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In the wintry weeks leading up to the annual celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, handfuls of believers and skeptics huddled in the corner of a local tavern. Over glasses of beer they debated the merits of organized religion.

Every Tuesday for four weeks, agnostics, disillusioned Catholics and a local beer vendor whose job it was to loosen their tongues with a round of liquid courage shared the table with Pastor Dave Frederick, the Oak Park minister behind Theology on Tap.

“My assumption is that the people who come will come from a wide variety of backgrounds,” Frederick said. “Some will be followers of Jesus, and some won’t. Some will be believers in other religions. Some won’t believe in anything at all. It’s all fine.”

Frederick, the pastor at Vineyard Church, drew 10 to 20 people to his informal discussions held at Molly Malone’s on the promise of good beer and a free-ranging discussion on faith. The locally organized meetings shared a title with a similar program sponsored by the Catholic Diocese of Chicago, but the two are not connected.

At each of Frederick’s gathering was a quick presentation from a sales manager for Burke Beverage on Guinness Stout, Sam Adams Ale, Blue Moon Weiss or Fat Tire ale. The sales rep, Kyle Entler, then bought a pint for everyone.

Vineyard sprang for heaping plates of hors d’oeuvres to go along with the brew.

When all had their pints in hand, Frederick delivered a 15 minute opener on some aspect of Christianity. He asked whether the Bible is historically reliable and how Christianity differs from other world religions. He then opened the floor for discussion, and for the next hour and a half the debate meandered between the topic at hand and a whole lot of tangents.

Annette Fallian, a Forest Parker who says she is not religious and doesn’t believe in a god, came because of an ongoing dialogue she has with Frederick and a general interest in the subject.

“I love discussions like these,” Fallian said. “I also think it’s important for people to think about issues like religion and spirituality and question things with an open mind. I also enjoy having discussions with Dave.”

Brian Varner, who described himself as an ex-Catholic who is now a seeker, drove to Molly Malone’s from Chicago after a friend invited him.

“I thought it would be interesting to check it out, and sampling a few beers never sounds like a bad idea,” Varner said.

John Kelty, who lives in River Forest, also came because a friend who attends Vineyard invited him. Kelty characterized himself as a Christian disillusioned by the organized church. Linus Leung, whose daughter is a member of Vineyard, labeled himself an agnostic.

The crowd drawn to Frederick’s informal talk was exactly who the reverend hoped to pull in.

“The appeal for me is that today a lot of people are interested in spiritual things and are very interested in Jesus but have a very negative perception of the church,” Frederick said.

Another of his assumptions is that he can’t “convert” anyone to Christianity, because it’s not within his power as a human being to make someone a believer. Frederick sees his job as providing an opportunity for God to work; a safe environment where people can ask questions without fear of being judged.

“I cannot bring you or any other person into a relationship with Jesus,” Frederick said. “That’s between you and him. What I can do is create an opportunity for people to explore.”

Jesus was much more radical than how he is often portrayed in churches, said Frederick. The disarming environment of a pub table allows him and others to speak frankly, if not coarsely, about some of those attributes that are glossed over in church.

“I think people are turned off by religion that is all about going to church and being nice,” Frederick said. “I think nice is boring. If that’s all there is, it’s not worth giving my life to. That’s where the adventure comes, the ‘something more.'”

Vineyard’s senior pastor trusts respectful dialogue as an opportunity for people to meet Jesus in a spiritual way. In Theology on Tap he tried to play a dual role: to encourage open, honest discussion and at the same time be clear on where he stands as a follower of Jesus.

The people who came with more questions than answers seemed satisfied with the two hours they spent in Molly Malone’s. Some left the sessions feeling reassured.

“I thought the most interesting thing about attending was finding out that there were other people that had the same exact questions as I did,” Varner, the ex-Catholic, said. “It was refreshing to talk about such things in a relaxed environment where people respected each other. Usually beer and religion don’t mix.”

Those who described themselves as regular church goers agreed in many ways with those who were not. Waiken Wong accompanied his father-in-law to the sessions.

“No questions were raised that I haven’t heard before, but I think it’s important to keep pursuing those questions and answers as a way of strengthening, testing and refining our core beliefs,” Wong said.

Likewise, Greg Hedges, who has worshiped at Vineyard for more than three years, said the banter was provocative and validated a few of his own beliefs. It also provided him with an “opportunity to invite friends to connect over something that actually matters.”

At the end of the four sessions, none of the agnostics had become believers and none of the seekers became members of Vineyard.

“I don’t think it changed my mind, but then again that was not exactly my expectation,” Leung said. “I always find it interesting to hear other people’s opinions about religion. It is not a bad way to spend an evening.”