A new Chicago brewpub opened its doors on January 30, 2020. The atmosphere is warm and inviting, with rich wood tones, high ceilings, and something for everyone: 12 craft brews and eight wines on tap in addition to cider, non-alcoholic beverages, snacks...and ministry. It might be unconventional, but owner Rev. Brent Raska, ThM '09, MDiv '08, is convinced it’s an effective way to reach — and build — a whole new community.
The truth is that US church membership is at an all-time low. According to a Gallup poll, 70 percent of Americans were members of a church in the 1990s. But the past 20 years have seen a sharp 20 percentage point decline, the majority of which happened in the past decade alone. Today, only half of US adults say they’re members of a church. “Ministry, to me, is showing up and meeting people where they are. It’s about being real, authentic, and genuine, caring for people, and serving the community,” Raska says. “People in their twenties may not walk into a church. But they will walk into a brewery.” He may be on to something.
In 2009, Raska finished his second degree program at Princeton Theological Seminary. After a two-year Global Ministry Fellowship at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church (a position he shared with his wife, Erin Raska, MDiv ‘09, now senior associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Wilmette), he became pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church in North Riverside, Illinois. For a little over five years, he helped keep the struggling congregation afloat. But when the doors closed in 2018, he found himself at a crossroads: Should he stick with traditional ministry?
"I thought it might be a perfect time to dive into the brewery, which I had been thinking about for quite some time," Raska recalls. A seasoned home brewer, he knew opening a brewpub would combine all his callings and passions — beer, fellowship, and community — into one. And it was great timing, as Princeton Theological Seminary was holding Hatchathon, a three-day event for developing entrepreneurial ministries. He left with a clear mission as well as a stronger business plan.
But what would he call it? One of Raska’s favorite Bible passages is the story of Moses and the burning bush in Exodus. "What I love about the passage and how it relates to the brewery is how God shows up to meet us and care for the community," he says. "Moses has his doubts that he can free the Israelites from Pharaoh, but he trusts God, and God is faithful to his promise to Moses just as God is faithful to us." Burning Bush Brewery was born.
Though Raska isn’t formally a pastor anymore, he absolutely sees his brewery as a kind of ministry. On paper, his plan includes hosting Theology on Tap events, partnering with churches to host events, doing community service days, and donating part of the brewery’s proceeds to local nonprofits. But, if you ask him, it really comes down to hospitality. "We want to provide incredible customer service modeled after Jesus’ example of how to treat and help people," Raska says. "I want to set an example for other ministries like this, showing how we can be in the community and connect with people in fresh new ways."