By Amanda Pine, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
Every Sunday afternoon, I get a chance to head to our local Starbucks for the coffee bean version of “Brewed Theology,” the variety of pub theology where I engage in conversation about faith and enjoy a Triple Grande Non-Fat Iced Caramel Macchiato. While my order is complex, the concept of Brewed Theology is simple: Conversation about stuff that matters. Right here. Right now.
Brewed Theology has been a point of contention for our congregation because one of the two meetings we have per week occurs at a local craft brewery. The traditional United Methodist Church (UMC) centers itself in a history of prohibition support, namely because early UMC-ers recognized the destruction that addiction can cause. The social principles of the United Methodist Church indicate that the church “…supports abstinence from alcohol as a faithful witness to God’s liberating and redeeming love…” When we began Brewed Theology, we focused on the conversational aspect of meeting in a brewery, not the alcohol. Some members of the congregation can not get past the alcohol, and so, we began the coffee house variety of Brewed Theology.
This past Sunday, I found myself alone for Brewed Theology in Starbucks and dived into Keith Anderson’s book The Digital Cathedral. Anderson constructs a beautifully crafted view of a networked world which draws on the traditional architecture of the cathedral. A cathedral, he says, is a networked, relational, incarnational community (7), which mirrors the communities that we live and serve in. The key to cathedral life is relational ministry that creates sacred space out of seemingly profane areas. Ministry leaders and believers must remember the sacredness that exists all around them, and participate in the fullness of cathedral (community) life. Digital spaces, such as social media platforms, are also sacred spaces in which meaningful interactions occur on a regular basis.
John Wiles, one of my favorite members of the congregation I serve, teases me mercilessly about constantly being on my phone. He is an older member of the congregation. A strong man, a pull yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps to keep-on-keepin’-on, sort of guy. He comes off as gruff, but he does not fool me. John is one of the most caring people I know. Which is why, on Mother’s Day, he and his wife came to join me at Brewed Theology at Starbucks. When I was telling him about our new Starbucks version of Brewed Theology, he said: “You are really trying to get people out of the church, aren’t you?” And yet, that afternoon, he came to Starbucks and talked with me about Biblical authority, questioning your faith, and responsible Christian practice.
I wish that I had read the eighth chapter of Anderson’s book so I could have prepared an eloquent response to John’s question. Anderson describes coffeehouses and pubs as third places; areas in the community which are local, conversational, and rooted in the community (130). They are culturally valued but can be distinctly religiously important as well because they may be just the right space to engage in significant ways with “the other.” Such areas foster fellowship in a non-threatening way, which can lead to discipleship. Consistent and intentional presence in places in our community does not draw existing members away from the church, but rather, engages believers more fully in the entirety of the Kingdom.
John, who teases me about my connection to my device, engages in digital platforms almost as much as I do. He is on both Facebook and Twitter and checks those outlets regularly for updates from his large brood of grandchildren, church news, and political happenings. The digital world, while he may not realize it, is a mode of connection for John as it is for a large number of people across our world.
I uploaded the above picture on my personal Instagram account. The Reverend Keith Anderson liked my post and commented on my photo thanking me for reading and wishing me well. In the book, he describes various online interactions which connected him to the people who shared interests with him.
This is how ministry should be done. Whether he knew it or not, that comment on my picture helped me to find the motivation to continue reading when I was burnt out. Offering words of praise, thanksgiving, support, and even lament on digital platforms to connect and encourage those around us is ministry in the digital age. We should engage in holy conversation and practice in third spaces. Ministry can be done in every and any context.
We must be an incarnational people who strive for connection in all things. Thus, my answer to John is: Yes. Yes, I am trying to get people out of the church so that they may fully dwell in the holy space that surrounds them all the time. Will you join me in that pursuit?