Theology on Tap started with an idea in 1981 that parishes should do something to make young adult Catholics feel more welcome and more connected to their faith.
Now, 30 years later, the program has blossomed, reaching into parishes and dioceses across the United States and some countries overseas.
Individual programs have adapted to meet the needs of their own communities; participants in Atlanta might enjoy quesadillas and chicken wings while listening to a speaker at Manuel’s Tavern, young adults at St. Barnabas Parish in Chicago gather in wicker chairs and enjoy a beer or glass of wine with their discussion.
The Archdiocese of Chicago, where Theology on Tap was founded, now has programs in some 40 parishes. According to Renew International, which coordinates Theology on Tap outside the Chicago area, programs exist in close to 300 other sites.
Kate DeVries, associate director of Young Adult Ministries in Chicago, spent the days of early June putting the finishing touches on this year’s programs, which will start the week of July 10.
DeVries has been involved with Theology on Tap since the late 1980s, only a few years after it started.
The first Theology on Tap was the brainchild of Father Jack Wall, then at St. James Parish in Arlington Heights, Ill. He visited some young parishioners at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, treating them to a meal and asking them about college and their faith.
The students enjoyed it so much, DeVries said, they asked if the parish could do something similar when they were home over the summer, so Father Wall, now the president of Catholic Extension, organized an event with a speaker.
“That first event had 200 people come,” DeVries said. “The second one had 400.”
One of the speakers that first year was Father John Cusick, who is now the director of Young Adult Ministries in Chicago and who has fostered the growth of Theology on Tap.
Theology on Tap is successful, DeVries said, because it caters to a specific audience — young adults ages 20-39 — and tries to make them feel welcome, addressing their questions about faith and its role in their lives and encouraging them to connect with one another.
That’s one reason the logo includes a beer keg and the gatherings generally offer beer and wine, in addition to soda and water. Although no one comes to Theology on Tap to get drunk, the presence of alcohol sends a message that the gatherings are not for kids. The refreshments also encourage a more social atmosphere, especially after the speakers have finished their presentations.
“It simply allows for a more adult kind of experience,” said Sister Patricia Thomas of Renew International.
Renew, a Newark, N.J.-based ministry organization that seeks to foster spiritual renewal in Catholic communities, got involved in Theology on Tap in 2003, when more and more parishes and dioceses outside of the Chicago area wanted to hold their own sessions and it got too unwieldy for the Chicago Young Adult Ministry Office to organize.
While the Archdiocese of Chicago still holds the trademark and organizes its own events, Renew administers the trademark for other areas, providing resources and information to parishes and dioceses as well helping different Theology on Tap sites network among themselves.
Meeting where they are
Most programs choose to hold their sessions in public venues such as bars or restaurants, Sister Patricia said, because that might be perceived as more welcoming to young people who don’t necessarily belong to a parish.
“It’s the sense of literally and figuratively meeting them where they are,” said Deirdre Trabert Malacrea, Renew’s director of communications and marketing. “It’s a low barrier of entry, and it’s a way for people who are less attached to the formal Church to get involved.”
Some sites offer sessions once a month all year long, others do it once a week for shorter period. For the last three years, the Archdiocese of Atlanta has offered the “Summer Six-Pack,” six weekly sessions in restaurants. For many years, the Archdiocese of Chicago has offered four weekly sessions in the summer at all of its sites.
Because young adults might not have received adequate catechesis or formation as children, DeVries said, Theology on Tap generally offers the basics the first year it is at specific sites.
After the first year, the topics expand and aim to help participants understand their faith and their role in the Church.
“We’ve always done talks on ‘Who is God?’ and ‘What does it mean to be a young adult of faith?’” DeVries said. “And how to develop healthy relationships. Relationships are the No. 1 issue for young adults.”
Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.