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When Worship Online No Longer Felt Like a Community, a Wine Club Became ‘Wine Church’

wine church
Jon Sullivan, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

(RNS) — Steve Inrig has great faith in the gifts of the Spirit.

Especially those found in a bottle of good wine.

For the past two years, Inrig, a pastor-turned-college professor and amateur winemaker has been hosting “Wine Church,” an online meet-up with friends that mixes the laughter, joy and tears you’d expect from any drinking circle with the occasional prayer request.

When the group started, Inrig was looking for a way to stay connected with friends during the COVID-19 pandemic, figuring his love of wine and luxury wine coolers for collectors made for a good starting point. Along the way, the group became something deeper — a kind of pandemic support group and spiritual community.

The Saturday Zoom calls, which at their height drew about 20 people, were weekly for much of the pandemic. (They’ve recently slowed to every other week.) It was after one of the couples admitted they’d stopped going to church and found spiritual community in the group calls that they began to pray together.

“We joked about it,” said Inrig, who is the director of a graduate program in health care policy and management at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles. “But over the next few weeks we found ourselves praying for one another.”

For Jim and Wendy McKinney of Yucaipa, California, the wine club helped fill a need for community after their church shut its doors and moved online during the pandemic. All of a sudden, the friendship and social interaction with fellow church members was gone, said Jim, replaced with sitting on the couch and absorbing streamed spiritual content.

“It just became this fire hose that came at you and you never got to talk back,” he said. “You never got to be on the other side of the conversation. For me, this wine club was actually an opportunity to be able to talk back and have a conversation with some like-minded Christians.”

McKinney, who describes himself as a fairly private person, said he has been surprised by how close he has gotten with other group members, most of whom he did not know before the pandemic. Now they are dear friends.

“I have at times opened up about some things in my life that I never would have opened up about, especially with people I had never met before in person,” he said. “And that’s stunning.”

Wendy McKinney agreed. She knew several group members before the Zoom calls started — she had been a volunteer leader for a youth group at Trinity Church in Redlands, California, when Inrig was a youth pastor there decades earlier, and several people on the Zoom call had been part of that youth group.

But she had not spent time with them in years.

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Bob Smietana is an award-winning religion reporter and editor who has spent two decades producing breaking news, data journalism, investigative reporting, profiles and features for magazines, newspapers, trade publications and websites. Most notably, he has served as a senior writer for Facts & Trends, senior editor of Christianity Today, religion writer at The Tennessean, correspondent for RNS and contributor to OnFaith, USA Today and The Washington Post.