What Churches Can Learn From Local Coffee Shops

The director of an SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) symposium said in a recent article, “One of the great things about coffee shops is they are assets to the community: they serve as meeting places, a kind of a third place, not where you work or live but a place you can go to spend time and interact with people. People need that.”

I’ve worked in quite a few coffee shops over the years. And while no coffee shop is created equal, and while some succeed at this more than others, community seems to form around coffee. Shops become epicenters in certain cities, towns, neighborhoods and streets. People come regularly to the same place, meet other people that come there regularly, including the staff, and relationships are formed. People have their “loyalties” to certain places, but still like to shop around and appreciate what’s going on elsewhere. Before I ever worked in coffee, one of the main reasons I wanted to start was because of how much I loved going to coffee shops and experiencing this. Even now, I frequent several coffee shops beyond the one I work at, because in the particular niche of coffee I work in, there is actually community between shops. I can go into many shops all over LA and be welcomed and embraced just by telling them where I work. And the best coffee shops will make me (or anyone) feel that same way no matter where they work.

In another lifetime, I think churches used to be like this. Not that there aren’t some still out there; I make generalizations based on my experiences, not all-encompassing claims.

Churches used to be gathering-places where community was experienced. The local church used to be truly that “third place” where people would meet together and form community outside of work and home. If something was happening in the city, the church would know about it and be somehow involved. Churches supported creativity and the arts and education, using their facilities for community events during the week.

Now, before you start blaming culture for the Church losing this position, I want to make something very clear: I believe the Church gave up this position of its own accord. I do not believe it was taken from us.

But to talk about that, we have to talk about coffee again, and about waves.

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In specialty coffee, we talk about three “waves” or periods of cultural trend in the way coffee has been consumed, purchased, and a part of American culture over the last eighty years or so. The “first wave” was fast, convenient coffee at home. Folger’s and Maxwell House were some of the biggest companies involved in this first push. Coffee went from being something that some people drank to the beverage that every person needed to have every morning in order to have a good day. Their marketing was aimed towards the convenience of making coffee at home, in your kitchen, or quickly at the office in the break-room. Coffee was moved away from the coffeehouse, starting coming pre-ground in a uniform size, and the sales of coffee-makers went through the roof. This coffee wave excelled, and continues to excel, because it makes coffee cheap and convenient and at-home for consumers.

The second wave began in Seattle, as a few different companies became famous for reinventing the coffee-house. Starbucks, Seattle’s Best, and The Coffee bean and Tea Leaf are the best examples of this phase. They created a version of coffee that could not only be mass-produced but reproduced. They instantly became global chains, and you could get a coffee in Portland or in Hong Kong that tasted exactly the same, with your name written on the cup. These coffee-houses excel at making your drink, giving you so many options for each beverage that Starbucks boasts 87,000 drink possibilities on their menu. You can use any variety of syrups or milks in any sized cup you can imagine, ultimately needed to cover up the taste of their coffee, which has to be roasted so dark so that it will taste the same all over the world. This coffee wave excelled and continues to excel because of mass-production, personalization, and giving the general feeling of (and sometimes real experiences of) a community coffee-house.

The third wave is harder to nail down in terms of origin, but it was mainly pioneered by a few companies that began to take coffee back to its origins. Intelligentsia, Stumptown, and Counter Culture were among the first to begin to treat coffee again as a crop and not a shelved-good. They began to highlight the quality of coffee that can be achieved by sourcing it directly from great farmers, roasting it lighter and serving it within a reasonable timeframe after roast. In addition, they were all dedicated to a higher level of ethics in their coffee buying, which I’ve written about more extensively here. If you haven’t heard of these coffee shops, it’s probably because you don’t live near any of them. When you pay attention to quality and sustainability, it’s rather difficult to achieve growth at the same exponential level as a shop from the “second wave”. For the most part, these shops stay local, or if they do expand, the new shops tend to take on aspects of their new location. Intelligentsia started in Chicago, but in Los Angeles, where they’ve been for ten years, you would swear they were natives. These companies, and smaller shops like them, excel because they highlight quality and issues of justice.

So what does this have to do with the Church? Well, I’m no sociologist, but as an observer of both of these “markets” (if you will), I couldn’t help but notice they followed similar trends. My friends of different studies could probably tell you better why this is the case, but I believe that both the Church and the coffee industry have been affected by larger cultural shifts that they then reflect. If you look at Christianity in America over the same time period, you could quite easily point out similar waves. (Although, as is usually the case, the Church is about five to ten years later than the rest of the culture to adapt these trends.)

Like Folger’s or Maxwell House, the first wave moved Christianity outside of the churches. This is what I would call the “evangelist” phase. Famous preachers like BIlly Graham would go around the country, and be on your television, preaching sermons and leading revivals. Crowds would come by the tens of thousands, and countless more would tune-in to have the evangelist preach a sermon that seemingly gave them what they needed to be Christians without the inconvenience of leaving their homes on a Sunday morning or going more than once a year to a Crusade. While I of course believe these evangelists were well-intentioned, they may have sent the subliminal message that Jesus/Christianity/Church was something you could experience or have at home, by yourself, without anyone else around you. In addition, in order to preach to the countless amounts of people that they would never meet, these preachers had to preach sermons that were necessarily general and all-encompassing. Like the grind-size for Folgers in a can, these sermons had to be uniform so they could impact everyone equally, never-mind that the Gospel is intended to impact us in local, tangible ways. The Gospel is about a God who took on a flesh and walked among us, but out of necessity these evangelists had to preach messages that applied to everyone who listened, from the powerful CEO to the homeless individual to the single-parent. Just like the first wave of coffee, this wave may have ultimately “got the job done”, but it did so in a way that lacked flavor; and may have been inadvertantly sabotaging the very thing it was trying to distribute.

Like Starbucks or Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, the next wave of churches intended to be hip, personal, and mass-producible. Churches that became successful started being begged, “What’s your secret?”, and the “answers” were turned into best-selling books. “The Purpose Driven Life” led to “The Purpose Driven Church” led to a billion books on Ten Easy Steps to Exponential Church Growth. Churches began to believe that what works in one place will obviously work in another, and church-planting became less about “this community needs a church” to mimic corporate-expansion. Churches began to broadcast their pastors on television screens across the country so that their brand could still be uniform across the entire chain. Churches were built to look and feel like movie theaters and rock concerts, and growth did happen. Just like Starbucks, these churches boomed and expanded and continue to do so. But like Starbucks, do people go because they love the main thing, or do they love the things you’re using to sell it to them? Many of these hip, rock-concert churches spend a lot of money on trying to get you in the door and then making you think they’re cool. Paid, talented musicians… attractive, young greeters… 50 year old pastors wearing skinny jeans… all contribute to the people in the door, but do they contribute to the Gospel? These churches do require attendance, but very little engagement. You could arrive, stay, and leave week after week without ever interacting with another human being. Is that Church? I would argue that a service at one of these churches contains about as much Gospel as a Caramel Macchiato contains coffee. (read: very little) These churches succeed in getting people in the door and planting other churches that do, but struggle with the same issue as the first wave of over-generalization; and while they look and taste good, you’re not tasting the Gospel – you’re tasting the sweet, sugary additions they’ve drowned it with to cover up that their gospel doesn’t really taste good as it should.

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(Side-note before I discuss the third wave. I think it’s important, in coffee but especially in the Church to say that I don’t think we’ve arrived. While I no-doubt prefer and will argue for the merits of the types of churches that are coming on the scene, I recognize that my generation will not be the one that “finally gets it”. We will get lots of things wrong, and my future kids will undoubtedly write snarky pieces like this one about the failings of my generation to be true to the Gospel. Nevertheless, I believe whole-heartedly that the things I am arguing for are an essential step for the Church to take in order to be as faithful to the Gospel as we can be right now, to a generation that needs a fresh look at the Gospel to have any chance of taking it seriously.)

But like the third wave of coffee, some churches are starting to look at what the Gospel is away from all these other things. Various church movements have encouraged us to strip away a lot of cultural notions, look to our international neighbors, and discover what it essentially means to be Christians and try to celebrate that. And if you’ve ever been to a third wave coffee shop and had a cup of black coffee, or an espresso with just the right amount of perfectly-steamed milk – it can feel like experiencing coffee again for the first time.

Churches like this care about many of the same things as these “third wave” coffee shops:

  • Localness – expansion is secondary to being the best, most welcoming place on the corner that they are at. They take on the traits of the neighborhood and allow their ministries to reflect the needs around them. Like a coffee-shop in a largely latino neighborhood might add a spiced-mocha or cortado, the truly “local” church sees the culture of its neighborhood and allows that to dictate who they are.
  • Quality at its root – instead of feeling the need to dress it up in fancy cultural clothes, these churches dig for a Gospel that is beautiful and resonant on its own. Not that culture has nothing to bring to the table, as I don’t believe that culture = evil. But like a latte made with excellent espresso, you can’t sacrifice the core piece in favor of the addition. The milk and the espresso work together to form something new and beautiful.
  • Justice – Whether or not we truly are able to do anything about it remains to be seen, but it is obvious that this new generation of churches care about social justice. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke have become central to many churches who believe Jesus’ words about helping the poor and the orphan and the widow are meant to be taken at face value and met with obedience. Like the shops described here and here who are pushing the coffee industry towards fair practices, the new generation of churches are pushing the Church toward the highest standard of engagement in an unjust world for the sake of the Kingdom.
  • Community – So what do you get when you combine localness with authenticity and mutual passion? You create a small community that moves together, believes together, and lives life together. These churches don’t tend to become mega-churches like their second-wave counterparts – that would defeat the very purpose! Rather, small churches of people who know each other and love each other grow deeply together. And if they do grow in size, their first thought is that it might be time to plant another church, so that this same level of deep community can be experienced by a larger number of people without losing the essential local, passionate, and communal nature of the Gospel.

I think more churches ought to be like this. They are out there. I believe I attend one of them. Perhaps you do too. Many churches start out this way and are tempted to become like their more famous or convenient counter-parts. For the love of the Gospel, I urge them not to. Another many churches find themselves in the second category and are trying to find their way to the third. This might be the hardest thing in the world. It’s easy for it to turn into just one more marketing scheme to get a new group in the door (like Starbucks advertising “single-origin” coffees). I think it requires stripping a lot of things away and simply asking, “What does our gospel look like on its own?” It’s amazing to me how many mega-churches have affiliations and beliefs that their members don’t even know about. I’ve had far too many conversations with vibrant, strong Christian women who didn’t know for a long time that their churches actually don’t support women in ministry.

Local coffee shops may not achieve success in the same way as Starbucks does. Some of them have tried, and are still trying, and I think they will regret it. (At least, if they care about the coffee and not the bottom-line.) Churches are no different. If you want your Church to be famous, and your pastor to sell books and your Church-name be plastered across the world, then so be it. But I promise you that, along the way, no matter how much good you can do, you will lose an essential part of the Gospel.

Churches, I encourage you to think smaller. Be everything you can be to your neighborhoods. Care about your core, your teachings, and your authenticity. Care about justice and equality and righteousness. Develop real community among the few whom you are entrusted and seek to engage those nearest to you. And know that your success will not come in numbers, or flashiness, or billboards or book sales, but in truth, justice, peace and love.

And, after church, go have coffee together at local coffee shop. You know you want to.

Read more about God and Coffee HERE

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