Coffee Shop Ministry Revisited (Or, Keller on the Coffee-Shop as City)

I spend a lot of time in coffee shops. I think I’ve mentioned this already. It all started in college right around the time I began reading Kierkegaard and decided to take up a caffeine addiction. It was new and cool and made me feel older and sophisticated. I eventually got over that, but in grad school I didn’t have an office, so renting space at 2 bucks for, like, however long you wanted to stay wasn’t a bad deal.

Still, after nearly 6 years, a few forests worth of coffee, and getting a job with an office, I find I still spend a lot of time in coffee shops. Why? Well, because coffee-shops are mini-cities within the city. That makes them ideal for ministry.

Keller on the City
Once again, I’ve been reading through Tim Keller’s Center Church on doing Gospel-centered ministry in your city. In it he has a chapter on a biblical theology of the city. He points out that the defining essence of the city in the Bible is “not the population’s size but the density.” See, “A city is a social form in which people physically live in close proximity to one another.” (pg. 135) You didn’t have to have a certain population number to be called a city. Most cities of the day would have been the size of my old high school. The point was that they are condensed clusters of life.

He goes on to point out three characteristics that mark the city in biblical thought (pp 136-138):

  1. Safety and stability – Cities had walls, the beginnings of a legal system, etc. that contributed to social stability and safety.
  2. Diversity – Cities are safer places to live for minorities, and are centers for racial and cultural diversity.
  3. Productivity and Creativity — Human culture and technology flourishes in cities. Greater proximity, and less space between people, means exponential sharing of ideas and resources

Drawing on Jeremiah’s letter to the Exiles in Babylon (Jer. 29), the story of Jonah (Jon. 4), and the movement of the early church (Acts), Keller goes on to makes the case that churches ought to go to the cities for various reasons such as, once again, the sheer population density, as well as the cultural influence the city exerts on the culture. (pp 146-163) Paraphrasing Woody Allen, he says, cities are like everywhere else, only more so.

Coffee-Shop as City
The Starbucks in the Orange Circle near my place is like that. I think most coffee shops are. Think about it. Condensed clusters of life, where the space between people is typically removed is a perfect description of a coffee shop. With all of the students studying, and business types, entrepreneurs, writers, and such hanging out there to get their work done, they are centers of productivity, and idea-sharing. I don’t know about how much safer they are, but there is at times that feeling of safety in numbers at the community tables. Also, finally, they are probably the most diverse spots in any city. Everybody drinks coffee: rich business-owners, soccer-moms, retired types, college kids, and homeless people with spare change. They’re all there.

I’ve realized this is part of why I find coffee-shops ideal for ministry. Coffee shops keep me in touch with people I couldn’t engage with if I just stayed holed up in my office or waiting for them to show up at my bible study. More importantly it puts me in contact with them in the middle of their real life, when they don’t have their church game-face on. I’ve found for myself that even if the conversations I have there don’t lead to somebody showing up at church, or my group, I’m still more likely to teach in a way that engages my own students where they’re actually at.

For ministry types looking to stay culturally-engaged, to go to the city even if you live in the suburbs, I recommend checking out your local coffee shop. Don’t worry about not being a coffee person. Most of them have tea too.

Soli Deo Gloria