At times I am invited to speak about The Pub Church. When I lived in Boston, I was part of a church that met in a pub, which is obviously not your typical form of church. So people curious about or interested in forming an alternative church have invited me to speak on the subject. The invitation is usually a request for me to share about how “I” started The Pub Church. Being involved from the start and serving as a lead facilitator, people assume that I was the founder. But the framework of a founder does not at all reflect how pub church began, which was in a much more ad hoc, organic way. I am attempting, then, through this blog, to address the inquiry of the Pub Church’s start while also trying to speak to the underlying assumptions at work about new church starts.
The start of pub church is quite different than what people usually expect. In many ways, those of us who helped start it fumbled our way in and through it. We didn’t set out to start a pub church, or ever imagine that something like that would develop among us, but somehow it did and it surprised us all. And I think this was part of pub church’s magic.
The Pub Church, Boston grew unexpectedly out of its context. It began with three friends venturing to the local pub to eat fish and chips on Fridays and ended in an experience of community that caused someone to reflect, “why can’t church be more like this?”
Context: My spouse and I were new to Boston, having recently moved there for graduate school (2004). A classmate who was from the area invited us to join him at The Crossroads Pub on Friday for its fish and chips special, which he said were the best in town. This immediately became a weekly ritual and over time our weekly Friday gatherings grew. We would invite friends to join us and they in turn would invite others. Soon enough we outgrew our usual little seating nook where five to six of us would sit together (if a bit cozily) and spread out into the other nook doubling our numbers.
It was in that setting that friendships and community began to develop in a way that caused something to ignite. Some of us in the group were students of theology at Boston University, but not everyone there was, nor were they necessarily theologically-inclined or interested in Christianity. Nonetheless, our conversations often touched on theological topics and people’s experiences with church, including their negative and sometimes hurtful and abusive experiences. And the community that was forming at our weekly Friday gatherings prompted us to affirm that our pub gatherings were much more church-like than what many (most?) of us had experienced in actual churches. That is because for many people both inside and outside of church, Christianity has not been Good News.
Experiences with church can be negative, hurtful, and, worse, abusive. We need only turn to the #churchtoo hashtag to read the stories of so many who have experienced abuse at the hands of people who called themselves Christian – or worse, ministers. There is a crisis of loss of trust and confidence in the tradition and its followers. This was certainly true for some of the people who gathered at the Crossroads.
At best, some experienced church as rigid and stifling, a context in which one is not allowed to be oneself but must conform to the expectations imposed from above, and at worse, it was the source of their judgement and condemnation – whether it was for being nonconformist, or gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer, or because when one survived sexual violence, church – the place where patriarchy and language, symbols of redemptive violence prevail – was not the place to talk about such things, a culture that also often extended to one’s household. Church was not Good News, but in the context of this pub, this community and growing group of friends, Good News was embodied and experienced.
Thus, the question that started it all: “Why can’t church be more like this?” It was both a question and a clarion call. It provoked our curiosity and our imagination, and, for some, it provoked for the first time in a long time a serious interest in the possibility of “church.”
To be continued…next: The Pub Church, Boston: Form
Xochitl Alvizo, loves all things feminist, womanist, and mujerista. She often finds herself on the boundary of different social and cultural contexts, and works hard to develop her voice and to hear and encourage the voice of others. Her work is inspired by the conviction that all people are inextricably connected and what we do, down to the smallest thing, matters; it makes a difference for good or for ill. She teaches in the area of Women and Religion, and the Philosophy of Sex, Gender, and Sexuality, at California State University, Northridge.