Religion and beer have never been strangers. Monks have been brewing beer for at least a millennium, and Martin Luther was a home brewer. Today, more Christians (and some non-Christians) are holding what look an awful lot like worship services in bars, taverns, pubs and nightclubs — basically anywhere alcohol is served. Scholars of religion say this is part of something larger, the “emerging church” movement where informal, defacto congregations meet in unlikely places — theaters, coffeehouses, beaches, boats and more. So why not a bar? Among the most popular forms of this trend is “Beer and Hymns,” a sing-along to Christian classics like “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art” held in local watering holes. This mini-edition of ReligionLink, tied to a panel at the 2017 Religion News Association’s annual conference, looks at the appeal and spread of bar churches.
Bar-based religious gatherings
Beer and Hymns bills itself as “more than a few hours of singing, it’s a form of worship.” It claims ties to 19th century pub and tavern sing-alongs hosted by the Salvation Army in Great Britain. The first Beer and Hymns was held in England in 2006 at the Greenbelt Festival, a gathering for art, faith and culture. Its lists known groups in different countries here, including:
- California – Beer and Hymns Orange County
- Kansas – Beer and Hymns at Rusty’s
- Illinois – Beer and Hymns Chicago and Beer and Hymns Wheaton
- N. Carolina – Durham County Beer and Hymns and Raleigh Beer and Hymns
- Ohio – Beer and Hymns at Sanctuary OTR
- Oregon – Beer and Hymns Portland
- Tennessee – Beer and Hymns Nashville
- International – Beer and Hymns Hong Kong
Beer Not God is a monthly gathering of atheists, agnostics and other non-religious people in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Theology on Tap started as a lecture program in various local Catholic dioceses, then spread to mainline Protestant groups. Local groups meet in a bar for a lecture, usually accompanied by adult beverages. There are Theology on Tap groups in most U.S. cities.
Read and Watch “Beer and Hymns — Mixing froth with faith” by Brent Ashcroft for WZZM-13 in Grand Rapids, Mich., Sept. 2, 2017.
Read “‘Beer and Hymns’ Is Orange County’s Spiritual Sing-A-Long Flash Mob” by Sarah Bennett for The OC Weekly, Feb. 17, 2016
Read “Church in Non-Traditional Spaces — Even Bars” by Irwin Kula for The Daily Wisdom, Jan. 14, 2015.
Read “To Stave Off Decline, Churches Attract New Members With Beer” by John Burnett for NPR, Nov. 3, 2013.
Read “Beer & Hymns: Imagining Christianity” by Anne Marie Roderick and Joshua Witchger for Sojourners, June 27, 2012.
Jennifer Wilkins Davidson is an associate professor of theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Her research areas include Communion and baptism among American Baptists, the Black Lives Matter movement and the spiritual practices of the “nones.”
Christopher B. James is an assistant professor of evangelism and missional Christianity at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. He is author of Church Planting in Post-Christian Soil: Theology and Practice (2017) and is an expert on churches and worship in non-traditional places.
Bob Hyatt is a pastor and elder at the Evergreen Community (Motto: “Life’s short, why not apply for an extension?”), a church plant that was founded in 2004 and which meets in a pub in Portland, Ore. Evergreen believes it is important to give the “unchurched” and the “formerly churched” a place to belong before they believe. Hyatt is a megachurch escapee who says American churches that get bigger and bigger foster a culture of church consumerism and neglect individuals. One of the great attractions of planting a church, he says, is creating and sustaining a real community.
Geoff Little is the leader of Beer and Hymns in Nashville, Tenn., which meets at the Mercy Lounge, a 500-seat venue.
Matthew Peeples is the lead pastor of The Point Knox, a Lutheran church in Knoxville, Tenn. He also holds a regular worship service in a bar called The Bar Church.
David Perkins is the director of the Religion in the Arts and Contemporary Culture program at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. He is a guitarist and songwriter who plays for the Nashville chapter of Beer and Hymns. He teaches courses on religion and the arts, including the theology of song.
Jeremy Smith is the senior pastor of First Church, the First United Methodist Church of Seattle. He blogs at Hacking Christianity where he has written about non-traditional worship services and churches, including bar churches and dinner churches.
Diana Butler Bass is an author, a speaker and an American religion and culture consultant to a variety of religious organizations. She is the author of many books, including Christianity After Religion and Grounded: Finding God in the World (A Spiritual Revolution). She was also the project director of a national Lilly Endowment-funded study of mainline Protestant vitality. Contact through Suzanne Wickham at HarperOne Publicity.
She can discuss the ways the spiritual but not religious engage with the divine outside traditional church structures.