A group of Boston University theology students were gathered at the Crossroads Irish Pub for their usual fish and chips last year when, caught up in theological discussion, someone suddenly asked: Why can't church be more like this?
It was one of those wild propositions typically forgotten by morning. Except they followed through, designing a new kind of church to capture the authenticity they had felt. They welcome all to their services, but with a friendly word of advice: "Feel free to bring your own shot glass for communion."
They're not kidding.
This is the Pub Church: a weekly service held in a pub. Since April, the group has met every Saturday at 5 p.m. to celebrate the divine in a dive, welcoming Christians and non-Christians alike in a setting where notions of God flow as freely as the beer.
"With pubs in particular, people feel they can come as themselves. You don't have to be or dress any particular way," said Xochitl Alvizo, 35, one of the church's founders. "We're affirming the potential sacredness of any place."
For last weekend's service, that place was the back room of the Dugout, a college bar tucked below street level on Commonwealth Avenue. Amid dartboard and pool table, a harpist plucked a celestial flourish of arpeggios as the nine congregants bowed heads to sip their beers.
At the center of their seated circle, a low coffee table doubled as their altar "for the sharing of resources" - cheese pizzas, a pitcher of Sam Adams Octoberfest and a church-shaped donation box for charity and the tab. Their service bulletins, slipped into upright plastic holders, looked vaguely like drink specials.
Alvizo started the service by playing a Youtube clip of Barack Obama lauding the power of "one small voice." Then, from a leather couch, she initiated the conversational sermon: "What do we think of the 'one small voice?' "
In the absence of rote ritual, anything could happen. In this case, a long, awkward silence.
Gradually, people ventured ideas.
"What I find to be most enriching in Christianity is the days you meet your opposite, that's what makes your world larger," said Marie Ramsdal-Thomsen, 27.
"Even a conversation can be a revolution," responded Maggie Keelan, 24.
Just as their communal sermon gained momentum, funk music blasted over their voices from a speaker overhead.
For attendees of the Pub Church, these logistical challenges are still a welcome tradeoff for the psychological barriers many say they experienced in traditional congregations: coercive evangelism, hypocrisy, sexist liturgy, even rampant homophobia.
The key to avoiding those pitfalls, they believe, is leaving services open to personal expression and group revision.
"This feels more invested in people, more active, instead of sitting and watching a show, which is what church felt like," said Jaclyn Jones, 30.
Bryan Stone, a professor at Boston University's School of Theology, sees this impulse as reflective of the wider culture.
"Wikipedia is an example of this," he said, referring to a consensus-based online encyclopedia. "Everyone contributes to the truth rather than relying on something handed down by an authority."
Indeed, a handful of other pub churches have sprung up independently of each other in recent years, mostly in the United States and England. One of the earliest, Holy Joes in London, has met since 1989.
But whether Boston's Pub Church can help spark a newly liberated era, like the American Revolution that simmered in the city's taverns so long ago, is another question. Mark DeVine, an associate professor of divinity at Samford University in Alabama, identifies two strains of emerging churches, or congregations departing from institutional religion. One is evangelical, attracting outsiders to a particular faith; the other exists contentedly without dogma. He believes the latter, which includes the Pub Church, may fall victim to its own openness.
"To the extent that they refuse to define themselves, they may fade away," DeVine said. "People don't invest their time, treasure and talents in something that has no goal, no mission, that's reducible to just a safe place to talk. It's a wonderful idea, but not the basis for a church."
Still, the Pub Church mirrors some aspects of traditional worship. It is applying for membership with the Disciples of Christ and adopt recognizable Christian rituals, such as communion. Also, though they hoped to rotate pubs every week, they have found themselves as cozy at the Dugout as an evangelical in a favorite pew.
Their service last Saturday concluded in relative sobriety (to be expected, after just 45 minutes) and spontaneous shouts of approval. Nearly everyone stayed afterward to drink and socialize.
For Alvizo, this sense of community is essential to the dogging question: What is a church?
"From a Christian perspective," she said, "church is the people who respond to God's good news."
For the Pub Church, that's good enough. The only remaining question: What's on tap?