A pastor walks into a bar…
By Katie Pearce
Many of my friends are not active members of a religious community, and some do not consider themselves to be people of faith. However, we often have conversations about matters of faith: belief, doubt, prayer and the role of religion in society. Despite their hesitance to attend a traditional church, they do have thoughts about God and faith.
I want to encourage conversations that welcome honest questions, doubt and disagreement with those outside the church and with the lay members of my congregation. I have found that hosting these conversations in a non-traditional location draws a diverse crowd of people who are looking to engage in God-talk.
I have led two “pub theology” groups, one in Little Rock and the other in Morrilton. These two groups have different contexts and different purposes, but both take holy conversations outside the church and into the world.
‘Faith and Fermentation’
When I served as the associate pastor at Highland Valley UMC Little Rock, I started a monthly discussion group called Faith and Fermentation at Stone’s Throw Brewing with the owner, Ian Beard, a member of First UMC Little Rock. Faith and Fermentation did not start as an outreach of HVUMC or FUMC; the goal was simply to talk about matters of faith with a group of people from diverse faith backgrounds.
Faith and Fermentation began in October 2015, when we discussed the significance of the Pope’s recent visit to the United States. Several United Methodists attended, as well as Catholics, non-denominational Christians and “nones and dones.”
Over the past year, we have developed some Faith and Fermentation traditions. We begin with a moment of quiet, as suggested by a participant who attended a Quaker college. We introduce ourselves each meeting and share our faith tradition, if we have one. The facilitator provides a topic and guided questions, but the conversation is not limited by those questions. There are no rules, except that we are not there to argue or change people’s minds; we are there to have conversations about faith over beer. We end by discussing possible topics for future meetings, which have included Christmas: Pagan holiday or Christian Holy Day?; What Would Jesus Do?; Mother’s Day; and Human Trafficking.
The group varies depending on the topic. Some topics created social media buzz, which led to many new faces. The group of regulars includes Methodists, members of the Church of Christ, Episcopalians and agnostics. They have discussed faith and the LGBT and transgender communities, race relations, worship styles, faith and politics, gender roles and denominational differences. Attendees speak with civility and grace, despite disagreeing deeply. One person without a worshipping community attends Faith and Fermentation regularly and calls it her church.
‘Bibles and Beer’
When I was appointed to Morrilton I was excited to hear that First UMC already had a pub theology group. Bibles and Beer was started by a group of laity who read Get Their Name and began eating dinner and drinking beer every Tuesday night at Yesterday’s Restaurant and Bar. As a weekly presence, the group formed relationships with regular patrons, waiters and owners.
The goal of Bibles and Beer is different from the goal of Faith and Fermentation. Bibles and Beer provides a way for the church to build relationships in the community of Morrilton. Initially there was no programmatic element to Bibles and Beer; we simply met and enjoyed dinner, drinks and fellowship weekly.
Recently we have changed the format. We now meet monthly, on the third Tuesday. We have grown to take up an entire room at Yesterday’s. We advertise to the community on social media and invite friends and neighbors. We continue to enjoy food, drink and fellowship, but we have added Bible trivia and conversation topics to the evening’s agenda. The group has also done mission projects together, like visiting the nursing home to deliver Christmas gifts.
Bibles and Beer is one of the most intergenerational groups associated with First UMC Morrilton, with regular participants ranging from early 20s to late 70s. The group continues to experiment with different formats, but is committed to being at Yesterday’s every third Tuesday. The staff and patrons are welcoming and intrigued by the group. And as a new pastor in town, I’ve made connections with more members of the community through Bibles and Beer than I have at gatherings like Rotary meetings and football games.
Not about the drinks
Despite the names and locations of these gatherings, alcohol is not at the center of the event. Most people at both groups do drink, but some do not. One group has attendees who are in recovery.
While conversations can occur anywhere, it is important to take them outside the church walls. The concept could be re-branded as Bibles and Biscotti or Evangelical Espressos and held at a coffee shop or other locale. A different setting is inviting to people who are not comfortable walking into a church; it breaks some negative assumptions about Christian legalism and it brings the church to a new location. The beverage and setting are tools that lead to conversation and community, not the goal of the gathering.
I believe discipleship is occurring through these groups. We are examining the way God is at work, we are asking hard questions and are engaging with people who think and believe differently. My hope is that every person comes to the table expecting to be changed, and that we each leave the table transformed.
I hope churches will begin to host more off-campus groups in bars and coffee shops, and that we will mirror in our churches the same hospitality and grace-filled conversations that I have found at Faith and Fermentation and Bibles and Beer.
The Rev. Pearce currently serves as pastor of First UMC Morrilton. Bibles and Beer meets every third Tuesday at Yesterday’s Restaurant and Bar in Morrilton at 6 p.m.; Faith and Fermentation meets every first Tuesday at Stone’s Throw Brewing in Little Rock at 6 p.m.