Losing faith in the pub

23 01 2011

After another Sunday night in the pub pretty much on my own, I am beginning to wonder whether this is an idea that has had its day. Indeed, I wonder whether it ever really had legs.

I’ve persisted with what became known as ‘PUB:FAITH’ for a year now. The idea is that on a Sunday night in a city centre pub I host a conversation for spiritually inclined people who ‘don’t do church’. I start each evening with a ‘skinny ritual’ — a brief, symbolic activity to lead us into ‘spirited conversation’. I usually choose a topic based on the Church of England lectionary, after thinking about the broadly spiritual issues reflected in one of the set readings for each Sunday. My question as I approach the text is, ‘What are the experiences, questions or challenges that non-religious spiritual people might connect with?’

There have been nights when there’s been a good turnout and a good conversation. But in the main, most of the people who’ve come have been people who do ‘do church’. They haven’t all been finding their experience of church to be entirely helpful. And there have been some, even some who have come reasonably frequently, who are not churchgoers or people of acknowledged Christian faith at all. But I am not now, and haven’t been since the outset, making many connections with people who are, in the terrible churchy jargon, ‘unchurched’ or even many who are, as yet, ‘de-churched’.

I value what I’ve been able to share with people who have come, and I’m grateful for those who have supported me by turning up. But if it doesn’t really do what it says in the tin, I’m not sure it’s what I should be doing with my time. Especially if, as now, I am only seeing one person each week and that person is well connected with another nearby church.

I haven’t made as much effort to promote it as perhaps I might. I have advertised — just recently, in fact. I placed an ad in a local publication that goes to 10,000 homes. Nobody came or even made contact as a result. In fact it’s since that ad went out that it’s been the quietest it’s ever been! I haven’t ever done the other thing I’ve vaguely pondered doing — handing out postcards in the Guildhall Square. But even if I had, I would have been likely to reach far fewer people than 10,000. I send out an invitation each week on Facebook. But it’s a sad reflection of just how churchy have been the circles I’ve moved in that overwhelmingly the people I’ve invited are Christians, or even fellow clergy. I guess I just thought that the website and word of mouth might lead people to come along.

Whatever the failings or inadequacies of my marketing strategy, though, in the end I wonder whether it’s just a flawed idea. Are non-religious, but spiritually inclined people really going to want to go to the pub to speak with some vicar bloke they’ve never met before?

I probably wouldn’t, to be honest. And it’s not really about meeting people where they are. It’s still a ‘come to me’ sort of approach, even if the place I’m inviting people to come to is a pub instead of a church.

There have been some good times. And I’ve learnt through the experience. But maybe it is pretty much dead and I just need to put it out of its misery.

Maybe you think I’m being hard on myself. And to be honest I am feeling a little despondent about it. But if this sort of work is going to achieve anything, I need to be really robustly truthful with myself and name my failures. I’m not beating myself up over it. Lesson learned. Move on.

That is itself a substantial challenge. What do I move on to? I’m not talking about moving on from my current post. I mean what do I do instead to meet spiritual questers who are making their journey outside of the Church. Not to show them the error of their ways but to join the conversation and offer some insight from the Christian Tradition. And to open that tradition up to challenge, question and reinterpretation in the light of people’s experience. Real, risky dialogue is what I’m seeking. I’ll share some thoughts about that in the coming days.



6 responses

24 01 2011
Paul Kennedy

Perhaps don’t aim for the un/de churched and they will arrive. Once a month I do a “Pints of View” which is predominantly for those already in church to have a free ranging discussion in an excellent local pub – The Black Boy, Winchester. Once a month, so no real pressure and it can be looked forward to. Also, this churched group have unchurched friends who enjoy the space for reflection. It’s like shouting at the T.V. and getting an answer.

24 01 2011

Maybe Paul. But actually it’s churched people who have been coming and they have brought others but it hasn’t grown substantially. But maybe once a month is more realistic. Trouble is that starting with churched people might make it all too safe, theologically speaking, for anyone without a cognisant Christian faith. Are we really prepared to put our truth/experience claims ‘out there’ or only a bit, and only on our terms… Thanks for the feedback. Good to hear from you. (Don’t think we properly connected while you were still in this Diocese.)

24 01 2011

It’s a tough one and I feel the anguish of where you are cos I can relate to it in what I do here.

certainly monthly may be an option. As you know pub theo is monthly and it certainly seems there is more excitement around this than there is a weekly thing … seems to be ‘fun’ rather than a ‘commitment’.

But … I have the same problem. Most people who come are Christians of varying sorts. They all have questions etc. which many of them feel they cannot thrash out in their own churches … so it seems to be fulfilling a role … just not the role I thought it would be fulfilling.

Real risky dialogue does happen in pub theo … but we tend to start by saying all views are valid and we agree that we won’t all be able to agree with each other … but not sure that’s a help to you

I guess the crux is in what you feel God is saying …. both require a gamble …to continue requires the gamble of pushing on and the stop has the gamble of ‘what next’ as you already have said.

24 01 2011
Nick Cole

I definitely think there is a need for such an environment where people, even those connected to a church, can ask questions that they don’t have opportunity to ask within the confines of the culture they are attracted to.

Although I might be regarded as churched I’m not connected to a local church any more, but have been thinking for a while about coming down to pubfaith. I should be moving house in the next couple of weeks a bit closer to central Pompey, but time is quite pressed at he moment not surprisingly.

I hope you continue pubfaith or something similar as I feel it’s very much needed, and I’m surprised you haven’t had so much interest?

Best wishes

24 01 2011

Thanks Nick. This is a very helpful response. I had resolved not to start anything new in the first six months of 2011 as I try to complete my MA. So I am thinking that maybe continuing with PUB:FAITH once a month is more realistic than either stopping, continuing as is, or trying to start something new. This is what two other people who have left comments are doing. We could see where it goes from there…

24 01 2011
Nick Cole


I’ve recently finished an MSc so know what it’s like! Let me know when the next pubfaith is on and I will make sure it sticks in my calendar!

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