Jacksonville brewery offers taste of Christianity




A group of Florida Methodists walk into a bar…

They don’t always walk out with great crescendo, with sure victory. But they have planted seeds with their hymns and conversations that could someday change a heart…or many.

Mandarin UMC in Jacksonville has started three Fresh Expressions ministries, including a monthly program that takes place at a local brewery. Mission leader Bill Barkoskie said it's not about the percentage of people who convert to Christianity, but about planting seeds.

Beer and Hymns, a Fresh Expressions program started at Mandarin United Methodist Church in Jacksonville, has hit its first-year mark. And while there hasn’t been a throng of conversions to Christianity yet among the unchurched—the volunteers meeting at a local brewery—inroads have been made, said Bill Barkoskie, who heads the ministry.

“I look at it this way, it’s not the percent of the success rate, but if we reach one and for that one person, this is their sense of church, then that to me is a 100 percent success,” he said. “You never know when you may reach people in that fashion.”

The ministry convenes once a month at Veterans United Craft Brewery in Jacksonville.

One of the principles behind Fresh Expressions is bringing church to the people who might not ever walk into a sanctuary. It is church where people are, about the relationship Christians have with others in their community.

“We really wanted to meet people where they are at, people that would never step foot in the church,” Rev. Will Wold said. “I went on a pioneer learning experience and began thinking about what we could do as a Fresh Expression.

“We do three programs at the church: Beer and Hymns, we have a bus stop ministry and we have a kayaking group that shares spiritual devotions and includes mini-sermons.”

Barkoskie, the former operations manager for Veterans of United Craft Brewery, leads the Beer and Hymns ministry.

“We did our research and we found a few different brewery ministries and one was already happening in Jacksonville at a different brewery,” Wold said. “We connected with someone there, then decided we were going to try it.

“It took off really well,” he said. “The way it works is we have musicians that come that play acoustic and secular music and volunteers from church that we train. The volunteers pass out paper hymnals with some contemporary songs and some more old-school. We go to everybody in the brewery and tell them what we are doing.”

And there are conversations. Some last five minutes; some last an hour. Some patrons sing along; some don’t.

“It has gone well,” Wold said. “We talk with each other about what we will do and what our hopes are.” They talk to brewery patrons about any and everything. One goal is to bring a friend with no church experience or to meet at least one person and have a short conversation with them, then pray for them all week.

“We have developed some really good relationships with people, with the bartenders. We’ve met a lot of really cool people willing to share a lot,” Wold said. “People have shared their deep darkness, their joys of having children.”

It’s not always easy to approach strangers, especially about religion, Barkoskie said. “I actually worked at that brewery for a year and a half, and I know to ask the same questions of patrons I asked then. You just wait for an opening, a door in.

“This last event we had, I met two guys and I ended up sitting there and talking to them about our work backgrounds.” Sometimes, they talk about what kind of beer they like.

“This program is not about a full-on rush to get people to buy into Christianity,” Barkoskie said. “It’s about planting those seeds.”

--Yvette C. Hammett is a freelance writer based in Valrico



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