Why Church Hymns Are Best Sung in Bars

Jodi Houge, a pastor in Minnesota, talks about the shifting church culture in the U.S. and what it’s like to hold services in coffee shops and bars.

Jodie Houge  (Rebecca Clarke )

The number of Americans who identify as Christians has declined in recent years, from 78.4 percent in 2007 to 70.6 percent in 2014. That drop-off is most pronounced among young Americans, but it cuts across gender, race, and educational background. The number of self-proclaimed atheists, agnostics, or “nones” has been steadily rising, increasing from 16 percent to nearly 23 percent in the last seven years. And yet, America has the largest population of Christians in the world, with some 70 percent of adults saying they ascribe to some branch of the Christian faith.

A study from the Pew Research Center connects these patterns to the overall declines among mainline Protestant and Catholic churches, which some feel is a result of the inability of religious institutions to adapt to a population that has become more diverse and slightly more progressive. Women, for example, are still prohibited from being ordained in some religious groups, including Mormons, Roman Catholics, and Southern Baptists. In 2012, only 11 percent of U.S. congregations were woman-led, up from nearly 8 percent in 2007.

For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Jodi Houge, the pastor of Humble Walk Lutheran Church in Saint Paul, Minnesota, about what it is like being a female clergy member, how American churches are adjusting to the decline in religious participation, and how she’s connected with her community by holding services at a coffee shop. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Adrienne Green: What inspired you to become a pastor?

Jodi Houge: I worked at a bible camp the summer after my freshman year of college. I wasn't thinking, “Oh, yeah, I'd be good at this job.” I just didn't want to move home. Then, I actually loved it. I have been a cradle Lutheran Christian, and so this was the first time at age 18 that I had an opportunity to articulate some of those beliefs out loud. I went back the next summer and the one after that. Then I was a college graduate without a plan, and I took another camp job in north Idaho because I wanted to live in the mountains. That turned into full-time youth work in the church, which I did for 10 years. I thought I would probably do that forever because I loved it so much, even though I felt woefully unprepared theologically.

Then, I got married and had a child. All of a sudden, my job didn't feel like it was possible to do in the way I wanted to do it and parent in the way I wanted to be a parent. Being a full-time youth minister was very time intensive and demanding.

Green: What kind of work is involved in being a youth minister?

Houge: I was in charge of all of the programming for fifth grade through 12th grade in a Lutheran church. There would be weekly events during the school year, and then in the summer I would take seventh and eighth graders to camp, and high-school students on a service-learning trip across the country. It was week after week of being gone. I resigned and decided it would be a great time to do grad school.

I went to seminary school with a baby at home, and I told everyone I was going to get my master’s degree in divinity to become a pastor. In my heart, I thought that I wouldn’t finish because I didn't want to be a smelly old pastor. This sounded like a terrible life sentence.

But my first year of seminary was thrilling. It was everything that I had wanted to learn my whole adult life; all the dots were connecting. I said, “Oh my word, I am going to be a smelly old pastor.” I couldn't even picture the type of church that would call me as their pastor because it just seemed like it didn't fit with my skills or how I saw church.

Houge: I hadn't ever met a female clergy until way beyond college. All of the pastors I knew were old, white men up until that point. The idea of me—with dreadlocks—I just couldn't see myself in that group.

The beautiful thing is, when I got to seminary, all God's children were there. The group was half female, and many were 10 to 15 years younger than me. That was a shift. Good change takes so long, and we are on the edge of a seismic shift in mainstream churches. Those men, they're retiring and their work is nearly done, which opens up a whole lot of space for the rest of us who are ready to lead.

Green: Churches have had a difficult time attracting Millennials, and there’s been an overall decline in religious participation in America. Do you think this shift is going to change the way that people interact with the church?

Houge: There's no other possible way. The culture has shifted so much and the church has been slow to respond. We're finally waking up to our need for a great change. In the last 10 years, everyone is in a grieving process at most of the clergy tables that I sit at because nobody quite knows how to do their job anymore. Church leaders feel very scared because the way that they were trained to do their job no longer works.

There was this idea of the 1950s church, where everybody goes to on Sunday morning and you bring your kids, and there's Sunday school. I wasn't alive then, but I'm not actually sure that was even true. In the Midwest, it was only true for a slice of people—mainly upper-middle class white folks. The grief is all tied into how we thought church was in its glory days. I don't necessarily think it was so glorious, so I'm okay letting it go.

Houge: In the mainstream Protestant churches, people are grieving a time when we had this stronghold—our buildings were booming, and our classrooms were full. But if you look around, everyone looked exactly the same. The institution was running strong, but that just simply isn't of interest to anyone in my neighborhood.

When I came out of seminary, I didn’t actually want my church to look like that because I wouldn't walk into any of those congregations. Questions kept coming from my neighbors, such as, “Where will you be a pastor?” I said, “As a family, we're open to going anywhere that we're being called.” My neighbor said, “Well, couldn't you do something here because we need a pastor?”

From our block, you can see two church buildings so it's not like we were shy of opportunities for church. But they were looking for some other sort of way to do church. During my last semester of seminary, I thought about how we have all these artist friends and neighbors looking for some connection and a faith community, but not what they already knew or tried. Some of them actually had crossed a threshold of a church building, and then walked out.

My husband and I thought, “What if we started worship in a coffee shop?” Maybe this was a real need and a real desire. We met every Sunday for the month of October in a coffee shop after the shop’s operating hours. People walked in, and then they came the next week, and the next week, and the next week.

Then I said, “Oh shit, I might've started a church.” I could maybe get in trouble for doing that, because we have a process in the Lutheran church. I made an appointment with my bishop and he said, “Why don't you keep just doing what you're doing, and instead of sending you far off we'll see if we can arrange to have you here.” That is what we've been doing for eight years now.

Green: Can you kind of tell me more about why the atmosphere of a coffee shop worked out better for your community?

Houge: I thought there had been enough concrete churches in the name of Jesus in America, and that we didn’t actually have to do that. There's also this story in the gospel of Mark about a woman who has been bleeding continuously for 12 years. She sees Jesus walking to the marketplace. She has the beautiful title of “the hemorrhaging woman,” which is what everyone would want to be called. She sees Jesus and reaches out and grabs the fringe of his cloak when he walks by, then she's healed in that moment. That story was formative for us in the beginning, because that healing wouldn't have been possible for that very desperate woman if Jesus hadn't been present in the public court.

I wanted us to be in the middle of life because there's so much life happening in this neighborhood, versus a church building on a hill that you hope people are drawn to. People are already gathered in this coffee shop. That led us to thinking: What other spaces are available?

A Beer and Hymns flier (Jodi Houge)

Green: Is that how you started having services at the bar for “Beer and Hymns”?

Houge: One night, my husband and kids went out of town so I had this free evening. I called a bunch of friends and asked them to meet me at this super divey bar a block from our house for a drink. This was social hour for me, but the conversation inevitably turned theological. I thought, “What if we met regularly and had these conversations at this divey bar and called it work?” Then we started doing theology pub at that divey bar once a month. I thought they would just want to come and hang out, but people came with their shirts rolled up and their lunches packed and their notebooks ready to learn.

That became a very important, vital part of what we did in the very first years. Then after a couple years a friend had heard about a couple other churches—one in Portland and one in Denver—that were doing beer and hymns. This other pastor was at a fairly established church and she said, “This feels too scary to do on my own, but your people are already used to coming to the bar. If you did it, I will bring people.” I thought, yeah we'll try anything. We are very risk-tolerant.

The very first time, in June, we put out the announcement on social media and 50 people came out, most of whom I didn't really know. We had one designated acoustic guitar song leader and then we just said, “Bring an instrument and we’ll have this bar pickup band.” A whole band of volunteers came to play, and when they struck the first chord and sang the first stanza I just started crying. It was so loud and powerful and robust. I thought, “Wow, people really do want to sing hymns in the Irish bar. This is the weirdest job in the world.”

It was like no singing we had ever experienced before. It just had that sort of energy and this magic. The next month, everyone came back and then they brought people. Then in August, there was standing room only, and people waiting at the door to try and get in. We did beer and hymns once a month starting from that point on.

That has really actually shaped our community in an unpredictable and vital way. We don't do anything other than sing. There's no sneaky Jesus in there like, “Oh and then I'm going to do a mini sermon, or now I'm going to pray for you.” It is show up, sing, and thank you for coming. We’ve gotten to know all the servers and bouncers and the managers and the regulars at the bar. It's a huge Irish bar with very skilled drinkers. They come stumbling towards the bathroom, and then they get sucked into what we're doing because we're located conveniently next to the bathrooms.

Green: You mentioned that you work part-time. How do you make a living?

Houge: The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America does pay me for this part time work. It's enough; they take care of their clergy pretty well. It's a full package, so I get retirement and health insurance. The part-time work is because I have two kids. I want to still be very involved as a parent.

Green: What do you think it means to work? And how is your job tied into your identity?

Houge: I think for me, as a clergy, there is no separation. There is the work that's before me and it never ends. It is relentless. For most people, their day off may be Sunday. For pastors, we work on that day, so I take a full day off [on another day], and try not to think about my work.

There's very little boundary between my identity, my life, my neighborhood, and my role in it. When I go lap swimming, I am the pastor of Humble Walk, whether I want to be or not. For a long time, I didn't tell anyone at the dog park what I did for a living because I just didn't want to talk about it. I wanted one place where I didn't have to talk about it; it's like opening a floodgate if you say you're a pastor. Everyone wants to tell you all of his or her experience of church or faith. What's helped me is that I was raised by a farmer, a profession for which that is also true—you're never not a farmer. Being a pastor is also my birthright; I feel grateful that people allow me to be a pastor in their life.

This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a hotel manager, a speech writer, and an art installation worker.