Beer, Hymns and Making Room for the Unexpected

We hosted what some considered a controversial event at the church last weekend called “Beer and Hymns.” Basically, we’ve found that there’s a strange tension to be overcome for many people when it comes to community. On the one hand, most of us long for meaningful community experiences and relationships that allow us to bear witness to one another’s lives. But on the other hand, that need comes beset with all kinds of risks and demands on us too. So more often than not, despite our deepest longings, we find excuses not to engage.

If you invite most people with such reservations to a hymn sing at a church on Saturday night, they’d decline. I know I would, and I work at a church. But add beer to the formula, and suddenly the event becomes something entirely different. Why does the beer matter? I have beer at home, and it’s not like it was some orgiastic free-for-all; we had a two-beer limit. About half of the folks who came didn’t even drink. So what’s the big deal?

It says something important without words. It says that this isn’t the church of your former understanding. It says to expect the unexpected, to blur the lines between church and the world, to come with an open heart and find, with nothing more than a child-like sense of “what’s next?”

The result was more than eighty people, most of whom didn’t know each other, joining together in boisterous singing of songs, old and new (mostly old) in ways many have never heard before. Children banged on homemade drums. Strangers laughed together. And yes, we had BEER IN CHURCH. The walls didn’t crumble. No strikes of lightning. Just joyful, spirited community. Plus, we raised over $400 for a local food ministry and had folks step forward to sponsor another event next month that will celebrate Christmas carols.

Amy hosted a debriefing session the next day after worship to make sure folks felt heard and involved in the changes taking place. Below was a list compiled by those who came about the good and bad about the event.

For the most part, the list was very encouraging. The “good” column outweighed the “bad,” and even most of the items listed on the right are simply improvements to make the event even better next time. But I found the final item on the “bad” list particularly fascinating.

Someone mentioned as a concern that they didn’t know what to expect coming in that night. Amy’s response, as you can see in the photo, was to circle it and point back toward the “good” column. This, I think, illustrates in a simple image, the tension the institutional church is experiencing. It recognizes the need to change – perhaps to keep its doors open, or maybe because they’re called to it, or possibly both – but like all of us, we want assurance of what it will look like if we let go, take the risk and step out into unfamiliar territory.

Notice the parallel between what those on the outside of the church looking in are feeling and what those on the inside are experiencing? We both want something new, recognize the need for change, but we’re afraid of the unexpected. And despite how it may feel or appear on the surface, this is good news.

Why? It presents common ground on which we’re all standing. It points to a basic commonality of the human condition. It means we’re really people, not Christians or outsiders. It means we need each other, even if we’re not sure what that means or how to do it.

The beauty of the child-like “what’s next?” sort of anticipation (to which we’re called by scripture, by the way) isn’t so much that it is absent of fear. After all, when I took my daughter to her new preschool, she was as nervous as a nine-tailed cat in a room of rocking chairs. But her trust and excitement overwhelmed the fear, to the point that she jumped in, ready to see what would happen.

It’s a call to risk. A call to love. A call, I’d argue, to life itself.



About Christian Piatt

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  1. Recently attended a 4-5 song version of “Beer and Hymns” that was part of a church-sponsored Oktoberfest event. What “worked” was that a large part of the population loves to sing, and our culture doesn’t exactly encourage that. We got into it. Good men, feel free to belt ’em out.

    What “didn’t” was the tendency of the guitar-playing song leader to play in keys that worked for his tenor voice. My understanding is that the most common voice types are baritone and mezzo-soprano, which is why hymn books typically feature songs arranged so the highest note is an E or E flat. Not a big deal, but there’s a lot of vocal real estate between an E and the G above it and not everybody knows how to sing harmonies that work (instead of the melody).

  2. I remember seeing the event invite on facebook and it caught my eye, but I am not in Oregon….very cool!

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