What craft beers can teach the Baptists

BY TERRY MATTINGLY Modified: August 27, 2012 at 11:48 am •  Published: August 27, 2012
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It would be hard to imagine a vision of Baptist life edgier than the one served up by a recent Wake Forest School of Divinity graduate named Zachary Bailes.

This parable starts something like this: Once upon a time, America was dominated by giant breweries that produced rivers of ordinary beers like Budweiser, Coors and Miller Lite. Some of their local outlets grew into mega-franchises that could seat thousands of people in shopping-mall-like facilities featuring giant video screens, pop-rock bands and witty Baby Boomer hosts who were treated like superstars.

But eventually many young adults grew restless, yearning for brews with more local character, spice and charm, robust beers like People's Porter, Cottonwood Endo, Carolina Blonde and myriad others. Some created Craft Beer collectives and then taprooms, spreading the word about this emerging do-it-yourself beer lifestyle.

So here is the church-growth gospel according to Bailes: If churches want to reach millions of independent-minded young Americans, they should learn a thing or two from craft brewers. Yes, he thinks this is true for Baptists who don't drink beer, as well as the many Baptists who -- reality alert -- down a few cold ones now and then.

It's time, he said, for "craft churches" that reach niche audiences.

"Many people, and especially young adults, are willing to pay more for a quality product. ... Opting to shy away from the typical, freezing cold, American light beer, brewers and imbibers desire something with character and distinct flavor," argued Bailes in an Associated Baptist Press commentary. He also edits the "Crazy Liberals and Conservatives" website.

"In an era where churches experience lower attendance rates, perhaps we would be well served to look into 'craft churches.' Craft brewers do not create the product to be the next 'big beer' producer, but rather isolate and engage a community. Megachurch models still work for some, but they have become the standard flavor without any distinct flavor."

On one level, it's easy to see this parable as a harsh judgment on decades of Evangelical Protestant megachurch culture. But the reality in America's increasingly post-denominational age is more complex than that, a fact liberal Christians such as himself must acknowledge, said Bailes, in a telephone interview.

Truth is, growth in most of America's "giant breweries," the major denominations in this scenario, peaked in the mid-20th century and many have been in demographic freefall for decades, especially on the doctrinal left. The Southern Baptist Convention continued to grow -- driven by megachurches and growing ministries with Latinos and African-Americans -- until the past five years, when small declines slipped its membership under 16 million.

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