Beer meets church: Drinking beer as a religious calling?

A gathering of beer fans near Orlando
led to talking about God – and now to plans for a most unusual taproom.

A couple of years ago, beer lovers converged each month in Aaron Schmalzle’s garage in Kissimmee, Fla., expecting only to mash, boil and brew.

Then, the God conversations began. People started asking for prayer. Sharing meals. Opening up about their lives. Schmalzle and his friend Jared Witt realized something had been unintentionally concocted around the bubbly barrels – a church.

“We’ve got so much more than beer here,” Schmalzle, 34, remembers thinking.

Now, thanks to backing from the Florida-Bahamas Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the two Lutherans are refining plans to open a brewery/church in downtown Orlando. They say it’ll be a place where a taproom and beer vats can coexist with an altar and sanctuary.

Many young Christians are taking worship and prayer into unconventional places such as pubs as they seek to shed a holier-than-thou image. Opening a church-owned brewery pushes this idea even further.

The launch of the Castle Church – whose tagline is “brewing community, fermenting love” — could come by next fall at a location yet to be revealed. In the meantime, what began as a brew group has snowballed into a community of about 375.

A number of them are meeting in homes to study the Bible over craft beer. Wednesday evening yoga sessions called “Poses 2 Pints” draw people together to stretch, with a drink thrown in for good measure.

But Schmalzle and Witt, 30, of Apopka, Fla., say alcohol isn’t their focus. Their goal is to knock down the barriers separating many churches from their neighbors.

“We’re not gathered around a belief system. We’re gathered around a dinner invite,” said Witt, who formerly pastored at another Lutheran congregation and is Castle Church’s spiritual leader.

Schmalzle said breweries and beer create natural contexts for friendships to form and attract people who might never set foot in a traditional church.

Bartender Melissa Izzo said her boyfriend, who stopped attending Catholic Mass as a child, is now a regular at the group’s laid-back Bible studies.

“He was skeptical at first, and I said, ‘Just give it a try. We’re not going to outcast you because you don’t think the way we do,’” said Izzo, 22, of Winter Springs, Fla.

Her boyfriend was impressed that Witt didn’t pretend he had all the answers, and the atmosphere was inquiring and nonjudgmental, she said.

John MacArthur, a prominent California pastor and author, has penned blistering critiques of the youthful trend toward mixing evangelism with alcohol.

“The ravages of alcoholism and drug abuse in our culture are too well known, and no symbol of sin’s bondage is more seductive or more oppressive than booze,” MacArthur writes.


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