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Theology on Tap: Group engages young adults outside of church

MINOT -- Sometimes, the best place to learn more about religion isn't the local church, but the local pub. Theology on Tap, a new discussion group in Minot helmed by two local pastors, is taking theological discussion out of the church where it m...

Pastors Mike Pancoast of First Lutheran Church, left, and Mike Johnson, of Christ Lutheran Church, share a beer at Buffalo Wings & Rings, May 27, 2010 in Minot, N.D. They have been holding Theology on Tap meetings at Buffalo Wings & Rings on Thursday evenings for the past four weeks. (AP Photo/Minot Daily News, Dan Feldner)

MINOT -- Sometimes, the best place to learn more about religion isn't the local church, but the local pub.

Theology on Tap, a new discussion group in Minot helmed by two local pastors, is taking theological discussion out of the church where it might seem intimidating and unapproachable to some and placing it in a more casual setting that encourages questions and participation.

Theology on Tap was actually created by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago in 1981 and has since spread across other religions all over the country.

Pastors Mike Pancoast of First Lutheran Church and Mike Johnson of Christ Lutheran Church said Theology on Tap was created because it was seen as an ideal way to spread the word of Christ to young adults beyond the walls of the church.

"They wanted a way to engage folk in their 20s and 30s in a setting outside of church, a more natural, casual setting. So,they hit upon the idea of having priests and other speakers come and explain to whoever gathered in a setting with food, drink, much more relaxed than the middle of worship," Johnson said. "And that concept has since been adopted by congregations of many denominations -- Lutherans, Episcipalions, Baptists."


The program is now administered by RENEW International. Although the organization is Catholic, Johnson said they allow any denomination to use the concept.

RENEW International helps discussion groups using the Theology on Tap format by offering a variety of resources that can be used to help set up and direct the weekly meetings.

"We had a pretty clear vision of what we wanted to do with this even before we got hooked up with the RENEW group," Pancoast said. "Which, I don't know if you'd call it serendipity necessarily -- what they were suggesting to us in large part was also what we sort of already had in mind to begin with in terms of creating an atmosphere that was relaxed, that was casual, that was relational."

Every week, a specific topic concerning the basics of Christianity is covered. God, Jesus, sin, the Bible, church, sacraments and worship are all covered over the course of Theology on Tap's 12-week run.

While the sessions will give the pastors a chance to speak about Christianity to those who attend, it will also give the young adults the opportunity to ask any specific questions they might have about what the pastors have said. Pancoast said the three most important rules for the sessions are that people ask questions, ask questions and ask questions.

"We have a series of topics in which we are talking about the foundational bedrock of Christianity and Christian faith. And we come prepared to speak about, and to explain, and to defend those basic ideas of Christianity," Pancoast said. "But at the same time, more importantly even than whatever sort of knowledge or data that we would wish to impart was an invitation, an opportunity for folks who are in their 20s and 30s to simply come and ask questions."

While people are invited to ask questions specific to the topic at hand right away, they will also think of more general questions that might not relate to the current topic. For those, a can sits at the table during each session, and people are invited to write their questions on a blank card and drop it in.

"Our pledge has been, as we do the preparation for our topics, that as we go through the questions from week to week if there's a question that is particularly relevant and pertinent to the topic that we're going to be presenting, we'll take that question within the course of our presentation," Pancoast said. "We've also built into the schedule at least one, and looking like we'll probably need to do at least one other, of more of an open mic 'all skate,' where we'll just take the questions that have been submitted and just sort of go one at a time and just address those questions as we're able."


The first session of Theology on Tap started May 6, and sessions will be held every Thursday through July 22 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Buffalo Wings & Rings by Dakota Square Mall.

The pastors will use these first 12 weeks to lay the foundation of their faith down for the group because complex questions about Christianity and God can't be answered without a firm grasp of the basics.

"It's certainly not possible to impart the depths of the Christian faith in 12 weeks, and we don't even pretend like that's what's going to happen. It would be interesting to see when we get to the end of July, what direction this group wants to go," Pancoast said. "I think our hope, our prayer would be that the conversation would continue, and maybe we would take a little break for the rest of the summer and reconvene again in the fall."

"Our goal for these first 12 weeks is really to lay a foundation because you have to begin somewhere," Johnson added. "You can't just plow in the deep questions without knowing the basics."

While these first sessions lay the basic groundwork for what is to come, they are designed to not penalize anyone who can't make it every time. A brief refresher of the previous week is always done at each session and both pastors understand that life happens, and they have provided a list of topics to be discussed during the first 12 weeks, so people can pick and choose which ones they want to attend.

Even though the group is aimed at young adults ages 21 to 39, Johnson and Pancoast won't be checking IDs and welcomes anyone who wants to learn more about Christianity.

"Beyond that age bracket we're not discriminating at all. In fact all the varied experiences really sort of contribute to the richness of the conversation," Pancoast said.

While people who go to church regularly are invited to come and ask any questions they have, Johnson said it's those who seldom or never visit church they believe could really benefit from the group.


"We're hoping to draw just about anybody. People who are going to church but have questions, we want them to come and ask those questions because they can't do it in the middle of worship. If there are people who had been going to church as kids but aren't now, they're free to come too and ask questions," Johnson said. "There are people who have never stepped inside a church, we'd really like them to come and ask their questions about Christianity and what it is Christians believe."

The ultimate goal for Theology on Tap is to not only answer questions about the Christian religion, but to bring new people to the church. Pancoast and Johnson would of course love to have new worshippers join their congregations, but if someone decides to join a different church, the two pastors would still consider that a great success.

"Our calling, the point and purpose of who we are as people and as workers is to bring people to faith. And the highest expression of that faith in some sense is worship. And we've been very clear with the group to say that that's our intent, that's our target, but that we are not necessarily recruiters for our individual congregations," Pancoast said. "Which isn't to say that we don't want folks to come to First Lutheran or Christ Lutheran, preferably First Lutheran."

"Preferably Christ Lutheran," Johnson replied with a smile.

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