Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 30, 2013

Beers and Hymns: Church leader combines two loves to reach people

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Justin Grimm is a bit of a rebel.

He probably is the last guy a patron walking into Right Brain Brewing would pick out of the crowd as a Lutheran minister. The 34-year-old South Dakota native’s beard and tattoos break from church stereotypes, but so do his methods.

That’s why, in April, the Advent Lutheran Church pastor decided to start a program that emulates a few of his counterparts in other areas of the country.

It was called “Beers and Hymns,” and was followed by the slogan, “Drink beer, sing hymns, nothing churchy.”

It’s the “nothing churchy” part Grimm knew would make waves, but he wanted to make sure people would know the session of songs and ales is open to everybody, not just those who take a seat in the Lake Ann church where he delivers sermons each Sunday. The group goes as far as welcoming children to join.

“I knew some people weren’t going to be happy about it,” he said, smiling after sipping from a tasting glass of beer at the brewery on a recent afternoon. “It’s to show the world the church can be a social entity. It’s not about showing up on Sunday and sitting with your back straight.”

And the branding paid off when about 100 people attended the first gathering hosted at Right Brain Brewing in April. Since the Grimm has hosted two more successful sessions.

Owner of Right Brain, Russell Springsteen, was pretty sold on trying beers and hymns when Grimm brought him the proposition. The brewery’s taproom was constructed to be a community gathering center for people from all walks of life, he said.

“That’s why we don’t have TVs,” Springsteen said.

Still, the wording provoked a few nasty voice mails left on Grimm’s phone from people who accused him of stepping out of line by hosting an event that includes beer and “nothing churchy.”

But he stuck to his guns, contending that there is a reason church memberships across the country have declined during the past decades.

“It’s about letting people know when we say ‘All are welcome,’ all really are welcome,” he said. “It was to figure out ways to be the church of the world. If the church is going to continue to be relevant, you have to get out of the church. To so many people, church is a negative word.”

During that first gathering, Grimm watched dozens of people arrive as strangers and leave as friends. Some came because they’re Christians who wanted to sing songs from church while others simply showed up and were drawn in. Some sang, some didn’t. Some sipped beer, others didn’t.

“There was a 90-year-old woman here the first time,” Grimm said. “She said, ‘I like beer and I love hymns.’”

They’ve been so successful, Grimm has arranged another Beers and Hymns gathering that will take place Dec. 9 where the group will sing Christmas carols.

Bartender Kristin St. Peter says she’s looking forward to the next session. She’s one of the Monday night bartenders at the brewery and says she’s watched as customers who have nothing to do with the program join in the singing and socializing.

“There are times you’ll be back here and you get goosebumps,” she said, adding that most of the music is widely recognizable even by people who’ve never set foot in a church. “‘Amazing Grace,’ who doesn’t know that? I’m really looking forward to the Christmas carols.”

Grimm says he’s always looking for new ways to get out into the wider world even if he’s not giving sermons or handing out flyers.

“It can’t be kept into this stuffy church model,” he said. “It’s community.”

If you’d like to partake in some beers and hymns, the next gathering will take place at 7 p.m. Dec. 9 at Right Brain Brewing, 225 E. 16th St.