Imbibe in the Spirit

By Annie Gonzalez Milliken



Church and beer? Motivation matters!

This 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!”