This summer I presented a few Thoughtworks workshops at the National Gathering in Penticton, BC. We had such a good crowd for the Theology Pub/Post-modern Hermeneutics workshop that we had to run two groups (sample theology pubs)! The format was simple, I presented a bit on the model of theology pubs and then we did it on the topic of post-modern hermeneutics. Some of the feedback on the theology pub format was really good - and my experiences with running theology pubs in Ottawa has convinced me that it is a way of creating space for those who want to really reflect on their faith and the challenging issues we face trying to faithfully live out our faith in the world today. So, I'm going to share a blog version of the presentation I ran in Penticton. I know there are other approaches to theology pubs so I'm hoping to get some of the other leaders who have been running them in Ontario to share their ideas on the topic as well.
The first thing I addressed was the venue. Although it is trendy to call them theology pubs it isn't the pub that makes them special. In fact a lot of bars that call themselves pubs are not really good environments for a theology pub. What you want is a coffee shop, quiet pub, or restaurant where you can seat everyone together comfortably and carry on a conversation. From experience it takes a bit of work to find a good location - we had added challenges with accommodating a couple wheelchairs. A few other important aspects of the venue need to be considered. First this is about a public conversation. There is something about bringing it into a public space that allows participation that you wouldn't get say in a church building or in a private space. It also allows listeners on to jump in. Another consideration is size. Because we run theology pubs on edge topics relevant to our community - we can have fairly big turnouts for a pub setting. It is worthwhile thinking this through before you get to the venue and find that you can't really have a proper conversation with the group you attracted. In Penticton I figured we might run into this problem so I had asked Mark Taverner, a pastor I knew ran theology pubs in Langley, to be ready to take half the group.
Then I spent some time on the philosophy of theology pubs, what they are all about. The most important aspect for us is having a good conversation. I define a good conversation as thoughtfully engaging the topic with an eye on the implications of our faith life towards that topic. At Freedom we intentionally take on topics that we are wrestling with as a church community. By bringing these things into conversation we are creating a community that works through issues together. It makes church function more like a family, and even when there isn't consensus on an issue, at least folks feel like they've had a part in shaping the churches response to the challenges of the day.
I have already looked a bit at why a public conversation is important. But another aspect is that the mode of a theology pub is a bit different than we usually do training in the church. The technical name is a Socratic conversation, which really just means that together you explore an issue by asking questions in a group. It isn't about getting to the one right answer, but allowing the answers and questions to be explored. This doesn't mean it never lands on answers - but it requires a lot more patience than we might be used to. Which is the third point - listening. I think Wimber had a brilliant insight in his healing prayer model when he talked about listening to the person and at the same time listening to God. I find that this works really well in theology pubs. Conversations are about hearing the different views and questions. We usually invite someone into the conversation who we know has a different perspective on it than we do, this enriches the conversation. It is important that we don't see theology pubs as debates. But we also need to recognize that we are people who hear and respond to God. So we listen in two directions. But the nuance I like to insist on is not to try and hear what God's answer is - cause often we get that confused with what we want God's answer to be - but rather, in light of this what would God want me to do? How would God want me to respond? Just that little shift is an amazing change to the conversation. Overwhelmingly I find people who want to explore deep issues, but us evangelicals haven't made ourselves very good conversation partners. (I am also convinced that Jesus' brilliant way of responding to folks came from his ability to actually hear what they were saying, something to think about as we read the gospels.)
In terms of content, the world is a complicated place. Historically the evangelical churches (in particular) have had an amazing capacity to experiment and find fresh expressions of the gospel that speak into the culture. What I think we are called to today is to rise up to the challenge of culture once again. We don't shy away from tough subjects in our theology pubs. I know Mark did his first one on hell, great subject. We need to recognize that most people are wrestling with the ideas we once thought were settled - and that this is not a bad thing. At Freedom we've taken on everything from the Eucharist to homosexuality. And they have been wonderful conversations. What I would encourage is that you don't just come in with your already established opinions. Either do some research into the subject and the various perspectives on the subject, or find someone who has been working in this area. I often invite someone from one of the universities to participate. They don't lecture, they are just there as another person in the conversation. There are folks out there who would love to come and be part of such a conversation, often we tell them we'll buy them a pint for coming - but most enjoyed themselves so much we had to fight to pick up their pub tab!
Really the only person you need though is a facilitator. The facilitator does not need to be an expert on the topic. But they do need to cultivate a few skills. First they need to know the goals of the theology pub, conversation not debate, etc. Second they should prepare a few starting questions that can get the conversation rolling. Our experience is that this is important to get things going, but usually we have to decide to stop it because the conversation takes on a life of its own when it gets rolling. Third, they need to steer the conversation clear of becoming a debate. What I loved about the workshop I ran in Penticton was that there were a variety of opinions on how we read scripture in a post-modern day - but it didn't devolve into an argument. At one point, as the facilitator, I realized two people were saying almost the same thing but with different language. I simply introduced a new term and helped each side see how it captured what they were trying to say. The new term was helpful because they hadn't attached themselves to it as the way to say what they were saying.
Hope this was helpful, I would love to hear of your experiences with theology pubs. What works, what doesn't, and what could be done differently.
Frank Emanuel (Freedom Vineyard, Ottawa)