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Yesterday I heard a story about an English Bishop who, over the course of last year, walked around his diocese visiting all the churches as well as all the pubs. After the year was over the bishop published the results of his year-long research project in one simple, yet very telling sentence:
When I went to the churches, they wanted to talk to me about church.
When I went to the pubs, they wanted to talk to me about God.
As I was listening to this story of the Bishop in England, I thought about another story I just heard a few days ago on NPR - a story about some pubs here in America. There seems to be a growing phenomenon popping up in various parts of the country. People are gathering together in local "watering holes" to drink a glass of craft beer, have a slice of pizza, sing hymns, share their life stories and take communion.
A sign outside one of the local pubs read: "Beer and Hymns Tonight" and the place was packed, mostly filled with younger people, certainly with non traditional church-goers, probably with people who have never (or rarely) been inside a church.
I was driving my car when I first heard this story and only half-listening to the radio. Suddenly there was the sound of hymn singing. The hymn being sung was very familiar to me, but the intensity and passion of the singing was astounding -the heartfelt harmonies, the sound of joyful exuberance. I have rarely if ever heard hymns sung like that before.
I listened with great interest to that story about "Beer and Hymns." Various folks were interviewed, expressing their joy at finding a community of people with whom they could relate at a deeper spiritual level. Many talked about the exhilaration they experienced by singing together (after all, singing together rarely happens in the ordinary life of everyday society).
One young man said that he just happened to walk into the pub and wandered into the group. He said that he took communion for the first time in his life that evening. "It was good," he said, "I'm coming back."
The story about "Beer and Hymns" convinced me once again that every human being has a spiritual nature. As one scientist put it, "we are all wired for God," (in whatever way "God" is defined).
The spiritual nature of the human condition can be fed in many ways. Some people go to a church or a mosque or a temple; and this feeds them. While for others, a pub becomes holy ground.
As I see it, if the religious institution of bygone days no longer fills the spiritual needs of a growing number of people, I am very grateful for those pubs where people gather together to "talk about God," sing hymns, have a beer and slice of pizza, and take communion.
Back in the 1st and 2nd centuries, at the dawn of Christianity, there were no churches - no dogma, doctrine or formalized ritual. The first "Followers of Jesus" gathered together in their homes or maybe even in the pubs of those days. They shared a meal together, enjoyed each other's company, and told their stories of life and faith. They sang hymns and took communion, and then they went out into the world to live as Jesus' taught -doing their best to be people of compassion building a just society.
Back in the earliest days of Christianity, the first "Followers of Jesus" didn't gather together to talk about church. They gathered to talk about God.
As the established religion of our own day steadily declines, maybe churches need to adopt a new motto:
Go boldly into the 1st century!
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