Theology in a Bar: Curating Holy Conversations

One of the reasons I got my current job working with Young Adult ministries across The Episcopal Church was some work I was doing in a bar in Washington DC.  St. John’s Church decided we wanted to build community for young adults.  We wanted a space for young adults to gather and talk about faith.  We called it “Theology on Tap.”  (I can’t recommend that title, because it is copyrighted by a Roman Catholic Diocese).

This post attempts to describe the process of putting on a similar “pub theology” event.

Build a team before you build an event

Bishop Mariann Budde at our pub theology event

Bishop Mariann Budde at a DC pub theology event

Before we had an “official” series of theology on tap, there was a group who went bar hopping.  That group talked for several months about the question “why?”  Why did we want to gather in a bar? 

The answer: we wanted a space where we felt comfortable inviting our friends to talk about questions of faith and spirituality.  Church wasn’t that space.  Sunday worship is a high bar for someone who is not a regular attender of church.  We wanted to create a space that was casual, comfortable, where it was safe to explore questions of faith.  We didn’t want anyone to feel they were being “pitched” to join our church.

For a series to be successful in this work, to involve a large number of non-church people, a team needs to put it together.  We needed leaders who took ownership of the event, who recruited folks to come.

Pay attention to building relationships (and gathering contact information)

This is simple but important work.  Getting to know and getting connected to new people is a must in growing a ministry with young adults.  Often someone feels like they are taking a risk just showing up.  Make sure someone says hello to them and introduces them to some people in the group.  Everyone always wore a name tag at our event, the cheap stickers you write on yourself.  This meant there were no “insiders” and “outsiders.”  Everyone was there to meet new people.  We invited everyone to leave their email address to be added to our list. Everyone made a name tag with a marker (there is no bigger marker of “insider” and “outsider” than pre-made plastic name tags).

The theology on tap leadership team paid special attention to newcomers.  They worked to make sure no one was sitting alone.  They introduced people around the room. 

If it’s a conversation, make sure everyone gets to talk, and no one gets put on the spot.

We used a simple structure for the event.  People spent the first 30-45 minutes gathering, mingling, and eventually finding a seat.  People were seated at tables with four to six people.  On the table was a “conversation card” with three questions related to the topic.  At the beginning, it was face down.  The guest speaker gave a short 10-15 minute presentation about the topic, often involving a spirituality or social issue.  Great examples were “Monks and Beer, the unexpected spiritual history of brewing” or “What can we do about homelessness.”  After the talk the tables flipped their cards over and talked about the questions for 20-30 minutes.  We trusted the tables to decide how much to talk about any given question, or to go off on their own.  At the end we invited the tables to share with the larger group and took questions for the speaker.  This was a great balance because the small tables meant everyone got a chance to talk, and no one had to speak in front of the big group, which can be terrifying for someone new.

In conclusion

I think that church leaders would learn a lot if they were apprenticed to good bartenders.  My friend Joel is a bartender in St. Louis.  I love watching him work.  He makes people laugh and smile.  He welcomes new faces and introduces people to one another.  He builds community.  At its heart, this is what all church work is about, building community, a community of fellow-followers on the way.

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