'Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,' with beer and hymns at The Gathering

Beer and hymns
Pastor Cody Schuler, left, and Greg Ewing-Lee, right, sing a hymn during a "Beer and Hymns" event at Usher's House in Moorhead on Jan. 9, 2014. The monthly event is organized by The Gathering, a young Fargo-Moorhead church that is affiliated with First United Methodist Church in Fargo. Schuler and others are looking for ways to connect with young adults and help them connect with their faith.
Ann Arbor Miller / For MPR News

When churchgoers begin singing the hymn "Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling," it can come as an invitation to renounce the ways of the world and accept Christ's call to a new life.

But at The Gathering, a small church that is supported by First United Methodist Church in Fargo, those summoned by such joyful noise can sing with beers in their hands. The church group meets every month in local bars, where they drink beer, sing traditional church songs and socialize.

"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. "So it really is a matter of it's what church is really about and that's community."

Singing hymns while drinking beer might sound like an unusual church event, but a growing number of congregations are turning to the non-traditional approach to lure new members. The idea is growing in popularity. There are beer and hymns events in the Twin Cities and in cities across the country.

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A Methodist pastor, Schuler leads regular Sunday services in a theatre. But at The Gathering, participants take regular breaks from singing to visit. Schuler said there's no preaching -- just singing and getting to know people over a beer.

As people trickled into the basement meeting room of Usher's, a bar and restaurant in Moorhead, for a recent one, they met around a small bar and ordered drinks. Beers in hand, they grabbed a songbook and chatted as they found seats around heavy wooden tables.

"How's everybody doing tonight?" Schuler asked before leading the congregation in a hymn. "Everybody got a songbook?"

More: See a photo gallery from The Gathering

Undeterred by a sometimes cantankerous keyboard, the group of about 20 people worked their way through a list of favorite hymns while the bartender refreshed drinks and served food.

"Even if you don't know the hymn you have a good time and you learn it," said 31-year-old Jenny Erickson, who has attended all three of the monthly events.

"I think being able to enjoy a cocktail while enjoying hymns shows that it's okay and that spirituality and religion is not just straight and narrow and you can't have any fun," said Erickson, of West Fargo. "We want to enjoy our religion and our spirituality."

Getting to know each other
Fargo resident Lyndell Dahl chats with new acquaintances during a "Beer and Hymns" event at Usher's House in Moorhead on Jan. 9, 214. Lyndell and her husband, Ramsey, attended the evening gathering at the invitation of friends. "It's interesting," said Ramsey. "The people are really nice. We'll definitely come again."
Ann Arbor Miller / For MPR News

A recent meeting was the first beer and hymns experience for friends Matt Boreen and Jo Ellison, young professionals from Fargo who grew up going to church, but want something other than traditional religion.

"Your faith doesn't need to be confined within church walls or doesn't need to be void of the normal life you lead otherwise," Boreen said. "So why not bring it into the everyday?"

They also enjoy singing songs of praise in a relaxed atmosphere that does not require them to accept religious dogma.

"But you still get to enjoy the hymns you sang when you were a child," Ellison said.

Schuler has been a pastor for 12 years and served traditional churches. But he said he is committed to a church experience where questions and doubts are as important as answers and faith. He's trying to reach people who've been turned off by church.

"In my life some of the meanest people I have met are Christians," Schuler said. "And [they] can be very hurtful and damaging and give other Christians a bad name, give the church a bad name.

"And I found a whole bunch of other people who have been wounded by church and said 'let's do church differently. Let's create a place that's not just different for those who might be looking for something different, but a place where people can find redemption.' People can find healing and wholeness from their past church experiences."

That could explain why the beer and hymns service has attracted people who have not been to church in years. Most are in their 30s.

Among them is Kay Weiss, grew up in the church. Her dad was a Lutheran minister, but she drifted away from church starting in high school.

"It wasn't something that I enjoyed," she said. "It wasn't something that I was interested in. Stand up. Sit down. Hell and damnation. I just wasn't diggin it."

Weiss, of Fargo, loves the non traditional approach to worship, even though she knows many traditional church goers disapprove.

"A lot of people say, 'oh that doesn't really mix. I can't ever imagine anyone from our church going out drinking together or something like that,'" Weiss said. "But more than that there are a lot of people who say, 'you're a 30-something getting involved in a church? Okay, if you want to have a beer while you do it, that's cool.'"