Guest post by Fr. Kirk Berlenbach, rector of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in the Roxborough neighborhood of Philadelphia. He has been facilitating the parish beer club (The Franklin Club) since 2007. Originally posted at So This Priest Walks Into a Bar.
WASHINGTON DC – One of the great things about the internet is that, no matter how obscure your interest or hobby, the net allows you the chance to seek out and connect with other people who are just as off kilter. When I began to take this whole faith and beer thing more seriously one of the first things I tried to do was see who else out there might be doing it too. I was pleased to find I was not alone in the universe. I came across and have since corresponded with a couple of kindred souls.
Among them are guys like Michael Camp, author of Confessions of a Bible Thumper: My Homebrewed Quest for a Reasoned Faith, which is next up on my reading list. Another book on the subject is Diary of a Part Time Monk by J. Wilson which I just finished reading. I referenced J’s quest to emulate the monks of old in this post. In short, he attempted to follow the Lenten discipline of monks who fasted existing only on their dopplebock. The book is his account of this remarkable experience.
Then there is Bryan Berghoef. When I finished reading his book, Pub Theology, I knew we had to at least correspond. We hit it off and found we had a lot in common, not just in terms of our love of beer but also in terms of our approach to ministry and the Church’s need to find new ways to connect with the ever increasing “spiritual but not religious” population. We discussed the idea of a visit but never got around to making specific plans.
Then, a few months ago I got the bright idea to do an event on the whole “beer-faith connection” as part of this year’s Philly Beer Week. (more on this in next week’s post). Anyway, when I was thinking through other clergy who could work with me on this event, Bryan was on the short list. I contacted him and he was very excited at the possibility. But I thought it was important to meet the man I was going to work with. Moreover, I wanted to see an example of one of his “Pub Theology” sessions up close and personal.
So last week I took the train down to DC. Bryan met me at the station and we headed off to the pub where that night’s conversation would take place. The whole concept of Pub Theology is “Beer, Conversation, God.” The gathering is open to anyone who wishes to attend and the topics are sent out a few days ahead of time. On the heels of the massive Oklahoma tornado the topic included God’s role in natural disasters, as well as more abstract topics like, “Was there a time before time?” and “Scientists say dark matter is inferred, not seen. Can you call that faith?”
We talked over burgers and beers and then made our way to the back part of the bar to wait and see who would show up. Over time the group grew to a very respectable 15 people. Many were members of Bryan’s new church planting project, Roots DC. Others were visitors and one was a local clergy colleague. People’s perspectives varied, greatly (and thanks to the presence of a young woman from South Sudan, also went beyond just an American lens) and at least one person was by openly an atheist.
As the conversation progressed and folks ordered their 2nd or third beer, people definitely became more vocal. Yet a no time was there a hint of disrespect or even frustration.
What Bryan has built here is no small accomplishment. To create an environment where people, many of whom are strangers, can speak openly and honestly about the deeper issues of life is quite extraordinary. As I have reflected on this I began to see the genius of Bryan’s concept. While such a group could take place over coffee or in a park, the setting of the bar is really critical to its success.
Where else but in a bar can friends, acquaintances and strangers all engage impassioned debate yet still remain not just civil but even jovial? Now it is true that often times those debates are about how the manager is mishandling the bullpen and not dark matter. But there are many times I have heard focused discussion about politics, God and the meaning of life coming from the other end of the bar or the next table.
It seems to me that if the bar is indeed the new Forum, then Bryan has indeed hit upon a valuable insight into how the Church can connect with the world outside its walls. The key lies first in a willingness to go out to where the people are rather than insisting that they come to us. But just as important is the setting. In order to get people talking about what they really believe about God and what truly matters in life, then you can’t do much better than your local pub. And, at least in my opinion, the best way to start any meaningful conversation is over a good pint.
So here’s to Bryan and Pub Theology and the rediscovery of a great way to talk about God and all things that matter most.
You can read Kirk’s latest thoughts at So This Priest Walks Into a Bar: Beer, Music, and a Thirst for God, or find him enjoying a craft beer somewhere in Philadelphia.