Church groups hit pubs to broaden appeal
On a recent Thursday night, after the children had been put to bed, five men were engaged in a deep discussion around a table. They mulled over suffering and the meaning of an old hymn with the lyrics: “God moves in a mysterious way.”
“Like, it sucks that you’re hurting, but it’s part of life,” said one, who had “Ezekiel” emblazoned across his T-shirt.
The conversation had turned to providence when a server interrupted to tell the men not to let the next table over hog all of the fries. The fries were for everyone.
A swig of microbrew, dollar tacos and heady talk of faith and God add up to Doctrine on Draught, Cornerstone Church of Boulder Valley’s weekly gathering at Southern Sun Pub & Brewery. But one drink only, please.
Scott Kelly, Cornerstone’s associate pastor, was inspired to start the program by the priest that hung out at his fraternity parties back at Washington University in St. Louis.
“Not many other people were talking to the Sigma Alpha Epsilon people about Jesus,” Kelly said. “But this father was there.”
The priest also bought a keg and invited people over to the Catholic student center for something he called Theology-on-Tap, Kelly said.
“I got to thinking, that was really cool that this guy would just show up and live the life of Jesus among us,” Kelly said.
But according to Kelly, sometimes the priest would get drunk, so he instituted a one-drink limit when he started his own Theology-on-Tap for Cornerstone, which is a cooperating church in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Why not just abstain?
“Martin Luther was asked that same question,” Kelly said. “He said, ‘do not suppose the abuses are eliminated by destroying the object of abuse.'”
The twentysomething demographic is a notoriously difficult draw for many churches. A September study by the Barna Group reports that 61 percent of young adults “had been churched at one point during their teen years but they are now spiritually disengaged.”
“The old methods don’t work like they used to,” said Chris Steele, young adults minister at LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont. “You don’t argue them into their faith. You do life with them, and they discover it.”
Steele helped LifeBridge develop The Bridge, a group for young adults in college and beyond.
“Part of it is frustrating at times, because you want to say, just do it and trust me,” Steele said. But this generation questions authority, he said.
“People aren’t going to come to your safe buildings anymore,” he said. “You have to earn the right to say, ‘Let’s talk about this.'”
Theology-on-Tap began in the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1981 when a college student asked his priest for help with the “why” questions in life. By the time that student came home for the summer, the priest, Father Jack Wall, and youth minister Tom James had set up a six-week speaker and discussion series.
The program, which is now hosted in parishes or bars and restaurants, has spread to 46 states and six countries, according to their Web site, www.theologyontap.org.
Kelly changed the name of his new program to Doctrine on Draught after learning that Theology-on-Tap was so successful that the Chicago Archdiocese had trademarked the name.
The Archdiocese of Denver hosts a Theology-on-Tap series twice a year, timed with the college semesters, at Braun’s Bar and Grill near the Pepsi Center. Mercy Gutierrez, event coordinator for the Archdiocese, said the series typically pulls in 175 to 250 participants from up and down the Front Range, including University of Colorado students.
“The Archbishop is kicking off the spring series, and he’ll draw 300 people,” Gutierrez said.
Cornerstone’s crowd is around a dozen most weeks, Kelly said, and the format is different. Kelly usually shows up armed with blog entries, commentaries and tough questions to spark discussion in smaller groups throughout the evening.
Parker Eldredge, 25, is a member of Cornerstone and goes to Doctrine on Draught most weeks. He says that with his job, it’s much easier to get to than Kelly’s old 7 a.m. Dead Theologians Society. The society died, but the new pub gatherings already seem poised for success, he said.
Andrew Casey, 29, doesn’t go to Cornerstone Church, but he goes to Southern Sun on Thursdays because he misses the intellectual rigor of his religious studies classes at CU.
“It’s well worth it for me to go there,” Casey said. “Doctrine aside, the questions lead into bigger discussions.”
Sometimes those discussions can hit a personal note. When the discussion turned to the controversy of Universalism, Casey, who acknowledges that his beliefs are essentially Universalist, remained comfortable with the conversation.
“I think I could bring my Buddhist buddy,” he said, “and they could all sit down and talk just fine.”