Josh Hicks, center, leads the singing at Beer & Hymns in Dothan, Alabama. Beer & Hymns is a monthly, inter-denominational event at McLeod’s Publick House in Dothan.
The next event start at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, July 11.
There was a time, not that long ago, when church attendance was almost a given for the entire country -- probably more so in the South. However, there are a large number of people for whom church is not something they think about when wondering what to do on a Sunday morning. Society today is full of distractions, not least of all is ‘sleeping in’ on a Sunday after a full week of work, after-school activities, and other demands on our time. And then there are those who have drifted away from the church of their youth for a variety of reasons.
We, as Christians, are constantly being told to ‘go out’ into the world and “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). The challenge we face in today’s modern world is how do we ‘go out’ into the world and meet the great unchurched?
As an effort to reach those ‘unchurched’ people, Josh Hicks of the Episcopal Church of the Nativity in Dothan, Alabama, has started a local Beer & Hymns ministry.
So what exactly is Beer & Hymns?
“It is simply an opportunity to gather at a local pub, sing traditional hymns, folk songs and other music,” said Hicks. “It is an opportunity to worship as a community by lifting our voices, hearts and glasses to God in an unconventional, but comfortable environment. This isn’t a service where people get preached to, nor is it a concert with a praise and worship band entertaining the crowd while people sit on their hands,” Hicks continued. “This is purely congregational singing; it is our Unruly Choir.” Hicks, a postulant for the priesthood who plans on attending seminary next year, said this is not a new idea. “There are groups all across the country that have been doing this for some time,” he said. "There is even a group in Australia.”
Hicks first heard about the Beer & Hymns concept from his cousin in California who is a Presbyterian minister. “He started one several years ago and it has been wildly popular. I have been intrigued by the idea ever since.”
Hicks went on to say that Beer & Hymns serves two purposes. “Most importantly, it brings the Light of Christ to new people through the joy of fellowship and song,” he said. “Secondly, it helps local a local business on an otherwise slow night. Beer & Hymns is, first and foremost, a community-centered event. There are so many people in our communities who, for whatever reason, feel alienated from the church. For a while, I was one of those,” Hicks shared.
“As followers of Christ, we are charged with finding ways to reach out,” he continued. “We certainly don’t need to wait for them to walk through our doors. My hope is that Beer & Hymns will rekindle a spark within their hearts; show them that, no matter who you are or where you are in your faith journey, God loves you. It’s God who searches us out, not the other way around.”
Hicks also said he hopes Beer & Hymns will grow into more of an ecumenical movement, especially here in Dothan.
“There are so many labels that we Christians put on our faith,” he said. “Traditional versus contemporary; liberal versus conservative; and many others. What that means is we often tend to separate ourselves from other Christians ideologically. Beer & Hymns is one way to tear down those walls. We should be making this walk together. There is room in God’s Kingdom for everyone.”
Hicks, who was raised in the United Methodist Church, draws his hymn and song choices from many different sources.
“I love the Episcopal Hymnal,” Hicks said. “There is power and emotion in those pages that can invoke both chills and tears, often in the same verse. But I was born and raised in the UMC, and after attending Nativity I started to notice the differences between the Episcopal 1982 and Methodist 1989. There are some hymns that I grew up singing that are not in the Episcopal hymnal. Some of which have a certain ‘Southern Revival’ air to them. Songs like, Up from the Grave He Arose, To God Be the Glory, and Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb are great examples of what I am talking about.
“My goal to start with was to draw hymns from many sources,” he continued. “I went through a Baptist Hymnal, the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal, the older Cokesbury Hymnal (which some Methodist churches still use,) and of course the Episcopal 1982. I would like to keep a nice balance and continue adding new songs each month.”
Hicks added that using multiple sources goes back to his original idea for Beer & Hymns -- an event for all Christians.
Alongside the traditional hymns from various Christian traditions, there are some well-known secular songs as well.
“We do like to add surprises,” Hicks said.
“This is just a personal belief, but just because a song might not be in a hymnal, doesn’t mean that it can’t be used as a hymn,” he said. “There are secular songs that aren’t overtly Christian, but still lift up both the beauties and wonders of God and the struggles of faith. And at the same time, we like to add songs that might fit in a certain theme we might be highlighting. Just recently at our last Beer & Hymns, which was before Mother’s Day, we played Mama Tried by Merle Haggard. Are there not true Christian challenges and struggles in that country ballad that we can all relate to on some level?”
One surprise is the song the musicians and singers have chosen as their ‘closing’ song. After each Beer & Hymns, the evening comes to a close with the Grateful Dead song “We bid you goodnight.”
“Lay down my dear brothers, lay down and take your rest Oh won't you lay your head upon your saviour's breast I love you, oh but Jesus loves you the best And I bid you goodnight, goodnight, goodnight.”
Other secular selections include songs by Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie Cat Stevens, and Peter, Paul and Mary.
Feedback to Beer & Hymns has been, for the most part, positive.
Normally, a Wednesday night would be a slow night for a bar.
“When Josh first approached us, my wife (Christine) and I talked it over and decided to give it a try,” said Paul McVay, the bar’s owner. “We are both surprised at how it’s grown, and I think it’s a great idea, it’s that simple. At first we were concerned about push-back from some local faith groups, but I’m amazed at how turnout has increased month-to-month.”
And bar patrons and staff, who initially had no idea what was happening, have responded positively.
“Josh and his wife, Lisa, were a little nervous the first time [March 2018], but by the second time we noticed people were getting involved, more people were attending,” said McVay. “The first time we hosted Beer & Hymns, several regulars, along with staff members, said they were ‘pushed back on their heels’ when they started hearing hymns, but once they got used to the idea they all gave it a thumbs up.“
The Reverend Peter Wong, the rector at Nativity, says he has spoken to people [non parishioners] at Beer & Hymns, usually without revealing he is a priest.
“They tell me it’s ‘good, weird but good,’ Wong said. “I had challenged Josh to try something to reach people outside Nativity, and this is the result.
“Our Bishop, Russell Kendrick, attended Beer & Hymns in April following a mid-week Confirmation service at Nativity, and really enjoyed himself,” he continued.
“I will say that as I walked in last time, I overhead a conversation and someone was saying how weird it was that someone would stand up and sing hymns in a bar, they were afraid the bishop was going to get up and preach to them. But they wound up staying for the entire evening.”
Hicks reiterated those thoughts.
“The first time, there were a few groups who had no idea what was going on,” said Hicks. “They could have said ‘this is weird’ and walked out, but they didn’t.
After each show, Hicks visits with the patrons who "go out of their way to say how much they enjoy what we are doing. And a lot of them want to take their Beer & Hymns hymnals home with them. One of our [Nativity's] parishioners, after noticing the interest shown by a group, took the opportunity to invite the couple to our church. That’s the whole idea of this crazy adventure in action! To be honest, there has been some negative feedback; but it was solely on social media from a group out of state."
Hicks said, however, that “these types of negative responses don’t compare to the positive feedback we receive each month. We are doing something meaningful and important – and history teaches us, that whether sacred or secular, the work of progress isn’t effective if people aren’t made to feel uncomfortable.”
Another positive aspect of Beer & Hymns is the money raised for local charities. “We don’t ask for or expect tips,” said Hicks. “But we do accept voluntary offerings. Each month we chose a different local charity to highlight and the money gets donated to them. It’s usually a charity we feel needs attention.”
In its first three outings, Beer & Hymns has raised more than $300 that has gone to local charities supporting the homeless, child abuse prevention, and school tutoring programs. “That does not seem like a lot, but every little bit helps,” said Hicks. “And as this thing gains steam, that number is only going to get bigger.”
In Dothan, Beer & Hymns happens the second Wednesday of each month at McLeod’s Publick House on Highway 84. At this time, Hicks plans on keeping it as a monthly event, although that could change in the future. “I keep hearing an interest in doing it more frequently. That is something we may visit in the future.”
“I think the whole idea is great," McVay concluded. Now “let’s make it even bigger.”
Beer & Hymns is open to all and, as Hicks said, “This isn’t choir practice and we are far from perfect. It doesn’t matter how well you can or cannot sing -- if you sing from the heart boldly, then that’s all you need.”
The next Dothan Beer & Hymns is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, July 11 at McLeod’s Publick House on Highway 84.