Every night for two weeks, ELCA discipleship veteran and amateur beer maker Aaron Schmalzle had the same dream. He was in a sanctuary, but instead of pews there were long tables, and the organ pipes had been replaced by massive brewery stacks.

The next time Schmalzle met for a monthly beer-making session in Orlando, Fla., with ELCA pastor Jared Witt and a few friends, one non-churchgoing attendee said to him: “It’s not easy to ask this, but can you pray for me?”

In many ways, that moment was the birth of Castle Church Brewing Community, a non-traditional ELCA congregation that focuses less on weekly worship attendance and more on igniting a sense of faith in daily life.

And, of course, there’s beer.

After more than a year of planning, the brewery’s projected opening is next year, but Castle Church is already an active congregation, led spiritually by Witt. Castle also has a weekly yoga session and monthly brew days, as well as house groups that include Bible studies.

Witt was happy at his previous call, but he believes there is a growing dissatisfaction among millennials with the traditional congregational model.

“Part of this came from a need to explore some place where people would feel fully at ease,” Witt said. “There’s something about walking into a space like a taproom where people can let their hair down and get looser than if they are at a religious institution.”

When Schmalzle and Witt began planning how Castle Church would operate, their vision included a concept of concentric circles. On the inner circle are worshipers looking for weekly word and sacrament. The middle circle includes people who show up for special events, such as beer and hymns or speakers. The outer circle could include beer enthusiasts who aren’t even aware of the faith community at the brewery.

Castle’s relaxed atmosphere is meant to let people be their authentic selves without fear of judgment or expectation.

“If someone just wants to come in and ask about ‘Means of Grace,’ which is on the labels of one of the beers, and that’s as far as they want to go, that’s great,” Schmalzle said. “If they want to do beer and hymns, that’s great.”

Schmalzle believes that involvement will be more fulfilling if Castle meets the spiritual needs of each individual.

Good news and brews

Starting a congregation, let alone a brewery, is costly and complicated. Witt and Schmalzle praised the ELCA and the Florida-Bahamas Synod for their support, in particular the synod bishop, Robert Schaefer.

“It seems to me Castle Church community is one glimpse of what the church of the future is going to look like,” Schaefer said. “In our context the majority of traditional mission starts, in spite of our best efforts, never grow into sustainable congregations. I’ve been encouraging our synod to a time of holy experimentation and risk-taking for the sake of the gospel.

“Castle Church community is just that. It will be a place intended to reach millennials who likely would not seek a traditional church setting but who are searching for authentic community and meaning. It will be an alternate faith community where people can explore questions about Jesus, faith and life, maybe over a beer in a nonthreatening environment. I think Martin Luther is smiling.”

Though Castle is unusual, it’s not unique. Threshold Church in Toledo, Ohio, is in its second year. Its pastor and avid beer maker, Tom Schaeffer, is also the CEO of Black Cloister Brewing Co., which is where Threshold’s Sunday worship takes place.

Like the guys at Castle, Schaeffer’s motivation to merge faith and taproom communities is to reach a generation that has left the church because it doesn’t address their spiritual needs. Threshold, which is also the Lutheran campus ministry for the University of Toledo, doesn’t consider its Sunday worship a primary evangelism tool.

“We still live in a culture where a lot of people believe in God,” Schaeffer said. “The first step to evangelism is to get people to say, ‘God is good, and these Christians are OK.’ ”

The way to do that, Schaeffer said, is to provide a space where the un-churched, the de-churched, and even the agnostic and atheist feel welcome.

Like Castle, Threshold has received ELCA support. But there has been some pushback from people who find the brewery-congregation concept discriminatory against people who don’t drink or who may suffer from alcohol addiction.

“We’re not for everyone,” said Witt, who also makes clear that without his traditional Lutheran upbringing he couldn’t have taken on a call this challenging. “If you were an alcoholic, why would you come here when there are 1,000 congregations for you? We could say we’re for everyone, but that’s a lie. We’re for people who have felt a little out of place from [a traditional] setting.”

The question remains whether Castle and Threshold can be financially viable.

“It’s an ongoing experiment,” Schaeffer said. “Does it work? It has yet to be seen.”

For more information on Castle Church and Threshold, visit castlechurchbrewing.com and crossthethreshold.com.

Jeff Favre
Favre is an assistant professor at Pierce College in Los Angeles and a frequent contributor to Living Lutheran.

Read more about: