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Beer and the Bible

Needle's Eye Ministry is looking to attract spiritual "seekers" to its controversial new series.

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This is a meeting for Spiritual Shots, an after-hours pizza, beer and soul party of sorts that conducted its last meetings of 2002 in November. (The group resumes Jan. 21.) It attracts people like 22-year-old Neal, who says that the speakers who headline the nights offer "good spiritual advice you can apply to your life ... and it's free food."

And don't forget about the beer. Using Bottoms Up as the venue makes what would be a normal fellowship meeting quite different. Judson E. "Buddy" Childress Jr., executive director of the nondenominational Christian organization Needle's Eye Ministries, hopes the setting of a bar helps attract young professionals to the Christian faith. It's an enterprising approach, enough even to be a little controversial among the more conservative-minded of Childress' associates.

"Buddy is really sticking his neck out to do this," says Brad Wells, a local concert promoter who helps get the word out about Shots. "He's got a lot of conservative people behind him," people who get angry, Wells says, when Childress brings people together with alcohol under a Christian banner.

Childress lightheartedly demurs when I ask him after the meeting to talk about the group. He says he's not the best spokesman for a group directed at the young and points around the room, jokingly asking if anyone else has the same color hair as he does. They don't. Childress, 59, defers to Dan Kleinschuster, one of the younger organizers who refer to themselves as the "steering committee," to answer questions about Spiritual Shots and the arguably unfulfilling discussion led that night by David Dwight.

Dwight addressed himself with the title Doctor (he received his doctor of ministry in Christian leadership from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary). His talk was "Seeking Sexual Intimacy? — A discussion about the search for human intimacy, the nature of sexuality and questions of sexual identity." As complex as that title sounds, Dwight covered it in less than 30 minutes, and his point was essentially that the purpose, or at least God's purpose, for sexual intimacy is marriage between a man and woman for the production of healthy offspring. This is not necessarily a revelatory or controversial idea among Christians, and Dwight merely breezed over "the nature of sexuality and questions of sexual identity" during the question-and-answer session.

Kleinschuster explains that the meetings are supposed to attract those people who are not going to church but are interested in the faith, people he refers to as "seekers." The goal for Spiritual Shots, Kleinschuster says, is not to scare off the audience, but leave them wanting more. "There's truth and there's not truth," he says, "and I can give you a little truth, and you can mull it around. But if I try to give you the whole truth, it might overwhelm you and you won't want to come back."

As simple as Dwight's message was, however, to him it was the whole truth. "My thoughts are based on what informs me," Dwight said at the beginning of his lecture, "which is mainly biblical ideas." Seekers or not, most in the audience were listening attentively, nodding in agreement and asking fairly complacent questions at the end.

But it was standing room only, and Spiritual Shots is not lacking for attendance. A similar group called Theology on Tap is the model. Childress says the innovative Catholic organization was started 20 years ago in Chicago, and he got excited about their idea when he read about it a year ago in a Times-Dispatch article. Although "a few individuals have stopped supporting [Needle's Eye]" because of Shots, Childress says, he believes it's important to attract young people to the unusual setting. "I think the younger generation today can be found in a certain place, and we have to go to where they are. In the most part, regardless of age, you want to meet them on their own turf and I think it's easier for young professionals to come to a tavern-type atmosphere."

Other lectures at Spiritual Shots have ranged from "The Reasonableness of Faith" to "A Post 9/11 Discussion of Islam." The talks, in general, seem to cover current affairs and personal stories, topics that could just as easily be found within a secular lecture group. Childress believes his organization provides the missing element.

"All that could be exhilarating but still empty," he says. "Life's answers come when we understand who it is that made us and why. ... What we are about is trying to present answers to that question from God's perspective, hopefully in a way that is open and comfortable to a person who is starting that search."

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