Beer, Hymns and Making Room for the Unexpected

We hosted what some considered a controversial event at the church last weekend called “Beer and Hymns.” Basically, we’ve found that there’s a strange tension to be overcome for many people when it comes to community. On the one hand, most of us long for meaningful community experiences and relationships that allow us to bear witness to one another’s lives. But on the other hand, that need comes beset with all kinds of risks and demands on us too. So more often than not, despite our deepest longings, we find excuses not to engage.

If you invite most people with such reservations to a hymn sing at a church on Saturday night, they’d decline. I know I would, and I work at a church. But add beer to the formula, and suddenly the event becomes something entirely different. Why does the beer matter? I have beer at home, and it’s not like it was some orgiastic free-for-all; we had a two-beer limit. About half of the folks who came didn’t even drink. So what’s the big deal?

It says something important without words. It says that this isn’t the church of your former understanding. It says to expect the unexpected, to blur the lines between church and the world, to come with an open heart and find, with nothing more than a child-like sense of “what’s next?”

The result was more than eighty people, most of whom didn’t know each other, joining together in boisterous singing of songs, old and new (mostly old) in ways many have never heard before. Children banged on homemade drums. Strangers laughed together. And yes, we had BEER IN CHURCH. The walls didn’t crumble. No strikes of lightning. Just joyful, spirited community. Plus, we raised over $400 for a local food ministry and had folks step forward to sponsor another event next month that will celebrate Christmas carols.

Amy hosted a debriefing session the next day after worship to make sure folks felt heard and involved in the changes taking place. Below was a list compiled by those who came about the good and bad about the event.

For the most part, the list was very encouraging. The “good” column outweighed the “bad,” and even most of the items listed on the right are simply improvements to make the event even better next time. But I found the final item on the “bad” list particularly fascinating.

Someone mentioned as a concern that they didn’t know what to expect coming in that night. Amy’s response, as you can see in the photo, was to circle it and point back toward the “good” column. This, I think, illustrates in a simple image, the tension the institutional church is experiencing. It recognizes the need to change – perhaps to keep its doors open, or maybe because they’re called to it, or possibly both – but like all of us, we want assurance of what it will look like if we let go, take the risk and step out into unfamiliar territory.

Notice the parallel between what those on the outside of the church looking in are feeling and what those on the inside are experiencing? We both want something new, recognize the need for change, but we’re afraid of the unexpected. And despite how it may feel or appear on the surface, this is good news.

Why? It presents common ground on which we’re all standing. It points to a basic commonality of the human condition. It means we’re really people, not Christians or outsiders. It means we need each other, even if we’re not sure what that means or how to do it.

The beauty of the child-like “what’s next?” sort of anticipation (to which we’re called by scripture, by the way) isn’t so much that it is absent of fear. After all, when I took my daughter to her new preschool, she was as nervous as a nine-tailed cat in a room of rocking chairs. But her trust and excitement overwhelmed the fear, to the point that she jumped in, ready to see what would happen.

It’s a call to risk. A call to love. A call, I’d argue, to life itself.



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  • SamHamilton

    Thanks for sharing this. You said that most of the 80 people who showed up didn’t know each other. Was this because they didn’t go to your church? If they didn’t, how did they hear about the event? Where did you advertise? Do the people who considered it controversial go to your church or are they people outside your church? I think this type of thing is a great idea, but I want to know more! Thanks.

    • yes, lots of folks who didn’t go to our church. We partnered with another local church with passionate folks but little money. The fundraiser benefitted them, so they were very motivated to help with publicity. I also spread the word via social media quite a bit. The other church folks put up posters, created an event invite on Facebook, etc. Mostly word-of-mouth and curiosity. Yes, those concerned were within our congregation, so we held a listening session a week beforehand, and a debriefing the day after.

  • Beer in church? Heresy!

    • yeah we broke the eleventh commandment: Thou shalt not have fun in church.

  • I find this idea rather beautiful. It reminds me of all the meaningful and uplifting spiritual conversations I’ve had with friends in coffee shops and pubs.

  • So, how were those struggling with alcoholism given consideration at this event? Were they warned? Given near-beer? Told to just hang in there and suck it up? There’s lots of ways to be “different”. How about cigars and cigarettes next time? Pot?

    • billforshort

      Sure over-consumption of alcohol is sinful, scripture says so. So church naturally tries to distance themselves from it. But what we do instead is over-eat like crazy. But gluttony doesn’t have the stigma like drunkenness. We don’t have any problem with the pot lucks, Sunday lunches, progressive dinners, dessert trays at prayer gatherings, etc? What about people who struggle with their weight and self image – were they given fat free? Maybe a saltine cracker or tofu? Jesus made wine, and not just any wine, the best. The best was served first because the guests would get drunk and not appreciate the lesser quality. He flipped the tables and served the best for last knowing sinners would probably get drunk. So why did he do it? His last meal before his death he shared wine with his close friends. Seems like Jesus broke your rules. This isn’t the same thing as opening a strip club to reach sinners. Flex your brain just a bit and see if what you believe is really founded on spiritual truth or just what you have been taught.

  • Tony

    One of the biggest turn-offs I used to find in Church things is when a complete stranger, usually a middle-aged lady in a tweed skirt, comes up to you and tries to get you to commit to baking a cake for the next time. And they don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. There’s (at least) one of these people in every church, and they should be banned from attending meetings like this 🙂

  • Brilliant – I do believe Jesus’ first miracle had something to do with alcohol and Paul might have commended alcohol to Timothy, so a 2 beer limit seems sensible.
    Did you have to turn away known alcoholics or deny anyone a third beer? I know that some denominations have issues with alcohol, for understandable reasons.

    I have to say I love the way you went some way to breaking down the metaphorical walls around church.