A conversation about today’s most controversial topics is taking place at a downtown Longview brewery. It’s drawing friends and strangers who don’t necessarily see eye to eye and it’s organized by a group of pastors who also don’t necessarily see eye to eye.
Yet it keeps happening, people keep coming and everyone is learning.
“Hard conversations are being had and different points of view are listened to and people come out with a little more understanding than they had before,” said the Rev. Mia Levetan, co-pastor of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church. The 10-member leadership team, along with the owners of Oil Horse Brewery, seek “a little more openness, a little more empathy” among people.
“We don’t want to mislead people into believing what we believe,” Levetan said. They want people to sit together and talk about how to respond to opinions different from their own. Unfollowing and unfriending people on social media or changing churches because of clashing views are wrong responses.
“The right response is to be there anyway,” she said, adding God created people to be different.
For more than a year, Theology on Tap conversations have centered on such topics as the Christian response to income inequality, gun violence and immigration, as well as baptism and Bible interpretation. April’s topic: “Christian Response to Zombies, Bunnies and the Risen Christ.”
“They’ve touched on some really tough topics we don’t necessarily all agree on, but we have a really strong foundation we are all tied to. Trust allows us to keep talking,” said Jack Buttram, co-owner of Oil Horse Brewery. That foundation includes belief in Jesus as the son of God, his institution of baptism and communion, and the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
When Buttram and business partner John Oglesbee opened the brewery, they wanted to offer the community something like Theology on Tap, Buttram said, and the event has yet to have a slow night.
“People talk about stuff that’s hard to talk about in church or anywhere,” he said. The key is to listen without judging. Having grown up in a conservative Christian family, Buttram was curious about other views. He’s found them through Theology on Tap.
“The whole process has broadened my horizons,” he said.
One way the Rev. Mike Skelton judges the ministry’s success is by the number of people from different backgrounds who attend regularly, have a conversation, walk away without ill feelings and then come back. Evenings include socializing, presentation of views about the chosen topic, questions and table conversation. There are table tents and ground rules. Some folks have a beer, some have root beer. Families are welcome.
“You can disagree but you can’t disrespect,” Levetan said.
The Rev. Todd Malone, lead pastor of Fellowship Bible Church, said conversations have built relationships among people from different churches. The initial hope was that people who do not go to church would come and that is happening as well, he said.
Skelton, pastor of Longview Christian Church, said he was especially impressed with the discussion on immigration, which included the human side via a first-person account and showed the church’s presence through humanitarian aid such as housing and food. Thus, a discussion about a politically charged issue offered moments of “beauty and redemption,” he said.
Such results require a sturdy framework that’s built by ministry’s leadership. They meet twice monthly to plan and evaluate each session. They assign panelists, study the topics and set the program, Levetan said. The team acknowledges disagreement among themselves as well as “real and powerful points of view” outside theirs and seeks to represent them, she said.
What happens when the leadership can’t agree?
The TOT Boss decides. TOT Boss is a rotating position. A hat bears the logo, designed by Levetan, of a beer garnished with tater tots. It’s passed on to each session’s TOT Boss. Ultimate veto, however, lies with the Oil Horse owners, Levetan said.
“The amount of trust that (Buttram and Oglesbee) have put in us to create the event is a blessing,” she said, and Theology on Tap will not do anything to jeopardize their business. “Your place, your livelihood.”
The issue of gun control found opinions that were too similar among the clergy leaders so they used role-playing as a way to better comprehend and represent differing views, she said. And when they decided race was an issue they should cover, the conversation turned inward.
“We are all white leading mostly white churches,” Levetan said. Judging themselves thus unqualified to speak comprehensively to the issue, they found someone to educate them: Steve Miller, a black minister and project director and founder of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Truth & Reconciliation Oral History Project. He is collecting stories of everyday racism to be used to help religious leaders of all races understand and address racial trauma and healing. Theology on Tap sessions on race have yet to be scheduled as the pastors continue to learn and plan. Levetan said the issue will likely be presented over several sessions.
Each session requires the pastors to model how to conduct fruitful conversations that include varying viewpoints, said the Rev. Ryan Mails, priest-in-charge at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church. The conversations at the tables depend on it, he said.
“Safety in the conversation is paramount,” Mails said, not just from volatility but other things. At one gathering, an especially large turnout made it hard to hear, he said. Because attendees couldn’t hear well, they said less.
It’s instructive and fun to watch the dynamics of the table discussions, he said. He has learned that connections among individuals at the tables are vital, as is the equilibrium between conversational energy and intimacy.
“They really were listening to each other,” he said of one session. “People were holding space for each other (in the conversation).” In the broader world, things may seem to be falling apart, but every month Theology on Tap bets on the power of thoughtful conversation and discovers “we can do it,” he said.
“People hunger for both sorts of conversation,” Mails said of talks about contemporary culture and church doctrine. They want to talk about climate change and guns but also about the nature of Scripture.
About the zombies and the bunnies, Levetan said, “A Christian Response to Lent” sounded “too churchy.” Yet the team wanted to spotlight the current cultural obsession with people coming back to life evidenced by the popularity of television shows such as “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones,” in which a leading character was brought back from the dead, along with Christ’s resurrection. So goes the challenge of framing the church’s response to the world’s situation a la Theology on Tap.
And so go the conversations at the brewery, conscious that Jesus promised to be present where two or more were gathered in his name and that he asked his followers to “feed my sheep.” In this case, the hunger is for a place to exchange views and to learn, Mails said. Another of Christianity’s crucial lessons, Mails said, is that “we’re given to each other,” adding that forbearance — the absence of anger or snap judgment — is a virtue.
“We act it out on a small scale through Theology on Tap.”