During the past decade I’ve aggressively visited churches in Alaska and beyond observing church treatment of guests and members. My ADN Church Visits blog has evaluated over 100 churches using four criteria: warm welcome, hospitality, music that’s not merely entertainment and well-delivered, Bible-based sermons.
A recently released study mirroring my approach was featured in a fascinating Christianity Today article titled “Mystery Shoppers Rate Church Size.” The study itself was performed by Faith Perceptions. Its mystery guest program used unchurched mystery guests who were paid $45 to visit churches and evaluate them in 16 categories: community awareness, signage, greeting upon arrival, pre-service atmosphere, seating, music, in-service greeting, message, speaker, post-service atmosphere, information, friendliness, children/youth ministries, diversity and outreach, likelihood of return and overall experience. These are similar to the kinds of observations I’ve used in my blog for many years.
The food pantry is LSSA’s largest program, providing food assistance through their pantry and mobile pantry sites. Last year they distributed 528,000 pounds of food to 36,757 people. LSSA also partners with Food Bank of Alaska to leverage their donations to acquire items from the food bank, stretching the donation dollars. According to the food bank, LSSA is one of their largest partners.
The direct assistance program helps clients obtain state IDs, birth certificates, prescription medication and work-appropriate clothing.
The emergency housing program provides transitional living for homeless men, preparing them for sustainable employment and housing.
The Association for Stranded Rural Alaskans provides emergency shelter and transportation for people in financial hardship who are stranded in medical facilities outside their hometowns.
As you can see, Lutherans in Alaska have big hearts, hearts that reach out to those in need, directly caring for them. Beer and Hymns is one way that goal is achieved.
Martin Luther ignited a reformation in Europe that transformed religion. His belief in the proper use of beer was as strong as his Reformation theology. From this humble Catholic priest grew the roots of the Protestant Reformation and the Lutheran Church. Luther was a great writer of hymns, penning more than 35 of them, including “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” He was also a proponent of the consumption of beer and ale. My favorite Luther quotes are: “Whoever drinks beer, he is quick to sleep; whoever sleeps long does not sin; whoever does not sin enters Heaven! Thus, let us drink beer!” and “I’d rather my people were in the alehouse thinking of church than in church thinking of the alehouse.”
Dan Bollerud, pastor of Christ Our Savior Lutheran Church, commenting on the event, said, “Beer and Hymns is less about drinking beer than it is about being the public voice of church in the world. It is about having a good time and enjoying ourselves. It is about community and gathering together. It is about being the church in the world.”
This year’s Beer and Hymns starts 6 p.m. on Sept. 21 at Mo’s O’Brady’s, concluding at about 8 p.m. With no admission charge, those attending sit in groups at restaurant tables and order from the menu. The singing also starts at 6 p.m. with Jamie Berge playing piano and Pastor Dan leading the hymns, using special hymn sheets for the occasion. It’s a lively event ending with the ever-popular Reformation Polka, sung to the tune of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” LSSA staff are on hand to collect donations from attendees — cash, checks or credit cards. Attendees bring family, friends and neighbors. Jamie plays the piano in a lively manner, keeping things on track. Church member Nick Kittleson provides the sound system.
It’s well known in this community that I visit churches and blog my impressions of those visits on a regular basis. The people at this event and the churches they represent show warmth and graciousness I rarely see in our community. If more Christians acted in this manner, locking arms and confronting the social issues in the area, there would be more Christians. Clearly these people “walk the talk.”
Many churches across the U.S. and abroad have adopted Beer and Hymns as a collective action to invigorate congregations, staving off declines. An NPR piece last year quoted Leah Stanfield of Fort Worth, who comes to weekly gatherings such as these. “I find the love, I find the support, I find the non-judgmental eyes when I come here,” she says. “And I find friends that love God, love craft beer.” Sounds a little like Martin Luther, doesn’t it?
A Minnesota Public Radio story earlier this year talked about a Fargo-Moorhead Methodist church that meets monthly in a bar to attract younger people to Christ. “Every time I come away having gotten to know somebody better than I did before, whether it’s a new person or somebody I’ve known for a long time,” said the Rev. Cody Schuler, who got the idea from a Denver church. “It’s what church is really about and that’s community.”
This Beer and Hymns will be my third outing. I love this event and what it is doing for our community. If you come, come early. The seating is limited, but you’ll not regret you went.
Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith. You can find his blog at churchvisits.com.