‘Beer with Jesus’ a growing trend in mainline churches?

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If I could have a beer with Jesus
I’d put my whole paycheck in that jukebox
Fill it up with nothing but the good stuff
Sit somewhere we couldn’t see a clock

Ask him how’d you turn the other cheek
To save a sorry soul like me
Have you been there from the start
How’d you change a sinner’s heart
And is heaven really just beyond the stars
I’d tell everyone, but no one would believe it
If I could have a beer with Jesus

— “Beer with Jesus,” song by country music artist Thomas Rhett

In my time with The Associated Press, I wrote a fun little feature about Christian music taking over Nashville bars and nightspots:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Fiberglass horses and neon signs emblazoned with “Budweiser” and “Jose Cuervo” aren’t usually part of the backdrop for a Christian music concert. And the patrons at the Wildhorse Saloon don’t typically order iced tea and water.

But this is Gospel Music Week, when some of Nashville’s most popular bars and nightspots trade lying-and-cheating songs for hymns about prayer and redemption.

As far as I recall, the folks I interviewed for that story didn’t really advocate beers with Jesus. I have heard of churches meeting in bars, but in the cases I know about, the alcohol does not flow until after the service. Then again, I don’t drink (unless you count Diet Coke), so I don’t claim to be an authority on Christians mixing Bibles and Budweiser.

I was intrigued, however, by this headline on Fox News’ religion page:

Texas church attracts new followers with beer

The top of the story:

What would Jesus … brew?

A Texas church is trying something different to attract new congregates. A pub in Fort Worth is home to the Church-in-a-Pub, where members of the Calvary Lutheran Church meet for services and grab a pint at the same time.

The full report — which consists of a few swigs of rather shallow information — won’t do anything to quench the thirst of readers interested in serious religion journalism. The last three paragraphs are typical:

(Pastor Phillip) Heinze shared that there is one financial benefit to having mass at a pub. “We do a get a happy hour rate on beer … it’s kinda nice.”

“We’ve actually had three baptisms in the bar … so that’s been really interesting too,” said Heinze.

Heinze made clear that they use water, not beer for the baptisms.

Um, “mass at a pub?” Do Lutherans celebrate Mass?

And yes, ha ha on the “water, not beer” reference, but how exactly are folks baptized at a pub? I’m assuming there’s not a large enough pool of water for immersion, so they’re probably pouring water over people’s heads. If so, do they use a beer pitcher?

With some hard-nosed journalistic research (OK, I Googled), I discovered that Fox followed up on a more in-depth — and insightful — NPR piece that ran earlier this month with this headline:

To Stave Off Decline, Churches Attract New Members With Beer

While the New York Daily News couched the trend as involving “a growing number of churches,” I liked NPR’s more restrained  attempt to put bar churches in context:

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‘The Butler,’ the usher and music of the Gospel

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On the movie level, “The Butler” is getting mixed reviews, while also causing quite a bit of public discussion of race relations in recent decades of American life. Was Eugene Allen, the real man whose life inspired the film, a hero or a living symbol of a humble age that has thankfully slipped in the past. Is it possible that he can be seen as both?

However, one thing is clear. It’s impossible to tell his story without considering the role that faith played in his life.

That’s why it’s important that veteran Religion News Service writer Adelle Banks went looking for people who knew the man behind the scenes, producing a feature that focuses on the church “usher” who was also the White House butler. Banks has been covering evangelicalism — all races, all styles — long enough to hear the religious themes that others, somehow, manage to miss in public life.

Here’s the overture near the start of her piece:

… (M)embers of The Greater First Baptist Church knew the man who died in 2010 by other titles: usher, trustee, and a humble man of quiet faith. “The attributes that made him a great butler made him a great usher,” said Denise Johnson, an usher at the predominantly black D.C. church where Allen was a member for six decades.

Those qualities were both external — black suits and white gloves — and internal — a dignified, soft-spoken manner.

On a recent Sunday, parishioners recalled Allen as a peacemaker, someone who never raised his voice.

His devotion to service extended far beyond the public and private rooms of the White House to the doorways and kitchen of his church. In African-American churches, the usher is a special role bestowed on highly regarded members. Allen joined others to open doors to visitors and pass out fans and offering plates. He also would roll up his sleeves and help prepare fish and chicken at church fundraising dinners.

“He was not only a servant there,” the Rev. Robert Hood, an associate minister, said of Allen’s White House work. “But he was also a servant doing the work of the Lord.”

That nod to the traditional role played by ushers in African-American churches is crucial because, year after year, symbolic events happen in black churches linked to that leadership role.

For example, I remember when the “iron man” streak of Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken, Jr., was nearing the mark of 2,131 games without missing a start and a newspaper (I wish I could find the clip) offered a fine feature on a church usher who had served 40 years without missing a Sunday. I think it was 40 years. It might have been longer.

The key is that the service that grows out of deep religious faith can take many shapes and, often, there are news stories hiding in that corner of life. This is one rather obvious example of that kind of story.

So, near the end of this piece is a quote that is the main thing I wanted to spotlight in this post.

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It’s hard to be a saint in the city

I recently cataloged about 1,000 of my 1,300 or so vinyl records (the classical music remains to be done), something I’d been meaning to do for many years. For a vinyl obsessive, this means checking liner notes and record quality. It’s fun to see who appears on which albums. You begin to see more clearly those trends across labels, decades, producers. It’s fun.

I’m nowhere near the obsessive of Dawn Eden, who was profiled in the New York Times Sunday Magazine by Alexandra Molotkow. The piece has gotten mixed reviews but I rather enjoyed it. I will acknowledge that it’s a weird piece. For instance, it’s a profile of Eden but it doesn’t mention her until you’ve read six paragraphs on Curt Boettcher, a pop-music producer with a distinct sound (think “Cherish” by the Association).

Eden, who I have had the pleasure of reading for many years, used to be a rock historian and journalist. She repopularized Boettcher. And she converted to Christianity and has written about it at length. Molotkow’s piece is an exploration of Molotkow’s interest in Boettcher (and, therefore, Eden since she wrote extensively about him). There is, perhaps, a lack of coherency to the piece but it worked for me. We have the journey of Dawn Eden from a rock historian battling demons to a Christian woman whose latest book is “My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds With the Help of the Saints.” And then there’s the journey of Molotkow, a seemingly secular woman trying to relate to someone she has “otherized.” She comes to realize she’s been reductive and unfair.

It all gets a little meta, but I enjoy reading about how someone overcomes prejudgments and learns to deal with a source or subject on their terms. On that note, Ann Rodgers of Religion Newswriters Association has a tremendous piece on just that in the latest RNA newsletter (sorry, not linkable). She gives advice to religion news writers about how to interview subjects whose views you dislike. It’s good advice for all reporters.

Back to the Sunday magazine piece:

When she learned of [Boettcher's] death, she decided to write his biography. His obscurity seemed like an intolerable injustice, and correcting it gave her a sense of purpose. When she felt suicidal, she told herself she couldn’t die because she had to write his story. And her efforts went a long way toward reviving his music. She wrote the liner notes to several CD reissues of his work, which spread the cult of Boettcher. (She conducted the Gary Usher interview in 1988, quoted above, that is included in the Sagittarius liner notes.) This April, the singer Beth Sorrentino released an album of Boettcher covers, produced by Sean Slade (Radiohead, Hole). But Eden never did write that biography.

What ultimately allayed her depression was not Boettcher, but God. In October 1999, she had a “born-again experience,” and if her name sounds familiar, it’s because she has been very public about it: she has blogged about conservative and religious matters on her site, The Dawn Patrol, since 2002, and was fired from a copy-editing job at The New York Post for inserting pro-life terminology into an article on in vitro fertilization. (She now says she regrets this.) Her first book, published in 2006, was called “The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On.”

I have read this book; I have pored over The Dawn Patrol. I’ve spent years wondering what kind of person Dawn Eden might be. I was interested in Boettcher myself, and thanks to Eden’s obsession with him, I became interested — and even a little obsessed — with her.

Molotkow’s first interest in Eden was as rock historian:

That was my introduction to Dawn Eden. An Internet search yielded another Eden, a more recent iteration: strident conservative; chastity advocate; favorite target of the Web site Gawker. Initially I hoped to connect with her, this fellow Boettcher obsessive. Now I wondered what on earth we had in common.

I found a contact e-mail for her but sat on it for years. I worried that, because she had renounced her secular past, she would shoot me down in a blaze of hellfire for even asking about her former preoccupations. Finally, I decided to get in touch. She responded right away. She seemed delighted by my interest. Boettcher’s music was still a part of her, she wrote me: “Understand, I am not at all like those ‘born-again’ rockers who adamantly refuse to say anything at all about their pre-Christian days.”

Eden is now studying toward an advanced degree in sacred theology at the Dominican House of Studies, and while she still writes, her tone is milder than in the past. Before our first, lengthy conversation, she suggested to me that I look for the “point of continuity” between her old and new lives. It turned out to be easy to find.

Ah, the old “strident” adjective. So interesting to see when that’s pulled out. I understand it’s only to be used on conservatives or traditionalists, never for progressives or liberals. But it’s really not appropriate for Eden. She’s not loud or harsh or unpleasantly forceful.

But the writer susses out how Eden’s obsession with Boettcher compares to her interest in the lives of saints and what those lives can say to fellow believers.

And it ends:

Eden knows this, too. Boettcher had faults like anyone — he could be a tyrant in the studio — and he had qualities that might not appeal to a practicing Catholic. For starters, he was gay. When I asked Eden if she now felt conflicted about his sexuality, she said she probably did. But she added that she didn’t want her views to affect the way she told his story. She could still relate to him, she said, as a person looking for love; she heard a “longing for God” in his music. While she strained, sometimes, to reconcile her worldview with Boettcher’s, I strained to reconcile mine with hers. At these times I learned more about her than him, and I learned something about myself as well: how badly I wanted to find a bridge between us. She mythologized Boettcher; I mythologized her. We both worked, in our way, to find what we needed in someone else. But you can’t really know someone you don’t really know.

It requires a bit of a circuitous route for a secular writer and news outlet to begin to understand the interest in the lives of saints (or, really, those who are interested in the lives of saints). So be it. I found it edifying in any case. And I look forward to reading Eden’s latest book on what the saints have to offer those who have sexual wounds.

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Hey Mr. DJ, put some praise music on

As a famous religious figure once said, “Ask and you shall receive.” Sometimes even we media critics get what we ask for. Last month I asked for more – and deeper – coverage of hipster churches, and then this week veteran Godbeat reporter Michelle Boorstein fulfills my request (at least partially).

Last Sunday the Church at Clarendon, a self-professed “diverse urban church” in Washington, D.C. held an “experimental service called Church Remixed, which featured music by a DJ rather than live musicians” and Boorstein was on hand to report for the Washington Post. The superb story begins with a wonderfully obscure, hipster-friendly headline: Deuteronomy meets Deadmau5 as church DJs seek exaltation*

When you’re DJing a Baptist church service, is it more appropriate to mix electronic music by Daft Punk and Fatboy Slim as congregants are being ushered in or as they exit?

Such were the choreographic and theological questions at play Sunday at the 104-year-old high-steepled Church at Clarendon, which for the day replaced its usual eight-piece band and singers on the pulpit with an Atlanta wedding DJ who has hipster glasses, a table of music-mixing technology and a tendency to fist-pump while playing.

“Okay, let’s get going!” said Hans Daniels (whose DJ handle is Hans Solo) after being introduced at the start of the service, cranking up the beat — and volume — and eliciting a whoop that filled the bright, airy sanctuary. “Blessed Be Your Name” quickly became “B-B-Blessed Be Your Name,” and congregants started cha-cha dancing in their seats.

Boorstein does an excellent job of finding sources that help put this “experiment” in historical context. For example,

Tony Lee, pastor at the 3,000-member Community of Hope, noted that what we now call classic gospel — practically the soundtrack of contemporary black Christianity — came out of jazz and originally was seen as “too worldly” for church. Thirty years ago, drums were seen as outrageous, and then liturgical dance. Of course, there are still some faith communities that forbid music during worship or the sounds of women singing.

I’d have preferred to hear which faith communities “forbid music during worship or the sounds of women singing” but that’s a minor quibble.

In providing the counter-perspective, Boorstein sought out a source that helpfully frames the concerns many Christians might have about a church DJ:

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Not all things considered: NPR on hymns

YouTube Preview ImageLet’s get the praise for this story about praise music and hymnody out of the way first.

NPR’s All Things Considered did something very rare and they did it nicely. The show featured a full four minutes on Christian worship music. The show managed to do this without sneering and without any politics. The show featured actual Christian voices talking about their views on worship. This is a wonderful thing and kudos to them.

If that’s all you’re looking for from NPR, you will love listening to this piece, “Modern Hymn Writers Aim To Take Back Sunday.”

As it happens, not everyone was as pleased with this piece. We heard about it from more than a few readers. I’m with them in having some criticism. Perhaps it’s because I had too-high expectations. I’m Lutheran. We take our hymnody very seriously. This week’s hymn in our house is “We Praise You And Acknowledge You,” by Stephen Starke, a modern hymn writer. (It’s the one playing in the video embedded above.) Last week’s was “To God The Holy Spirit Let Us Pray,” by Martin Luther, who hasn’t been writing new hymns for 500 years or so. I’ve had the pleasure of writing about hymns and choral music and the greater pleasure of a worship life built around hymns.

If you bill your story as “Modern Hymn Writers Aim To Take Back Sunday,” I want the story to be about that. I want to see if the prolific Stephen Starke is in it. But this story was really not about modern hymn writers so much as a very narrow subset of Christianity and just a couple of modern hymn writers. The story would have been improved by making that clear. Instead, the lede was this:

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST: In recent decades, worship music has trended away from the church organ and classic hymns in favor of more rocking songs made popular by Christian radio. Now a crop of modern hymn writers is pulling Sunday morning singing back to a more traditional style. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reports from Nashville.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: There was a time when hymns were used primarily to drive home the message that came from the pulpit. Then came the praise songs.


MATT REDMAN: (Singing) Our God is greater, our God is stronger…

FARMER: Matt Redman’s song “Our God” is the most popular piece of music in Christian churches today. That’s according to charts that track congregational singing – yes, there is such a thing. But approaching the top 10 is a retro hymn co-written by Keith Getty.

Such broad strokes, eh? If I tell you that later in the story we’re told that we’re more or less talking about Southern Baptists in this piece, would that help? It helped me. I mean, the Southern Baptists are a large group and a story about their worship practices and trends is great. But it was weird to read about these “charts” that track congregational singing. I know that my large Lutheran denomination doesn’t track these things and I wasn’t terribly familiar with either the praise song or the hymn mentioned in the lede. So I spent the next few minutes trying to figure out how narrow the story would end up being.

It’s quite narrow. And nicely so. Bob Smietana’s piece on the same topic from April of this year helped the reader much more by laying the focus all on the line right there at the top:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) Most songwriters in Nashville want to get their songs on the radio. Keith and Kristyn Getty hope their songs end up in dusty old hymnbooks.

Both stories are interesting and both stories are about the Gettys but I appreciate Smietana’s approach.

Back to this NPR piece, I did think it managed to get some helpful doctrinal points in. Here’s one perspective:

KEITH GETTY: Our goal is to write songs that teach the faith, where the congregation is the main thing and everybody accompanies that.

FARMER: There’s no definition for what’s a hymn and not a praise song, but Getty says it should be singable without a band, easy for anyone sitting in the pews to pick up. And it should say something bold.

GETTY: And I think it’s to the church’s poverty that the average worship song now has so few words, so little truth, is so focused on several commercial aspects of God, like the fact that he loves our praises.

Later we’re told that the Gettys have 12 hymns in the latest Southern Baptist hymnal. (This caused me to look something up in my hymnal, where I saw that Starke has 32(!) listings, more than Paul Gerhardt or Martin Luther.) And we learn that the substance of the Getty’s work is helping encourage other songwriters to follow suit. We hear some of the repetitive sections of praise music but also a defense of them:

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A Broadway revival that includes ‘Blessed Assurance’

The other day, I wrote a post about the fact that many journalists struggle to understand, to be perfectly honest about it, the role that Christian faith plays in the African-American church. There is a tendency to see the black church as a political institution, and that’s that.

I also mentioned that there is another common assumption, which is that the music of the black church is primarily an expression of culture, as opposed to faith. You know, those black spirituals are so lovely and so powerful, but they don’t really mean anything in particular.

I thought of that second point again when reviewing a recent New York Times piece that several GetReligion readers brought to my attention. It seems that something strange has been happening down on Broadway in recent weeks.

You see, there’s a Broadway revival — never has that word been more accurate — running of one of the greatest American plays ever about faith and family and the ties that bind.

I am referring to Horton Foote’s classic “The Trip to Bountiful,” which focuses on an elderly woman’s quiet, but desperate, flight from Houston in an attempt to visit her family homestead one last time, near a town called Bountiful. In this production, the great African-American actress Cicely Tyson is playing the lead. In this case, her race is a key element of the news hook. The Times article notes, early on:

She is on the run from her abusive daughter-in-law and henpecked son in Houston, desperate to see the family farm in Bountiful once more before she dies. Overcome with emotion, she begins singing an old Protestant hymn, “Blessed Assurance.”

From the first note, there’s a palpable stirring among many of the black patrons in the audience, which the play, with its all-black cast, draws in large numbers. When Ms. Tyson jumps to her feet, spreads her arms and picks up the volume, they start singing along. On some nights it’s a muted accompaniment. On other nights, and especially at Sunday matinees, it’s a full-throated chorus that rocks the theater.

“I didn’t realize they were doing it until someone remarked to me how incredible it was that the audience was joining in,” Ms. Tyson said in a recent interview, referring to her preview performances. “I said, ‘Where?’ I was so focused on what I was doing that I didn’t hear it.”

After the play opened, on April 23, she began tuning in. “At that point, I was relaxed enough to let other things seep in,” she said. “It was absolutely thrilling.”

Thrilling but unexpected.

This phenomenon happens the most in the Sunday afternoon shows, you say? That would be, well, right after, uh, church? That might have something to do with large numbers of people in the audience stepping over this line in Broadway tradition and joining in.

Now, the Times team did find an expert who knows something about this hymn (even if that expert incorrectly says that this particular Fanny Crosby text has something to do with “fundamentalist” faith). The story also features quality quotes from people in the audience.

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Hanging out with Sheryl Crow and her kids — where?

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While I have not lived in Nashville (yet), I have spent a lot of time there and know quite a bit about the town.

Thus, I really enjoyed the new Associated Press feature about rocker Sheryl Crow‘s decision to move — as in pack up her life and really move — to Guitar Town and give country music a try.

The story is full of all kinds of details that stick, if you get Nashville, but I thought it really needed one or two additional paragraphs, or at least a few extra lines. Yes, this is Nashville, so we are talking about a religion ghost that slipped into this story, but was given very little attention.

Now, the whole key to this story is that the life of a musician in Nashville — the pop-culture capital of the Bible Belt — is somewhat different than life in a place like Los Angeles. In the country music biz artists need to court a broader audience, including the people who run radio stations. It’s a place where even the big stars are expected to project a bit of down-home attitude.

Like I said, this story gets that down, starting with some advice from a guy named Brad, who urged her to go country for keeps:

Crow thought about it and Paisley’s message took hold. But it meant she would have to change things up and embrace Nashville’s country music culture. Eventually, he helped kick start the new record, suggested producer Justin Niebank and introduced her to songwriter Chris Dubois, who served as a co-writer and informal song editor. She changed her songwriting tack, looking to match the more visceral, story-telling style of the genre.

And no one succeeds in country music without courting radio — thus the bus. Most of country music’s biggest stars started that way and Crow — 20 years after releasing her first album, the five times platinum “Tuesday Night Music Club” — didn’t see herself as exempt, no matter how many millions of albums she’s already sold.

The first day of radio tour she hit larger markets like Knoxville and Chattanooga in Tennessee, Atlanta, Orlando, Fla., and some privately owned stations in smaller towns, too. One day, three states. Welcome to country.

“I say that it’s fun, but it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Crow said. “Because sitting on the bus and only getting the gratification of only playing like a couple of songs, and then driving for two more hours and then getting to play a couple more songs. It’s really hard, but it’s great, you know? … I’ve felt really embraced.”

So the musician is adapting.

But what about the woman whose private life has, on occasion, been the stuff of tabloid headlines? How’s she doing?

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Behold: A pretty fair tribute to George Beverly Shea

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Longtime GetReligion readers may recall that I grew up in Texas in the 1960s and early ’70s, the son of a Southern Baptist pastor. Suffice it to say that I have been to my share of Billy Graham meetings, back then and as a reporter on the religion beat in Denver and elsewhere.

So I heard George Beverly Shea sing on multiple occasions.

The purpose of this post is quite simple, but I will admit that it is a bit strange. I would like to thank the editors of The Washington Post for running a non-snarky obituary for Shea, who died April 16 at the age of 104. I don’t think I have ever heard a single person say a bad word about Shea, which would have raised the degree of difficulty in writing an obit with some teeth in it.

It is estimated that Shea sang — in person — for an estimated audience of 220 million in a career that spanned seven decades. Toss in television and shelves of albums and he would have to rank near the top, in terms of impact, in the world of gospel music.

Shea was never the main attraction and he knew it, a fact noted in the Post report. Here’s my favorite chunk of the story:

When Graham devoted himself to his evangelistic “crusades” in 1947, he invited Mr. Shea to join him. From then on, wherever Graham preached, Mr. Shea sang. He was known for his clean diction, perfect pitch and a robust bass-baritone voice that was as sturdy and as flashy as a tree trunk.

Mr. Shea had a repertoire of hundreds of hymns — some of which he composed — but was identified with a few familiar favorites, including “The Old Rugged Cross,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and, especially, “How Great Thou Art.” He began singing “How Great Thou Art,” a Swedish hymn written in the 1880s, in the mid-1950s. When Graham preached to more than 2 million people during a prolonged crusade in New York City in 1957, Mr. Shea sang his signature number on more than 100 consecutive nights.

Two alterations he made in the lyrics of “How Great Thou Art” became so well known that the original words were almost forgotten. Mr. Shea changed “consider all the works thy hands have made” to “all the worlds thy hands have made” and “I hear the mighty thunder” to “I hear the rolling thunder.”

“I got a bang when I used to hear Elvis Presley sing my two words,” Mr. Shea told the Kansas City Star in 2004.

The connections with the Graham family were strong at every possible level.

How strong?

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