Father John Cusick has a simple explanation for the success of Theology on Tap over the past quarter-century: "What else is there?"
Decades ago, he noted, young adults were the backbone of Catholic parish life. But as Americans began to live longer, they stayed involved in ministries even as seniors -- so the young adults who once took over for them were not pulled into parish activities. Instead, as Catholics entered their 20s and 30s, they began to drift away from the church.
Theology on Tap is attempting to bring them back. Begun 25 years ago in the Archdiocese of Chicago, where Father Cusick is director of young adult ministry, Theology on Tap is a speaker series targeting 20- and 30-somethings, both married and single.
It has grown in popularity over the years and has inspired others to initiate similar speaker series; organizers even copywrited the name to ensure that dioceses who use the program keep to its goals.
Kate De Vries, the Archdiocese's associate director for young adult ministry, called Theology on Tap a catechetical tool. Topics for the speaker sessions, held in parishes in the Archdiocese, are drawn from the General Directory for Catechesis. They range from the nature of God to what it means to "be Church."
"There's a horrible stereotype that the church is for losers, weirdos and Bible-beaters," Ms. De Vries stated. Theology on Tap, she said, lets participants know "the church is for people like me, [who are] asking questions and struggling with issues."
Dioceses in approximately 44 U.S. states and a half-dozen other countries now offer Theology on Tap. Some dioceses vary the format; in Atlanta and other dioceses, for example, speakers address audiences in restaurants or bars. Many dioceses hold monthly sessions at one site, while the Chicago Archdiocese offers talks at many parishes, but only during the summer.
In Albany, NY, Theology on Tap sessions have explored subjects like silence in prayer and "being a Christian couple." Father Cusick said the topic most crucial to the young adults he meets is relationships.
"It's really hard to find somebody today," he noted.
Ms. De Vries said the theme of relationships is an undercurrent in many talks, from those on sexuality to explorations of the "Our Father." Other well-attended sessions discuss work or spirituality.
Theology on Tap attracts both young adults involved in parish life and those who "have not set foot in a church in years," she said.
"Some people use Theology on Tap as a way to test out what they've heard about the Catholic Church, a way to come back," she explained. "Once they see that the church does care for them, some come back – and some is a whole lot better than none."
Father Cusick believes the key to drawing young adults back to the church is to emulate "Jesus' method of organizing: direct, personal invitation."
Only a small percentage of young adults who find Theology on Tap do so through a bulletin or pulpit announcement, he said; the majority are invited by an organizer or friend. That outreach is so crucial that the Chicago Archdiocese has prepared a 100-page manual for other dioceses on how to do Theology on Tap effectively.
Over the past 25 years, Father Cusick estimated that tens of thousands of young adults have attended Theology on Tap. Many tend to be "Catholic but not parochial," he said, and have a poor understanding of church traditions.
"We hear a lot about spiritual hunger," he remarked. "People are having a restless experience in everyday life. You put on a Theology on Tap program, and they're there."
Father Cusick said he often sees young adults who attend Theology on Tap become or stay connected to parishes. Ms. De Vries added that many attendees meet and marry because of Theology on Tap.
One couple, she said, met at a session one year and became engaged at one the next. Another couple told her, "Fourteen years ago, we met at Theology on Tap; now, we have three beautiful children."
As Theology on Tap celebrates its 25th anniversary, the Chicago Archdiocese is planning a conference in October, gathering those who host the program across the United States to discuss how it works best.
Father Cusick said that the world changes too fast for him to predict the future of Theology on Tap.
"All I know is, it's still going," he said. "This has become a niche in the Catholic Church for young adults. I'm very proud of it."
Editors: To learn more about Theology on Tap contact www.yamchicago.org.)