Margaret Dietz has been organist and pianist at Christ Lutheran Church for 52 years, but she had never played in a bar.
That changed this week, when Dietz began playing “How Great Thou Art” on the second floor of the River City Brewing Co.
All Lutheran churches in south-central Kansas were invited to “Beer and Hymns” Monday, “A Lutheran gathering for the spirited singing of sacred songs.”
“Beer and Hymns” events aren’t limited to Lutherans and certainly not just to Wichita. Rather, they’re something “both incredibly traditional and nontraditional” that is cropping up around the country, said Christopher James, assistant professor of evangelism and missional Christianity at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa.
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A group used to meet monthly at Rusty’s Outback in Manhattan, and other groups exist from Illinois to California.
In some ways, the pairing of alcohol and Christianity is a historical practice, James said.
Dietz, the pianist, said her first thought when her pastor mentioned doing a “Beer and Hymns” event was, “That will be different.” Then, she thought about the history of her denomination.
“I’ve read so much about Martin Luther and how he was so fond of beer and did much of his gathering in the pub, so I thought it would be a Martin Luther thing to do,” she said.
The Rev. Chad Langdon, pastor at Christ Lutheran Church, said he wanted “Beer and Hymns” to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
At the event, a Martin Luther bobble head wobbled in the front of the room, and Langdon read Luther quotes and pastor jokes during the pauses as people flipped through their hymnals.
It was a fitting way to honor the birth of Lutheranism, Langdon said. After all, Luther’s wife brewed beer and he often invited people over to drink and talk theology. There are stories that Luther set Christian lyrics to popular tavern music (although the stories have been challenged).
“If you study Luther and Germany at that time, that was kind of the common drink,” Langdon said. “That’s the foundation of Lutherans.”
James, the professor, pointed to Christians using wine during communion or the story of Jesus turning water into wine as his first miracle.
“Wine has been an important part of Christian worship from the very beginning,” James said.
It’s only recently that some denominations have sworn off alcohol, James said, but even some of those groups are now getting into craft beer, starting new initiatives like “Beer and Hymns” as a way of connecting with culture.
“Theology on Tap” is a common program in many Catholic Dioceses, including in Wichita.
The reason behind Beer and Hymns’ popularity is not only about people loving to sing together, said David Perkins, director of the Religion in the Arts and Contemporary Culture program at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Perkins plays for the Nashville chapter of Beer and Hymns.
“It’s a much more complex idea that involves how people, particularly people of a particular age demographic, feel about the church and feel about corporate worship experiences, the coming together on a Sunday morning,” Perkins said.
Some people feel like the church is “dry and lifeless.” Some think movements like praise and worship music are aligning the Christian faith too heavily to “commodified behavior,” Perkins said. Others want to keep a distance from religion, but still want certain parts of the experience.
“They love the songs,” he said. “The songs are a part of their very being. They love the community experience of singing them together."
For others, “Beer and Hymns” is a way to draw newcomers to the church by making them comfortable, James said, as churches use creative locations and formats to combat the decreasing number of churchgoers.
“(Alcohol) is meant and used to sort of bring groups together, forge community or unity at an event,” James said. “That’s how hymns are supposed to function in the life of the church. It’s a way of together declaring what we believe or expressing to God what we want to express. …. They’re both communal practices.”
While many of the Lutherans gathered at River City Brewing Co. on Monday opted for iced tea instead of beer, the night was a way of coming together to sing.
Darla Steinert, choir director at Christ Lutheran who led the singing, said “Beer and Hymns” was a way to celebrate their faith and heritage as Lutherans in an “out of the box” way that harkened back to Luther himself.
“It’s retro Luther,” Steinert joked. “New and old. It’s bringing a little bit of the history to the present.”