The expression "Cafe Church", covers a range of fresh expressions of church - including churches that meet in the local cafe and churches shaping a service around cafe culture.
Sandra is a network member and attendee at this year's Incarnate House Party. Here, she shares experiences of cafe church services...
Over the last three years I have been helping my church experiment with different ways of presenting a service to make it accessible and relevant for people who claim that church is ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘meaningless’. This is an ongoing process but I would like to share our journey so far, hoping that our story may be helpful to others. There are a few general points to mention before outlining the details.
Firstly, there are a number of people for whom the traditional worship service is very important. I would like to reassure these people that we appreciate their approach and would encourage continued provision of this style of worship. But I would ask them to appreciate that as culture and society moves on it is important to ensure that the church moves onwards too, and that we are allowed space to do this. It may well be necessary to present the same message in different styles by offering a choice of services; to admit that the ‘one size fits all’ theory is not going to work, neither is compromise.
Secondly, we need to differentiate between the underlying principles of the gospel and the ways we have communicated those principles until now. Our aim is not to present answers to questions that were being asked fifty years ago, but to listen to and address issues that are being raised today. Our aim is not to let culture invade the church, but to present the gospel message to the world using the sort of language and media it understands. Our aim is to not to turn people away by using worn out methods, but to turn the hearts of people (who do change) to God (who doesn’t).
Finally, to present the Christian message in a relevant way we need to look at the Bible, to look at the world, and to ask both ourselves and the world how we can accomplish this. Trial and error are essential ingredients. We must expect some successes and some failures. What works in a deprived area of the inner-city is probably not going to work in a comfortable middle-class environment; each church will need to understand the community it serves. Sharing our diverse ideas and resources will enable a quicker progression. Let’s determine that together we can make a difference.
So where did we begin? Cautiously! ‘A Series of Sermons and Talks’ was our sub-heading to a presentation (our own version) of Rick Warren’s ‘Purpose Driven Life’. Using posters and bookmarks to inform of dates and topics, we encouraged the whole church to read the book over a six week period, and structured the topics around this. Designing our own promotional literature proved relevant and effective in our small-seaside-town-on-the-south-coast-community. Our worship leader also introduced the use of a PowerPoint Presentation using pictures as well as words to accompany one of the worship songs each Sunday morning. A few people with visual difficulties did not find this helpful, but the pictures were enjoyed by the majority.
Following this we tried a number of short run Sunday evening sermon series ie four to six weeks, where we provided further visual support to the message using PowerPoint illustrations for the sermons. These had a mixed response. Some people expressed appreciation for the visual element which aided their ability to remember the detail. I think we concluded that this is mostly beneficial for visual learners (that’s me). However, a significant number of people complained that it distracted from the sermon. Perhaps these were the auditory learners? There were also some people who felt that spontaneity during the sermon was impeded by the structure being prepared in advance. Actually, I was operating the computer, and our Pastor always changes things immediately prior to the sermon and during the sermon. I considered spontaneity a priority, so I had appropriate ‘blank’ slides to use when necessary and worked with any changes. But of course this doesn’t show when you sit in the congregation. We incorporated an interactive section when people were asked for responses, using a roving microphone, which we displayed on the screen – this seemed to be appreciated by everyone and extended the interaction considerably.
Noticeably less successful was a series about ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ which we tried on Sunday mornings when the style of worship is much more traditional. The negative comments mentioned above were all significant and we have since avoided being experimental during the morning service and limited PowerPoint during sermons to just a few headings or illustrations. Having confined being more experimental to the evening service has in fact extended our license to continue to explore and develop different approaches. Consequently a number of people have stopped coming to church in the evening, but overall the numbers attending have increased. I wonder if we are seeing the beginnings of two congregations with a few crossovers – a controversial issue I know, but I don’t personally have a problem with people selectively choosing which services suit them.
Last summer we introduced a cafe style; seating people in tables of six or eight to run a series based on the Spring Harvest theme. A fifteen minute time of worship was followed by one or two extracts from the Spring Harvest DVD. We concentrated on a few selected issues for discussion over tea and coffee, followed by collecting feedback using the microphone and drawing the evening to a conclusion with a short talk and a final worship song and closing prayer. The benefits of being relational and interactive created a sense of belonging, although some people found it difficult to share in the groups at first. This proved popular, with an increased attendance and requests for another series. It’s not always easy to find help serving the tea and coffee, but I have yet to receive a single complaint about drinking it during the discussion time! As with sharing a meal, it seems to help gel the group together and encourage conversation. The production of Study Notes extending the theme for private use or for Home Group material is also regularly requested.
We are frequently asked who the services are aimed at. Interestingly, the series we ran in the autumn based on Steve Chalke’s “Intelligent Church” attracted a number of folk on the ‘fringe’ of the church. We produced a sequel in January aimed more at seekers, and the fringe attendance decreased. I am uncertain what this indicates – could it be that seekers prefer the meat to the milk? Another suggestion is that a church trying to change is attractive to those who have rejected the traditional model but are still seeking. A new element was the use of secular songs presented using PowerPoint – a lot of work to produce but enjoyed by most. Additionally we incorporated relevant short DVD clips from contemporary films. I now often have people recommending particular songs or film clips which they think might be of use, so I think this is definitely worth repeating. I have gathered, and trained if necessary, a few people with PowerPoint skills that enjoy helping in this area.
Our latest series of four interactive cafe-style services grew out of the ‘Imagine Project’ from the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity. Aimed at the church, the topics included ‘What are your issues?’, ‘Whole Life Christianity – the Work Place’, ‘Engaging with Culture’ and ‘Discipleship and Mission’. Using the already tested structure we delivered an interesting mix of discussion about how to do church differently whilst actually doing it differently! The ‘Imagine’ DVD is easy to use and there are further notes, suggestions and questions if required. I particularly recommend this material as a way in to new ways of doing church. I was particularly encouraged when three people new to the church asked if they could help. What next? I am waiting for the Lord to guide us on that one. A series on ‘Discipleship’ would be a natural progression - I wonder what the leadership would think about that…
In conclusion, ‘interactive’ has come to mean involving as many people as possible in the presentation of the service. People like to be involved and the more they own the more they benefit. ‘Cafe’ means refreshments, tea, coffee, biscuits and bowls of mints; home made cookies appeared one evening, and sandwiches another! ‘Cafe’ ie sharing a ‘meal’ is also brilliant for confidence building and relationship growing. The word ‘style’ now seems to include ‘expect the unexpected’ and people look for content such as DVD excerpts, music, interviews, etc. What do I consider the signs of success? The fact that when I meet people in the street I get comments such as: “We need more time for discussion!”; “I was talking to my neighbour about that DVD the other night…”, and “An interesting point from Sunday evening was raised in our Home Group last night…”
We are about to begin a series of ‘Choices’ ie evening services which begin with about twenty minutes of worship followed by a number of different workshops from knitting to Bible study. On of these will be loosely based on Mark Green’s Book ‘Let My People Grow’; aiming to develop discussion about discipleship with a focus on relationships and mission.