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

Quick-Blog #5-How to Meet People in Coffee Shops

I meet new people in coffee shops. All. The. Time. (Seriously, 4 people in 2 days last week.) I mostly like this. I’m a decently friendly guy and I enjoy getting to know different, interesting people. On top of that, I’ve got a bit of an evangelistic streak in me. You probably won’t ever hear me roll through the 4 spiritual laws over an espresso, but it’s unsurprising to find me in a conversation with someone I’ve met 20 minutes prior, discussing their church history and views on Jesus. Still, every once in a while I feel like I have “Talk to me” written on my forehead. I’ve tried to think about how I happen to get into these conversations and I’ve come up with some reasons, both serious and silly. So, if you want to meet people in coffee shops you might try some of these methods, especially if you’re looking to be “missional” and relational in your approach to sharing the Gospel.

1. Read interesting books. Seriously, read interesting books, or at least ones with interesting covers. Then, leave them out on your table. Usually every couple of visits to a coffee shop somebody’ll ask me about the book I’m reading and we”ll start talking. Funniest conversation like that was when I was reading Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion I got to explain that it was social commentary and American religious history, not a biography of the band.

2.  Smile. This is simple, but I generally smile at people when I see them walk in, or we make eye contact. When I’m studying, I look up a lot and almost by reflex find myself smiling at somebody. I might have no intention of talking to them, but somehow, we end up in a conversation because I guess smiling is rare. We live in an increasingly suspicious and cynical culture. In a culture where the biggest cause of depression is loneliness, signs of life and warmth are attractive. Of course, this can easily be misread. Beware the creeper smile. Still, be friendly.

3. Notice People and Ask Questions. If you’re bold and want to be the one to start the conversation, notice people and ask them questions. People are so used to going through their days without anybody taking an active interest in them and their activities that an honest question about something you’ve noticed (again, something not creepy), will usually invite an answer that you can build into a conversation. Noticing books, unique shoes, inquiring about what they’re studying, etc. will usually draw people out of their I-don’t-know-you-keep-the-traditional-3-feet-away shell. Thing is though, you should actually be interested in those things. Don’t ask about something if all you want to do is cut to the chase and get at what you’re really interested in. Be interested in the person. In any case, you probably won’t have anything useful to say to them unless you’ve first paid attention to who they actually are.

4. Commit to Being Somewhere. Place is important. Investing time and committing to going regularly to particular places at particular times, or at least on a regular basis gives you a great opportunity to become familiar with and familiar to regulars as well as randoms. It gives you the opportunity to just start saying hi, and then building out relationships from there. So, pick a place and plant yourself.

5. Have a huge mustache (Men only). Okay, this is a joke, but I seriously get comments on my mustache from random strangers 3-4 times a week. On more than one occasion this has developed into a long conversation about Jesus and inviting them to church. Just sayin’, it’s something you pastor-types might want to try out.

6. Pray. Really, if you want to meet people, engage them about life, truth, and Jesus, then pray before you go anywhere. Pray God will give you opportunities, and wait for God to work. Sometimes you meet nobody, then there are days when you end up talking to a total stranger about their deepest convictions about life, God, and reality. You really don’t know what God will throw your way if you ask him.

Alright, that’s about it. I’m not an evangelism expert, but hopefully some of these tips can help you meet the people that God has placed around you “so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him.” (Acts 17:27)

Soli Deo Gloria