More than a soup kitchen
Over many years, 13 churches and Christian organisations in Ealing, West London, worked together to provide a soup kitchen for people on the edge of society. Their newly-appointed worker for homeless people began to invite soup kitchen clientele to the reflective evening service held upstairs.
Those who came could be disruptive, and they tended to sit at the back and watch. But one evening, the service was held café style. People on the back row became involved and enjoyed it. Numbers from the soup kitchen have grown steadily and in 2009, between 40 and 70 homeless and disadvantaged people were attending each week.
It will be interesting to see how this café church evolves. At present it feels a bit like conventional church done café-style for people who are disadvantaged. This has been wonderfully fruitful, but can it ever become church-shaped and led by people on the margins of society? Given the emotional and physical difficulties faced by those who come, this would be a huge challenge.
A way of thinking about different types of café church has been suggested by Bob and Mary Hopkins. The missional dynamics vary for each type.
We'll do an event in our church building.
Christians organise a café-style event on church premises, as in the Ealing example. Some literally re-order the main church building with chairs and tables, serve refreshments and put on an event with some Christian input, such as a testimony or reflective prayer. A village church might have a luncheon club at the back of the building, for instance. When lunch is over, those wishing to stay gather round a table with lighted candles in the chancel.
During the next 15 minutes, there are periods of silence with appropriate background music, someone reads a passage from Scripture, someone else possibly a poem, and a few prayers are said. This is an approach that says 'come to us for an event that we lay on'. As we have seen, it can be very fruitful, especially if you are seeking to reach people on the fringe of church.
We'll do an event in a commercial café.
A Christian group rents a commercial café and puts on an event at times when the café isn't normally open. The café gets another use for its facilities, while Christians can use state-of-the-art premises near where people gather.
Costa Coffee is encouraging its venues to be used after hours for this purpose round the UK. Organisers have to guarantee that so many cups of coffee will be sold (or pay the difference), and Costa Coffee provides the counter staff.
Rather than approaching their local Costa Coffee direct, organisers need to make contact with cafechurch network, which provides reassurance for Costa Coffee that the group is okay.
We know of other café church initiatives being encouraged by some of the outlets of Starbucks, Cream and other café chains.
Like café church in a church building, the approach is 'attractional' - Christians put on an event (in the café) and attract others through invitations and publicity.
The events may be described as 'coffee with a conscience' or 'church - but not as you know it', and may include presentations and discussions on issues from contemporary life. Reflective and other forms of worship can be used.
These activities can be seen as the 'Willow Creek' of café church - seeker-sensitive events, but in a café rather than a church building.
It seems that they can work well, probably again among people who are on the fringe of church, or among friends who once went to church and would be open to coming again if it was a bit different.
We'll do an event in a community centre
Christians lay on an event café-style in a community centre that is at the heart of a village, town or estate.
Perhaps a group of Christians start a weekly language café for ethnic women in the neighbourhood. The women sit round tables, have afternoon tea and are invited to discuss a topic to improve their English.
After a few months, a prayer board is introduced. The hosts explain that they meet regularly for prayer, and the women are invited to post prayer requests on the board.
The women soon start talking about their requests, spirituality comes onto the agenda and this provides a platform on which to create opportunities for women to explore the Christian faith if they want.
If we picture church being surrounded by circles of people who have fewer and fewer contacts with church, café church in a church building or in a commercial café is most likely to appeal to people in the circles closest to church - those who are on the church fringe or friends of churchgoers.
Café church in a community centre, on the other hand, has the potential to connect with people in the next circle out. All sorts of people will be using the centre for a range of activities. Many of these people will have little or no contact with church.
Christians who mingle with them in the community centre may spot a need or an opportunity for some kind of café-based event alongside the other activities. Word spreads through the centre's networks. As the café becomes established, a spiritual dimension is added with the support of those who come.
An example is the café church that has emerged from a partnership between St Mark's, Haydock, in Merseyside and the neighbouring parish of St David's, Carr Mill. People from both churches are involved in the Moss Bank community centre - in the photo club, art group, craft group, etc. Some of them have built on their existing relationships to develop a thriving café church, which has drawn in folk from most of the other groups that meet in the centre.
We'll set up a café ourselves
Taste & See is a café church in Kidsgrove, Stoke-on-Trent, and was featured on expressions: the dvd - 1. Local Methodists acquired a café in the centre of town and opened it six days a week as a profit-making venture.
Whereas the first three types of café church provide an event for non-churchgoers, Taste & See represents a Christian presence within café culture. People looking for a good café experience are made welcome.
This doesn't reflect an attractional approach to mission - 'Come to an event that we lay on'. Rather, it offers an immersed approach. Christians immerse themselves in café culture and create opportunities for church to emerge from within.
Taste & See has a back room converted for quiet, meditation and prayer, as well as for spiritual conversation and events that support people on a journey of faith.
Might the time come when some of the regulars want to explore the Christian faith further and a small expression of church is formed?
We'll set up a café with non-churchgoers
A group of Lutherans have set up Café Retro in the heart of Copenhagen. The café is run as a commercial venture and is open at normal café times. The difference is that it is an initiative not just of Christians. The leadership team of five are all churchgoers, but the other six teams - bartenders, renovation, events, design, PR, international concern and mission trips - are all roughly 50% churchgoers and 50% not-yet-Christians.
By partnering with people they feel called to serve, this approach takes a deeper step into café culture in the early stages than the previous one. The hope is that church will emerge within this context.
We'll go into a café that already exists
This is, perhaps, the ultimate step into café culture. The closest example we can find is in the United States and is described by Neil Cole in Organic Church (Jossey Bass, 2005).
His evangelistic team were thinking about reaching people in the coffee bar culture. They were discussing how to set up a coffee bar, when someone asked, 'Why don't we just go into a coffee bar that already exists?'
It made sense. They didn't have to learn about a business they knew nothing about. They could focus on their call to evangelism. Unlike the 'Costa Coffee' approach, they didn't have to advertise or invite people as the café was already full of ordinary customers!
So they went into one of their local coffee bars, played pool with others who were there, got to know those who came regularly, chatted about girls, life and all the rest, and in time found opportunities to share their Christian faith. When someone asked to know more, they suggested that he invite his friends to his apartment, where they shared the gospel. Those interested continued to meet in the apartment, and a small church was formed.
We don't know of any similar examples in the UK, where of course the culture is very different. But do you? If so, might you describe it at the end of this page?
Things to bear in mind
If you are thinking of starting café church, Bob and Mary Hopkins suggest that you ask yourself the following questions.
Who are you seeking to reach and is café church the best way of serving them?
There is no substitute for getting to know the people you are called to serve well, and being realistic about your resources. Putting the two together will help you discern God-given openings. Don't do café church because someone else has done it; do it because it is the best way you can serve the people you are called to.
Why are you going for café?
Is it a style to make a mission event attractive? Is it a venue that will appeal to people because of what it represents? Or are you seeking to connect with a specific group that enjoys café culture - who spend time in cafés and develop their relationships there?
How will your venture evolve into church?
Taking the first steps may feel daunting enough, but you would be wise to think ahead. What might have to happen for the venture to become church for those it serves? How will emerging Christians be discipled? How will the venture be sustained? Are you sure you know what you are letting yourself in for? See Starting and growing.
Have you thought through the demands of running a café?
This is an important question if you are thinking of setting up your own. Buying or renting a café requires lots of finance and needs a serious business plan. Café culture is demanding, so you will have to aim high on quality. Do you know enough and have you the resources to make a go of it?
Might you do better to use other people's cafés?
This is light weight compared to running your own café, with low demands on finance and staff. It is easier to sustain the venture and perhaps multiply it.
- George Lings, Encounters on the Edge 7: New Canterbury Tales, Church Army, 2000;
- George Lings, Encounters on the Edge 33: Café Church 1 - Caffeine, croissants and Christ?, Church Army, 2007;
- George Lings, Encounters on the Edge 34: Café Church 2 - Double Jesus with cream and sugar?, Church Army, 2007;
- Café Church - evaluating a range of approaches, an online article from ACPI (Anglican Church Planting Initiatives);
- Laurence Singlehurst, Sowing, reaping, keeping: People-Sensitive Evangelism (2nd edition), IVP, 2006, 978-184474138-0 - this contains principles for developing stepping stones towards faith for those who begin to connect with café church.