A few months ago, Stephen Marsh, my fellow pastor, and I walked into Chief’s Tavern on the east side of Madison, Wis., ordered a couple pints, sat on a pair of stools and discussed an idea that would eventually have a massive impact on the congregation we serve together. In specifics, we wondered whether we could spark a ministry by fusing two of our most treasured Lutheran traditions: beers and hymns.
The budding idea, which originated from some creative faith communities in other parts of the country, was to find a local tavern willing to host a monthly one-hour session of hymn-inspired evening fellowship. Within a few minutes of our conversation, we were joined by Brian Mason (owner of Chief’s Tavern), and what followed was a ground-breaking partnership between parish and pub. The first Beers & Hymns event was scheduled, and as the date drew closer, our collective thoughts and prayers moved back and forth between “Thanks be to God” and “Lord, have mercy”!
In what can be described as a “see it to believe it” kind of ministry experience, our initial Beers & Hymns assembly was beyond our loftiest expectations, as the local watering hole was jam-packed with Lutherans, Chief’s regulars, college students, curious neighbors, and some inquisitive personalities who traveled far distances to see it all firsthand. From retirees in wheelchairs to hipsters in skinny jeans, together we sang “Amazing Grace,” “This Little Light of Mine” and even enjoyed a “When the Saints Go Marching In” conga line! It was incredible! The splendid 60 minutes of zeal-infused, body-swinging music, led by Patrick Christians (guitar) and Jay Wolf (djembe drum), was a remarkable ordeal, and many of those gathered stayed long after the closing melodies to keep the energy rolling. All together, the inaugural Beers & Hymns at Chief’s Tavern was a major accomplishment for numerous reasons, and we immediately looked forward to the next opportunity.
While Beers & Hymns was viewed as a worthy undertaking by most in our congregation and community (especially after the sensation of the first event!), there was — and continues to be — some organized resistance, mostly centered on 1 Corinthians 8:13 and “causing” someone “to stumble” in relationship to alcohol.
We understand these legitimate concerns, especially in a state — such as Wisconsin — where alcoholism and alcohol-related hardship are both significant and alarming. However, while we have witnessed the tragic impact of alcohol abuse far too many times, we ultimately believed that such fears should not keep us from moving forward as people of faith into the depths of our neighborhood. For example, we reflected on the ways that Jesus crossed various cultural boundaries, accompanied marginalized people in so-called “unclean” places, and countered the religious exclusion of the chief priests.
In addition, we spoke with a wide range of recovering alcoholics and sought wisdom and guidance on how to function with utmost compassion and sensitivity. Altogether, while congregational conflict remained, we came to the conclusion that Beers & Hymns was an opportunity to move from fear to faith to action, and the various risks were — in our opinion — worth the multitude of rewards.
The second Beers & Hymns gathering was even more fruitful than the first, to the point that we wondered if our attendance put Chief’s Tavern at risk of surpassing its fire-code capacity limits! However, while some might view the overwhelming turnout as validation, we have come to view Beers & Hymns as a thriving outreach because Beers & Hymns actually has very little to do with beers or hymns.
In other words, the event is not about drinking or even singing, but it is about being the church of Jesus in all areas of our community. The results to this point have been nothing short of incredible, not because of songs or suds, but through the ways that people have stepped outside of the church building to accompany our ever-expanding community more faithfully and fruitfully.
In response to God’s abundant grace, through Beers & Hymns we created an opportunity to be church in our local neighborhood, rather than passively expecting the local neighborhood to come to our church. As a result, new friendships have formed, and numerous ventures and community connections have sprung up. In addition, while Beers & Hymns is promoted as a “no strings attached” occasion that is not intended to attract new Lutheran Church members, a wide variety of attendees have since visited and joined our congregation.
Our worship attendance has increased by over 20 percent in the past nine months, and a few weeks ago we had one of the largest new-member classes in recent memory. Why the energy and growth? We believe the Holy Spirit is creating and sustaining something new that more effectively fits our contemporary context. As a first-time young-adult visitor said, “I doubt if I will ever attend Beers & Hymns myself, but I — and many others like me — want to be a part of a church that is willing to sponsor Beers & Hymns.”
As we look forward to the future of Beers & Hymns, and as we continue to grow as a multi-cultural and mission-oriented community of faith, I am thankful for those willing to risk being church by daring to embody the gospel. As Jesus himself went into various so-called hazardous places and spaces that the religious authorities of his day deemed contaminated, we too are set free from such fears in order to be set free for the sake of others.
Instead of isolating our congregation from the corners of our neighborhood that some believe we should avoid, we have tried to accompany our local community as “full communion partners” in order to connect more fully and find common ground for a common good. Altogether, while this undertaking remains risky and filled with various points of tension and conflict, the results have been a mutual exchange of gifts, a healthy dialogue surrounding congregational mission and ministry, a greater understanding of what it means to be the church of Jesus in our world today, and another opportunity to share and receive an outpouring of grace-filled Christ-centered good news. We look forward to all that God has in store, and doing so together we boldly and humbly proclaim “Thanks be to God” and “Lord, have mercy”!