If you can't get them out of the pubs and into church, then take church to the pubs. That's the philosophy of Associate Pastor Adam Walker Cleaveland of Ashland's First Presbyterian Church, who will launch his "Theology Pub" outreach at Northwest Pizza and Pasta, across the street. (Correction: See below.)
Walker Cleaveland, who assumed his post three months ago, snatched the model from British pastors and found it worked well in a previous job in Livermore, Calif., where ale-quaffers seemed more than happy to join informal chats — no sermons — about faith, creation, hell and whether the Bible is really the word of God.
Why the Bible in bars?
"We're reaching out in new and creative ways. We're going where the people are already at," says Walker Cleaveland, 32. "Some people have had bad experiences in churches and don't think it's a safe place. Churches have to rethink the way we do our ministries. I mean, why expect them to leave the pub and go to church?"
The tenor of Theology Pub is decidedly un-churchlike, and Walker Cleaveland won't be saying, "Here's the correct view," he notes.
"If we all leave a little more confused and with a lot of new questions in our minds, then I've done a good job," he says.
The goal, he adds, is a diverse group of participants enjoying a pint and "talking about spirituality and religion and what it means with money, sexuality, faith — and how to be a person of faith in a world where there are many faiths and people who share different core beliefs."
If Theology Pub seems a bit unorthodox, Walker Cleaveland notes, "Jesus met people where they were at and sought them out, and we seek to be a follower of Jesus, who had grace and love and was highly relational."
"He got around," agrees Pastor Constance Wilkerson.
The initial session at Northwest Pizza is at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 19, and has been welcomed by the owners. No money will be collected, nor church attendance invited, says Walker Cleaveland, who sports an earring, tattoo of a Coptic cross and calls himself "a laid-back, West Coast guy, not 'the answer man.' "
"I'm a facilitator, and we're on a journey together. Theology goes down a lot easier with a pint," he says.
Walker Cleaveland is a Washington state native with a degree from Whitworth University and a master's from Princeton Theological Seminary.
First Presbyterian counts itself among Ashland's several "welcoming and affirming" churches, meaning, says Wilkerson, that all are welcome regardless of age, ethnic background, nationality or sexual orientation. The church also offers the meals for the homeless and warm lodging seasonally.
Starting Sunday, June 17, as part of its metamorphosis, the church, at Walker and Siskiyou, will drop its three longtime services — chapel with communion, informal service with band and traditional service in the sanctuary — and shift to just one service as a "beloved community" at 10 a.m., notes Wilkerson. Christian education for all ages will be held at 9 a.m. on Sundays, and fellowship will follow the main service.
"This is a really huge change, one that even the 35 members aged 85 to 96 recognized the need for. They got on board for it," says Wilkerson. "As a beloved community, a term from Martin Luther King, we see the church as a place to foster peace and unity and reflect that out into the world."
Times and places of Theology Pub will be posted on the church's Facebook page, www.facebook.com/firstpresashland.
Correction: Associate Pastor Adam Walker Cleaveland's title and name have been corrected throughout this story.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.