‘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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A dynamic, hip, inked leader offers salvation to the left

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It says a lot, in this financially tight age in American newsrooms, when editors put a reporter on an airplane and send her halfway across the nation to hear somebody preach.

In other words, the team at The Washington Post has decided that the work of Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber is a truly national story, one with policy-cultural implications for American religion. After all, we know that the Post isn’t into covering mere “local” stories away from the Beltway.

That recent news feature on this rising star of oldline Protestantism is also interesting because she was about to visit Washington, D.C., for a speaking engagement, which means that the earlier feature story served as a kind of PR-friendly advance story to help build the gate and attract the base, to put this in political/entertainment terms. There was no need to head to Austin to catch the Denver-based punk pastor earlier on her tour, since she was coming to DC (which allowed the Post to feature her work a second time).

Interesting. So what is going on here?

What’s going on is that Bolz-Weber represents a charismatic development in the old, graying world of liberal mainline Protestantism, a highly symbolic slice of America’s religious marketplace that has been caught in a downward demographic spiral for several decades. Apparently, the consumer-friendly world of shopping mall faith likes what this woman is pushing, including her personal style — which the Post features in the lede:

AUSTIN – Nadia Bolz-Weber bounds into the University United Methodist Church sanctuary like a superhero from Planet Alternative Christian. Her 6-foot-1 frame is plastered with tattoos, her arms are sculpted by competitive weightlifting and, to show it all off, this pastor is wearing a tight tank top and jeans.

Right up front, why strip this preacher of her title? Where is “the Rev.” in front of her name?

Also, it helps to know that she is (for the most part) drawing crowds in the hundreds, while a successful megachurch Christian pastor draws regular Sunday flocks that number in the thousands. How do Bolz-Weber’s market statistics compare with someone like, oh, that charismatic feel-good superstar, the Rev. Joel Osteen? Don’t ask.

Glance at the photos and videos from Bolz-Weber appearances and it appears that she is drawing a larger version of the usual liberal Protestant house, with a heavy emphasis on older singles and white people with gray hair and comfortable clothing. For the Post team, that means (hang on, because this gets complex):

To Bolz-Weber’s bafflement, this is now her congregation: mainstream America. These are the people who put her memoir near the top of the New York Times bestseller list the week it came out in September. They are the ones who follow her every tweet and Facebook post by the thousands, and who have made the Lutheran minister a budding star for the liberal Christian set. And who, as Bolz-Weber has described it in her frequently profane dialect, “are [mess]ing up my weird.”

A quick tour through her 44 years doesn’t seem likely to wind up here. It includes teen rebellion against her family’s fundamentalist Christianity, a nose dive into drug and alcohol addiction, a lifestyle of sleeping around and a stint doing stand-up in a grungy Denver comedy club. She is part of society’s outsiders, she writes in her memoir, its “underside dwellers … cynics, alcoholics and queers.”

Which is where — strangely enough — the match with her fans makes sense. The type of social liberals who typically fill the pews of mainline churches sometimes feel like outsiders among fellow liberals in their lives if they are truly believing Christians; if they are people who really experience Jesus and his resurrection, even if they can’t explain it scientifically; if they are people who want to hear words from the Apostles in church, not Thich Nhat Hanh or Barack Obama.

In her body and her theology, Bolz-Weber represents a new, muscular form of liberal Christianity, one that merges the passion and life-changing fervor of evangelicalism with the commitment to inclusiveness and social justice of mainline Protestantism. She’s a tatted-up, foul-mouthed champion to people sick of being belittled as not Christian enough for the right or too Jesus-y for the left.

This is good stuff. The issue is whether the story will deliver the doctrinal details to flesh out the flash.

Here at GetReligion, we think this kind of detail is important since, from Day One, we have been saying that the press doesn’t devote enough ink to the religious, doctrinal content of liberal faith groups. All too often, stories about religious liberals focus on politics and that is that.

It’s clear that this Post piece is arguing that the faith content and the style of this preacher have substance and should be taken seriously. That’s good. So what is she saying? Are readers given substance, or just style?

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Podcast: English Anti-Catholicism & Ethiopian Lutheranism

Anti-Catholic bias is alive and well in Britain — however the animus to the “Italian mission to the Irish” comes not from the Church of England. Nor does it stem from the 1701 Act of Settlement (barring Catholics from the Royal Family), Guy Fawkes Night, xenophobia or other collective memories of the Britain’s past. The anti-Catholic bias one sees in England today is that of the political and media elites — those members of the chattering classes who detest the church for what it believes (not what it is).

Now there is an equal opportunity disdain at work — the Church of England is held in low regard also by the elites. Yet despite the best efforts of the magic circle, the small group of liberal prelates who control the English church, to conform the institution to the demands of the right thinking members of the establishment — the chattering classes reject the Catholic moral worldview (and have no problem saying so).

This is the theme of my chat this week with Todd Wilken, the host of Issues, Etc.  In our conversation broadcast on 21 Feb 2013, Todd and I discussed my article “Guardian wins week one of 2013 All-England pope-bashing contest” posted at GetReligion and discussed the phenomena of shoddy reporting on the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI. Todd asked whether I believed that this was a failure of journalism or if there was something more involved.

I argued that this was more than a failure of adhering to the reporter’s art, but represented a virulent anti-Catholic, anti-religious prejudice in the stories we discussed. How could one explain assertions made by the Guardian‘s man in Rome that Africans were unable to conform to the church’s requirements of priestly celibacy due to their being Africans? The Guardian (and the BBC) are the temples of the p.c. priests. How could such a  slur be allowed to make its way into print? Well if it is in a story that damns the Catholic Church it can.

The restraints of time and my inherent good breeding prevented me from giving full voice to my views. I would have liked to add that I was also concerned by the Guardian‘s decision to run so many pope stories — many not worth the bother reading due to the the ignorance of the authors — when other issues of equal merit in the world of religion were taken place over the past few weeks — the story about the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY) being but one example.

No, this is not a joke on my part. While I do not downplay the importance of the pope’s resignation announcement, the sheer volume of nonsense being published and the absence of news about the EECMY speaks to the media’s inability to evaluate religious events.

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Shocker! Liberal clergy back gay rites! (updated)

What we have here is a totally predictable story, to an almost stunning degree. It’s almost a non-story, from the get go.

What has me confused, however, is whether or not The New York Times crew realizes that it is publishing a totally predictable story, a story in which there is not a single new or unpredictable element.

You see, there are quite a few signs in the story that the Times folks know that there is little or nothing new in this piece. Then, at other times, the world’s openly liberal newspaper of record — especially on religious and moral issues, saith former editor Bill Keller — seems to think that this story is important.

The key is the story’s Something Really Big Has Happened Lede, which only sounds big because the newspaper’s editors chose to omit a crucial fact.

More than 250 religious leaders in Illinois have signed an open letter in support of same-sex marriage, which the legislature is likely to take up in January.

“We dedicate our lives to fostering faith and compassion, and we work daily to promote justice and fairness for all,” the leaders wrote in the letter, which was released Sunday. “Standing on these beliefs, we think that it is morally just to grant equal opportunities and responsibilities to loving, committed same-sex couples.

“There can be no justification,” they continued, “for the law treating people differently on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.”

This is not the first time members of the clergy have endorsed same-sex marriage, but the public nature of the letter and the number of signatures made it an especially strong statement.

Now let me be clear: This is a story. Years ago, it would have been an important one.

What I am arguing is that at this point it is a totally predictable story, for reasons that — to their credit — the Times persons make little effort to hide. The story notes, for example that “many” of the Christian and Jewish leaders who signed this liberal statement noted that “they had long supported same-sex marriage.”

So what does the lede fail to mention? This story does not cite a single clergyperson who, by signing this statement, was changing her or his position on this issue. In fact, the story does not list a single clergyperson whose stance represents a violation of her or his denomination’s stance on the moral status of sex outside of marriage.

In other words: Where is the news?

By the way, I would feel precisely the same about a Times story reporting that a large flock of Catholic, Orthodox, Orthodox Jewish, Muslim, Mormon and evangelical Protestant clergy had produced a statement documenting their opposition to same-sex marriage. The difference, of course, is that the Times would not print that story and certainly would not open that alleged news report with a Something Really Big Has Happened Lede.

Note the denominations that are backing this liberal proclamation:

“It’s not a religious right — it’s a civil right,” said the Rev. Kevin E. Tindell, a United Church of Christ minister at New Dimensions Chicago. “It’s a matter of justice, and so as a Christian, as a citizen, I feel that it’s my duty.” Mr. Tindell, who is gay, is raising three children with his partner of 17 years.

The Rev. Kim L. Beckmann of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, who lives in the Chicago area, said she was drawn into the movement “as my gay and lesbian parishioners were welcomed into our congregation.”

“I have participated in blessings of these unions for longer than we’ve even been talking about marriage,” she said. “I’m thrilled to take this step.” …

The Rev. Kara Wagner Sherer of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Chicago said it was a way for religious leaders to say, “I’m a faithful Christian or a Jew or Muslim, and I think that marriage equality is important.”

“It doesn’t have to be a faith issue,” she said. “We understand our Scripture in a different way.”

Now, that quote from the female Episcopal priest raises an interesting question: Did any mainstream Muslim leaders actually sign this letter? Did any Muslims sign the letter, period?

The logical thing to do is to look online and fine the list. However, at the moment, all I can find is news reports about the letter, many of which — unlike the Times story — note another predictable element of this development, which is that most of the women and men who signed this statement are from the Chicago area.

I am several pages into a logical online search and I can’t find the actual list. Surely it is online? Or, perhaps, was the story in the Times meant to serve as the official announcement?

Help me find the list, please. Once we have found it, we can search the list for (a) Muslims, (b) Catholics who are not liberal nuns, (c) Orthodox Jews, (d) evangelical Protestants who are employed by major evangelical denominations, (e) Mormons linked to major Mormon organizations, (f) Anglicans who are not part of The Episcopal Church, etc., etc. In other words, let’s search the list for surprising names, the kinds of signatures that would represent a truly newsworthy development.

Again let me stress: We are talking about a journalism issue here, exactly the same journalism issue that would be raised, let’s say, by a Fox News report trumpeting an anti-gay-marriage statement released by a long list of religious leaders who are part of religious groups that support their various traditions’ ancient doctrines on sex and marriage. That statement wouldn’t be big news either.

UPDATE: Thank you to reader Joyce Garcia. Here’s the link to a .pdf of the list. The list is pretty much what I expected, including its reference to an “Orthodox” parish — a St. Thomas Mission that is actually part of a liberal splinter group. Check the list. Check it twice.


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