Should We Have Church in the Pub? An interview with Hans Boersma
In early November, NPR ran a story under the headline, "To Stave off Decline, Churches Attract New Members with Beer" We asked Dr. Hans Boersma, professor of theology at Regent College, what he thinks of this recent innovation on "doing church".
Question: Do you think moving church services to a pub is an appropriate way to grow attendance?
HB: Let me start by affirming the very goodness of the created order, including drinking beer. I love going to the pub with people and having a beer together; I’ve even taken to brewing my own lately. I think that’s all good.
I even think that there is a sacramentality, broadly speaking, in everything, so that all celebration is in some way an anticipation, a present participation, in the eternal fellowship that we will have with God. When we have a family get-together I can and ought to genuinely rejoice in that, as some sort of mirroring of and participation in God’s fellowship with us, and God’s eternal inner--Trinitarian fellowship. So, when we go to the pub, that too can be some form of fellowship.
Question: But would you say that fellowship is the same as what we share on Sunday mornings in traditional churches?
HB: Kathryn Tanner recently wrote a book, Christ the Key, which distinguishes between a ‘strong form’ and a ‘weak form’ of participation. These categories allow us to distinguish between “church” which would entail a strong form of participation (because God has called us into fellowship with him through grace, which we celebrate liturgically), and other forms of fellowship, which are a weak participation in God. When I go to the pub that is a weak form of participation. That is not the same as going to church.
Question: So, you think that it’s wrong for these churches to move their services into open pubs?
HB: Well, there is probably a wide range of differences in the way each of these groups “does church” in a pub. At the risk of generalization, yes, I think it’s a very sad phenomenon. Nature and grace should not be separate, but we do need to distinguish them. My worry is that the distinction between nature and grace is completely eradicated by all of this. We’re talking here not just about something abstract or theoretical. This distinction has to do with the way in which we view God, church, tradition and theology.
Question: Why does the form of participation weaken just because we’re in a pub having a drink while engaging in all the same activities – worshiping through song, praying, listening to the word preached, taking Communion?
HB: I think it’s great to go to the pub, to listen to and talk about the Word in a pub, to share with each other and others the good news of Jesus in a pub – all of those things are absolutely wonderful. What is not so wonderful is to do Communion in the pub.
Question: So, it’s the Eucharist you’re hung up on.
HB: The Eucharist is the central act of Christian worship; it is a liturgical act, which ultimately constitutes the Church.
In the liturgy we join the angels and saints in eternal worship of God. That’s not just a horizontal thing, but also a vertical thing; we need to emphasize that vertical relationship we have with God.
Question: Why can’t the angels and saints join us for a drink?
HB: In the liturgy, we do not primarily celebrate a natural bond that we have as fellow human beings. What we do, rather, is allow God to come down to us through his Spirit to convert us, to let his light shine in us, and to become the body of Christ together.
I can’t help but think that the notion that in the liturgy we are joining angels and saints is far from people’s horizons when they “do” pub-church. And I think it has everything to do with ambiance, which is not an indifferent matter, and with the way in which we view beauty, which is not a subjective matter. To take the Eucharist in a pub, therefore, introduces a certain banality—even nothingness itself—into the most sacred things. As a result, I think it deprives us of a sense of God’s holiness. So, my ultimate concern is for the way in which God relates to us.
The church is a “called out” body, an ecclesia. If our primary concern is that we need to be relevant to the culture around us, and if we do that by adapting as much as possible to the culture’s greatest common denominator, it seems to me that we lose our ecclesial distinctiveness and any sense of being “called out”.
Question: Are you concerned, then, that the “pub-church” presents an incoherent theology to those attending because the medium doesn’t fit the content?
HB: In this understanding, “church” is whoever decides to come together to talk about things vaguely Christian, whoever decides to eat bread or maybe French fries – whatever we decide to take – and whatever we decide to drink together. Any sort of Christian distinctiveness disappears if you radically, from the outset, refuse to distinguish nature from the supernatural. Then everything becomes supernatural and, at the same time, everything becomes natural. My concern has to do with the ecclesial vagueness that this “church in a pub” displays.
Question: Would you support an evangelistic outreach conducted in this way if we didn’t call it church and we didn’t take Communion?
HB: Absolutely! That would be great! At the same time, it’s not like we have to wean people into church. I think it’s perfectly fine to have the Divine Liturgy in church and invite a friend to join you without ever having first “massaged” that person at the pub. There’s nothing wrong with singing hymns or evangelizing in the pub – it’s great – but that’s not “doing church.”
Question: What about parts of the world where Christians are not permitted to gather in “churches” but, instead, meet in homes. Why can they participate in the Divine Liturgy in their living room, but disenchanted Christians cannot do the same in a pub?
HB: I don’t mean to suggest in any way that one cannot celebrate the liturgy in any place whatsoever. We can. And throughout history we have celebrated communion together in lots of different kinds of places. It’s not as if we need cathedrals to worship God. However, I do take issue with the dismissive attitudes that comes across in the article toward celebrating the liturgy in church buildings. When, because of persecution, we celebrate communion in the catacombs, we’re suffering. Meeting with God in such environments is incongruous with our understanding of who he is and what we’re doing together in this liturgical celebration.
Question: I think, rightly or wrongly, most North American Christians would probably have more of a problem with combining alcohol with the worship of God, rather than taking Communion in a pub. Can you briefly speak to that concern?
HB: Let me first affirm what’s good in that concern. I do think that we need to be very careful with alcohol. When Christians oppose any and all alcoholic intake, it’s often because it clouds our rational capacities and, as human beings, we’ve been created rational. I’m sympathetic to that argument in that I think an important part of what sets us apart as human beings is our rational souls. Alcohol can do great damage to that, and often does.
But I think there is enough in biblical revelation and in the Christian tradition that would seem to celebrate the joy that comes also through the intake of alcoholic beverages. I just cannot see how, biblically speaking, you can be a complete teetotaler on principled reasons.
I do think that as Christian community we need to be very circumspect with these things, and we’re not always equally circumspect. We need to be circumspect because of our reputation, circumspect because of people who have alcohol addictions – many of whom are in our midst (we shouldn’t give offense to them or lead them into temptation), and circumspect because we ourselves are not beyond falling. There are many valid reasons to be careful with alcohol. But that doesn’t mean that complete abstinence is the only Christian option.
Dr. Hans Boersma is the J.I. Packer professor of Theology at Regent College. Among Hans' main theological interests are Catholic thought, the church fathers, and spiritual interpretation of Scripture. His most recent publication is an e-book entitled Eucharistic Participation: The Reconfiguration of Time and Space.