Connecting with Café Culture

Can the church connect with a community in a café context? This was the question poised when we began a caféchurch in Welwyn Garden City in 2006. What would it take to keep our church tradition while sensitively seeking to ‘incarnate the gospel’? We could see how a thriving café culture was rapidly developing in our town. Coffee shops were opening up everywhere and this was also replicated all over the UK. In fact a staggering 50% of the UK adult population visits a coffee shop. Our own church congregation was a part of this café culture, with many of them using coffee shops as ‘third places’ between home and work. With this in mind we asked our local Costa Coffee if we could develop a community there and were amazed when they said yes.

What we planned then was a themed event with quizzes, a short talk, discussion and live music - all with the added benefit of being served by friendly coffee shop staff. Our purpose was to help people engage with issues like debt, parenting or the environment from a faith perspective. We called it ‘coffee with a conscience’. People would not only be invited to enjoy a lively evening of chat, hope and humour, but we would offer them resources and prayer to help them take action after the event was over. All this would form the basis of our community.

What we ran on that first night proved to be so popular that I began discussions with Costa Coffee Management and a few cafechurches were piloted in other stores. Due to the success of these, Cafechurch Network was formed. This registered charity was later given the ‘OK’ to put a cafechurch in every suitable Costa Coffee store in the UK and Costa Coffee have asked that all churches wanting to use their stores come through the Cafechurch Network. Stores from other coffee shop chains have also opened their doors to the Cafechurch Network.

Stores benefit as cafechurch helps them to feel part of the local community. There are great benefits for the church too, as people who might not enter a more traditional church setting interact with people who do. This may be one of the first steps for some towards going to church. For others they may feel that cafechurch in a high street location is the kind of community they want to belong to. This challenges us then to re-imagine how we can help people in a café context move forward in their faith journey. There are challenges that come with developing communities in this context. The word ‘church’ is a loaded word for some people - they may have misconceptions and issues with their experience of church and for many it can be off-putting. While running a cafechurch we often found ourselves having to reassure people that what we were doing was inclusive and not abrasive. We also found that we ourselves had to learn what it meant to communicate in a café context. For instance, while it may be acceptable in churches to expect people to sit patiently through services, offering only polite contributions and encouraging sentiments afterwards, in a high street café context this is not the case. People come ready to talk with each other and are familiar with a more relaxed environment. If the subject is not engaging and the talk is monotonous people will begin to talk among themselves and the whole evening may be lost. What I say to cafechurch leaders is ‘whatever you do, don’t be boring.’ It is better to keep it lively and make a mistake (correcting yourself later) than to be mind-numbingly dull and risk jeopardising the whole meeting. Part of the thrill of serving in this context is that we have to remain keenly charismissional as we re-dream what church can be in this context.

So today this great adventure of faith has seen many cafechurches start all over the UK but there is still much more to be done. In fact I have more store managers asking me for cafechurches than I have churches ready to begin. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote that it is an act of faith to ‘seize fervently’ the moment to build fellowship. So I would invite churches to visit the website or contact us for more details. Here is an opportunity for the church to connect with local communities and in that experience to learn as we go.

More information is available at www.cafechurch.net and you can contact the Cafechurch Network by email: info@cafechurch.net or by calling 020 8664 8506

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