This Pastor Is Using Beer to Bring People Back to Jesus
Church leaders are now meeting their parishioners not just at the altar for a sprinkling of holy water, but at the bar on the corner as well.
Young people are fleeing from organized religions in droves, and even life-long Christians are staying home on Sundays. One third of all millennials now report that they are affiliated with no religious group or church whatsoever, and an almost inconceivable 106 Million people are projected to leave the Christian faith before 2050. After centuries of sticking to a rigid doctrine, church leaders suddenly have a choice to make: adapt or die. So now, some priests and pastors are meeting their parishioners not just at the altar for a sprinkling of holy water or a communion wafer, but at the bar on the corner, as well.
Groups like the Basilica of St. Josaphat in Milwaukee's Brewing the Faith or the incredibly popular multi-city Pub Theology series combine spirits both of the Holy and the alcoholic variety in beer gardens, bars, and other local watering holes. We spoke with Pastor Brandon Brown of Milwaukee's CollectiveMKE church about the trend, and his own boozy meetup, Jesus & Beer, where Christians and atheists alike meet to talk faith over a pint.
MUNCHIES: What does the Bible say about beer? Pastor Brandon Brown: It says a couple of things. It does say, ironically, don't get drunk because it leads to bad things. A conservative Christian might read the passage and say "the Bible says don't drink." But that's not what it says. It doesn't even in that passage say that the drinking itself is bad. But it's more of a common sense passage. If you get drunk and do things you're going to regret, you're then going regret it.
The Bible also says to eat, drink and enjoy life. I'm a big fan of Belgian beers, and I usually tell people that I don't like beer—I love it. Human culture has spent so much cumulative time pouring life into creating these amazing beers and wines; I think you would be missing out on part of humanity if you were to miss out on the beers.
What is a Jesus & Beer event? Is there a service performed? It's a gathering. We've talked about politics, toxic faith, bible verses.
Who is coming to a Christian beer event like this? People from all over. Those coming on a regular basis are usually those who are exploring and asking nontraditional questions. It's a range of people who are interested in Jesus but not religion—agnostics, curious people that are asking questions like, "Why are Christians supporting Donald Trump and not Hillary?"
What's the age range? It's tremendously diverse. People in their seventies all the way down to a 19-year-old girl drinking root beer who had to have her father bring her so she could get into the bar.
But is there drive to capturing a younger generation that seems less interested in church? I think that every generation sees the hypocrisy of the generation before it. That's not new. But I do think that the rigid, socially conservative, anti-gay church has a real problem with younger generations seeing what they are doing.
(Millennials) see the Black Lives Matter movement, the debate about homosexuality, or who can pee in what bathroom—they look at that and see the church being the one driving the legislation, and that turns them off. You don't have to look very far to see people are leaving the church. There are people that are still into Jesus and spirituality, but are done with church. I think that a lot of people from churches think that the church owns Jesus—like a dog on a leash that they can lead where they want to. But I've found that so many people are interested in Jesus ethically, or the teachings of Jesus, not necessarily in a religious way. But some really fascinating ideas are attributed to him.
For those who grew up in pews on Sunday mornings in churches, this all sounds pretty radical. Within the Milwaukee Christian community, is there an attitude toward your beer events? I think there's an understanding that what Jesus & Beer is doing is about recruiting and evangelism. It's OK that we're doing it in a bar, because we're doing it so we can get people into the church. Even within Christianity, there are 40,000 denominations. So what normally happens is that Christians get into little groups that agree with their own interpretations and faith. So what I'm trying to do is get people who might not agree on the verse together to talk about it in a context without hating each other. We try to replace offense with curiosity.
And then the beer helps keep tempers calm? It does! Or it can. Sometimes it goes the other way.
What makes Milwaukee a good market for something like Jesus & Beer? Milwaukee is great. It's a beer city. I'd put our beer culture up against anybody's. There are a lot of microbreweries. In the summer, there are music festivals and big parties every weekend. In Milwaukee, beer isn't as divisive as it might be in say, Central Illinois, where I grew up, and beer was seen to be evil.
Is there a therapeutic element to Jesus & Beer as well? There's a tremendous amount of damage that so many of us have experienced growing up inside this community that was supposed to love us, but turned out to be just like any other community. There were good things, bad things, painful things. But sometimes in these religious communities the painful things were even more painful because they were coming from people that were supposed to be our connection to God.
So how do you deal with that baggage? I think that's a huge part of what we're trying to do. And I think that the beer and community and the ability to talk it out are incredibly helpful.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.