There’s much more than beer, wine and mixed drinks flowing at Fred’s Restaurant in Franklin, Virginia.
Along with the suds – and wine and mixed drinks – deep theological and spiritual truths are imbibed during Faith on Draft, a monthly gathering hosted at the popular venue by Franklin Baptist Church and Charles Qualls, senior pastor of the Virginia congregation.
Qualls said the monthly gatherings began in November 2018 to give participants the opportunity to tackle challenging topics free from church confines.
The rules are definitely unlike those most church gatherings would go by. Participants are told Faith on Draft is not a Bible study, that they should expect differing opinions and pay for their own food and beverages.
“All things do not lead back to electoral politics,” is another of the rules. “Not everyone here votes like you do. We won’t discuss electoral politics.”
But topics like the divinity of Christ, the nature of sin and the relationship between faith and science are fair game at the gatherings held the first Thursday night of each month.
Nearly 50 people attend and rarely does anyone leave the same, Qualls said.
“You walk out of there every month knowing you heard something you needed to hear,” he said.
Qualls spoke with Baptist News Global about the event and how it’s impacted his congregation, both inside and outside its four walls. His comments are included here, edited for clarity.
What is Franklin, Virginia like?
It is where white collar meets blue collar. It is a rural town in southeast Virginia. It’s a mill town surrounded by agriculture. About 8,500 people live here. The mill closed for a short period of time then reopened, but the economy here is diversifying.
How would you describe your church?
We are the largest church in town. We’ve always been the white-collar church for the most part, if you will – a wealthier congregation. A lot of the mill owners and executives used to go to our church, and some still do. We are a CBF-affiliated congregation. Our church voted ourselves out of the SBC nearly 20 years ago.
What inspired Faith on Draft?
It was something I was curious about doing when I came here in 2017. These groups are popping up all over the country. But you also have to understand Fred’s Restaurant. It’s like our own “Cheers” where everybody knows your name. It’s a community crossroads, a classic family owned pub opened in 1945. It’s just where the town meets up. And I thought, man, this would be a perfect place where we could experiment outside of the church to have some really interesting conversations. The idea was to make it open to anyone in the community who wanted to come but also to have a neutral setting to get at some of the thornier issues of the day.
Is the group mingled in with other patrons?
No. We meet in Fred’s upstairs space. It’s this quirky space. It’s their event area. A wide-open space. It’s dated and it’s funky. We are able to set up one table to get almost all of us, 40 to 45 people, around it.
What is the format for your gatherings?
It’s one hour. We focus on one topic. I’ll throw out a topic, usually in the form of a question. Whatever the questions, we never know where it’s going to go. We do not use literature. I am not in teaching or facilitation mode. There is no effort to get on same page, but we do have to be respectful of one another.
Has the conversation ever become contentious?
The group culture picked up very quickly on this – how to do this, how to handle it, and so it’s been incredibly respectful. One night a minister from another town, a conservative fundamentalist minister, didn’t understand what he had been invited to. And he really violated a lot of the codes of what we are trying go by and offended a lot of folks. That’s been the only problem we have had.
Has Faith on Draft helped church members in other areas of their faith?
I would say that some of the people who are coming regularly Faith on Draft are participating more freely in Sunday school. I think they are more comfortable hearing themselves talk in a group now. I would have to say the same sort of thing is happening in adult Wednesday night Bible study.
What about the impact on participants who aren’t members of your church?
We do always have several people who are not part of our church – maybe six to seven from the community. We have had two people come to us through Faith on Draft. One of them has joined our church and the other attends weekly but has not joined.
Is the church fully on board with this?
I ran this through an ongoing visioning process focused on a much larger, church-wide picture. This was one of the action plans. When I put it in front of the deacons, I said please, when we come to vote, don’t tell me what I want to hear. If you say yes, I need you to be able step in front of me if the bullets start flying. And it went around the table and it was unanimous. And that’s when one of our oldest deacons said, “Charles you have to do this.”
Did you pitch it as a way to attract new members?
No. I also told the deacons I can’t quantify the results for you and let’s not go into this thinking we are going to evangelize the town. But it is something that speaks for us in public in a new way that tells who we are.
Has the experience taught you anything about being a pastor?
It affects me in a lot of ways. It has affirmed that this is the congregation I thought it was: they are spiritually mature, they love each other, they value relationships over being right, whatever right might be. And you see them in action in a setting like this.
It also shows me some places, theologically and doctrinally, where there is a little meat left on the bone – areas I need to work on with my congregation. I get a little bit of my flavor and my direction from what happens there. I learn a lot.