In Theory: Must church be held in church?

Holding a church meeting in a pub may at first seem a bit odd, but so-called theology pubs — regular pubs and bars where meetings are held, usually once a week — are catching on across the country.

According to Keith Anderson, a pastor in Philadelphia, “the world we live in demands that we do theology in a different way, on-the-fly, in different places, with different people....” He calls this “theology without a net.”

Using blogs and social media, pub theologians introduce topics to be discussed at informal meetings in pubs. Anderson says this is different from the usual “controlled environments” such as churches and classrooms. No one person is in charge of discussions, and everyone gets to speak up when they want to.

Bryan Berghoef, a pastor who runs pub events, sums up the meetings as “beer, conversation and God,” and says of the meetings, “everything is up for discussion, no assumptions, no barriers to entry.”

There are such groups all over the U.S., including four in California, and more form each year.

Q: What is your view of holding open discussions of faith in an informal setting, and how might you approach this perceived need?

I have seen these groups in action and they seem like a fine way to do a religious affinity group, assuming you are morally OK with alcohol. What has always kept me from considering this an alternative to church is the type of people it allows into the discussion.

I believe a church should have the ability to reach out to people of all ages. Hosting church in a bar basically communicates that people under the age of 21 cannot be part of the group. I believe that is a huge barrier to entry.

Also, adults with young families struggle in this context because the “church” is not helping them with the spiritual development of their children. All in all, for a twentysomething armchair theologian, this is a great thing. But it is not a model for a church.

David Derus
Student
Fuller Theological Seminary
Pasadena

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I was a bartender when I was in seminary. I thought it would keep me real, balance the mystical airs and insulated delusions of the church by keeping me in touch with normal people leading regular lives. Yeah, what it mostly meant was working with drunk people whose emotional range swings from maudlin to obnoxious and loses maturity with each passing hour. Not sure why I never did the math on this, but it turns out that people at bars tend to get drunk.

Which is why bars might make a poor arena for theological debate. Earthy, irreverent, ways-of-the-world-loving Episcopalian that I am, the idea of theological discussion at a pub has great appeal for me. I’m all for taking religion out into the world, rather than expecting people to come to us.

I’ve even seriously considered doing this — we’d call it “Holy Happy Hour” and if I could get a couple of my interfaith clerical buddies to do it with me, think of the ad campaign we could do: “A priest, a rabbi and a Buddhist walk into a bar....”

But then there’s the drunk people. I don’t relish the thought of some savant in his cups attacking me about the Inquisition and other abuses by the church. I can see the fistfights breaking out as a discussion of religion turns on a dime into offended fury. I think I can still hold my own in that — I was my own bouncer, back in the day — but I’m getting old enough that that sounds more tiring than fun.

What do you think? If you wanna try it, e-mail me: rector@SaintGLC.org.

The Rev. Amy Pringle
St. George’s Episcopal Church
La Cañada Flintridge

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Since I don’t like the taste of beer, I probably wouldn’t go to a pub for my religious experiences. But I am intrigued with the idea of people coming together there to talk about their spiritual and theological questions and uncertainties. It sounds like some of the experiences I had in seminary between classes, over lunch or dinner or late into the night. I don’t believe the location is as important as the atmosphere of openness and authenticity, where people are encouraged to bring their whole selves to the table.

We must recognize that the world we live in today has changed from the one that many of us grew up in. Younger people are not interested in going somewhere to be told what to believe or how to think. And I believe ideas that are discovered through active investigation have more impact than those delivered by some authority figure. In my denomination, we have a free pulpit where I am free to share what I believe and others are free to respectfully disagree. The idea of “theology without a net” is just an expansion of that kind of freedom from a church to a more informal setting and format.

Maybe one of the causes of the decline in mainline denominations is that they are trying to keep religious ideas in a box that was built at a much earlier time in our history. If we want to appeal to people today, we are going to have to meet them where there are real-life experiences.

I don’t expect to ask our leadership to open a pub in our church fellowship hall any time soon. But I think we could learn some important things from this new way of doing theology.

The Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills
La Crescenta

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Some years ago, a minister tried to encounter street people, or people who would not consider going to church, in bars and pubs. His account of his encounters was a book called, “Are You Running with Me, Jesus?” I don't know how successful he was, or how he defined success. But I mention this minister because the idea has been tried before.

I see nothing wrong with going to people where they are; I think John Wesley, the founder of Methodism back in the 18th century, did the same thing. In fact, he started out in the Church of England as a preacher and ended up by riding on horseback to the mines, where the people were. “The world is my parish,” he once said.

So I see nothing wrong with going where the people are, whether it's in a drinking establishment or not. But then the question becomes, “Now what?” You've met them and you've engaged them in conversation — but what comes next? Indeed, should anything come next? We clergy need to decide if we want to fill our churches or fulfill the will of God. Not that the two are mutually exclusive — but there can be a difference.

Maybe I'd try to make another appointment with the person or persons at the bar — and also suggest that they meet me at my church some Sunday. I think I'd say to them, “In sports we play at your place one year and at my place the next time. So how about it? I've come to see you in your comfortable surroundings; now please come to see me in mine.”

The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
La Cañada Flintridge

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Years ago, the hip thing was for churches to meet in theaters. Today, almost all new churches refer to their platforms as stages, pews are guest seating, and there are savvy technologies; animated hymn-lyric backgrounds, special lighting, and the sound is THX, or whatever’s current.

My church, not so much, but I do like the idea of pub-church meetings. I’ve always thought such places were prime locations, especially to draw men to what’s currently a female-dense venue come Sunday. If fellas thought that afterward, instead of tea, they’d be allotted fresh tap-pints, perhaps they’d more often venture churchward on the Lord’s day. It might save them!

So I’ve no knee-jerk opposition to taverns, and my favorite website that makes a strong connection between beer and God is reverendlovebrew.com. That site does for my Germanic soul what I think lacks in these theological pub meetings, and that’s making the connection between man’s greatest need and his greatest affection. Sure, guys love beer, but they need God, and if such meetings do little more than hear fanciful machinations from all religious viewpoints, then I’d say the fruit of such isn’t so savory.

God’s not interested in how “genuine” our sinful opinions are, but how genuine our commitment to his righteous truth will be. Sure, make space for people to air their differences — to throw out their religious objections, but bring it all home to an answer in Christ. He came because of such differences, and he didn’t die to validate every misdirected opinion about spiritual things, especially things about himself.

Jesus “came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her actions” (Matthew 11:19). Cheers!

The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church
Montrose

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I have benefited from open discussions of faith in informal settings my entire life, and have also enjoyed plenty of quality time in bars, these sometimes together. Though it isn't mentioned, I assume these “theology pubs” are adults-only. So no objections from me, on any count.

Socializing is the leavening that lightens the more serious aspect of life. Work. School. The dentist. Meetings. Alcohol in moderate amounts in appropriate settings can serve as a useful social lubricant.

My rule is not to tell experts outside my bailiwick how to do their jobs. But I will offer some advice my husband heard at a fundraiser from Arlo Guthrie, the folk singer/song writer, as was his father, Woody Guthrie. Accepting a cocktail during his set, Arlo said his dad liked to say, “There's a lot of good ideas in a pint, not so many in a quart.”

Roberta Medford
Atheist
Montrose

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It is unfortunate that the Greek word “ekklesia” has been mistranslated “church” throughout most of Christian history. Church connotes a physical place, a structure where formal services of worship are conducted in a highly organized manner. But that's not the meaning embodied in the term “ekklesia,” which was used throughout the New Testament.

Ekklesia is the combination of “ek” meaning “out of,” and “klesia” meaning “a calling.” Literally, the word means an “assembly” or the “called-out ones.” In ancient Greece, the citizens could be called out to a public assembly to express their opinions, vote, and pass judgment on community issues. Christ deliberately named his followers an ekklesia because he called them to go into all the world and share the good news of God's kingdom with all peoples.

Jesus demonstrated how an ekklesia would function. He made some cameo appearances in synagogues and the Temple, but most of the time he was meeting with people from all walks of life wherever they happened to work or congregate. This included public squares, roads, hillsides, people's homes, boats, tombs, weddings and banquets, i.e., parties. You name it; he was there. No venue was off-limits to him.

Jesus intended that as we go about our daily life, we would always be open to meeting with others, listening to them and ready to share the hope we have as called-out ones in God's kingdom. “Pub theology” is one example of this “marketplace faith.” At HRock, we offer opportunities not only for traditional Bible study groups, but for gatherings focused on shared interests like the arts and entertainment industry, martial arts, business mixers, personal finances, sports etc. These groups have no set agendas and follow the issues and interests expressed by their participants.

Pastor Ché Ahn
HRock Church
Pasadena

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I feel that our task should be to bring the positive message of spirituality to all, regardless of the setting. I am reminded of a verse from Isaiah (55:6): “Seek the Lord when he is found, call him when he is near.” I believe that we have a responsibility to find God anywhere and everywhere. The reality is that some people who seek spirituality will only be open to the message in a setting that is not a conventional house of worship like a synagogue or church.

Finding innovative ideas and new approaches to expanding spiritual life is critical for the growth of our respective religious institutions. Clergy and religious organizations need to be cognizant of the fact that a formal setting does not work for everyone. Therefore I believe that these events, although they may be held in a pub, are basically a good idea, since they have a positive, worthy objective.

At the same time, we need to be careful so that we do not degrade the message or let these meetings gravitate toward disrespect. This is a legitimate concern, especially when the venue is a bar. It is incumbent upon clergy who preside over non-conventional religious gatherings to keep the message clear and help participants stay focused on the spiritual objective.

Rabbi Simcha Backman
Chabad Jewish Center
Glendale

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Any sincere effort to gather people to discuss God should be encouraged. The pub meetings, it appears, enable people who might never step into a church to join a religious conversation without fear of being preached to or pressured. Likewise, believers benefit from an honest examination of their faith.

Personally, I also like the idea of such gatherings because they inject religion and spirituality into the public discourse in a positive, non-political way. (Obviously, pub gatherings are problematic for the LDS, given our avoidance of alcohol.)

I don't believe such meetings are a substitute for church attendance. There is a difference between discussion and worship. Formal religious services provide an opportunity for us to acknowledge our dependence on God and renew our covenant to follow Christ. We also give thanks in a formal, public way for the blessings we have received. This combination of worship and covenant-making invites the Spirit. The faith of those who worship is re-affirmed and the hearts of those not yet converted are touched.

To dismiss the necessity of formal worship would be a mistake. It is true that Christ taught and befriended people from all walks of life in a wide variety of settings. However, the Scriptures also show that he taught his followers that he expected more of them than casual conversation. He taught them to meet together to make and renew covenants through ordinances including baptism and the sacrament, both administered in an organized setting. Our responsibility is to do our best to follow him in both respects.

Michael White
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
La Crescenta

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“Theology pubs” are a good way to reach people but they’re not a good place to leave people. Jesus ate with “tax-gatherers and sinners” at Matthew’s feast, but this was his compassionate outreach to sinners that they might repent and join the body of God’s people (see Matthew 9:10-13). This format is conducive to outreach but it isn’t conducive to the continued growth God wants people to experience. Jesus calls people out of friendship with worldly ways and into the fellowship of the church. At theology bars “nobody’s in charge,” so there’s no apparent clear leadership. There are “no assumptions,” so there is no truth communicated. Everybody gets to speak up when they want, so it seems there’s no order. It’s “beer and conversation,” so are some folks intoxicated? All of these were problematic issues that Paul condemned in the Corinthian church. It’s a place to start but it’s not a place to stay, a place to reach out but not a place in which to remain.

When a ship capsizes, the object is not to leave the survivors floating in the water and organize them into groups. The object is to get them into the lifeboat. Heaven’s lifeboat is the church, the “body of Christ,” the fellowship believers, orderly, adhering to truth and distinct from the world.

Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church
Burbank

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