What do local microbrew beer and young adult ministry have to do with one another? Everything. About a year ago, I gathered several graduate students together to dream about a new Presbyterian graduate student ministry at Duke. They had each expressed a yearning for community, a desire for theological conversation, and a need for safe space outside their particular field of study (i.e., no one will give a grade for attendance or the quality of participation). When I asked them what they would like to see in a graduate student ministry, the response went something like this: “We like beer. We like theology. Mix and voila.” The goal was simple: provide a space for rich and deep conversation about overtly and covertly theological topics and “be church” together outside the walls of a church on a Sunday morning. With that, our local version of “theology on tap” (phrase used courtesy of the Catholics) was born.
I imagined a stable gathering of a small group of Presbyterian students who would grow together as we discussed, debated, and mused about issues of theology, culture, faith and life. What emerged was something completely different.
On any given week, five or twenty-five people may show up; thankfully, I have yet to drink alone. Some find us from the e-mail listserv we built of self-identified Presbyterians, but most attend because of a random poster on campus, a grad student email, the bar’s online calendar, or good ol’ word of mouth. Individuals emerge from biophysics and environmental engineering labs, religion PhD classrooms, the hospital, the law school, and, yes, the divinity school to drink a beer, eat a few snacks, and talk about something of substance.
The Presbyterian divinity students help pick the topics and drive the ship, but the hunger for theological conversation extends far beyond denominational lines. We have welcomed Catholics and converts, evangelicals and Episcopalians, theists and the theologically curious. And we get our occasional unsuspecting barfly who’s just itching for a good Tuesday happy hour conversation.
We invite new participants to leave their contact information. We know some will come back often, many will return as their busy schedules allow, and some never. In a year of weekly gatherings, we have never once had the exact same group of people gathered twice. It’s holy, it’s messy, it’s unpredictable, and it’s awesome.
I regularly get asked, “How many ‘members’ do you have in your campus ministry?” In truth, I have no idea how to answer that question. Do you want average attendance or individual encounters? Would you like to know the total “regular” participants or the number on our email list?
What is behind that question is a desire to define and highlight successful ministries. I understand the desire for measurable metrics to determine the success of a ministry. The church has for years taken its cues from the business world where quantity, productivity, growth rates, and income are important metrics, and I will not deny that those statistics tell us something about the impact of a ministry. The pragmatic part of me knows that those metrics carry some value, and so I fulfill my obligations and fill out the requested statistical reports each year.
But size isn’t everything, and thankfully, the Gospel narratives are precisely that—narrative. The Gospels would be really boring if they only offered an account of the disciples’ weekly purse and the number of hands Jesus shook or the number of people he fed, healed, or preached to on a given day. The power of the gospel rests in the ability to share the way God was (and is) redeeming the world and individual lives through Jesus Christ. So we have to get better at sharing the story behind the numbers, where the holy, Spirit-filled ministry occurs. Perhaps we need new metrics for reporting, but I wonder if what we really need are better forums for sharing where God is at work in our lives and ministries.
Tell me: which of these two reports would you rather receive at your next Presbytery meeting?
Report #1: Statistical
Date: July 23, 2013
Number added to mailing list: 6
Cost for event: $12 (two bags of chips, fresh fruit, and three color copies of a poster)
Report #2: Narrative
Fourteen young adults gathered around a picnic table at a local pub discussing an article from the Atlantic on meaning vs. happiness. As we snacked on fresh cherries, pretzels, and a cold microbrew, we wrestled with questions about whether suffering could bear meaning, where God is in the midst of hardship, and how the emotion of happiness relates to the Christian understanding of joy. Personal experiences of loneliness, job loss, marriage, and identity intersected with theological questions about atonement, reconciliation, theodicy, and providence. The humidity at the bar—or perhaps the Holy Spirit—seemed to hold up our questions and musings in a way that created space for the next observation to emerge and for us to be bound together, ever so briefly, in something holy beyond ourselves. Just as Jacob encountered God in the wilderness and declared, “Surely God is present in this place,” surely God was present in that wilderness place for ministry, where pretzels were broken and beer was shared.
KATIE Owen serves as the Presbyterian Campus Minister at Duke University in Durham, NC. Katie is a graduate of Duke University (2006) and Columbia Theological Seminary (MDiv 2011). She has a passion for preaching, creative worship, teaching, and working with college students. In her spare time, she enjoys singing, baking cookies, reading novels, and watching college basketball (Go Blue Devils!). She originally hails from Topeka, KS, has never met Dorothy, but has seen a tornado. You can read more about Duke PCM here.