Alcohol as evangelism?

Recently, a church I respect and hold dear in my heart, advertised an upcoming evangelistic event, for men only: Whisky tasting.  I’ve been asked what I think of this by a couple of people, and would I write about it.  I’ve thought about it, and come to the conclusion that I think this is part of what this blog is for – sharing what I’ve learnt about this killer disease that is so prevalent in our society – and our churches.  Despite my fear of confrontation I need to speak out so that people can hear what the issues are.

Before I start I’d like to confirm that I believe that church needs to be relevant.  I believe that we need to meet people where they are at, as Jesus did, eating with taxpayers and sinners, talking to those who weren’t Jewish and really… just weren’t all that savoury, or popular, in the culture of their day.  We are called to the poor and the sick.  I also know that Jesus drank wine.  I’ve read those bits too.

I know that mine and other churches use pubs for alternative meeting places, for after-church socialising, and for evangelism.

I think this is part of us being the church in the world.  I say part, I think it should only ever be a part, and at times it might be right to meet in such places more, or less.  It’s a slippery slope, and I might talk about that another time.  This area is all quite grey, but there are three issues with this direct use of alcohol in church social or evangelistic events that I believe are really quite a dark grey.  They cross over a bit – but these are my concerns:

Firstly, it dilutes the message given at the event

I’m sure the short gospel explanation will be accurate and heartfelt at this event, as it may be at others like it.  But before you get to the gospel message, you get all sorts of other messages, including: it’s not just ok but encouraged to get a taste for alcohol (or already have a taste for alcohol) (as long as it’s something sophisticated like whisky); we really want you to think we’re normal and relevant, we’re just like you really.

How is an event where the main draw to it is alcohol (and I appreciate at a tasting the amounts drunk are negligible, many people don’t swallow it, etc but the focus of the invitation is come and drink) and to gaining a taste for that alcohol with the view to drinking it again, more of it (like a candle-making event, say, encourages people to go away and enlarge these creative tendencies at home) so far gone from the Christian message that it’s not being the church in the world, it’s simply being the world.  Are we really so desperate and so unable to relate to the people around us both within and without the church family, and talk to them about spiritual things, and their spiritual wellbeing, that we need to hold an event centred around the world’s most addictive, dangerous substance, that if it were invented today would be a Class A substance?  Imagine it – a church evangelistic introducing the most sophisticated way to use crack.  If your objections to the above suggestion are greater than simply that crack is illegal, then if your thinking joins up, you should have the same problems as I do with this event, and others like it.

Secondly, the church ceases to look different

Our society has a serious problem with alcohol.  This is for another post (it’s in progress) but to summarise – 13% of people have a problem with alcohol at some point in their lives; it’s the second highest determinant of ill health in the developed world (behind smoking) with little respect for boundaries such as class, race, age and gender although, rates are highest amongst the poorest, and men.

Addictive disease is eroding our communities – the big 3 being smoking, alcohol use and obesity, increasingly revealed as a food/sugar addiction.  And the church… is silent.  When people look at the church do they see a radically different way to live, where they can bring these and other problems, and find the solution to their brokenness?  When doctors and social workers admit their powerlessness in the face of so much need, and an inability to save people from themselves, do those people see the church as somewhere they can go, with it’s Whisky tasting and post-church pub socials, and cheese and wine evenings?  Or does it see a closed club with people that have absolutely nothing to offer them?  This could be a whole post and there are many more qualified to write it than me.

Thirdly, it compounds denial

You know, in those people who are somewhere on the path to unhealthy drinking in your church.  Oh, you know the ones.  In a big church, there’s bound to be lots of them.  You haven’t got any?  Haven’t you?  How do you know?

You can’t hold out whisky tasting on the one hand, and hold out the hope that is in Jesus Christ to those people who spend endless energy denying their drinking.  If you think there aren’t any in your church, you’re probably wrong.  And if there aren’t any in your church, it’s likely because of the first two points, they never made it through the door.

Denial is powerful, it’s real, it poisons relationships, and it forms a barrier between ourselves and God.  It lasts for years, usually decades, and sometimes for life in an individuals drinking journey.  And there are people in our churches, crying out for help inside and putting a brave face on it.  Because, we don’t have alcoholics here – we have whisky tastings.  And even the preacher, at another local church, had had a heavy night at a party last night before the sermon, but everyone does that, don’t they?  We need to let Jesus into every corner – and so rather than being a way in to faith, these evangelistic drinking sessions, they form a barrier.

 

I’m not offended by alcohol-as-evangelism, personally – my own sobriety is pretty strong these days.  But having walked through the denial, I can see it now, and it pervades to all levels.  I certainly don’t write to criticise, but to raise awareness and break denial – and I hope I have done so.  I am grateful to two friends in particular who have helped me structure my thinking – any errors or inconsistencies are mine alone.  Please do feel free to comment, I would really appreciate others views on this whole area.

 

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10 Responses to Alcohol as evangelism?

  1. Kondwani says:

    This is a really helpful post. I have felt a little uncomfortable with the idea of having alcohol at church-related events, but haven’t been able to describe quite as clearly as you have exactly what my concerns are. It certainly sends mixed messages; I recently heard of some international students who actually were introduced to alcoholic beverages for the very first time through invitations to church events. Thank you again for sharing from your heart, and for clearly articulating what the key issues are. I will pray that Christians do not put stumbling blocks in the path of recovering addicts. I will pray that I am given wisdom and sensitivity as I navigate ‘grey’ areas of living as a child of God in this fallen world.

    • Sarah says:

      Thank you for your very real encouragement. That just doesn’t seem right, with respect to those international students. I feel sad because I know that some of us are genetically ‘wired’ to be more susceptible to addiction. I had a bit of an inkling but did it anyway. They may have no idea before it’s too late. What wonderful prayers – thank you – I’d like to add that I pray I do not put stumbling blocks in the way of those not yet in recovery.

  2. Karen Jones says:

    Hi Sarah, thanks for this very well written piece. I agree totally with what you have said. I remember once I was supporting a friend who was desperately trying to break her addiction to alcohol. I invited her to an Alpha course thinking that she needs Jesus to help her to totally break free from this. She was proud of the fact that she had been three days without a drink but to my horror as soon as she walked through the door she was handed a glass of wine which gave her the message that its ok to drink. After all if church people do it it must be ok! Right? It took me a long time to get through to her that she does need to break this addiction before it ruins her life forever.

    I admire people who can go out and have a drink and know their own limits and not overstep them. I choose not to drink alcohol because I know I don’t have the will power to do that. Jesus tells us not to be a stumblingblock to weaker brothers and sisters so in a society where so many struggle with misuse of alcohol I feel that we should be prepared to abstain from this for evengelistic events in order to help those who struggle with it and as Sarah said, there are most certainly people among us who do even if we don’t know about it.

    • Sarah says:

      Thanks Karen – that was an angle I didn’t completely cover but I completely agree with you. I am so cross on your friend’s behalf – I guess at 3 days sober she was not yet strong enough to be able to say no. I hope she is now well. If not, you know where I am if she needs to talk to someone who is seeing out of the other side these days.

  3. You raise a very serious point, and one that has been on my mind for a while too, though from a slightly different angle. Church people do post on social media sites about the things they do and the things they are thinking about. This, in many cases, will mention alcohol, and in many other cases, some aspect of the Christian message, teaching or life.
    There is no problem in this: it is, as you have said, a part of being Christ in the world. Where the problem does lie is that there is far more interaction to the “I’ve had a bad day and earned a glass of red wine” type posts than to the “I’ve been reflecting on St Paul’s words about (whatever it may be) – what are your thoughts” type posts. Perhaps those examples are poor and clumsy, but I’m not game to use real ones in order to protect the guilty.
    But there are indeed many events where alcohol use is normalised, and I’m not at all sure that it is right. Also, in many evangelical churches, why is drinking normalised while smoking is demonised? But that’s a question for another day.

    • Sarah says:

      My apologies, Ian, for not replying at the time. I am grateful for your encouragement and your point about how what we really value does out, even where we don’t expect it.
      And such a valid question. Since my injuries I have increasingly struggled with my weight – and yet these are the other two of the big 3 that I mentioned, smoking and obesity. They have serious health implications, but I do think that both hold some moral implications too. If you’d like to help me talk it through, it could indeed be a post for another day!

  4. Nick Radcliffe says:

    Hi Sarah.
    Firstly, thank for being open and honest about this. As you know, I was encouraging my friends to attend this event, and indeed presented two of the whiskys, so you won’t be surprised to find I don’t have objections to the event, but I appreciate your open dialogue.
    I’ll try to put my thoughts in some sort of order:

    – What makes Christians separate from the world? I don’t believe that’s defined by what we eat or drink. It’s defined by accepting Jesus’ forgiveness and by the Spirit transforming our hearts to be less like our old selves and more like Christ. If we give the impression it’s about what we can and can’t do, then I think that not only dilutes the message of the Gospel, it gives the opposite message to the Gospel. That doesn’t mean we have to search around for things to look relevant and ‘with it’, but it does mean that if we enjoy whisky and our friends do, it’s ok to use that as a way of introducing them to the church family.

    – You’re right that we need to be aware of the problem (and it is a real problem) of alcohol for any individuals. However, alcohol is far from central to our activities in church. The whisky and other events are just a few of many different events on the calendar. When we do drink alcohol, I think that moderation is modelled well. I can’t actually can’t remember anyone getting drunk at a church event in the 10 years I’ve been here. I know that doesn’t equate to individuals not having a problem, and if we were aware of someone with an alcohol problem in the church, we’d advise them not to go to an event like this. I don’t think this means the church has nothing to offer them. There are some events I can’t go to because of circumstances. That’s fine. I can go to other things. Also, I think that providing a loving and safe environment where some people happen to drink in moderation is probably quite a good thing.
    Again, I don’t think the church should look different because of what they eat and drink, or wear etc. Love should be the more defining factor.

    -“You can’t hold out whisky tasting on the one hand, and hold out the hope that is in Jesus Christ to those people who spend endless energy denying their drinking.”
    I very much think that we can have a whisky tasting event and also hold out the great hope of the Gospel to people, even those struggling with alcohol. I could expand on that, but I want to finish this post before lunch time! The fact they can’t attend certain events isn’t a barrier to Jesus- I have to strongly disagree with that.

    -Finally I’ll just add that a couple of friends came along to the event. They got to meet guys from the church, they heard the Gospel, and I hope they’ll consider coming to future events.

    You’re a great inspiration Sarah, and a great testimony to God’s grace. Thank you for sharing all you do on your blog, and thank you Jesus that even though there will always be things that Christians disagree on, your Gospel means we are amazingly all part of one body, and that we are all reconciled with God.

    • Sarah says:

      Thank you Nick, firstly for your grace, and secondly for your time, I appreciate life is busy and there are many draws on it. I am so glad that the event went well for your friends. I’ve been thinking about what you’ve said. I guess now, I don’t see alcohol as a drink, but as a drug. And I think the desire to not be legalistic sees it as a drink – we are not defined by what we eat or drink. That’s true, I agree. And maybe only having your life almost ruined allows you to see that difference. My point about crack wasn’t tongue in cheek, it was serious. I do see them as the same. Maybe that sounds severe and joyless – but it is serious.
      What a wonderful prayer, and one that draws us back to what’s central, being in the body of Christ.

  5. Pingback: Alcohol as Evangelism | Outreach, Evangelism and Discipleship

  6. Wendy says:

    Wow! Food ( and drink ) for thought indeed. Well written
    And very interesting!

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