The smell of hops and corned beef clung to the air. Green, red and blue Christmas lights blinked faithfully along the cracking wooden beams that spanned the ceiling. On the wall hung propellers, dimly lit lanterns, and an oddly placed oil painting of Robert E. Lee. A mysterious paper airplane whizzed through the air and slid to a stop on the sticky bar, which probably contributed to the sanitation score that was displayed all too publicly. The floor creaked. The bartenders hurried. The Christians drank?
Walking into a bar across the street from NC State University to attend a church-sanctioned outreach event didn’t even feel real to me. It was eerie and unsettling. I thought organized Christianity and a sticky, stinky, crowded beer joint were mutually exclusive. It was mixing the unmixables. Oil and water. Donald and Rosie. I kept waiting for a camera crew from Punk’d to bust in and have a good laugh with everyone.
This may not sound that extreme to you, but I grew up in the bible belt where children have to change the lyrics to “99 Bottles of Beer.” For me, this was beyond unconventional. Yet, as strange as I may have felt, mixing ministry with alcohol is losing its taboo as many progressive and emergent leaders are rethinking the place of drinking in both personal life and ministry.
I first ran across this sort of thing while surfing the websites of churches in the Acts 29 Network, a community headed up by Pastor Mark Driscoll of Seattle’s Mars Hill Church. At the time, I admit it seemed like a fringe movement, something that I would never personally encounter. But, nearly two years later, after moving from Atlanta to Raleigh, I sat and watched a segment on NBC’s Today show called “Beer and Bibles: New Churches Lure Young Members” that described a St. Louis congregation doing outreach in a local pub. Without looking hard, I found other churches with similar methodologies in almost every state with ties to various denominations and even Roman Catholicism. My interest was piqued, and I decided to see firsthand what this was all about.
I didn’t have to look far to find “Theology on Tap,” hosted by Raleigh’s Vintage 21 church. On the second Tuesday of every month, leaders invite friends and members of the community to come to Mitch’s Tavern for discussions about life and spirituality, with hopes of opening up individuals to the Gospel. Lead Pastor, Tyler Jones, says that the event is “an entry point for someone who would never go to church otherwise to sit down in a non-threatening environment like a pub and have a conversation about God.”
There was plenty of conversation, and much of it was surprisingly frank. The list of suggested topics included the connection between the mouth and the heart, the nature of God’s revelation and the effectiveness of prayer. “Our generation is spiritually-inclined; they love deep content,” says Jones. “So we don’t give them watered-down spirituality.” Looking around the room, I saw a mixture of what Vintage calls God-doubters and God-seekers engaging with Christ-followers over a pint of their favorite brew. The rules are simple: “Have a good time and drink responsibly.”
Jones admits feedback has been mixed, and I didn’t have to look hard to find an assortment of opinions. Heather, a Theology on Tap regular, believes that by being more open in this way, the Church seems more approachable to outsiders. “People sometimes feel they can’t come to church with their questions,” she says. “Those questions are welcome here.” Her friends agree, noting that they have had the opportunity to plant seeds, build relationships and invite friends who would otherwise not come to church, all the while challenging people’s preconceptions about Christianity.
But I also spoke with Drew, a former Vintage member who left the congregation over a year ago. He questions the wisdom of hosting events literally on the campus of a major University where drinking is “almost encouraged.” While he had positive things to say about the leadership, he admitted their ministry approach left him and his wife feeling confused. “They love the poor, they preach the word, but at times they overemphasize their preferences at the expense of their message,” he says.
Drew is not the only one who sees alcohol as a wisdom issue. Dr. Danny Akin, President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, is head of a vibrant school only a few miles from Mitch’s Tavern. He is an evangelical who is opposed to alcohol consumption and the mingling of drinking with ministry: “Do I call it sin? No. Do I think it is unwise? Yes.”
By making unwise decisions, he thinks some might be crossing a line to being like the world. “Do I need to smoke to reach the smoker?” Akin asks. “I don’t think you have to do this to be an effective witness.” The seminary President seems less concerned with the what and more concerned with the why. As he sees it, to make this type of leap in ministry is to do so unnecessarily.
Tyler and his leaders understand this concern, and are quick to note that they also network, plant churches, disciple people and encourage authentic worship. He points to the 900,000 lost people in his community and remarks, “We need the largest cast-net we can find.” For Vintage 21, the net being cast is merely one component in their effort to evangelize in a way that discourages legalism. They believe this approach is not radical because it is what Jesus himself did. Jones says, “If you study Jesus’ missionality and seek to mirror him, you will be led to do events like Theology on Tap. The counter-question is ‘Jesus did this. Why don’t you?’”
They note passage upon passage where Jesus went into the culture in places comparable to a modern-day bar to minister. He dined with sinners; He drank with sinners (see Luke 7). Since we live in a post-Christian world where people are not always familiar with and may be hostile to our message, they believe we must also travel into the culture even if it ruffles some religious feathers. For this reason, Jones describes his church as “Biblically conservative, but culturally liberal.”
Modern believers like the sound of that. They want a fresh and personal faith that speaks their language. As a result, there is now a tendency to question traditional ideology. Perhaps it is just the sour taste that the artifact of fundamentalist separatism left in their mouths; they certainly aren’t cultural separatists. So, the rethinking of traditional ministry tenets makes movements like this emblematic of the larger emerging mindset. Even among bastions of conservatism, we are beginning to see re-evaluation. Many well-known pastors, who in the past preached drinking as abominable sin, have now softened their stance and discourage it as unwise.
Progressives are quick to point out that this is not a recent phenomenon and feel they gain strength from the stance seen in church history. The Vintage 21 church website calls their event, “a return to the days of Martin Luther.” But it was Mark Driscoll who effectively threw down the historical gauntlet on the issue in his book Radical Reformission (Zondervan) in a chapter titled, “The Sin of Light Beer.” In it, Driscoll points out that many church fathers from Saint Gall to John Calvin were quite progressive on the issue and openly drank. But opponents point out that distillation is a modern phenomenon and with the horrendous destruction the alcohol industry causes in our social context, to compare it with church fathers is to compare apples and oranges.
Driscoll counters that a proper response is to redeem it for God’s intended purpose. “Everything and anything can and will be used wrongly for sin,” he says. “Simply because something is used sinfully does not mean it should be abandoned.” He says this applies to all of life including the internet, food, and God’s word¬–not just alcohol. It is this social-redemption that progressive leaders are implementing into their ministerial philosophies, hoping that others will follow.
But will they? Are these modes a whiff of shifting thought or a sophomoric fad soon to be outgrown? Will they prove to be a depiction of tomorrow’s faith or nothing more than yesterday’s news?
I am reminded of a story told about Albert Einstein who was giving a Physics exam. After the exam was handed out a student said, “Professor Einstein. The questions on this year’s exam are the same questions from last year’s exam!” To which Einstein replied, “That is ok. The answers this year are different.” Indeed, we have found ourselves in perpetual change.
Though we have been asked the same basic questions (How can we worship effectively; reach the lost; gain a sense of Christian community?), from time to time we give different answers.
In recent church history, earth-toned paisley ties fell off the necks of pastors and were replaced by mock turtlenecks and open-collared shirts of every color in the rainbow. Hymnals and organs mysteriously disappeared, perhaps auctioned off to pay for screens on which to project flashy sermon notes and melodic praise-song lyrics. “Sunday school” morphed into “small groups,” exposition began to sound more like conversation, and 3-day revivals went the way of the dinosaur.
The last 20-years of Christian ministry has seen incredible change, each year producing a brand of pop-Christianity seemingly distinct from the year before it. One cannot help but wonder what will be next. What is the next change, the next shift, the next ingredient in 21st-century ministry?
Driscoll and Jones believe this is just the beginning of what will prove to be a significant shift of thought on alcohol. Others like Akin fail to see the frothy future envisioned by emergent leaders. He bluntly predicts, “Within a decade, this movement will decline.” Like all predictions, only time will tell.
In the meantime, both sides agree that unity can be maintained even if there is disagreement over methodology. Our prayer should be that of Jesus: “That all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21, TNIV). Let those who disagree do so in love.