It’s 7PM on a Tuesday in Forest, Virginia, and I pull up to the old fire station that has been redesigned into a small brewery along this quiet road just outside of town. The brewery is closed to the public, but little by little the dark gravel parking lot fills with a few cars of young professionals just getting out of work for the day. As I walk to the back entrance of this building, my hands filled with delicious local pizzas from down the street, it’s more reminiscent of a back alley club or a speakeasy from the olden days, and I, an unassuming pizza delivery boy. However, when I open the door I’m met by a smiling woman and her adorable puppy happy to welcome me back once again. Soon the bar tables will be full with fresh pizzas pies of all toppings and about ten or so young adults catching up over their past weeks with delicious brews in hand by our gracious host excited to share her latest brewery creations.
While this image may seem like yet another night of friendly socializing with young adults at any of the other bars and restaurants around town, or world for that matter, this group is a bit unique. After everyone has grabbed a piece of pie and a drink of their choosing, the conversation becomes a little more focused as we go around the room checking in with one another. One member of the group discusses his troublesome students in the class he teaches. Another person shares about future job prospects. One young woman opens up about the daily stress of her current living situation. These are not just random bits of information for the world to consume, but this time is meant to continue an ongoing dialogue, sharing of individuals’ lives from week to week. While there are newcomers to the group, many in attendance have been here before; weeks, months, and even years now. This is more of a small group than a random collection of individuals.
We share about our lives for about 45 minutes; the time flies by each week. The brewery owners join us in the conversation as well; all of us have developed a relationship and bond over the years. When everyone has had a chance to share, one of the members moves to a special small bag filled with bits of folded up paper. Each piece of paper has a question on it written by one of the members of this group. There are no specific rules to the questions, although they tend to be more ethical or spiritual in nature. One of the young professionals will pick a question from within the bag, read it aloud, and the conversation begins. I jump in just to remind everyone of the ground rules: ‘Remember this is a safe space for all involved. This is not a time to argue or debate theology. We are not here to espouse any one particular doctrine or belief system. Feel free to respond to the question however you deem appropriate, and please respect other’s perspectives as they do as well.’
And just like that, this brewery that was closed just a few minutes ago is now transformed into one of the theological centers of town. Here we move from simply a place where young professionals sit and drink, to what we call ‘Drinks & Discussion’ (playfully called D&D by our Dungeons & Dragons knowledgeable friends). Here everyone is welcome for who they are, regardless of belief, doubts, or questions. Many of us grew up in the Church and may consider ourselves Christian, but many of us are also here for a particular reason. For one reason or another, many of us don’t quite feel comfortable in church on Sunday mornings or in a traditional Sunday School class. Here we know that what we say won’t be held against us. People won’t offer to rebuke us of our sinful ways. People won’t shame us, judge us, or try to fix us. If we were to use a Christian term to describe what goes on here, it’s about ‘Grace’. Here is where we come as we are, and we’re accepted just as we are.
After about 45 more minutes of conversation, questions, and plenty of laughs, I point out that our time has come to a close. It’s now 8:30, ‘and the owners would like to have a life outside of their brewery walls!’ Sometimes we share upcoming events to invite one another to. Other times we may offer prayer requests that people are facing. And just like that, we settle up at the bar, grab a few pieces of pie for the road or lunch the next day, throw the bar stools back on top of the tables, and one by one we head out back to our cars and back home for the night; the old firehouse once again is closed and quiet.
‘Drinks & Discussion’ is nothing particularly special or innovative. We don’t claim to be the first to use a bar setting, pizza, or even alcohol as an attractional tool for ministry. But we have found that this ministry has created a unique space for many who may otherwise not feel welcome within the Church. This is a space for individuals and couples who wish to embark upon the challenging notion of creating community within a modern world that seems to fight against it at times. This is a space for people who may be at a certain point in their life, and this is the place where they need to rest, refuel, and journey along for a time. This is a place where I believe God moves, even if we may have trouble agreeing on how to define God.
It’s my hope and prayer that more and more churches embrace some of the characteristics of Drinks & Discussion. More and more of today’s young people are identifying with those that come to our gatherings. Many have come to understand the Divine in personal terms, yet have trouble going along with the ‘company line’ of denominationalism and church membership. While many within the Church may have objections to things like beer as being a part of such a ministry, I hope that doesn’t overshadow for them the more important work of individuals being welcomed, space and time becoming sacred, and communities being formed.
If you are ever around on a Tuesday night and would like to join in the fun, just send me your pizza topping preference and we’ll see you there! May God continue to move in the most mysterious and life-giving of ways through these young people, and the world around us.