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America (, Vol. 196 No. 9, March 12, 2007

Renew-ing Theology on Tap
By Terry Golway

More than a quarter-century ago, the Archdiocese of Chicago embarked on what must have seemed a radical idea at the time: catechetical barhopping. Well, that’s probably a bit too glib and irreverent. But it’s also not far from the truth. The program, after all, was called Theology on Tap, and it brought clergy and lay ministers to the back rooms of taverns and restaurants in an effort to bring the church to young adults who were not exactly regulars at Sunday Mass.

Under the guidance of the Rev. John Cusick and Kate DeVries of Chicago’s Office of Young Adult Ministry, Theology on Tap became a great success and quickly spread across the country, although not in any systematic, organized fashion. Now, however, the program is about to come under the wing of RENEW International, the New Jersey-based Catholic organization that specializes in revitalizing parish life by working with clergy and laity alike. RENEW, founded 27 years ago by Msgr. Tom Kleissler, has spread from the Archdiocese of Newark to six continents, bringing new life and energy to countless parishes and congregations.

It is a perfect fit, really. The genius of Theology on Tap is its unconventional approach to a troubling and undeniable problem—the conspicuous absence from parish life of young people in their 20’s and 30’s. The genius of RENEW is its ability to make a big impact, to bring new energy to parishes suffering from, among other things, a generation gone missing from the pews.

The marriage between the founders of Theology on Tap and RENEW has been in the making for a couple of years. Father Cusick first approached Monsignor Kleissler about organizing a national program in 2003. After months of study and planning, RENEW agreed to take on the new responsibility, and formally launched the new outreach several weeks ago.

Terry Rickard, O.P., a Dominican nun who became RENEW’s director last July, said that while Theology on Tap has been highly successful in reaching its target audience, it also has suffered from a lack of cross-diocese coordination. “What happened is that people saw how successful the program was, so they ordered manuals from Chicago and started programs of their own without training or any kind of coordination,” she said. As a result, some Theology on Tap programs were catering to Catholics in their 40’s and 50’s—not the intended audience. They need something else.

RENEW brings to Theology on Tap years of experience in developing outreach programs and a keen sense of mission. For Sister Terry, the outreach in bars and other informal settings can’t be an end in itself. There has to be follow-up, and the follow-up has to be energetic and attractive. Otherwise, the effort spent on outreach might be wasted.

“We want to get young people fired up,” said Sister Terry. “We already have youth ministers on college campuses around the country. Let’s say these young people go to school, then come back to their home parishes, or look for new parishes when they find jobs after school. If the liturgies are not alive, if they don’t feel welcome, they lose interest. We hear this all the time from young people.”

Following the Chicago model, Sister Terry wants to see Theology on Tap as part of a larger effort to reach out to young people and make them feel more at home, especially as they leave college, find jobs and move to new locations. This is a crucial moment in a young Catholic’s life, and Sister Terry believes parishes have to make a more aggressive effort to let these young adults know that they are welcome.

“If you look at most parishes, most of the lay ministers are 60 and above,” she said. “How do you get people who’ve been doing good work for 30 years or more to be conscious of inviting young people to become more involved in parish life? When they see a young couple in church, do they make a special effort to say hello? That’s what we have to do.”
For Sister Terry and her team at RENEW, Theology on Tap will be part of what she calls “a much bigger process, part of an evangelizing strategy which will offer an opportunity for young people to grapple with real issues and to introduce them to the basics of the faith.”

To begin moving in that direction, RENEW has hired two people who will coordinate the group’s Theology on Tap effort. Another staff member, Deirdre Trabert Malacrea, helped revamp the Theology on Tap Web site to raise the program’s profile, allow coordinators to download promotional material and facilitate discussion groups. “Part of this is about networking, but there is a catechetical aspect to it as well,” she said. “The content on the site is relevant for young Catholics.”

For RENEW, the added responsibility of coordinating Theology on Tap throughout the country is not without risk. “We’re willing to invest in this program,” said Sister Terry, “but it’s not easy. Too often people say they want to reach out to young people, but the amount of resources going into young adult ministries can be pathetic.”

A glance at Europe offers a chilling picture of what could happen here, she said. “It’s time to raise the flag,” she said. “This isn’t just about the future of the church. It’s about the present as well.”

Terry Golway is the curator of the John Kean Center for American History at Kean University in Union, N.J.
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