In the Bible Belt, some might not think it possible to worship God with a hymnal in one hand and a beer bottle in the other.
But that’s what worshipers do at Epiphany Lutheran Church. On Sunday night, after a more sober morning worship service, some three dozen participants returned to the West Main Street church to enjoy singing and sipping in equal measure during a regular gathering called Beer and Hymns.
Epiphany’s pastor, the Rev. Jeff Lingle, handed out a free selection of craft and domestic brews to all comers from behind a makeshift bar, next to the piano that will soon accompany the group’s joyful noise as they belt out tunes from the church hymnal.
“At the first one, our choir director said, ‘now, I expect to see you all at our next practice,’ ” Lingle said. “Then someone said, ‘will there be beer there too?’ ”
Sunday’s gathering doubled as the one-year anniversary of the event at Epiphany. Beer and Hymns has been held once a quarter in the church’s community room since last February.
Lingle heard about the idea in 2013 while attending the Wild Goose Festival, a Christian gathering in Hot Springs, N.C., when he heard other festivalgoers talking about similar events at their churches.
“It’s a good way to try to get different people involved,” Lingle said.
The drinks, with names like Brown-Eyed Squirrel and Chocolate Stout, are provided at a discount from O’Darby’s, whose owner is a member of the church. The suds come with supper, usually pizza, but this time a member grilled some bratwurst for the singers to enjoy.
In its first few sessions, Beer and Hymns has grown beyond the Epiphany congregation, attracting members of other Lutheran churches, a Methodist Sunday school class and a smattering of Presbyterians.
The Rev. Christine Stoxen, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, brought five of her congregants over to the latest rendition on Sunday.
“Jeff and I were were talking about this a while back,” Stoxen said. “In fact, I think it was over a beer.”
Grace and Epiphany work together on many different projects in the community, “but this is one of the most fun,” Stoxen said.
Other churches have had good results holding similar events in bars, but Lingle said holding the event on the church campus gave it more of a fellowship feeling.
“We serve non-alcohol beers, and kids come and they play outside. It’s a family event,” he said. “The combination might raise some eyebrows, but that’s OK.”
Many of the attendees have become regulars at the event. Angela Sugameli has been coming with her daughter Courtney since the first Beer and Hymns.
“The first time, I didn’t know what to expect, but it’s a great combination,” Sugameli said between hymns. She estimates attendance has grown each time. “It has a real feeling of family, and it’s a chance to get to know people outside of worship,” she said.
Those enjoying the refreshments didn’t seem to mind the unorthodox mix of what others might label the sacred and the profane. Lingle said the advantage of Beer and Hymns is that it allows people to enjoy expressing their faith in a more relaxed setting than the sanctuary’s pews.
“God is everywhere,” he said. “Celebration and playfulness is a part of Christianity, and we don’t play enough in church. We don’t smile and laugh enough.”