This past Ash Wednesday I had the occasion to walk into a bar wearing my clerical collar. I am not usually in the practice of doing such things, but I was between services and I needed to run to Manuel’s Tavern, in Poncey-Highlands to confirm the date and time for a night of Beer and Hymns. Atlanta is a pretty cynical place, in spite of the fact that its full of conservatives and it’s the buckle of the Bible Belt; maybe these things are related. Anyway, as I walked into Manuel’s I was accosted by a woman who grabbed me by my shoulders and began asking questions:
“Are you a priest? Can you give me ashes? Wait! What are you doing here?”
I was about to answer her when she said, “I am so far from God.” And then she stopped talking. Though my fingers were stained black from administering ashes just a short time before, I had none to give her except those that were on my own forehead. So, with my thumb I rubbed my forehead and then rubbed hers, and making the sign of the cross, I reminded her that she was dust and to dust she would return right there in the middle of the bar. It became holy ground. My new friend hadn't been to church in years, and didn't feel like she could go because she wasn't good enough. She would not go to church, but she had no problem stopping a minister in a bar and asking for ashes.
I tell this story because the day after the first Beer and Hymns, I walked into school and was greeted by some of my fellow classmates. I am a seminarian in Atlanta. I was asked by one student how the evening went, but another wanted to know the point of the whole thing. Did we just sit around, sing, and get drunk? There have been a few people who have shared skeptical sentiments regarding the fact that most of my evangelism involves beer, and usually my response is something like, “Well, it’s good to be Lutheran”. But, I don’t think a smart-alec response is really the way to go anymore.
Let’s be real with each other…
The Church as an Institution has messed up. There are people who would rather go to the dentist than walk through the doors of a Church. It doesn't matter how hip your minister of music happens to be, and it doesn't matter how cool your programming is, there are people who will never…ever…walk into your church.
So, here’s what I propose: Let’s get out of the church! And while we’re at it, let’s stop doing church for ourselves. By this I mean, let’s stop perpetuating the Institution for the sake of the Institution…and, ahem, clergy, our own employment security. Let’s stop looking at pie charts and bar graphs that toll the bells of decline and do something about it. In fact, let’s burn the damn charts. Let’s stop referring to people who are outside the church as spiritual but not religious. Since when is religion a good thing anyway? And we should probably stop using dichotomies like outside/inside, it’s just another way of saying them and us.
So yes, my evangelism does involve beer. It also involves conversation, conversation around a table. If this doesn't seem like the right thing for you, don’t come. There’ll be more beer for the rest of us.
If this seems like your kind of thing, please join us. We are a gathering of seekers, sinners, and saints. We bring our baggage and stand shoulder to shoulder with other people who share our same doubts, fears and religious PTSD, because some of us have experienced real trauma at the hands of the Church. We don’t have it all figured it out, but singing and sharing a drink together seems like a good place to start. All are welcome, and means all!