Jan 6, 2013

Beer and church

There's something about beer and church.

The combination seems incongruous, especially when the church in question is a conservative one, evangelical, the sort of church that might well talk about sin, might well put an emphasis on condemning some individual behavior such as drinking as sin. It seems like it must be something new, combining beer and church. It's become something of a regular feature in major newspapers, the gosh-gee story of a church in a bar.

In the New York Times, for example, over the New Years holiday, there was a piece on Steve Gilbertson, 52, who "preaches under a mesquite tree, in the shadow of a saloon best known for the quality of its country-western bands and the fervor of its regulars’ allegiance to the Green Bay Packers."

There, "Mr. Gilbertson’s Sunday services end just as the saloon opens at 10 a.m. He said he does not judge or mind if his congregants stick around for a drink, as some of them might do."

Is it really that strange, though? The logic of the church in the bar isn't a 20th century invention; it's as old as evangelicalism.

Last summer, the Associated Press ran a similarly toned piece on a church in Pensacola, Florida. The lead:
On a balmy Sunday morning at the Flora-Bama Lounge, Package and Oyster Bar, barkeeps set up their stations as churchgoers filtered in under a Jack Daniels banner.  
The iconic bar, which sits on the Florida and Alabama state line, is famous for its annual mullet-tossing contest — patrons gather on the beach and throw dead fish from Alabama into Florida.  
Bikini contests, bar brawls and drink specials are the day-to-day business of the beach bar that calls itself "America's last roadhouse."  
But for one hour every Sunday, the Flora-Bama is home to about 450 regular congregants of Worship at the Water, an outreach service of the Perdido Bay United Methodist Church.
Going back a little further, the Boston Globe had a piece in 2011 about a church in a bar in the Fenway Park area, where the double irony was that the bar was named Church. From that story:
The pastor of Fenway Church, 28-year-old David W. Hill, a Fenway resident, acknowledged the oddity of worshiping in a bar called Church. 
'When we started the church we were hoping for a nontraditional place. We hadn’t really realized that a club could be an option,' Hill said. 'But when we saw that Church had just opened up, we thought, Whoa, that’s kind of cool. It really fits with our whole nontraditional-type theme that people could come and experience Jesus in a bar.'
Whether it seems strange or not, though, however "non-traditional" it appears, there's actually a long history of this.

Quakers, who were opposed to the institutionalization of religion in a way many contemporary American evangelicals might find familiar, have met in taverns. In London in the 1600s, a Quaker meeting was held in a tavern called the Bull and Mouth. In the 1700s in America, Quakers occasionally held services in taverns as part of the process of reaching out to sympathetic non-Quakers. In his journals, the itinerant preacher John Woolman recounts holding such a meeting in a tavern in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He writes: "The room was full and the people were quiet."

The logic of this -- of churches in bars -- is actually quite familiar to American evangelicals. It's in the genetic make-up of American evangelicalism. The explanations one might find today are the same as those offered by John Wesley, when he talked about why he preached outside of churches.

During the revivals of the eighteenth century, Wesley was famous for preaching in the open air. As he explained it, that was,
not out of choice, but necessity; but I have since seen abundant reason to adore the wise provi­ dence of God herein, making a way for myriads (sic) of people who never troubled any church, nor were likely to do so, to hear that word which they soon found to be the power of God unto salvation.
While the founder of Methodism didn't prefer preaching out of doors, and suggested that ministers preach inside when they could, he also firmly believed that the really important thing was reaching people. The instructions Wesley gave to Methodist ministers emphasized this above all:
You have nothing to do but save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work; go always, not only to those who want you, but to those who [need] you most.
Despite what one reads in the papers, non-traditional meeting place are actually a deep part of the evangelical tradition. It comes out of the core logic of evangelicalism. 

Though it's true that there's a long history of evangelical opposition to alcohol, it's also the case that evangelicals believe -- most essentially -- that people should have an intimate and personal relationship with Jesus. The kind of relationship that might mean having a beer with the savior, as country music singer Thomas Rhett imagined in his song, "If I Could Have a Beer with Jesus":

Churches in bars might seem strange, and the apparent weirdness makes for a colorful bit of reporting, but they're really not, given the history of evangelicalism.