Beer and the Bible

St. Louis congregation focuses on 20- and 30-somethings and is anything but traditional.

MAPLEWOOD – In a back room at Schlafly Bottleworks in Maplewood, about 50 people gathered on a recent Wednesday night to talk rock ‘n’ roll.

Why are Bob Marley and Kurt Cobain considered by some to be messiahs? When did rock music lose its edge and become another product manufactured and marketed by huge conglomerates such as Viacom?

It was a conversation perfectly suited to the setting. Beer-stained wooden tables and the smell of hops complemented a free-flowing, spirited debate among hip young people in scruffy beards and T-shirts.

In 2007, this is church.

Theology at the Bottleworks is run by a wildly successful congregation of young St. Louisans called The Journey. The Schlafly program is part of the church’s outreach ministry. And it works.

Every month, dozens show up at the brewpub to drink beer and talk about issues ranging from racism in St. Louis to modern-art controversies to the debate about embryonic stem cell research. First-timers are invited to check out the church on Sunday, and Journey leaders say many have. Theology at the Bottleworks is just one of The Journey’s ministries, but it has helped the church grow from 30 members in late 2002 to 1,300 today.

The Rev. Darrin Patrick, The Journey’s founder and lead pastor, said its nontraditional approach is aimed at those who are not likely to attend church.

“We want to go where people are,” he said. “We don’t expect them to come to us.”

For nearly two years, the beer ministry has brought new members to the church. Now it’s being called unbiblical. The Journey defines itself as an interdenominational church, but it has a working relationship with the Missouri Baptist Convention. That confederation of Baptist churches is the state arm of the largest Protestant denomination in the country, the theologically and socially conservative Southern Baptist Convention.

In 2005, The Journey borrowed $200,000 from the Baptist organization to help buy and renovate a former Catholic church in St. Louis. In December, Baptist leaders began questioning the church’s methods of attracting worshippers, specifically its use of alcohol.

At last year’s annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, members overwhelmingly reaffirmed their traditional stance on alcohol by passing a resolution that expressed “our total opposition to the manufacturing, advertising, distributing and consuming of alcoholic beverages.” Baptists within the denomination who oppose such a strict view of alcohol use argue that the Southern Baptist position is based on denominational tradition, not Scripture.

The Journey is part of what sociologists of religion call the emerging church movement.

“Emerging congregations offer a radically different style of worship that appeals to certain kinds of young folks,” said Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

The Rev. Bill Edwards, chairman of the Missouri Baptist Convention’s church planting subcommittee, said he had received a number of calls from Missouri Baptists complaining about The Journey’s Web site, some pages of which depict or suggest drinking beer and wine. Last month, the organization’s executive board formed a committee to investigate The Journey and assess the Missouri Baptist Convention’s position on the emerging church movement.

Kerry Messer, a member of the Missouri Baptist Convention’s executive board, said that he had attended The Journey’s December Theology at the Bottleworks program and that what he had seen worried him.

“Beer being served as part of a church presentation sends mixed messages to the community and causes confusion,” Messer said. “Had we known about this before the loan was approved, I would have openly spoken out against a financial relationship being established.”

The Journey, he said, represents “a movement that compromises the positions, beliefs and doctrines of the Baptist church in order to attract people to theirs.”

At the Missouri Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in October, the organization had a very different take on The Journey.

Executive director, the Rev. David Clippard, singled out the church in front of 1,200 Baptist leaders as an ideal model. Clippard noted The Journey’s median age of 29 and its explosive growth, raining praise on Patrick.

Patrick, 36, is a former star high school athlete from Marion, Ill., who found himself in trouble one week in his junior year at Marion High. The self-described “party jock” had been bounced from the football team for drinking, suspended from school for fighting and believed his girlfriend was pregnant. That’s when Patrick turned to Jesus.

At Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Patrick found he had a talent for talking to people about God. He noticed that members of some crowds – particularly athletes and artists – who were searching for spirituality didn’t connect with the traditional church structure.

After Patrick received his master’s of divinity at Midwest Baptist Seminary in Kansas City, his church there agreed to pay his salary for three years so that Patrick and his wife, Amie, could start The Journey.

The couple didn’t know anyone in St. Louis, so Patrick spent months trawling open mic nights in Soulard for musicians and approaching strangers in coffeehouses to ask whether they’d like to come to church in his basement.

By late 2002, they had a core group of 30 members. By the end of 2003, the group had grown to 120. The congregation had moved to rented space at the Center of Clayton, then moved again to space at Hanley Road Baptist Church, also in Clayton. Membership doubled in each of the next three years.

In December 2005, The Journey put down $425,000 to buy Holy Innocents Catholic Church, west of Tower Grove Park, for $1.65 million and spent another $500,000 to renovate the interior. Nearly half the down payment came from the Missouri Baptist Convention loan.

Patrick and his congregation moved into their new church in May and have already outgrown it. Two packed Sunday morning services are supplemented with a Sunday evening service back at Hanley Road Baptist Church. Another Sunday morning service will begin in west St. Louis County next month.

The Journey also starts, or “plants,” new churches outside The Journey brand name. In September, it planted the Refuge Church in St. Charles; it is scouting sites in Illinois.

Sense of belonging

On a recent Sunday, 500 20-somethings, dressed in jeans and fleece jackets, carried Starbucks cups and dog-eared Bibles into The Journey’s nave before the 11 a.m. service, greeting each other with hugs and handshakes.

The music of Sufjan Stevens poured through the sound system as church notices flashed on the big screen above the sanctuary and the four wide-screen plasma monitors hanging above the pews. As the service began, a six-piece worship band played a few rousing tunes, and then Patrick, dressed in khakis and a brown sweater, began to preach.

For an hour, Patrick cited Genesis, Proverbs, Ephesians and 1 Corinthians to drive home his message for this Sunday: Men like risk. Men need to be challenged, and a “less-than-masculine” church is doing little to challenge them. Men need to take responsibility for their lives, their families, their spiritual well-being.

The goal of many pastors in emerging churches is to make Christianity relevant to young people. In his sermon, Patrick touched on a subject not often broached from a traditional pulpit, telling married men in his pews, “The hottest sex in St. Louis should be in your bedroom.”

Its leaders’ willingness to take on issues that directly relate to their lives attracts many young people to The Journey.

“Younger people are looking for a sense of belonging,” said church member Jason Froderman, 25.

Patrick said all the Journey campuses were united in one mission: to serve the poor in the city of St. Louis. That work puts The Journey and the Missouri Baptist Convention on the same page, Patrick said.

“We look at the Missouri Baptists as a group that wants to start churches and help the poor,” he said. It was this common mission that led to the $200,000 from the Baptist organization, which Patrick said was an unsolicited loan.

Despite opposition from some Missouri Baptists, Patrick said he would continue working with the organization.

“When you partner with other people, you invite conflict,” he said. “But if we’re both going in the same general direction, why not link arms?”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday March 11, 2007.
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