Could the principles of café church transform your community?

BY: REV. CID LATTY, Congregational Development Associate Canadian Baptist of Ontario & Quebec

The now almost legendary TED talk by Simon Sinek about the essentiality of understanding ‘the why?’ is worth considering before you contemplate any new venture especially one that will affect the lives of people.[1] The idea is simple, if you are strong about the ‘why’, you are clear about the ‘what’ and it’s easier to do the ‘how’. Therefore when thinking about micro church or a version of them like café church we must begin where any good seminary student begins, with good biblically based theology (the why) so that we can work out in our practice (the what & the how).  Thankfully I don’t have to use much space here developing a theology of place or the repercussions of atonement as this has been done extensively elsewhere[2] however let me summarize how I read a key scripture that I see as giving us a strong enough ‘why’ for the what that I’ll illustrate in the form of café church later on.

One of my favorite passages of scripture is found in John 1: 35-38 where we read:

The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?” They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”

I call this (somewhat humorously) the least preached on verses in the bible. Why would the disciples want to see where Jesus lived? Notice first the context is one where years of prophetic silence have just been shattered by the loud call of the uncommon revivalist John the Baptist. His declaration is simple; Jesus, the carpenter’s son, the one from obscurity, was actually the long awaited Messiah. He is the bringer in of a new epoch who could put right the defragmentation of the cosmos. This was no small matter. It would be life transforming for everyone who believed. Now hear the words again of the disciples who have just been confronted with the culmination of Israel’s history. They say, ‘where are you staying?’ Yes, let me say that again, on the backdrop of a huge paradigm shift they enquire ‘where are you staying???’ This sounds like a strange question for sure. You see I think I might have asked a different question in that moment, maybe something like ‘how will you take away our sins?’ or ‘explain to me what Daniel meant when he saw the Son of Man?’ or better still ‘how will God rule the world when the culmination of the end times occurs?’ No, they don’t ask our good theological questions. Their question is all about hospitality, locality and humanity. In my paraphrase they are asking ‘can we come over for a coffee?’ or ‘Where is your house?’ Or even ‘Do you live like we live with the same mod cons?’ And it’s this line of questioning (not the one I would have) that John gives credit for seeing ‘his glory’ (John 1:14) because the one who was in the ‘closest relationship with the Father has made him known.’ (John 1:18) It seems that through the ability of Jesus to be relatable, accessible, giving people a view into the normal parts of his life they were able to connect with God. Now it follows that our good theology will ask ‘if God is like this how should we behave?’ Our theology will be seen in praxis. What we do as a result of what we see in God will be crucial. So any café church or micro church for that matter will need to incorporate being relatable, hospitable and accessible if it is to reflect the way of Jesus.

This was definitely the basis for what began in 2006 when we started a café church in Welwyn Garden City (a commuter town just outside London in the UK). Our question was how could we incarnate the gospel in the café culture around us? 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 at the time visited a coffee shop (something that was unheard of before this time). Our own church congregation were 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[3] if we could develop a community in their store 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 humor 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 hospitable community.

What we ran on that first night proved to be so popular that I began discussions with Costa Coffee Management and a few café churches 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 café church in every suitable Costa Coffee store in the UK. Over the next ten years we would help to start more than one hundred café churches all over the UK.

Running a café church in a main street coffee shop was a win-win for the church and coffee shop. Stores benefit as café church helped them to feel part of the local community. The church would benefit as people who might not enter a more traditional church setting interacted with people who did. This may be one of the first steps for some towards going to church. For others they may feel that café church in a main street location was the kind of community they wanted to belong to. This then challenged us to re-imagine how we could help people in a café context move forward in their faith journey.

When developing a café church (or a micro church) one of the challenges can be the word ‘church’ itself. It can be a loaded word for some people as they may have either misconceptions about what it means or real experiences of pain in a church context that could be off-putting. While running a café church we often found ourselves having to reassure people that what we were doing was inclusive and not accusative in tone and texture. We therefore found that we ourselves had to learn how to communicate differently in a café context. For instance, while it may be acceptable in churches to expect people to sit patiently through whole services, offering only polite contributions and encouraging sentiments at the end, in a main street café context this is not the case. People come ready to talk with each other and are familiar with connecting in a relaxed environment. If the subject is not engaging and the talk is monotonous people will begin to talk among themselves and the whole evening will be lost. I would often say to café church leaders ‘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 jeopardizing the whole meeting. Part of the thrill of serving in this context is that the content needs to be transformational not just informational. We need to be an engaging presence not just a welcoming one.[4]

The questions I ask today in Canada are ‘what do people enjoy doing?’ ‘Where do they enjoy meeting each other?’ ‘where do conversations happen?’ ‘where do people yearn for hospitality?’ ‘How can we address the pandemic of loneliness?’ If you can think of an answer to these questions then you are a step away from taking the principles of café church (being accessible, hospitable, a relatable community) and applying them to your situation. Our Canadian adventure could be a similar one to my UK story because the needs are the same even though the cultural expressions may be somewhat different. Here is a leaders guide that will help you run an online café church  https://baptist.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/cafechurch-at-home-leaders-guide.pdf

If you can dream about the needs around you for a while, I’m sure that you can also translate your thoughts into doing something good to transform what you see. And as Paul said to the Ephesians God is ‘able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.’ Our first step is to begin with our own creative imagination so that we can step into the opportunities with our actions. Café church is a micro church expression that you could do today. The decision is yours. By the way I can hear my community asking me one question, and if you listen closely you’ll hear your neighborhood asking you the same question too. The question is this ‘where are you staying?’ What will your answer be?

Rev Cid Latty Clatty@baptist.ca

Congregational Development Associate Canadian Baptist of Ontario & Quebec


[1] You can watch the talk here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4ZoJKF_VuA

[2] I will not offer a list of books and resources as these are readily available and almost without limit however a surprisingly good book that summaries the effects of the incarnation is ‘A community called atonement’ by Scot Mcknight Abingdon 2007

[3] Costa Coffee had at the time 900 chain stores of coffee shops similar in style to Starbucks. Costa Coffee is owned by Coca Cola today

[4] There are some excellent points on how to do this in the book ‘How to revive Evangelism’ by Craig Springer