In the early days of Christianity, worship was hardly the formal entity it is today. Instead of congregating in massive, ornately decorated buildings for rigid ceremonies, believers would meet in small, often secret groups to discuss scripture.

And while there's a place for pomp and circumstance in religion, there's a certain charm in stripping things down to the basics.

This is the idea behind Taproom Theology, a weekly discussion group led by St. John's United Church of Christ pastor Jeanie Manson.

"It's really a part of trying to rethink what church is," Manson said. "I mean, it really is meant to just be a community that supports each other."

Taproom Theology was brought to Egg Harbor City in April by Manson, who modeled it after a similar program called Theology on Tap, which was started in 1981 and has become a popular movement in Catholic dioceses nationwide.

Taproom meets once a week at 7 p.m. in an area restaurant or bar to discuss a spiritual topic, such as the nature of heaven and hell or the existence of creatures such as angels, zombies or vampires. Meetings are casual in tone and members keep their minds open, and the group is free and open to anyone who wants to join, religious or not.

The idea of the group, Manson said, is to encourage discussion so as to build a closer relationship with God and a better personal understanding of scripture.

"I'm trying to really think out of the box and make church more accessible to everybody, not in the sense of judging, but in the sense of being able to honestly ask questions and share things we've been uncomfortable with," she

said.

Meetings usually draw a rotating cast of eight or so people from a group of twice as many regulars. There is no formal curriculum, so members can come and go without worry of having missed a previous meeting.

Amy Hadley is a lifelong member of church and a regular at Taproom Theology. She said the informal group offers a unique spiritual experience.

"It allows people in a nonthreatening way to kind of examine their own beliefs and have an open mind about what other people believe," she said. "You might come away from it with different beliefs than you went in there with."

Meetings usually last until about 9:30 p.m. Discussions are led by members, and topics are usually picked week by week.

In its five months, Taproom has proven to be a good fit for the community. While the formality of church fills a role, Manson believes discussion and fellowship like that at Taproom are another important aspect of leading a fulfilling spiritual

life.

"(I) wonder sometimes how we got so far away from the really organic, what in which we live out a relationship with God," Manson said.

"It's become so sort of rule-oriented, and tradition- and ritual-oriented, when it's really just about being there for each other and listening and communicating."

Contact Braden Campbell:

609-272-7415

If you go

What:

St. John's United Church of Christ's Taproom Theology

When:

7 p.m. Wednesdays

Where:

Various locations, Egg Harbor City area

How much:

Free

More info:

Find St. John's UCC's page on Facebook.