Person: I’m sorry, what did you say you were building?
Me: A church and a brewery.
Person: Ok, so you’re building a church?
Me: And a brewery.
Person: I see, so you’re actually building a brewery?
Me: Yep. And also a church.
Person: Is the church going to meet inside the brewery? How?
Me: Well, I suppose a bunch of people will all go there at the same time.
Person: Yes, but I mean, How is that going to work, with people all meeting at the same time…in a brewery?
Me: Oh, you mean at a more theoretical level? Well, the time-space continuum is very complex, and I don’t pretend to understand all of it. But basically, what Einstein proposed is that…
Person: No, but…I mean…so…what kind of church are you going to be?
I was a pastor in more conventional congregations, that didn't build breweries, for four years before I gave myself full time to the development of Castle Church, and not once did someone from outside those groups ever come up to me and ask, “Yes, but what kind of church are you going to be?” I would've been delighted if they had. I would've said to myself, "Aw, finally. Now here is someone who yearns for something deeper in her faith life and knows that the word 'church' can mean all kinds of things." But it never came up.
Why? Because we all have an image in our own heads already of what a church is. But in a culture where there seem to be as many different kinds of churches as there are noses, and you can always find one that stands for something that flat out contradicts the other, shouldn’t this be the first question on everyone’s mind as soon as the word “church” is mentioned? What kind?
What are we really talking about when the certifiable hate group that is Westboro Baptist gets to call itself the same thing as Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal, who courageously chose to forgive their killer after the horrific hate crime in Charleston, South Carolina? We would never use the same word for poison as we use for water. But churches have the misfortune of all falling under the same heading.
What kind of church are you going to be, indeed? If nothing else, building a church that owns a brewery has a weird way of getting everyone to start asking the right question.
There are many descriptions in the New Testament of what a church is supposed to be. Many in our culture, both inside and outside our established churches, might be surprised to find that "possessors of all truth," "apocalypse cult," and "morality police" are not among those descriptions.
Of the images that actually are in there, my favorite might be the one that Paul uses to remind his amnesic community in Corinth of what they are called to be. He says, “You are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3).
What if this was the image which came to mind every time the word “church” was mentioned: A love letter from Christ to the world. No more presuming to swing the gavel on other people’s morality. No more inane debates about who is “saved” and who is “not saved.” Our calling is to be nothing more and nothing less than a love letter.
Paul’s decision to put the image of “tablets of stone” side by side with “human hearts” is not accidental. The coldness and hardness of stone tablets, like those on which Moses brought down the Ten Commandments from Mt. Sinai, had long made them a perfect symbol to help Jewish and Christian teachers show how otherwise good things can be used for evil.
The point of the tablets, obviously, was not the stone or even the letters but the spirit of what is written on them and through them. How do humans live together justly and peaceably? Don’t worship religious idols and idle religions (commandments 1-3); don’t be arrogant and assume you know everything, but honor the generations that have gone before and care for the elderly (commandment 4); generally, don’t be jerks to one another (commandments 5-8); don't worship possessions, wealth, and other inanimate garbage that can’t save your life, don't compare your life to others, and don’t get caught up in the rat race (commandments 9-10).
But instead of hearing the call for peace and justice that is clearly at the core of these commandments, what we knuckle-dragging humans frequently do, is we start eyeing the tablets themselves and saying, “Wow, that’s a mighty hard stone there. Got some weight to it, too. Bet I could bludgeon someone over the head pretty good with that thing.”
We see this all the time in how the Bible is used in our culture. By itself, the Bible is neither a good thing nor a bad thing, just some ink squiggles on paper (if that description bothers you, see commandments 1-3 above). It is made into something good or something bad by the people who use it. We can either hand these words out like bread for the hungry or we can wield them like a weapon. We can go hunting around for the word or phrase that builds others up, or we can fixate on the one that tears them down. Whatever we decide, that’s on us. Not God.
So prone are we to lose the spirit for the stones, that the prophet Jeremiah even hears God saying that the whole thing would eventually need a do over. Instead of writing the Word on cold, hard tablets, which are so ripe for abuse, God would need to write it on soft, warm human hearts (Jer. 31:33).
This is the line of thinking that Paul picks up on six centuries later when he tells the people in Corinth that the purpose of the church is to be a love letter.
To answer the question from earlier, I suppose that’s what kind of church this is going to be. And a brewery is as good a place as any. Well, better, what with the beer and all.
Let us know if you’d like to become a part of it.
Grace and Peace,
Jared Witt is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community.