One of the things the Associate Pastor Nominating Committee here at First Pres in Ashland was really interested in during my interview was the Theology Pub I ran in Livermore. We ran the Livermore Theology Pub for about a year and a half, and it ranged from being a small group of Methodists, to a few nights when we had almost 20 people from Presbyterian & Methodist churches and the local Jewish synagogue. We had good conversations, and people seemed to enjoy it.
I was excited to start it up here in Ashland, and we finally got around to it this summer. I often get inquiries into the best way to start up something like Theology Pub, and so I thought I’d share how I started it here in Ashland.
Obviously, location is key for something like this. We have a pizza joint across the street from our church that has a really great selection of beers on tap. I went over and approached them with my idea, and the owners were all for it. They were very supportive and excited about having our group meet there. I also met with the owner of a pub downtown, and after quite a bit of playing phone tag, and conversations, he agreed to give it a shot. We met at the pub for our second Theology Pub, and he loved it and said we’re welcome back any time.
I always meet with the owners and get their permission, because I post the location on the posters, and want people to know I’m going to be using their business’s name. Not everyone thinks it’s a great idea, though. We have an absolutely perfect spot in Ashland for Theology Pub: The Black Sheep Pub. However, when I got in touch with the owner, she didn’t want the place to have any connections to any religious organization, so she said no. It’s a bummer, but I am honoring her wishes. We could certainly just show up there and have a theological conversation, but with the type of advertising that I do, I don’t want to have problems with this place and their owner.
The pizza joint works out really well, the management is super friendly and supportive, though sometimes it can get just a little bit too loud. People could hear each other much better at the other pub, so it’s a location we’ll definitely keep in our rotation. I think finding the right location is key. I know some groups that meet in the same place every time. We’re going to be trying out a few places in town and see what works.
With Theology Pub here in town, I have been doing a variety of advertising techniques, many of which are working quite well:
First things first – you need a name: Obviously, you need to decide on a name. When I started one in Livermore, I was initially going to call it Theology on Tap (post here). But I would suggest staying away from that. The Catholic church essentially says they have that name copyrighted (post here), which I think is absolutely lame, but rather than fighting them (which again, is lame), I decided to just go with Theology Pub. But I’ve heard of other groups who go with Beer & Bible, Pub Theology and other variations.
Newspaper: I pitched an article to the local writer who covers some religious news in the area, and we ended up getting an article in the paper about the event. It made the front page on both the Medford and Ashland papers (Mail Tribune article, Daily Tidings article). Also, we don’t get the newspaper, but a lot of people still do, and there is free advertising there. We have some papers with sections that we are able to list events in for free: Religious Briefs and Community Notes. Again, we’ve had a few folks at each Theology Pub who have come simply because they saw about it in the newspaper.
Podcast: The newspaper article got picked up by a local radio news podcaster, and he did this short interview with me. Can’t say that will always happen, but it did here in southern Oregon.
Logo: When I did this in Livermore, I kind of had a logo (which you can see on the Facebook page here), but it wasn’t something that I used all the time, and to be honest, I didn’t really like it that much. So as I was getting ready to make posters for the first one, I decided I needed a logo. I usually suck at logos, so I decided to make this one easy – and just use a stock image of beer, and some nice typography for “Theology Pub.” What I came up with is at the top of this post, and I’m really happy with it. It’s bold, colorful, and pretty eye-catching, I think.
Posters around Town: Because I love to design posters, I still do that. Each time so far, we’ve had some folks who come simply because they saw the posters. This that is enough of a reason for me to continue designing them. This was a bit of a learning curve for me, because in Livermore, I made really cool looking 11×17 posters, but when I tried to start putting those up here in Ashland, most businesses told me that they were too large, and that I had to make them smaller, the 8.5×11 size. I spent quite a bit of time on the initial design, but once the template is done, they don’t take me that long to design for each event.
Facebook: I was creating Facebook Events from our church’s Facebook page (fb.com/FirstPresAshland), but since things were going so well with it, I eventually created a Facebook page just for Theology Pub: fb.com/TheologyPubAshland (I couldn’t just use /TheologyPub because that’s what I used for the one in Livermore that I created). It’s always a great way to get the word out. One thing I’ve noticed is that when you tag people in the photo, that will show up in the News Feeds of THEIR friends, who I’m normally not connected with. So we’ve gotten quite a few “Likes” from people who I don’t know and who haven’t ever been to Theology Pub, simply because they see photos of their friends out at one of the events.
Word of mouth: I still talk about it a lot. Especially with non-church folks that I meet around town. If they start asking what I do, Theology Pub is one of the first things I like to tell them about.
I have a similar format to what I used in Livermore. I view myself as the facilitator/host of the conversation that night. And once we have done it a few more times, I’m going to be inviting other folks to serve in that role. I’ve already made contact with a Rabbi who is going to lead a discussion on new ways of understanding God in quantum terms(!), another Rabbi who is new to town and sounds really interested in Theology Pub, and a few other folks and clergy. We have a few folks connected to our church who are professors at Southern Oregon University, and I’m hoping to touch base with them about possibly leading a conversation as well.
I start off by welcoming folks, and depending on the size of our group, I might invite people to quickly go around and share names and what brought them to Theology Pub. Then I go over the handouts. I make handouts each week with information about Theology Pub, contact information for me (and for our Facebook page) and then stuff that will provide fodder for the content of the discussion (you can see some samples below). I’ve added some “ground rules” that I go over each time. They are:
- Everyone’s voice has the right to be heard.
- If your voice is causing others NOT to be heard…take a break and listen.
- There won’t be any “wrap up” in the end, no sense of “this is what you should believe.”
- We gather here together as seekers, all on our own spiritual journeys. Let’s respect that.
Then I’ll give a brief welcome, share for a few minutes about our theme and topic for the night, ask some questions to get us started…and then that’s it!
I think you can do any number of topics at Theology Pub. Here are some that I’ve done in the past: spiritual but not religious folk, church & culture, the Bible’s relevance for life today, rethinking evangelism, pluralism, spiritual disciplines, faith and sexuality, interfaith dialogue, social justice, missional church, what would Jesus buy (money and faith), what the Hell (conversation on Rob Bell’s book) and doubting as faith. The three that we started with in Ashland are below.
We started with pluralism. I figured it’s an interesting topic, and one that seems pretty “safe” to discuss when you don’t really know who’s going to be showing up. We discussed some different definitions of pluralism, talked about exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism. We talked a lot about Diana Eck’s work The Pluralism Project, and had some really wonderful conversation.
I’m not always so concerned if the discussion stays on topic, because often times the conversation will go where it needs to go. So I can’t quite remember all of the conversation from this evening. The handout is here.
July: The Bible
People laughed when I told them our topic was “the Bible” but people had a really good conversation about it. We just started by talking about what people’s perceptions were about the Bible, what metaphors they use to talk about it and how we understand the Bible to speak to our world today.
We also got into interpretation a bit, and I talked about the Presbyterian Church’s “Rule of Love” test for interpreting scripture (if an interpretation sets barriers to love of God and love of humanity, then perhaps the interpretation is wrong). The handout is here.
August: Fear & Othering
This was one of my favorite themes yet. We talked about how “fear” and “othering” were played out in some of our recent current events and tragedies: the Aurora CO shooting, the Chick Fil-A controversy, the shooting at the Sikh Gurdwara and some others. It was really interesting to hear people speak about how they see “othering” happening all around us. We talked about why we, as humans, seem like we need an other to fight against, and we discussed steps we could take to fight against this tendency to other people. The handout is here.
I hope you find this post helpful as you think about starting up your own Theology Pub. Really, it’s been such a great experience here in Ashland. I come home, just jazzed about the conversations that I’ve been having with folks, and the ways it has been reaching out to a new group of folks, not connected to our church.
Do you have any other specific questions about starting up a Theology Pub? I’d love to answer them and talk about it.