Out-of-the-box bible talk in a bar

Vineyard pastor hosts discussion nights at Molly Malone's

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By TOM HOLMES

Oak Park supplied the Bible believers while a Forest Park establishment served the beer in an out-of-the-box attempt by Vineyard Fellowship Church to reach out to people who are turned off by church yet interested in talking about God. Theology on Tap, a series that took place on the four Tuesdays before Christmas this past December, was led by one of Vineyard's pastors, Dave Frederick, in the snug at Molly Malone's.

The ad Vineyard ran in the Nov. 21 issue of the Forest Park Review asked the following questions:

• Are you interested in God, but don't like church?

• Would you like a place to ask questions and discuss ideas-without being preached at?

• Do you like good beer?

Roughly 10-20 people braved nasty winter weather to show up at Molly Malone's for each session. First on the agenda at each gathering was a short talk by Kyle Entler, sales manager for Burke Beverage, on the non-theological subjects of Guinness Stout, Sam Adams Ale, Blue Moon Weiss or Fat Tire Ale. Entler not only provided free samples, but bought a pint for everyone at the end of his presentations. Vineyard sprang for the heaping plates of hors d'oeuvres that accompanied the brew.

When all had their pints in hand, Frederick gave a 15-minute opening talk on some aspect of Christianity like "Is the Bible Historically Reliable?" or "How is Christianity Different from Other World Religions?" He would then open the floor for discussion, and for the next hour and a half, the debate would meander from the main topic to a whole lot of tangents.

Annette Fallian, a Forest Parker who says she is not religious and doesn't believe in a god, came because of an ongoing dialogue she has had with Frederick and a general interest in the subject of religion. "I love discussions like these," she said. "I also think it's important for people to think about issues like religion and spirituality and question things with an open mind. I also enjoy having discussions with Dave."

Brian Varner, an ex-Catholic who now describes himself as "a seeker," drove to Molly Malone's from Chicago because a friend, who is involved at Vineyard, invited him. "I thought it would be interesting to check it out," he said, "and sampling a few beers never sounds like a bad idea."

John Kelty, a River Forest resident, likewise came because a friend who goes to Vineyard invited him. Kelty characterizes himself as a Christian who is disillusioned with the organized church. He was attracted to Theology on Tap because he likes exploring different formats for faith communities.

Linus Leung, whose daughter is a member of Vineyard, labels himself an agnostic. The Naperville resident said of his motivation for making the long drive, "I want to see my daughter. The free beer helps, but I am sure I spend more on gasoline for the drive there than the cost of the beer."

Such comments represent just the kind of person Frederick was hoping would attend. "My assumption," he said, "is that the people will come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some will be followers of Jesus, and some won't. Some will be believers in other religions. Some won't believe in anything at all. It's all fine."

An outreach like Theology on Tap is also based on how Frederick understands the way God works in the world and how people respond. He said, "The appeal for me is that today a lot of people are interested in spiritual things and are very interested in Jesus but have a very negative perception of the church."

He also understands that he can't "convert" anyone to Christianity, i.e. it's not within his power as a human being to make someone become a follower of Jesus. In Frederick's opinion, his role is to provide an opportunity for God to work, a safe environment where people can ask questions without fear of being judged and process what they're thinking. "I cannot bring you or any other person," he said, "into a relationship with Jesus. That's between you and him. What I can do is create an opportunity for people to explore."

He also believes many people are hungry for what he calls "something more" in life, something that works in real life-for a "vibrant spirituality."

"Jesus was a lot more radical," he observed, "than we see in most churches. I think people are turned off by religion that is all about going to church and being nice. I think nice is boring. If that's all there is, it's not worth giving my life to. That's where the adventure comes, the 'something more.'"

Vineyard's senior pastor trusts respectful dialogue as an opportunity for people to meet Jesus in a spiritual way. In Theology on Tap he tried to play a dual role: encouraging open, honest discussion and at the same time being clear on where he stands as a follower of Jesus.

The people who came to Theology on Tap with more questions than answers seemed satisfied with the two hours they spent in Molly Malone's snug. Some left the sessions reassured. "I though the most interesting thing about attending was finding out that there were other people who had the same exact questions I did," said Varner. "It was refreshing to talk about such things in a relaxed environment where people respected each other.

"Usually," he added, "beer and religion don't mix."

Kelty agreed. "I was happy I participated," he said. "It becomes clear that many of us, regardless of religious upbringing or training, are in search of answers even when the questions are unclear."

Those who described themselves as Sunday church-going Christians agreed in many ways with those who were not connected to organized religion. Waiken Wong, who came primarily to accompany his father-in-law, said, "No questions were raised that I haven't heard before, but I think it's important to keep pursuing those questions and answers as a way of strengthening/testing/refining our core beliefs."

Likewise, Greg Hedges who has worshiped at Vineyard for over three years, said the banter was provocative and helped him validate a few of his own beliefs. It also provided him with an "opportunity to invite friends to connect over something that actually matters." What's more, he said, each session "gave me something new to talk about with my wife."

Fallian had minor criticisms of how chairs were arranged and the tangents the discussion sometimes veered off on, but on the whole, she thought the program a success. Regarding Frederick's attempt to both facilitate uninhibited discussion and at the same time represent faith in Jesus, she said, "I don't think he can generate an honest, open discussion if he's not upfront about his own beliefs."

At the end of the four sessions, none of the agnostics had become believers and none of the seekers had become members of Vineyard. The reactions of those in the unchurched category varied.

Thomas Magill, a vocal participant in the Tuesday evening discussions, was hard on Vineyard, while in some ways agreeing with its pastor. "American churches, for the most part, are failing the Christ," he charged. "If there is no heart-felt repentance ... there will be no thousand-year reign of Christ in their future. Vineyard's Theology on Tap is not helping to that end."

Leung was more ambivalent. "I don't think it changed my mind," said the self-proclaimed agnostic, "but then again that was not exactly my expectation. I always find it interesting to hear other people's opinions about religion. It is not a bad way to spend an evening."

"I left with a positive feeling," Varner concluded. "I look forward to being able to question someone like Dave again, knowing that I will be respected and get an educated response."

"I was happy I participated," said Kelty. "Any conversations related to God and the Bible are complicated ... always leaving one with unanswered questions. I believe developing one's spirituality is important but finding your comfort zone may take a lifetime."

Partway into the series, Frederick discovered that the Catholic Diocese of Chicago was already using the brand Theology on Tap. He said if he decides to continue the series, it will be advertised under a different name.

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