WASHINGTON—On a recent Tuesday evening, about 400 young professionals packed the basement of Kelly's Irish Times, a popular bar near the Capitol building to hear a talk on … theology.
And yes, for a couple of beers too.
Call it “Theology on Tap.” And bring friends. The best kind are those who may have strayed far from the pew but not from the barstools since leaving the parental nest. Theology on Tap is tailor-made for this large and largely untapped-class of fallen-away or searching Catholics.
And it's catching on.
“There just seems to be something about the atmosphere of a rustic Irish bar and Guinness and a priest talking about the faith. The atmosphere is just really exciting,” said Greg DiNapoli, a 25-year-old master's student at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.
To event organizers, it seemed like an almost perfect fit. And the numbers confirm it. Thanks to an advertisement in The Catholic Standard, Washington's archdiocesan newspaper, some flyers at local churches and word of mouth, the group's first meeting in late January drew about 300 people. For the two meetings that followed, crowds swelled even more.
“Can you imagine? They were all packed into the bar. They took out all of the chairs and all of the tables out of the place while I talked for over an hour. Not one person left — and then they wanted to ask questions!,” said Legionary of Christ Father John Hopkins, the event's most recent speaker.
After the talk, Father John said, several people grabbed him for confession.
Organizer Joe Rogers said the event was appealing for two reasons: a laid back setting and a clear presentation of the faith.
“As long as we present it as it is, the faith is attractive to people,” Rogers said. “There is very little that we have to do other than be honest, and show young adults that they can go out and date and also have a flourishing Catholic life,” added the John Paul II Institute student.
While Rogers can't take credit for coming up with the idea, he has taken it in a new direction.
Rogers said Father John Cusick, a parish priest in Chicago, came up with the idea of a lecture series for young adults. The goal was to reach out to people who didn't have a ready means of participating in the life of their local parish community.
Rogers, a Mobile, Ala., native, heard about the Chicago lectures. Because of the name, he wrongly assumed that they were held in a bar. So he started his own series of talks at a local Atlanta watering hole.
On his model, the lectures were given for 12 weeks. Rogers said this was enough time to present the faith systematically.
“Young people could come to the bar and basically get a catechesis over some hot wings and some beers,” Rogers said. “The environment wasn't imposing, and at the same time it was natural. Bars are natural places to talk about [religion].”
According to Rogers, the average crowd for Atlanta's Theology on Tap group was around 350.
After moving to Washington last August, 1999, Rogers met a group of people who had heard about the Atlanta group and wanted to start something similar in Washington. Jennifer Dornbush, also a student at the JPII Institute, formed a committee to put it together.
The committee contacted Washington Archdiocesan Director of Young Adults Ministry Peter Newbern, who quickly took to the idea. He had heard of the Chicago group and, according to Rogers, “spearheaded” the development of Theology on Tap in Washington.
According to Rogers, joining forces with the archdiocese was key. “We wanted to get people on the right track, back to confession and Sunday Mass. We wanted to let them know that the diocese was concerned about them,” he said, adding that the contact also includes opportunities to transmit information on such practical matters as church locations and Mass schedules.
At the Feb. 15 meeting, Father Hopkins mixed the style of David Letterman with the substance of Pope John Paul II, by presenting two top 10 lists. First he listed reasons not to be a Catholic. Then, he offered the top 10 reasons to be a Catholic. The crowd loved it.
“He was awesome,” DiNapoli said.
“We bring in speakers who are able to communicate the faith to a young audience in a language that's understandable to them and through experiences they can relate to”, Rogers said. “From there, the Holy Spirit does the work.”
Father Hopkins called this beer and theology apostolate “a very non-threatening way” to evangelize. He recalled the Holy Father's 1993 World Youth Day challenge for Christians to go out to the byroads and preach. “That's what Theology on Tap does,” he said, “it meets them where they are.”
‘Top 10’ Reasons People Give for Leaving the Church
10. I am tired of having the Church shoved down my throat.
9. The Church is boring!
8. I don't have time!
7. The Church makes me feel uncomfortable.
6. There is no fellowship at the Catholic Church.
5. The Catholic Church is outdated
4. The Church hurt me. I hate the Church.
3. I was kicked out.
2. I have met the most special person in the world.
And the No. 1 reason why people leave the Church:
1. I really do not know the person of Jesus Christ.
—Father John Hopkins, LC
‘Top 10’ Reasons to Bother With The Church
10. We are all adults.
9. Can God be boring?
8. We make time for whatever is truly important for us.
7. Falling into sin is not a tragedy, not getting back up is.
6. Fellowship has to start with you.
5. The Church is eternal.
4. The Church is the Mystical body of Christ, the people of God.
3. The Church is a mother.
2. The Church is unique.
And the No. 1 reason why people bother with the Church:
1. The Church is the road to a personal and passionate relationship with Jesus Christ.
—Father John Hopkins, LC