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Imbibe in the Spirit

Posted by Annie Gonzalez Milliken // November 6th 2013 // Future of Faith, Issues and Trends, young adults // 2 comments

Church and beer? Motivation matters!

Bottles_morguefile00083278621This past Sunday the minister at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland opened his sermon with an anecdote about Lutherans who were combining beer with church. He joked about being desperate for growth and the congregation laughed.  Later that day I saw the NPR story to which he referred. It was being passed around facebook, a news story titled “To Stave Off Decline, Churches Attract New Members with Beer.”

Because of the title and the way it had been referred to at my congregation, I expected to read about a desperate dying church trying to lure in young people with promises of pints. Instead I read about two distinct religious communities: one in Fort Worth, Texas and one in Portland, Oregon, where religious services were being celebrated outside of the traditional Sunday morning format.

How relevant to Unitarian Universalists! Throughout our UU movement we’ve been discussing how our mission can move us into new forms of religious life. This conversation has been framed by the phrase “Congregations and Beyond,” which is described nicely in this paper by UUA President Peter Morales. Here in the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministries we are constantly thinking about the cultural shifts that require us to move in unconventional directions. You can read more about these shifts and what they mean for Unitarian Universalism in the excellent Future of Faith series by Carey McDonald.

So with our UU context in mind, three elements of the “Church and Beer” news story stood out to me. One was inclusive community. A member of Church in a Pub was quoted as enjoying the “non-judgmental eyes” of those who worship there. Another was the emphasis on ritual and song. Church in a Pub celebrates communion, while the focus of Beer & Hymns in Portland is on singing together. Lastly, these meetings are accessible to those who might not be able or willing to attend a standard Sunday morning service. In fact, the Church in a Pub takes place in public, so it may even draw in strangers who were simply at the bar for trivia night. We UUs may do well to take note of these elements: inclusive community, ritual and song, accessible gatherings.

We also do well to be careful of how we talk about less conventional forms of doing church. Today on facebook I saw that a response to the NPR story had been written by a member of Beer & Hymns in Portland. Caedmon Michael addresses his concerns directly to National Public Radio correspondent John Burnett.  Michael is worried that his community was misrepresented as being a program run by a church in order to attract new young members. In fact, he claims, Beer & Hymns is an independent intergenerational fellowship with an infectious spirit and welcoming atmosphere designed to create community and enhance the lives of its members.

Caedmon Michael’s point is clear: this unconventional religious community we have formed is not a trendy gimmick or a desperate attempt to stave off institutional decline. I am grateful for his clarification because motivation matters. We who are religious and believe in our mission must go beyond the traditional congregational model, and we must do it for the right reasons: to serve more souls, to enrich more lives, to create communities that help us improve our world.  t seems that regardless of the spin put on the article, the folks at Church in a Pub and at Beer and Hymns are motivated by mission to engage in authentic spiritual community. And to that I say “amen!”


About the Author

Annie is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and currently serves our faith as the Young Adult and Campus Ministry Associate for the Unitarian Universalist Association.
2 Responses to “Imbibe in the Spirit”
  1. Peter Grant says:

    Interesting article, and good points! I’d like to add another thought or two because I feel that there are other points of value that can be found in these non-traditional formats.

    1. I feel that part of the value in this format (Well, I’m not familiar with the format at the organizations in the article so I’m speaking from my experience with SoT in the Berkeley group) is that it’s highly interactive. There isn’t a single person giving a sermon, being the head person with knowledge. There isn’t a choir doing the singing, being the group with enthusiasm. Everybody has the opportunity to become as engaged in the event as they’d like, at every moment. This is a feeling I haven’t found in the traditional church format.

    (I’d like to take a moment to point out that this doesn’t mean I don’t value the knowledge and perspective of ministers. It just means that I want to have conversations with them, instead of listen to them give a sermon!)

    2. I also feel that part of the appeal comes from the small group, meeting over dinner format. Whenever I’ve gone to traditional services the coffee hour afterwards was borderline torture for me. There were swarms of people, all of whom knew each other, and I didn’t know a single one, how do I start a conversation, who do I start it with and there’s nothing to do but drink coffee which I don’t like and, and, and (Terrible grammar used to show the mental state I find myself in when in that situation). 4-5 people sitting around a table over dinner and drinks feels much more approachable to me. I hope it does for others as well.

    • Annie Gonzalez says:

      Thanks for these additions, Peter! You are absolutely right that interactive experiences and small groups are also important factors in ministries that go beyond the typical congregational format.
      Also, I love that you brought up Spirituality on Tap in Berkeley, because of course, we UUs are already doing these types of ministries ourselves.
      Personally, when I read the NPR article, I thought of my September visit to the Lucy Stone Co-op in Boston and their Sunday night hymn sing. There was ritual, singing, an inclusive community and it all happened in a house after a meal in the evening. It was a wonderful experience!

      It would be great to collect stories from folks who participate in such UU communities and hear about the aspects they find most compelling!

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