By Jeff Brumley
As a pastor, Susan Sparks has been intent on findings ways church members can get to know each other outside of Sunday worship services. As a moderate Baptist, she’s been intent on modeling the kinder, gentler side of the tradition.
As it turns out, Sparks, the pastor at Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City, has found the answer to both challenges in one thing.
OK, and scripture, too.
Those two things have been combined into an event called “Beer and Bible.”
While a combined suds-and-scripture Bible study should come as no surprise from a motorcycle-riding, cowboy-boot-wearing lawyer and comedian, Sparks said her Southern Baptist roots tingle a little bit at the thought of it.
“This wouldn’t go over well with my people,” she joked about the event, which is held six to eight times a year. “We have had people outside [the church] question it when I put it on Facebook. We have had pushback, for sure.”
But its effectiveness has been too powerful to ever turn back. “Beer and Bible” features rotating gatherings in members’ homes and apartments, where the host chooses a Bible verse, group of verses or other inspirational topic.
The requirement is that whatever scripture is selected, the ensuing discussion over food and beverages must relate directly and practically to participants’ daily lives and challenges.
Despite its name, Sparks said “Beer and Bible” is not limited only to beer or alcohol consumers.
“This is not a gathering to slam down and play quarters,” she said. “This is an event where non-drinkers and even those in recovery are comfortable.”
She pointed potential critics of the practice to scripture.
“Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine, so I think we ought to back off our concern about that,” she said.
Gatherings around the nation
Sparks and her church are not alone in abandoning that concern.
Many Catholic dioceses around the country have for years offered the “Theology on Tap” program. It presents young, drinking-age professionals with scholars, priests and other theological experts who give talks in local taverns.
Localized groups also exist in various American cities.
In Tampa, Fla., “Beer and Bible” gatherings are held in bars to provide “a safe ‘third-place’ where people can encounter the love of Jesus free from judgment,” the group’s website says. It adds that the events are designed to reach those, among others, who want to know Christ but have had negative church experiences.
Another group is the Forth Worth, Texas-based Bible and Beer Consortium. According to its website, its events are held in pubs where lectures or sermons are presented. The presentations are further explained and then defended in an open-mic question-and-answer session.
Topics include “Jesus of Nazareth: Lord or Legend,” “Science and God” and “The Resurrection of Jesus,” among others.
‘Scripture is the anchor’
But the booze and bar-scene aspect of such events aren’t the focal point for many of those who participate.
Instead, for them it’s about being able to build closer relationships with others in the church.
“That’s what I get out of it,” Madison Avenue Baptist member Cheryl Sims said about the church’s “Beer and Bible” gatherings.
In part it’s because Sims, a 55-year-old school teacher, does not consume alcohol. But she noted that she’s never alone in that fact and that no one is ever seen drinking too much at the events.
What it’s really about is getting to know one another outside the context of worship, she said.
“It’s really a low-key way of talking about life issues as they relate to scripture,” Sims said. “Scripture is the anchor and that’s how we really connect with what we have in common.”
The meetings also have emotional and psychological benefits for Sims.
“A person can go to therapy and spends thousands of dollars to get the same thing we can get sharing as a community at ‘Beer and Bible,’” Sims said.
‘Changing the face of Baptists’
For others, “Beer and Bible” has been an important part of a return to faith after years away from church.
“I guess it’s a radical event for a Baptist church — and that’s pretty typical for what our church is about,” said Kevin Davis, a 49-year-old architect who grew up Southern Baptist in Kentucky but underwent a period away from congregational life.
Davis said it’s not the idea of adding beer or wine to the Bible that throws him off. Many years living an essentially secular lifestyle made him accustomed to being in bars.
Instead, Madison Avenue Baptist and “Beer and Bible” have helped him reconnect with the scripture he learned so well growing up.
“I am a state Bible drill winner for six consecutive years,” he said.
But the home-based events and the perspectives he’s heard about those verses and passages has deepened his understanding of the Bible, Davis said.
Before finding Madison Avenue some six years ago, Davis said he had no idea he would have made such discoveries in a Baptist church.
And that’s the message her church wants to send the wider world, Sparks said.
“It’s been frustrating that the right has the mic, while progressive and middle-of-the-road Baptists never get their voice out there,” she said.
“In our little way, we are trying to change the face of Baptists from judging and shame to joy and hope, and ‘Beer and Bible’ is a tiny piece of that,” Sparks said.