Surprise: Church beer-brewing ministry draws crowds

by | Apr 29, 2013 | Best of!

goat swilling a beer

Goat drinking a beer

Want to pack in the young adults?  Forget about preaching the Gospel, dying to self or picking up your cross and following Jesus; In the ultimate seeker-mergent marketing ploy to build attendance, a church in Michigan is claiming that making craft or micro-brewed beer can help strengthen a person’s faith in God.
Valley Church in Allendale was even featured in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago in an article highlighting how congregations around the country are “tapping the growing craft-beer trend as a way to attract new members.”
It seems a church in Willmington, S.C., started the beer trend, by getting other churches involved in a little competition called, “What would Jesus brew?”  (And here we thought the spotless Bride of Christ was here to promote the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for our sins, that those who believe, repent and are reborn of the Holy Spirit will have eternal hope in Him forever.)

Wall Street Journal:  Some Church Folk Ask: ‘What Would Jesus Brew?’

ALLENDALE, Mich.—As several of the faithful from the Valley Church here prepared to bow their heads in prayer to open a recent Saturday-evening meeting, they introduced themselves.
“My name is Darin,” the Methodist congregation’s 37-year-old music director said, grinning. “And I like me a 30-pack of Busch Light!”
The circle broke into laughter as several people put down bottles of microbrew beer to applaud. It was a fitting introduction for the event—a semi-regular meeting of beer enthusiasts and home brewers who go by the moniker “What Would Jesus Brew?”
Pastor Matt Bistayi, who started Valley Church three years ago, says the goal of WWJB isn’t to be “churchy,” but rather to “reach out to people in a loving, grace-filled way that meets people where they are and as they are.”
Valley Church is one of several congregations around the country tapping the growing craft-beer trend as a way to attract new members.
The number of American adults who consider themselves “unaffiliated” with any particular religion has grown from 15% to 20% in the last five years, according to a study released last year by the Pew Research Center. Among 18-to 29-year-olds, it’s roughly a third.
“The hardest thing in the church, period, is reaching out to people my age,” says Jake Shirreffs, a 23-year-old in black-framed glasses who plays guitar in the band at Valley Church.

Charlie Hanchett works in a beer group at Christ Church in Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, craft breweries have popped up all over the country and home-brewing has become increasingly popular. Membership in the American Homebrewers Association has quadrupled since 2005, according to the group’s director, Gary Glass.
In Wilmington, N.C, the 150-year-old St. Paul’s Episcopal Church was struggling with membership a few years ago, so the community brainstormed ways to draw new members. Jeffrey Hughes, a member of St. Paul’s, came up with the idea for congregants to brew beer and challenge other churches in the area to a friendly competition to raise money for charity.
Mr. Hughes presented his idea for the “What Would Jesus Brew?” competition at a meeting of church elders.
“It was quiet,” recalls Mr. Hughes, “and then everyone started laughing.”
A handful of nearby churches took up the mantle, and the groups met at Wilmington’s Front Street Brewery to learn basic brewing techniques and the history of beer in the church.
St. Paul’s team, “Brew Unto Others,” also came up with a team slogan: “God’s peace. Happy yeast.”
Mr. Hughes built a “gigantic, four-foot trophy with a giant stein on it,” which went to the “Hopostles” from St. Mary Catholic Parish for their tasty double India Pale Ale.
Mr. Bistayi of Valley Church, Mr. Hughes of St. Paul’s and other church home-brew disciples admit their new style of evangelism has raised a few eyebrows in their sometimes teetotaling religious communities. But they are quick to testify to the long history of beer making in the church. Monks across Europe, in places like Ireland, Belgium and southern Germany, have carefully crafted renowned beers for centuries.
“We’re really getting back to our roots here,” says the Rev. J.D. Brown of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church outside Dallas. There, the men’s ministry brews a range of beers in the parish kitchen, from the “Humble Friar” oatmeal stout to the “Dubya” and “Dubya-too” wheat beers.
Not everyone welcomes the marriage of church and brew. Joe Godfrey, a veteran Southern Baptist pastor who runs a policy and education group addressing “moral concerns” such as alcohol and drug abuse, says it “burdens” him to see churches supporting alcohol consumption and homebrewing.
Mr. Godfrey testified recently before the Alabama State Legislature in an effort to prevent his home state from legalizing homebrewing. “Before prohibition, when saloons were running rampant,” he says, “churches were the voice of reason.”
But Father Brown says he tells skeptics that it’s all “in keeping with the monastic tradition of hospitality.” Holy Trinity adds its own twist to that tradition, playing host to an Oktoberfest celebration with a roasted whole pig, a bounce house, a cake walk and, of course, a beer-tasting competition.
“If you have a high concentration of young adults, I think things like this work well,” says Father Patrick Gray of Christ Church in South Hamilton, Mass. “I just like to drink beer and hang out with people,” says the 42-year-old.
The Episcopal congregation’s Home Brew Fellowship met earlier this month to craft a special batch of beer for St. Patrick’s Day. Father Gray says they plan to serve the finished product at a reception following an evening service.
For at least two church brewing groups, the activity has gone commercial. Hess Brewing Co. in San Diego and Monday Night Brewing in Atlanta both started as Bible study group projects.
Mike Hess says the New Life Presbyterian Church group began with a dozen members and now boasts between 60 and 80 regulars with as many as 100 on occasion. That helped him “drain tanks” regularly, test out several recipes and get feedback on the flavors and styles. Hess Brewing is expanding into a new, larger location—a former Christian book store that had been owned by church members. Mr. Hess’s Belgian “Trinitas” beer, named for the Holy Trinity, is now one of the brewery’s mainstays.
Jeff Heck, Joel Iverson and Jonathan Baker used to get together for a Friday morning Bible study through Atlanta’s Westside Presbyterian Church. As a way to get to know one another better and expand their social circle, they started brewing beer in Mr. Heck’s garage on Monday nights.
They had success with some brews and failure with others. The Christmastime seasonal “Swaddling Ale,” for example, was a bit too heavy on spruce-tree extract.
For Mr. Heck, the main brewer, the process is spiritual. “Beer provides the opportunity to tap into that deeply God-given desire to create,” Mr. Heck says.
Back in Allendale, the malty concoction bubbled away in a pot, while Pastor Bistayi gave a 10-minute rundown on Christian beer history from St. Patrick to Arthur Guinness.
In friendly company, made more so thanks to the frothy beverages in hand, his words were something just short of a sermon. “Drunkenness is a sin,” he said, “but beer or alcohol in moderation can be a gift from God’s creation.”