Signs of the Apocalypse: Brews ‘n’ Pews


National Public Radio ran a story last week headlined, “To Stave Off Decline, Churches Attract New Members With Beer“. A variation of the coffeehouse Christian groups that youth pastors have been trying for some time now, these mainline Protestant churches in Fort Worth, TX and Portland, OR are staging meet-ups in brew pubs and serving beer at hymn sing-a-longs, in hope of attracting seekers who are turned off by the formality of Sunday morning services.

…Pastor Philip Heinze and his Calvary Lutheran Church sponsor Church-in-a-Pub, whose formal name is the Greek word, Kyrie.

Some patrons are understandably confused. They come in for a brew and there’s a religious service going on in their bar. They expected Trivia Night and they get the Holy Eucharist.

“I tell ’em, it’s a church service,” says bartender Les Bennett, “And they’re, like, ‘In a pub?’ And I’m, like, yeah. Some of ’em stick around for trivia, some of ’em take off, some of ’em will hang out and have another pint or two.”

That’s one of the objectives: 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…

There you have it: The King of Kings meets the King of Beers. This Blood’s For You.

I suppose I shouldn’t rush to judgment just because beer gives me hot flashes. After all, my main spiritual fellowship these days takes place at my church’s Wednesday night potluck. The way to my soul is through my stomach. Maybe beer will be the plus factor that motivates someone to attend a Christian activity, just as our friend Lee’s steak au poivre lures us out to the parish hall on dark November nights.

Joking aside, though, we’re not really there for the food. We’ve created a supportive, intimate circle of Christians who share basic values and help one another stay in touch with God’s presence. If that wasn’t happening, I’d just go to a restaurant.

So I’m skeptical that churches need to become more “approachable” by slipping religion in as background music to a good party. To the contrary, we should be articulating what we offer that can’t be found elsewhere. With the waning of social and familial pressure to maintain religious affiliation, churches have been thrown into competition with many other sources of fellowship and life guidance, both secular and religious. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, if we’re willing to take up the challenge of clarifying our mission.

I also see special problems with organizing such events around alcohol, as compared to casseroles. I go to church activities for safe community and insight into urgent questions of existence. Alcohol is not exactly designed to clarify the mind. It interferes with emotional self-regulation, which its fans might consider a feature, but which surely lowers the probability that Beer & Hymns Night will be more safe from unskillful speech than the average secular get-together.

The alcohol industry makes tremendous profits from selling the fantasy that drinking leads to popularity, companionship, and contentment. (Our local brewery’s slogan even spells this out: Peace, Love, Beer. And the greatest of these is beer…?) I’m not saying that churches should all be temperance warriors, but we shouldn’t be corporate tools, either. Rather than marketing gimmicks aimed at hipsters, let’s find out what people really need for the well-being of their souls, and give it to them.

Although “Holy Eucharist Trivia Night” also sounds pretty awesome. Who knows the difference between transubstantiation and consubstantiation? Winner gets a free glass of water. What Jesus does with that is up to him.

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