Pub Theology ministry fills niche

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BOCA RATON – What goes with a cold beer better than pizza and wings?

For some, it’s the Bible.

A beer garden might strike some people as an odd place to find worship and spiritual discernment, but the mix seems to be working for a group associated with First UMC, Boca Raton.

Since June, lay leaders and others from the church have been meeting once a month with groups as large as 50 at a bar and restaurant called The Biergarten near the church’s east campus. It’s all part of a concentrated effort to “meet people where they are,” according to church lay leader Thad Schoen.

The first Tuesday of every month, all are welcome to gather from 7 to 9 p.m. for prayer, conversation and questions and answers, as well as food and drink.  Participants range in age from 19 to 86. And, yes, those legally old enough often choose to imbibe one of the selections on tap.

The meeting is advertised in the church bulletin, on its website and on a placard placed outside the restaurant with the invitation to join in a time with God, beer and conversation.

“It’s slowly starting to grow, with people bringing friends and the word spreading. There are college kids and workers from nearby businesses. Some are new and some are the same from week to week. Sometimes they miss a month and return. On average, there are about 30 a meeting, but it varies,” explained Schoen.

The meetings open with prayer, then the groups get right into discussions.  People are free to bring up any questions they have on their minds and to suggest discussion topics for future get-togethers. The people who show up drive the content of the gatherings.

The idea was not really to pull Pub Theology attendees to worship at the church, but Schoen said some have come.

“It would be nice for them to become regular attendees, but we’re still in our infancy with this program and we just have to see how it goes,” he said.

The church is also looking for a suitable restaurant or bar near its west campus to launch another group.

Schoen is retired and has an ongoing attachment to the ministry that he helped launch.  On a personal level, he has seen people embrace faith as a result of finding it where they were having lunch.

“I’d like to stress that this is Kingdom work. We have to go out and meet people where they are. Christ didn’t sit in the temple; he was there with the people. … It’s all about planting seeds.”

The leaders include the church’s senior pastor, Rev. Marcus Zillman, who is familiar with this type of outreach from a previous stint at the Wesley Foundation at the University of Miami. Students there observed a similar Catholic program called “Theology on Tap.” 

At Pub Theology, there is no sermon per se, rather topics proposed for discussion and a time of fellowship. Leaders may provide a topic, and then those attending break into groups of 10 to discuss. Ministers and other leaders are there to answer questions.

Some discussions have covered the topic of faith in general and the question of “Does God exist?” Others have centered on the Bible and how it can be interpreted. 

“People considered whether it’s just an old book or the living word of God and Jesus,” Schoen said. “I’ve been surprised by some of the discussions myself. … There have been some good questions about how we [the leaders] knew Jesus was in our lives.”

He admits that some people have come mainly out of curiosity to see what kind of church coexists with beer on tap. But he added, “Beer-drinking is not the main thing.”  

The alcohol involved has not been in conflict with another of the church’s outreach efforts: the 12-step recovery programs that meet on First UMC campus.

“We’ve had some kickback about the alcohol, but when people look back in history, they can see that Trappist monks in Belgium started making some great beers,” Schoen said.

“We’re not promoting drinking. We’re just providing a place and time for learning and fellowship.”

– Anne Dukes is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

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