The Church that Drinks Together
Image: Cara Slifka/stocksy.com

Troutdale, Oregon, sits between the winery town of Hood River and the unofficial beer capital of the country, Portland, Oregon. It is here we are building a new church.

Our new building has been in construction for more than 5 years. With only a couple dozen people investing time and money over the years, it’s been a slow slog. But this year we hope (at last!) to move out of our small rental space and open the doors to our new building. We’ve always been about community outreach. It is the reason we built the new 48,000 square foot building. Through all the financial hardships, frustrations, building permits—and constant organizing of volunteer work teams to pour concrete, install roofs, hang doors, and paint walls—the motivation has remained the same: to use this building to reach our unchurched town nestled in the most unchurched state.

One of the most anticipated rooms in the new building is the “café.” This room was designed to be an intimate space where groups can meet on any given weeknight to sip some coffee, discuss apologetics, listen to performances, sing worship songs, and hold Bible studies. I know it’s silly but I dream about the café becoming something akin to Lewis’ and Tolkien’s famous Rabbit Room—the room located in the back of The Eagle and Child pub, where Lewis and friends drank ales, smoked pipes, and worked out theologies. Pipe smoking indoors is no longer an option in public buildings, but the question about whether to drink alcohol is one our church must now address.

Beer country

People here don’t have a favorite beer; they have favorite breweries, or even favorite sections of the city for drinking beer. Portland is constantly being named and renamed America’s Number One Beer City. In Portland, breweries seem to outnumber gas stations. In 2014 Oregon produced 585,000 barrels of beer. Our state leads the U.S. in the percentage of dollars spent on craft beer.

People here don’t have a favorite beer; they have favorite breweries.

Micro-brewing and large-scale brewing are ubiquitous. It’s in the culture, part of our shared identity. From the super hoppy IPAs to the unfiltered wheat beers and the popular chocolate stouts, beer is to Portland what wings are to Buffalo, or BBQ is to everyone south of the Mason-Dixon line.

It always amazes me how drastically the weather changes when you travel just east of Portland. The infamous rains dry up once you cross the Cascade Mountains. Just 30 miles east of Portland the land becomes dry and sunny, a perfect climate for grapes. Hood River and Southeast Washington are full of vineyards. To our southwest lies a large region famous for wines, the Willamette Valley. Oregon wine grapes are now our most valuable fruit crop, valued at $128 million. Our state bottles about 3 million cases of wine annually, shipping 64 percent of it out of state.

In this context, perhaps it’s no surprise that, in our small congregation, we have people with wine memberships and people who work at wineries. Some members brew their own beer. We also have members who do not drink and consider abstaining a good way for Christians to set ourselves apart from the culture; to live differently for the sake of Christ. After all, they reason, Jesus called us to be counter-cultural. As the new building gets ready to open, our church leadership has stated that we will allow alcohol to be served in the fellowship hall. Without this concession, no one would book the facility for weddings—and we need weddings to help pay the bills. But those of us in leadership have not yet tackled the larger question: will we allow alcohol in other parts of the church?

Changing perceptions

Whenever Christians mention alcohol, there seems to be a race to cite 1 Corinthians 8:9. We all know Paul’s warning: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.”

Although this verse was written in the context of eating food sacrificed to idols, it is often applied to the alcohol debate. Perhaps this application is fair. Whether it’s idol food, circumcision, smoking, or alcohol, no church leader wants to do anything that would hurt the body. However, I would argue that when it comes to alcohol, things have changed.

Drinking was once an affront in evangelical circles. The sight of a drinking Christian could have even unbelievers crying, “Hypocrite!” Those days are behind us. Now, it is often those who refuse to imbibe who are in danger of being a stumbling block.

The church that is stridently dry can now actually hurt the Christian image, at least in our part of the country. I was raised Roman Catholic. I grew up with wine in my home and in my church. I never saw a conflict between alcohol and faith until I started attending a Mennonite youth group. I converted from Catholicism in my late teens and then attended a Mennonite University. Although I knew a few Mennonites who drank, they were clearly in the minority. Since I had no interest in alcohol, and since I was living in the South, the issue was never an important one for me (though I do remember making the point in a college class that arguments that Jesus never drank wine relied on some odd exegesis). I grew up indifferent to alcohol. Debates about alcohol use in the church always seemed silly to me. These were hills that I was not willing to fight on, let alone die on. But then I moved to the Portland area. Now I see it as something we have to address. Context is huge. And in our context, alcohol is important.

In the book Jesus, Bread and Chocolate, John Thompson writes about our innate desire to return to the homemade, the home-brewed, the craftsman approach to food and art. He argues that our Christian beliefs should drive us to create quality food and drink, to seek better ingredients, to disdain the impersonal, large factory product and seek the small, local, authentic, and community-crafted products.

This impulse is alive and well in the Northwest. It’s what fuels locals’ love of craft beer and specialty wines. In Troutdale I’ve seen alcohol bring people together. My wife and I recently won a full winery and vineyard tour at a charity auction. We invited Christian and non-Christian friends to the tour. When I introduced my church friends to my non-Christian friends, the latter commented, “I didn’t think church people visited wineries.” Walls were broken down because of wine. My non-Christian friend is now more likely to visit our church because they know there are people there that enjoy wine, people who don’t demonize it.

We’re not the only ones making this shift. A friend recently sent me a picture of a flier for a “Beer and Hymns” event (Luther would approve) at a downtown church. Of course most evangelical churches in our area still prohibit alcohol in their churches. But I wonder what opportunities we’re missing out on by taking this extra-biblical stance. In the Northwest we see beer and wine as a thing to craft, to critique, to meet over, to enjoy. It is a gift. As Thompson writes, “There is no good thing aside from Jesus that sin can’t twist into a pair of handcuffs. But for me to avoid all blessings because of my need to practice discretion feels disrespectful of the giver.”

Offensive to whom?

Alcohol itself is not evil; it is drunkenness that Scripture condemns. And yes, serving alcohol in a church is sure to raise eyebrows and annoy more conservative church members. And precautions should be taken to keep alcohol away from young people and those struggling with alcoholism. But from what I’ve seen, alcohol bans in church circles are usually about appeasing traditional or even legalistic members. Yet what should be more important: the effect it has on a few traditional church members, or the potential it has to reach many outside the church? Which is more serious: causing a church member to stumble or causing a seeker to stumble?

In our town, a dry church is a stumbling block for the outsiders. They see a dry church as fitting a Christian caricature: that Christians are backward, intolerant, legalistic, and starchy. We need to think about whom is actually being served when we make policies stating that alcohol is off-limits at church. I suspect these policies exist to appease older, conservative members of the congregation rather than because they help the church flourish. I’ve also seen that no-alcohol policies force church leaders to be duplicitous. They feel they can admit to one group of church friends that they drink while being careful not to mention it to other less approving church friends.

Could a church like ours have wine-tasting events, home-brew competitions, or small group discussions over pizza and beer without having drunkenness? I believe so. In fact, I think a church event is the perfect place to practice discipline and moderation in this area. What better venue for responsible consumption of alcohol than a church event?

And it multiplies the chances for effective outreach. I can guarantee that a public “Beer and Theology” discussion will draw more people than a “Theology Discussion.” Getting people from the community into our church, talking to our members, asking hard questions, and allowing us the chance to love them is what we need to do. If removing old alcohol policies can aid that, then what are waiting for?

It remains to be seen whether the café room in our new building will resemble the quaint English pub where Tolkien and Lewis met. If we are willing to rethink the traditional view of alcohol in church, I have no doubt we will be seen as a welcoming church, where people will want to come and engage in authentic community. Having beer and wine in church isn’t about trying to “out-cool” culture. It’s about acknowledging that beer and wine are gifts, good things that have their place in the kingdom. It’s about showing we have discipline, and it’s about being open and honest with each other. But ultimately, it’s about making people welcome and getting them to engage with the church and the God who loves them. Which is why we are building a church in Troutdale in the first place.

Kevin F. Foley is a clinical pathologist and professor in Portland, Oregon. He's an active member of his church and loves missions, music, apologetics, and donuts.

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