Newcomers are flocking to a new kind of church — one that combines hymns and beers, and brings a whole new meaning to bar service.
Churchgoers from multiple congregations gathered at Last Chance Tavern in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Aug. 29 to knock back a few cold ones and belt out some worship at an event called Beer & Hymns, according to WZZM 13. The founders of Beer & Hymns, Dan and Carrie Elzinga, established it as a monthly church event. Since the first gathering in 2015, attendance exploded with nearly 140 people at the most recent gathering, more than doubling the initial 20 person congregation.
The revolutionary concept of combining social drinking with Christian worship has swiftly gained popularity, and Dan Elzinga attributes that to the event’s liberating spiritual atmosphere.
“I think often times in church, people feel like they have to be reserved,” Elzinga told WZZM 13. “You don’t have to be reserved in a bar. Half the time in church, you can barely hear the people singing, but at Beer & Hymns, the singing is deafening.”
Dan Miller, who works in the beer industry and helped Elzinga connect with Last Chance Tavern, said he and the Elzingas plan to expand the church event to others bars in light of its recent success.
“Given the success Beer & Hymns has had, we’ve begun discussing this as an option for other bars in downtown Grand Rapids,” Miller said, according to WZZM 13. “We don’t want the event at The Last Chance to stop, but we’d like to see other bars add Beer & Hymns to their monthly calendars.”
The beer in church concept has already spread beyond the state of Michigan and found a regular following in Tennessee. Lutheran Rev. Matt Peeples, who started The Point church in Knoxville, Tenn., with gatherings in a movie theater, also began an outreach program called Bar Church that literally brings church to a local bar, according to Knoxville News Sentinel.
“I felt a lot of people in a bar were disconnected from God yet had a lot of questions about God,” Peeples said. “Being from a Lutheran background, having a beer was not really a big deal. A bar was a place we could go and be a positive reflection of Christ and the gospel without doing it in a sinful way.”
The Point worship band member Jay Stokes said the event, which is most often held throughout the summer, attracts churchgoers and bar hoppers alike, though sometimes unwittingly.
“There have been times where people come in, hang out and have been there a while before they realize this is a church thing and isn’t just a band playing in a bar,” Stokes said.
The idea for holding church in a movie theater and bringing church messages to a bar setting was to reach people who weren’t comfortable or felt judged in a normal church setting, according to Stokes.
“It was entirely missional,” Stokes said.
“It was always about the gospel; it was never about the beer,” said Bar Church co-founder and former Point worship coordinator Trey Sansom. “We went there because there are people who need Jesus and he commanded us to go make disciples, … to share with others.”
“It would be false to say there aren’t people who come in, realize it’s church and about face. But that’s true of a lot of outreach we do,” Sansom added.
The Christian message combined with a bar atmosphere and liberty to drink proved to be a winsome combination for those who stopped attending church long ago or who simply never went.
“The first years people were coming who hadn’t been in church in 10, 12 years. It was just an unconventional approach to try to get people to experience a church family and what faith is about,” Stokes said.
Robert McKeever, 28, stopped going to church in his teenage years, but said that the nonjudgemental nature of Bar Church drew him back.
“I am not here because I can drink a beer,” McKeever said. “I am here because they don’t mind me drinking alcohol.”
The concept of Beer & Hymnals and Church Bar may seem unorthodox, but beer and clergy actually share a long history. German monks in the 18th century drank beer during their observance of Lent, and Arthur Guinness, creator of Guinness beer, ran his business according to his understanding of Christian principles. The Benedictine monks of the St. Gall monastery brewed beer as far back as the year 820 A.D.
As for holding church services in a bar, as opposed to a church building, Vanderbilt professor of divinity Paul Lim said the key issue of church service is not so much the “where” as it is the “what.”
“The question about where we should worship God has been going on for as long as we know it,” Lim told Knoxville News Sentinel. “How do you define or re-define the sacred? And does it matter?”
“So long as you worship God in spirit and in truth, where you worship doesn’t matter. It’s who you worship and how you worship,” Lim added.
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