Theology at the Pub is a popular weekly event in Melbourne, Australia, aimed at “amateur theologians aged between 18 and 40 and any clergy who wish to enjoy a drink or two with anyone younger than the average parishioner.”
In Norfolk, Virginia, Holy Trinity Catholic Church regularly lists in the weekly bulletin “Theology on Tap” at a local bar and grill. There a regular crowd gathers to ponder Christianity over a glass of ale … or milk, whatever suits attendees, who often include local university students and sailors from the nearby base.
In New York City, Jay Bakker, son of disgraced televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, preaches in bars while sipping on iced tea since he’s been sober for 14 years after a tumultuous childhood in front of TV cameras.
In Cheyenne, Wyoming, Uncle Charlie’s Grill and Lounge hosts a weekly “Bibles and Beer” discussion that routinely attracts people of all faiths – and even an atheist, reports Kevin Moloney for USA TODAY. “As many as 45 people have shown up, some toting Bibles. Some might have a drink; others stick to water,” he reports. “Some talk; others mostly listen. There are only a few ground rules: Avoid debate and stick to the text to be discussed that week.”
The idea of Bibles and bars may be highly offensive to devout teetotalers and worrisome to recovering alcoholics. After all, in some circles, it’s not a matter of discussion whether the wine Jesus miraculously made from water at the famous Cana wedding was actually unfermented grape juice.
Southern Baptist spokesman Dr. Richard Land says he’s never tasted beer and doesn’t want to. “While the Bible may be subject to various interpretations concerning alcohol consumption (as well as the nature of the beverage consumed), Southern Baptists’ understanding of the issue has been exceedingly unambiguous,” the jovial Land wrote in a recent column, noting that the convention has regularly passed anti-alcohol resolutions as far back as 1886. “We often have been reminded of the potent question from Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps: ‘What Would Jesus Do?’”
“A biblical argument can be made,” writes author and radio host Mike LeMay – that Jesus would have strolled right into the bar, particularly, “when one reads about how Jesus went to Matthew’s home where prostitutes and other sinners were partying."
Is this blasphemy?
“Jesus went in boldly," says LeMay, "and proclaimed the Gospel, not caring if He was seen with sinners that would cause some to paint Him in a negative way. He boldly proclaimed the Gospel to people who were in desperate need of it.”
In Portland, Oregon, a visit to a local bar was “a sad night for me,” reports theologian Tyler Braun. “Since my decision to get into Christian ministry, I have been around situations like this very rarely. I forgot how sad the bar scene can be. People lead lives that focus solely on the weekend to go out and get drunk. Of course they probably would look at someone like me and think that I am stupid for trying to live for God. They would say that it isn’t a very fun life. Let me paint the scene. I saw one guy passed out on a chair, others working on trying to get this girl or that guy onto the dance floor.
“I’m not going to say it is wrong to go to bars or to drink beer. I am saying,” he writes, “I was shocked about how far I’ve distanced myself from people like this. I do not run into people like this in my everyday life. My life has relatively zero impact on the life of a weekend partier.
“I find it sad that there are so many people so disillusioned and untouched by Christians who can give hope. I’ve heard stories of church meetings in bars in Portland. I know some people who are relatively outraged about this. This is because they feel the church is then saying that what happens in bars is considered OK by the church. I don’t agree.
"All I could see were people who would never walk into a traditional church setting. How do we reach these people? Is showing up on Sunday and hoping they come to our church enough?”
Bakker says it’s not. He stands with open Bible in Pete’s Candy Store, a popular pub “in the hip Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg,” according to reporter Courtney Crowder. “The nightclub is filled with
twentysomethings. But they haven’t come to drink, or to watch the flat screen TV. The draw is Revolution Ministries, a church service.”
Bakker tells his followers to read their Bibles, not just to believe what a pastor tells them. “It’s the greatest story never told,” he jokes.
“The bar stays open during the service,” reports Crowder, “and though the bartender is playing dominoes and taking phone calls, the worshippers don’t seem to notice. A few non-worshipping regular customers drink in respectful silence.
Attendee Christie Lee, a 29-year-old social worker, says the whole point is “being in the presence of the Lord.”
“The service’s popularity,” reports Crowder, “is an indicator of a growing trend in evangelical Christian worship: hipsters in bohemian fashions worshiping at clubs or bars, proudly breaking with their parents’ traditional practices.”
Pastor Bill Jenkins preaches at 9:30 a.m. every Sunday at the Loft Bar and Bistro in downtown San Jose, California. He told Brittany Smith at the Christian Post that he wants to create “a safe environment for a dangerous message.”
The British native preaches at a bar, he says, because 92 percent of the local population is unchurched and a majority have rejected traditional forms of church. But they will attend his, which bills itself as “a community of faith with no religious rites, rituals or man-made rules to trip you up.” His hour-long service doesn’t follow much of an order of worship, reports Smith. “It’s simple, with Jenkins preaching a short message and then breaking the 20 or so attendees into small groups to talk, and later return as a large group to discuss what they talked about.
“After the service, people stick around and have a drink at the bar. Jenkins said this is where the real ministry takes place. People want to talk about their faith and their doubts. He likens it to his experiences with local pubs back in England and says he wants to create an atmosphere like it in San Jose. The local pub is ‘the hub of the community, where people feel comfortable.’”
Jenkins is an ordained Baptist pastor who later was ordained at one of San Jose's conservative, locally autonomous Christian churches. He says he doesn’t want his congregation to become “another Christian country club.”
“Across the country, faith is becoming bar talk,” notes USA Today’s Moloney. “The trend combines the traditional religious charge to go where the people are with the reality that a lot of them are in bars.
“Organizers include those from mainline churches, those building churches and bar owners and brewers. Some are trying to push the model nationally, taking an ageless yearning for meaning and purpose to places where people often go to try to wash their worries away.
In Glenpool, Oklahoma, “It is good to bring the Word to wherever God is, and God is everywhere, and people are everywhere, too,” Joe Beene, owner of the Drunk Monkey Tavern told Moloney. Last year, Beene began live streaming Sunday morning services from nearby Tulsa’s Celebration Church into his bar. “The people who come in here on Sunday mornings are people who want to hear the Word but won’t go to church.”
He got his idea, he says, from Jenkins in San Jose.
“Beene says six to eight people regularly listen and accept his free Sunday brunch, and he is talking to other bar owners to see if they’ll stream the broadcast.
“I see a lot of people that come in here with issues, and they are trying to solve those issues or kill the pain with alcohol, which certainly works short term but not so much long term,” Beene told Moloney. “I feel they need to hear what I have been hearing in this church.”
“What is more important than where a church service is held is what message is being delivered?” asks Braun. “Are the people attending hearing the pure Gospel or a watered-down version? Is the entire Gospel of repentance, forgiveness of sins, and a call to pursue holiness and righteousness being taught?
“Or are we just telling people that Jesus accepts them right where they are at, with no need to repent and turn away from sin? What is preached is more important than where it is preached, in my opinion.
“When we seek compromise with secular culture, we lose, as our values are compromised. Reaching in to a culture that hates or ignores God is our calling as Christians, in hopes of reaching the lost. Finding the proper biblical balance of reaching out to the culture without compromising with it is the difficult challenge we face as the Body of Christ. Not an easy thing to do, but then Jesus never said it would be easy to follow Him.”