By Chuck Raasch, USA TODAY
Every Monday night, Uncle Charlie's bar in Cheyenne, Wyo., hosts "Bibles and Beer," a discussion that routinely pulls in people of all faiths — and an atheist.
As many as 45 people have shown up, some toting Bibles. Some might have a drink; others stick to water. Some talk; others mostly listen. There are only a few ground rules: Avoid debate and stick to the text to be discussed that week.
"There really is not a focus on drinking," insists Rodger McDaniel, a Presbyterian minister who organized the weekly gathering more than a year ago. "But at the same time, it is a much more relaxed atmosphere than in a church basement. If I put this on in my church, I don't think we would have five or six people.
Across the country, faith is becoming bar talk. The trend combines the traditional religious charge to go where the people are with the reality that a lot of them are in bars. Organizers include those from mainline churches, those building churches and bar owners and brewers. Some are trying to push the model nationally, taking an ageless yearning for meaning and purpose to places where people often go to try to wash their worries away.
"It is good to bring the Word to wherever God is, and God is everywhere, and people are everywhere, too," says Joe Beene, owner of the Drunk Monkey Tavern in the Tulsa suburb of Glenpool. Last year, Beene began live streaming Sunday morning services from Tulsa's Celebration Church into his bar. "The people who come in here on Sunday mornings are people who want to hear the Word but won't go to church."
He got his idea, he says, from a San Jose minister who preaches in bars. Beene says six to eight people regularly listen and accept his free Sunday brunch, and he is talking to other bar owners to see if they'll stream the broadcast.
"I see a lot of people that come in here (with) issues, and they are trying to solve those issues or kill the pain with alcohol, which certainly works short term but not so much long term," Beene says. "I feel they need to hear what I have been hearing in this church."
The mixture of spirit and spirits is not entirely new. Catholics have sponsored "Theology on Tap" gatherings in bars for years.
"It is primarily an outreach to young Catholics and those interested in the faith, but others do attend," says Michael Donohue, director of communication for the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, Va., which began "Theology on Tap" meetings aimed at young people in 2001. Semi-regular gatherings attract 150-250 people to Pat Troy's Ireland's Own in nearby Alexandria and 100 to the Blue & Gray Brewing Co. in Fredericksburg, Va.
Last year in Raleigh, N.C., Cynthia and A.J. Viola began organizing "Beer and a Bible" at Tir Na Nog Irish Pub. They got the idea from friends in New Mexico doing something similar. About 15-25 people gather for Bible study the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month, which coincide with "pint night."
"We have people who were born with a Bible in their hands and people who want nothing to do with church," A.J. Viola says. Regular attendees include a "non-practicing Muslim" and a self-described atheist who comes to support his churchgoing wife.
The Violas are professional wedding photographers and ministers who have started their own church in Raleigh. She is an ex-bartender, and he professes to being both "a big fan of the Bible and also a big fan of beer."
"There is this kind of desire to know a little bit more about Jesus," A.J. Viola says. "Whether you are a fan of church or not, or wherever you are spiritually, Jesus was a cool guy, right? He did a lot of good things."
He said the regulars know that some people struggle with alcohol, but the session is held to an hour, and "the whole point is conversation — it allows people to engage in a spiritual conversation we are longing to have."
In Richmond, Ind., three separate church-related groups gather regularly at the J&J Brewery and Big Dog Brewhaus, co-owner Mike Miller says. He says people are looking for places to have faith discussions in more relaxed social settings.
In Cheyenne, McDaniel's group began last year with Genesis and has just worked its way through Exodus. He says he has been surprised and pleased that people of all faiths have become regular attendees, and that broad mixture has broadened discussions.
As an example, he says he recently told the group he'd like to skip a section of Exodus on God's instructions in tabernacle-building, a passage he says Christians often see as "intense and boring." Regular Jewish attendees told him, "Oh, no, you want to go through that." What followed, he says, was "this incredible discussion" about whether houses of worship should be functional and sparse, or ornate and inspiring.
One of the Jewish attendees, Jason Bloomberg, says he would not have automatically thought of a bar for a Bible study, but he says the "genius of Rodger's choice is that you can reach out to people not comfortable in a typical faith setting."
"My theory is based on a very old Jewish saying: 'Where do you find God? Where you let God in,' " Bloomberg says.
One regular Uncle Charlie's attendee is Ed Glaser, a retired telephone company employee and atheist. He says he does not come for the beer but to understand how religion affects politics.
"This group of people, I think, are looking at trying to have understanding and have common ground," Glaser says. "I think this group of people is very tolerant of different perspectives."
Mohamed Salih, a retired junior college dean and leader in the Southeast Wyoming Islamic Center, attends almost every week, and he often draws parallels between the Quran and the Bible.
"I strongly believe in interfaith dialogue, and discussion and conversation is how we are going to come together as Americans and people of different faiths," he says.
McDaniel says he got questions in the beginning from people concerned about associating alcohol with the Bible. His answer: "Jesus didn't change wine into water."