community and holy communion there with those people. It doesn’t sound to me like it’s a consumerist ploy of giving the customers whatever they want, but a genuinely serious and apparently workable attempt to be church for and with those who wouldn’t cross the threshold of a church building.

Winbassett

Donald,

Thanks so much for your comment, but I’m having trouble figuring out any points you make other than Blake is fine poet. Help me out?

Thanks,

Win

Donald Schell

Thinking of the teaching and ministry of Jesus, I’m wondering whether the question of what we do uniquely is the place to begin in the testing the integrity of the church’s mission.

“See how they love one another” in Acts doesn’t point to uniqueness or specialness but simply an integrity of love for which the early community was known. And for “worship of Almighty God,” it’s telling that the earliest Christians were also accused in Roman times of being atheists. The Roman Empire knew quality, devoted worship when they saw it. It looked to a lot of Romans like Christians were up to something else.

Perhaps a word from the loyal opposition, in this instance William Blake, is in order:

Dear mother, dear mother, the Church is cold;

But the Alehouse is healthy, and pleasant, and warm.

Besides, I can tell where I am used well;

Such usage in heaven will never do well.

But, if at the Church they would give us some ale,

And a pleasant fire our souls to regale,

We’d sing and we’d pray all the livelong day,

Nor ever once wish from the Church to stray.

Then the Parson might preach, and drink, and sing,

And we’d be as happy as birds in the spring;

And modest Dame Lurch, who is always at church,

Would not have bandy children, nor fasting, nor birch.

And God, like a father, rejoicing to see

His children as pleasant and happy as He,

Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the barrel,

But kiss him, and give him both drink and apparel.

Are our churches places where a visiting stranger knows immediately that we love one another?

Does that stranger feel welcomed into the embrace of our love (and God’s)?

Do we listen to people, friend and stranger, at least as well as a really good bartender in a good neighborhood pub?

Or do we believe our primary task is to instruct people and teach them how to speak or pray?

Obviously Blake’s critique could be taken as a simple rejection of liturgy and form. But loving what happens in a good liturgy and knowing what encounter with God and one another is possible when we give our whole hearts to it, I think the question of affect, of an inescapable context of loving acceptance, of being and feeling at home could be a welcome and inspiring challenge.

Consider how much like Blake Psalm 84:3-4 sounds:

“Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.

Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.”

Winbassett

Hi Jim,

Well said! I used to work in the beer industry, and Lord knows I enjoy beer. It’s a wonderful fruit of the labors of our hands God inhabits. Your last paragraph is superb:

“If we do what we do well, offering worship and caring for people in the name of Jesus, people will both attend and support the church. Beer, while attractive for many, does not fall into the paradigm of what the church does well.”

All my best,

Win

Jim Hammond

It might be easy to be misunderstood on this issue so let me be very clear. I am not opposed to beer, wine or stronger beverages in moderation. I have been a priest long enough to see personal and familial tragedies resulting from the misuse of alcohol but that is not the issue here.

The issue here, as I see it, is how the church presents itself to society. The unique thing which church offers is the worship of Almighty God. There is little else the church does uniquely. In presenting ourselves to society, therefore, we ought to be speaking from our strong suit, advertising what we do well and trusting that worship stands on its own as valuable and worthy.

When we coax or cajole or in other ways recruit people into church using techniques which do not emphasize worship as our fundamental reason for being, we risk two things it seems to me — a bit of false advertising on the one hand, and raising expectations which likely we cannot fulfill on the other.

If we do what we do well, offering worship and caring for people in the name of Jesus, people will both attend and support the church. Beer, while attractive for many, does not fall into the paradigm of what the church does well.

Jim Hammond

retired cleric

Winchester VA

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