Church in Non-Traditional Spaces… Even Bars
by Irwin Kula
Have you heard of pub churches? Craft beer, God, and community. Welcome to one of many new venues and ways in which people are doing religion.
Under the banner of “Pub Theology” – a name taken from the title of a popular 2012 book by pastor Bryan Berghoef – an informal movement has spawned hundreds of meetings in dives and bars in dozens of states. People have gathered for “Beer and Hymns” in Portland, “Church-in-a-Pub” in Fort Worth, “What Would Jesus Brew?” in Michigan and the “Bar Church” in D.C.? Check out this welcoming message from a group in Boston:
“Welcome to The Pub Church! We are a church in a pub and the Spirit is with us. In this place, feel free to move about, help yourself to food and drink, and express yourself openly! We come together with a variety of thoughts, stories, talents, hopes, and hurts; All we bring is welcome. We pray that in coming together with all our differences and with Spirit, we participate in a new divine reality. This is sacred space.”
There’s a long history of religious and spiritual communities using drugs, intoxicants and spirits (e.g., cannabis, opium, mushrooms, peyote, wine) to loosen ego, alter consciousness and induce mystical or ecstatic feelings.
Interestingly, these contemporary pub churches haven’t used beer to induce religious experience, but rather, as a way to attract people. Meeting in bars over beer (some groups set two-drink limits), they create an alternative physical and psychological space to institutional religion with its pastors, pews, sermons and traditional prayers. Those who might not feel comfortable walking into a formal place of worship may find it easier to walk into a bar.
What these new sorts of sacred spaces and communities have in common is they seem to be casual, creative, diverse, non-judgmental, informal, and inclusive. Those in attendance can learn from each other – sharing thoughts, insights, critiques, and practices that relate to their worldview, and pragmatically affect their lives. These can be spaces where there are no attempts to fix others or to convert you to the right belief. People listen to each other when there is no ‘you’ who have a problem and a ‘we’ who have the solution, or ‘you’ who have sinned and a ‘we’ who have the way of forgiveness. There can be a collective pursuit of truth (how people hold their beliefs is as important as what they believe – doubt, uncertainty and curiosity are the critical qualities that make faith credible). These are secular places made sacred by intentional radical welcome.
Those who might not feel comfortable walking into a formal place of worship may find it easier to walk into a bar.
Given the incredible attrition in religious affiliation in America – (“Nones” are the fastest growing identification, and in recent years some 6,000 churches a year have gone under), these spiritual gatherings reflect dramatic changes in how Americans create their religious identities, and how they get the spiritual resources they need to make meaning and form webs of relationships and community.
Inherited wisdom and traditions are increasingly used as technologies, as tools of the spirit, as resources to be mixed, blended, bended and made accessible to help us flourish as human beings.
What doesn’t work (or worse, does damage) can be let go. What does work can get recovered in honest conversation between all types of believers and non-believers. This process of sacred retrieval is done across creedal and tribal borders, because no one has the whole truth. And only in sharing/witnessing with each other what wisdom and traditions do work can we build a path of flourishing.
There seems to be only one absolute rule in these new spiritual experiments: Religion cannot get in the way of relationship – it must create and nurture connection. Not a bad rule.
With institutional religion weakening in the U.S., and beer continuing to be America’s favorite drink, who knows? Marrying beer (root beer for those who don’t drink) and religion could be a match made in Heaven.