You’ve read, perhaps, about churches making use of beer to gain traction in connecting with people. NPR put it more starkly in a story recently: “To Stave Off Decline, Churches Attract New Members With Beer.” But you’re skeptical. And I don’t blame you. It sounds like a gimmick. Trying to be trendy. Throwing a few jokes into a stale sermon to appear witty, humorous, relevant. Young. People increasingly like beer. People increasingly don’t like church. So it makes a certain amount of sense. You can’t blame churches for trying.
I have my own experience connecting beer and faith. I help facilitate pub theology gatherings every week. Pub theology is simply open conversation over a pint. You’re still skeptical. “So, you go the pub to drink beer,” you might say. “Great. Some of us are actually spending time doing things that matter. Helping the poor, working on housing and jobs, advocating for justice, mentoring people and more. Going to the pub to talk about faith seems like it increases what we don’t need any more of: talk. Why do we need more talk? More hot air does not make the world a better place.” You might conclude: “Pub theology is a waste of time.”
–Related: Bar theology: Burgers, beer, and a side of spirituality in D.C. (Washington Post)–
I’ve heard some criticism along these lines, and I’ve had some of these thoughts myself. Pub theology — gathering with folks to talk about life over beer — is nice. But isn’t it time to start doing some things that really matter? Isn’t it just dressing up a relic without really changing anything?
I wonder, though, if there isn’t a small flaw or two in this line of questioning: it assumes that pub theology is the only thing one is doing. Or that one is doing it as a gimmick to attract new church members. Neither of those things is true. Pub theology is not the newest trendy outreach effort. It is open, honest conversation, wherever that leads. It may lead someone to your church. It may also lead someone out of it. Now if you’re a regular reader of mine or follow me on social media, you’d be forgiven for thinking that pub theology is all I do. If it was, I think I’d be in heaven already. But that’s for another discussion!
So I hear these legitimate questions and critiques and occasionally wonder to myself: maybe pub theology isn’t so worthwhile. Maybe I need to find something else to do on Tuesday nights.
And then we have an evening in which a Buddhist sits across from an atheist, and a liberal Lutheran sits across from a conservative evangelical. A member of a Unity church pulls up a chair. And the discussion is rich, full, and meaningful. We talk about issues of justice, evil, and whether or not an all-powerful God is culpable for the bad things that happen in the world. Some share stories of hope and powerful religious experience, while others talk about why the church is no longer the place for them, and still others say they’ve abandoned God years ago.
Is all that is happening here just “talk”? When we can sit and learn from someone who gave up his Catholic faith in college and has subsequently been practicing Buddhism for over 30 years, something is happening. When an atheist who gave up his religious views because of deep philosophical considerations, yet is interested in issues of meaning and life enough to join us and contribute — something is happening. When a person who hasn’t stepped into a church for years, but still considers herself spiritual pulls up a chair to listen: something is happening. When ten of us from very different perspectives can wrestle together about questions like — “Can violence make the world a better place?” or “Is the weight of history unbearable without the idea of God?” or “Is privacy a God-given right?” — something is happening. When we build relationships with a bartender, a server, a pub owner, something is happening. When a beer distributor attends an interfaith event during DC Beer Week and says, “Man, this is so refreshing compared to other beer events I go to,” something is happening. When someone says, “I just don’t go to church anymore because it doesn’t mean much, but I come here because it is participatory, thoughtful and open” — something is happening.
And so as I reflect on the ongoing place of gatherings like pub theology and similar events, I liken it more and more to a spiritual discipline or practice. In other words, it is something that I intentionally participate in because it shapes me in important ways (again, it is not a gimmick to attract new members — though some might seem to use that approach). And like any other discipline or practice, it isn’t everything. So it isn’t fair to compare it to something that it isn’t, and that it isn’t trying to be. It isn’t those things, and it doesn’t need to be. It is one thing, among many things that a person might be involved in. And like a practice of, say, contemplative prayer — which incorporates deep moments of silence, one might say of it: “Nothing is happening. You should be doing something.”
Yet when I engage in contemplative practice, though it appears nothing is happening, much is happening: deep wells are being opened up within me. Space is created which heightens my awareness, deepens my senses, gives me more patience and love in which to encounter the very real challenges that life contains. My connection to the Spirit of God is renewed. It is far from nothing. In silence, I find that much is happening. And as a discipline, when I participate in it regularly and intentionally, it adds to the other things I am doing, which includes engaging in “action” and more visibly constructive types of things like building relationships in my neighborhood, being an activist for issues like peace instead of war, dismantling mass incarceration and recidivism, tuning in to environmental /climate realities and how I might be a participant in and advocate for the natural world, creating a community of people seeking to engage their world while deepening a connection to Jesus and more.
And so pub theology, like prayer, or fasting, or Scripture reading, is a discipline. One might be tempted to ignore or skip such a practice in favor of ‘doing more’. But when I skip it, I miss out. I miss out on learning from people with experiences and perspectives that are vastly different from my own. I miss out on constructive dialogue on issues we all face together. When I am tempted to abandon the practice, I remember that for some folks, this is a first step toward re-engaging their spiritual side, or their first chance to speak honestly about their doubts, and is perhaps their only opportunity for deep, constructive dialogue and reflective thinking.
It is also, in a way, like preventive medicine. When I know someone as a person, I am less likely to judge them harshly based on preconceived stereotypes. If I know a peace-loving evangelical or Muslim, I am less likely to judge all evangelicals or Muslims as endorsers of violence. If I meet a deeply thoughtful, liberal Christian, I realize that they aren’t just about feelings or dismissing orthodoxy, but are about careful, deep reading of Scripture and tradition. If I meet an atheist, I may well realize through her caring presence that atheists are just as thoughtful and intentional as anyone else. If all I have are stereotypes, I’m likely to help perpetuate them.
So is pub theology just talk? Yes. And no. It is deep relationships. It is barriers coming down. It is stereotypes being proven wrong. It is new friendships occurring. It is lines being crossed. It is deep thinking about the issues we all face as humanity, being discussed from varying perspectives. It is a movement to deeper understanding, where new possibilities are opened up. It is a practice that I value deeply, and — in many different ways, under many different titles — it is happening all over, and needs to be happening, and I’m glad to be a small part of it.
Bryan Berghoef is a pastor, writer, and pub theologian, and author of the book, Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God. Bryan currently facilitates weekly conversations at a bar in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, DC.