It would be hard to imagine a vision of Baptist life edgier than the one served up by a recent Wake Forest School of Divinity graduate named Zachary Bailes.
This parable starts something like this: Once upon a time, America was dominated by giant breweries that produced rivers of ordinary beers like Budweiser, Coors and Miller Lite. Some of their local outlets grew into mega-franchises that could seat thousands of people in shopping-mall-like facilities featuring giant video screens, pop-rock bands and witty Baby Boomer hosts who were treated like superstars.
But eventually many young adults grew restless, yearning for brews with more local character, spice and charm, robust beers like People's Porter, Cottonwood Endo, Carolina Blonde and myriad others. Some created Craft Beer collectives and then taprooms, spreading the word about this emerging do-it-yourself beer lifestyle.
So here is the church-growth gospel according to Bailes: If churches want to reach millions of independent-minded young Americans they should learn a thing or two from craft brewers. Yes, he thinks this is true for Baptists who don't drink beer, as well as the many Baptists who -- reality alert -- down a few cold ones now and then.
It's time, he said, for "craft churches" that reach niche audiences.
"Many people, and especially young adults, are willing to pay more for a quality product. ... Opting to shy away from the typical, freezing cold, American light beer, brewers and imbibers desire something with character and distinct flavor," argued Bailes, in an Associated Baptist Press commentary. He also edits the "Crazy Liberals and Conservatives" website.
"In an era where churches experience lower attendance rates, perhaps we would be well served to look into 'craft churches.' Craft brewers do not create the product to be the next 'big beer' producer, but rather isolate and engage a community. Megachurch models still work for some, but they have become the standard flavor without any distinct flavor."
On one level, it's easy to see this parable as a harsh judgment on decades of Evangelical Protestant megachurch culture. But the reality in America's increasingly post-denominational age is more complex than that, a fact liberal Christians such as himself must acknowledge, said Bailes, in a telephone interview.
Truth is, growth in most of America's "giant breweries," the major denominations in this scenario, peaked in the mid-20th Century and many have been in demographic freefall for decades, especially on the doctrinal left. The Southern Baptist Convention continued to grow -- driven by megachurches and growing ministries with Latinos and African-Americans -- until the past five years, when small declines slipped its membership under 16 million.
Meanwhile, the progressive, "moderate" Baptist camp in the wars to control the nation's largest Protestant flock has been having its own troubles. While it's hard to calculate a total membership statistic for congregations affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, this loose network eliminated 13 staff positions last year in the face of a nearly 20 percent budget decline.
That's the bad news, said Bailes. The good news is that Baptist life is rooted in a tradition flexible enough to allow independent-minded believers to start their own niche congregations that can speak to an age in America "in which, to be blunt about it, the church isn't the big dog on campus like it used to be," he said.
However, focusing new ministries on "craft churches" that target urbanites, college communities, artists and other hip, young demographics could, he acknowledged, lead to the theological equivalent of "beer snobbery" in which insiders are tempted to look down on the less enlightened.
The key, he argued, is to keep focusing on the needs of local communities and then to build networks of church leaders who share what they have learned.
"What would a more 'robust' church style look like? ... By focusing on the depth and flavor of the spiritual life offered, perhaps younger adults will drink deeper from the well of the local church," argued Bailes, in his essay.
"Wherever one stands on the issue of drinking, one element cannot be ignored: in what may be one of the largest industries in the United States, small, craft brewers are experiencing growth, not big-name brewers. Though many who read this might look over their shoulder when they walk into the beer aisle, or stay quiet about the 'fruits of the vine,' perhaps beer can teach us something."