'Theology on Tap' impacts students in Australia

How do you persuade 400-plus young Catholics to listen to a talk on theology?  

Moreover, how do you continue doing that year after year, with numbers frequently swelling to almost 1,000? 

You won’t find the answers in the United States. Rather, you’ll have to head down under to Sydney, Australia. There, you’ll find the most successful Theology on Tap program in the world.

Building momentum

The Sydney version of TOT was first launched in 2007 by then-college student and now-aid to Parramatta Bishop Anthony Fisher, Patrick Langrell. 

While perusing the Web, Langrell stumbled across an audio file of a talk given by Archbishop Charles Chaput at a Denver TOT event. He was skeptical, but he gave it a listen. Five minutes in, he was sold. 

“Right away, I thought, ‘Heck, I want to book a flight now to Denver and experience this,’” he recalled. “Then I thought, ‘It’ll be cheaper if I just start one here.’” 

And he did. Using the basic model that’s been in place in the United States since the Archdiocese of Chicago launched TOT in 1981, Langrell found a local bar to play host, lined up a speaker and began inviting friends to come out, have a drink and hear a talk. 

Seventy people showed up that first night. The next month, there were even more. The month after that, more still. It didn’t take long before the crowd outgrew the space, so they found a bigger pub, then a bigger one. Now, the monthly TOT events take place in a large hotel bar with two levels and three sections of seating to accommodate the crowds, which routinely surpass 500. 

The numbers themselves are remarkable. Even in the largest U.S. dioceses, it’s unusual to attract crowds that size. TOT Manhattan typically draws 75 to 100 people. In Arlington, Va., 150 is about average, with the occasional event attracting close to 300. But 1,000? Never.

A group effort

Success, however, is about more than just numbers. It’s also about the fidelity and quality of catechesis taking place. And there, TOT Sydney scores high marks as well. 

While most U.S. programs draw their speakers from pools of local Catholics — priests, religious and diocesan employees — where the quality of presentations can vary, Sydney regularly features experienced, “big name” Catholic speakers, authors and performers. To name a few from the recent past: George Weigel, Archbishop Raymond Burke, Matt Maher, Jason Evert and Abby Johnson. 

Jessica Langrell, the current program coordinator, said they’re able to bring in such big names despite their small budget because of the help of the Archdiocese of Sydney and its smaller neighbor, the Diocese of Parramatta. Ultimately, the real measure of success is the faith strengthened and the lives changed by the event.  

Alison Marie Collet, who has attended the events since 2008, explained, “At times, you can feel alone, especially at parishes where the youth aren’t on fire with the Spirit. Going to TOT gives me a sense of ‘You aren’t alone.’ I know that there are other like-minded young adults out there, who are all working toward what I am — heaven.” 

Patrick Madrid, author and director of the Envoy Institute, thinks there’s more to the event’s success, however, than just the quality of the evenings. When he spoke at TOT in Sydney last spring, he was impressed by the strong support the group received from the dioceses of Sydney and Parramatta, as well as the organizational and promotional skills of the coordinators. 

“They were serious, driven, systematic, set impressive goals and used all available means of social communication to publicize the event,” he said. “I’ve seen glimpses of that in a few U.S. dioceses, but nothing so well-coordinated.” 

Judging by the way events for young Catholics have multiplied in Sydney and beyond since World Youth Day in 2008 — other TOTs around the country draw hundreds of young people and active youth groups in Parramatta jumped from 20 to 90 — that future is not only fast approaching, it’s also a future filled with passion. 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.