Coffeeshop Discipleship

Friday, January 19, 2007

Coffeeshop Connections
What one pastor is learning, as a part-time barista, about relationship and discipleship.
by David Swanson

I didn't intend to be a once-a-week barista at our local coffeeshop. It happened like this.

One morning my wife was going into the local coffeeshop to interview for a very part-time job to help cover the cost of her return to college. Just before she walked out the door, without much forethought, I asked her to see if the owner would let me work one night a week with her. We were both surprised when he seemed to think this would be a good idea.

Surprised, because I'd never met the owner, didn't drink coffee, and couldn't tell the difference between a latte and a cappuccino if its frothy mug was staring me in the face.

Not surprisingly, after working there three years, I've learned a lot about coffee.

Somewhat surprising are the connections I've observed between the coffeeshop and the local church where I'm a pastor.

Our church is a highly structured and very busy suburban environment where spontaneous interaction with friends rarely happens. Just getting together with some folks is an exercise in long-range planning!

At the coffeeshop, however, I can count on bumping into someone who will be up for some conversation. It could be the Russian immigrant who is finishing up his computer science degree. Or the stay-at-home dad looking for some adult contact. Or a college student happy to be off-campus.

Our church offers a lot of really good things for its members. But as the church grows, it's hard to maintain the spontaneity that characterizes smaller churches (and coffeeshops).

If we believe the church community is the sum of its people, and if we believe that relationships are not something that can be programmed, then we do well to consider how to create margins in church life for spontaneous relational moments, similar to those that attract people to the coffeeshop.

Eclectic People
Not only don't I know who I'll bump into at the coffeeshop, chances are, they won't look like me. While many churches tend to attract people who are similar, the coffeeshop doesn't have a target demographic. You don't even have to like coffee; we welcome tea and smoothie people too!

One night while working a couple months ago, I introduced one of our regulars to a friend from church. For the next two hours these new friends, one a twenty-something artist and the other a single mom of two college-age kids, sat at a table listening to each other's stories.

Where else do soccer moms mingle with Goth kids dressed for the Friday night show? Or young, upwardly mobile commuters interact with a homeless man? Or a local pastor (me) interact regularly with anyone outside the church?

The building at our church has been planned efficiently. After all, we want to be good stewards of our space. There are a couple of name-brand coffeeshops in our town that seem to have similar thinking: you enter, you find yourself in line, your order your beverage, and you head out the door. It's in and out.

Our little independent coffeeshop does things differently. Frankly, we're not efficient. We talk to our customers too much; catching up since we last saw each other. We serve our coffee in mugs (unless they ask for it "to go"), which seems to keep folks around longer.

And worst of all, we've cluttered the shop with comfortable sofas, armchairs, and coffee tables. It's hard to get out. It suggests customers are supposed to linger, talk, rest.

Our church activity centers around our once-a-week worship gatherings. A lot of great stuff happens on Sunday mornings that has been planned in advance. But there's one time, a no-man's-land, that I always look forward to for its very lack of planning. It's the time before, between, and after our services. This is the time when stories are told. When friends are introduced to new friends. When the visitor is invited to connect.

This is when we learn of the single mom who needs her roof repaired; or our homeless friend who needs a ride to the doctor this week; or that the church softball team is looking for a couple more players.

You can't plan this stuff. But I wonder, like the coffeeshop, can you make space for it? Or does the church become an in-and-out kind of place?

Experiment in Coffeeshop Discipleship
I was telling a friend at church about my desire to have a place to experiment with what I was observing at the coffeeshop. I wondered what would happen if we created an environment where folks could learn about the way of Jesus in a space that expected spontaneous relationships between eclectic people.

This was partially motivated out of a desire to invite others into the kingdom of God, but also to fill my own longing for this type of coffeeshop discipleship.

My friend liked the idea and volunteered a large office over an industrial building he owns. Within a month a few of us transformed that dingy office into what now looks like either a small coffeeshop or large living room. We call it "the loft."

On Sunday evenings you can find 15-20 of us gathering for coffee and conversation about what it means to follow Jesus.

People who hear about our Sunday evening conversations often ask me if it's "working." While I understand the question, there is no quick way to answer. If there is time, I might talk about our regulars.

Sherry is a Jesus follower who works as a stage manager in a theater in Chicago. The loft is a place where she can come and refresh.

Thomas is a guy we met at the coffeeshop. An artist and deep-thinking Jesus follower, he was looking for a place where his contributions would be valued.

Zeb grew up in a Buddhist home and now is part owner in a rapidly expanding business. I'm not sure where he'd place himself spiritually, but he's a regular on Sunday nights.

Laurie is a single mom who recently has been bringing her pregnant, soon-to-be-single-mother neighbor.

Dave grew up in a churched home before he walked away from the faith to see if he would "notice any difference." One of our most faithful participants, Dave is quick with a smile and an invitation to go rock climbing.

While I'd like to think these folks are coming for our stimulating conversations about following Jesus, I realize that is only part of it. I know this because they show up early, grab one of our second-hand mugs for some coffee and settle into a couch to catch up with someone they haven't seen in a week. I know this because after we've wrapped up our discussion for the evening, the conversations continue.

After a year and a half, our experiment is suggesting that much of the spiritual movement in people's lives is due to the space created for significant relational contact within an eclectic group of people.

Now I don't think our church is going to replace our sanctuary chairs with couches anytime soon. But then, that's not the point. Maybe the point is to create the type of environment that invites the Jesus-follower and the skeptic into conversation; the homeless and the CEO into relationship; the pastor and his neighbor into life together.

Maybe we have something to learn from the coffeeshop.

David Swanson serves as a pastor at Parkview Community Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and as a barista at La Spiaza.

Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.
Click here for reprint information onLeadership Journal.

Fall 2006, Vol. XXVII, No. 4, Page 95



Blogger David said...

Thanks for the link to the article. I love what you folks are up to!


5:54 AM


Post a Comment