November 25, 2020

The Coffeehouse: A Story

coffeehouse.jpgSkip Towne opened the door to his office and sat down to check his voice mail. Skip had been youth minister at Central Baptist Church for four years. As associate minister for youth at a large, traditional Baptist church, his life was always busy. Three services on Sunday, visitation on Sunday afternoons and youth group on Sunday and Wednesday nights. Mondays he led a Bible study for small group leaders, Tuesdays he coached an Upwards team. Wednesdays were full of junior high ministry and Thursday was his only night home. Friday night it was football game and open gym afterwards. Saturdays were always some kind of scheduled trip, concert or special event. It was the life of the youth minister he’d always imagined.

Skip’s youth group was one of the largest in the community. There were over a hundred students who were highly involved with the student ministries at Central, and many others who visited. It was sometimes embarrassing to eat lunch with youth ministers from other churches and find out that their attendance had been down because so many of their kids were attending an event at Central Baptist. The church was generous to the youth program. They paid for mission trips, recreation, concerts and new facilities. Skip even got to take in three or four conferences a year. And it was one of those conferences that had Skip checking his email this morning.

Skip wanted to start a coffeehouse, and the speaker at the conference he’d just attended had started a coffeehouse in his community. Skip wanted all the how to’s. After sorting through some spam, there was the letter from Greg. A complete packet of information on how to start a storefront coffeehouse for the community as a way to begin a kind of positive presence, laying the foundation for evangelism.

Greg’s coffeehouse was a presence in the community. It made no demands other than an open door. It was open 5 nights a week in a storefront right in the middle of a neighborhood frequented by students, minorities and young people. Local musicians were invited in to play and the coffeehouse provided a sound system. Volunteers worked the coffee bar, and the sponsoring church paid the rent and kept the operation inexpensive and solvent. The student ministry worked to make the coffeehouse look good and to get the word out about whatever was going on. After two years, the ministry was a success, by Greg’s testimony. The coffeehouse had made a positive impact in the community, provided a place of service for Christians, and given the opportunity for thousands of conversations between Christians and members of the community who would never come to a worship service. The next step was to have a worship time at the coffeehouse on Sunday mornings. It all sounded perfect.

Skip was interested from the first moment he’d heard the story. For a couple of years he’d had moments of looking at his ministry at Central and being unsatisfied. His kids were great, and they needed Christ and the Gospel. But these were church kids. They had grown up in church. Their families were church leaders and workers. These were kids who saw the church as just as much a part of their life as their school and their sports teams.

When the church started “Youth Church” in the new 3 million dollar youth recreation facility, attendance went up, but Skip knew that, despite all his efforts at publicity, those kids in the youth facility were almost entirely church kids from other churches. Only a very few of the students at youth church were kids from outside the church culture of this community. It was another example of something that had bothered Skip more and more: he wasn’t having an effect in the real community. Thousands of students that lived within 3 miles of Central Baptist would never be reached or affected in any way by Skip’s ministry. That was unacceptable.

It felt odd to have such a successful ministry, but to feel like you were a failure. The students, parents and leaders at Central Baptist thought Skip was the best youth minister they ever had. He never lacked for affirmation. Central treated its staff well, and his wife and kids were happy and secure. The coffeehouse idea wasn’t needed because anyone was unhappy. The few people he had mentioned it to seemed intrigued, but then began asking questions about why and how much and how long….and soon the enthusiasm was gone. Just the idea that it was going to simple BE THERE, and not be a concert event or an occasional evening event, seemed to throw cold water on the idea.

What bothered Skip the most was that he knew it was his own approach to ministry that made the coffeehouse idea seem so strange and alien. It wasn’t a good time. It wasn’t fun for Christian students. It wasn’t big numbers or an outing with a t-shirt. It seemed to have no purpose because Skip hadn’t presented a mission that comprehended the purpose of a coffeehouse whose purpose was a place for Christians and non-Christians to meet on common ground, have conversations and develop relationships. He’d been brought in to build a church youth program, and he’d done it. He’d done it so well that a ministry of missional presence, serving the community and asking for nothing, made no sense.

When Skip had talked with the chairman of the parent’s council about the coffeehouse idea, she had listened politely, but immediately wanted to know why Skip didn’t just take the kids out witnessing to students on the streets in that community. When he said that he wasn’t looking for an evangelism project, but a place for relationships to form that might lead to evangelistic conversations, she had shaken her head and said the idea wasn’t a good one.

Skip took a weekend and outlined the entire coffeehouse idea into a presentation. If nothing else, he wanted the senior pastor and the rest of the staff to hear the idea. The pastor always spoke about missions and evangelism, and this was an opportunity to begin to do some of the kinds of missional projects that could change the entire culture of the church itself. Wouldn’t it be great if Central Baptist could one day be known as a church that loved the community enough to open and sustain a coffeehouse as a way to say “We love our community, and we want to show that love in a way that asks you to do nothing, not even come to our building.”

Skip finished the presentation, printed it up, and sent it to the staff, complete with a PowerPoint detailing everything necessary for the first year of the project. He asked if he could have 30 minutes of the next staff meeting to present and discuss the idea.

Tuesday’s staff meeting arrived, and after the usual matters of pastoral care, worship planning and administration, Skip’s time came.

He made his presentation, and he was passionate about what he was dreaming and feeling. He connected with the Bible and with the values of the church’s missions heritage and emphasis. He talked about other churches that had implemented successful coffeehouse ministries in their communities. He admitted this was new, risky, expensive and not comfortable, but he asked his friends on staff to consider if it wasn’t what the church needed to do if it was to really say something to the community about the Gospel.

Skip sat down. Pages turned. The sound of people shifting in seats dominated the silence. Pastor Pat was shaking his head “yes,” and Skip was immediately encouraged.

“Great thinking here, Skip. I can’t really see a lot to disagree with, and I see a lot that is part of what we want to encourage people here at Central to be doing. Relationships with unbelievers are basic to building up this church. We can’t just reach our kids, even with guys like you doing a great job. We need to reach the community.”

Dan, pastor for administration, had been writing down various things on a pad. That always meant questions.

“I’ve got some questions, Skip. Where would this be?

“We would be looking for a storefront or small facility in the Billings Landing Road area, or anything on either side of the University. The idea is to be in the same area where students go to eat, to clubs, internet cafes, other coffeehouses, and so on.”

“I guess I’m confused about why you couldn’t just have a coffeehouse over at the youth facility. You have everything you need over there. You could have a coffeehouse and spend almost nothing beyond the normal expenditures. Plus, the youth facility is ours, we wouldn’t be renting, it would be insured, our janitorial staff would clean it, and so on.”

Skip started to answer, when Pastor Pat spoke up. “Of course, Dan, I think Skip wants to be off campus to make a statement. To actually get off the property as a way of taking a risk. Right?”

Skip nodded. “Exactly. We do things here all the time, and we don’t reach these students. The idea is to go to their turf, and to stay there taking a risk that costs us something. That is the statement that means we want to know and relate to those kids.”

Pastor Pat continued, “I see that aspect of it quite clearly. What I wonder, Skip, is if you’ve considered how the parents of the kids in our student ministry are going to see this. The junior high parents won’t let their kids go down to those neighborhoods, and the senior high parents are going to be ringing your phone and asking you about cigarettes, drugs and alcohol. I think our parents- who are very important in your ministry and in the success of this church- are going to feel that its too risky to take our kids into the communities that are full of the kind of people they don’t want their children being like.”

Dan spoke up on the same lines. “Right. A mission trip or a mission project involves a lot of adult presence with the students wherever they happen to be. If you open a coffeehouse, have a musician in there using bad language, singing about sex to an audience full of kids with tattoos and piercings, the parents are going to have nothing to do with it. And many of those parents will be on the deacon board and on church committees. Many of them are going to say this is exactly what we are trying to get our kids away from. They will say that’s why we spent 3 million on a youth facility and why we have the programs we have here.”

Skip wasn’t responding any more. It wasn’t difficult to see where this was going. After further fisking, and some closing niceties, Skip was told that it was a good idea to consider later, or perhaps in some form that could be done at CBC.

Skip tried not to look too discouraged, but he probably didn’t succeed. He opted out of the usual lunch and went back to his office. He was still there, two hours later, when Austin, the worship leader, stopped in. He’d been in the meeting, and knew Skip well enough to anticipate what he was feeling. He tapped on the door.

“Leaving the ministry?”

Skip laughed quietly. “I think I may have left the ministry a long time ago.”

“That’s cynical. We’ve all had Dan shoot things down in staff. It’s just part of the game around here.”

“I’m not being cynical. I was just told that what I’m doing and what we’re doing is providing a “program” for the children of our church members. Our values are safety, parental approval and use of our own facility so that we look good. If it means going across the street to someone else’s neighborhood, opening ourselves up to the possibility that someone who smokes and drinks might be around our kids, then we aren’t going to do it. We can go on a supervised excursion that we will call “a mission trip,” but actually doing something that would be understandably missional in this community is simply unthinkable.”

Austin wasn’t particularly tolerant of Skip’s whining. The young minister wasn’t a quitter or a whiner, but he did need to vent, and that was part of what friends allowed other friends to do behind church office doors.

“Listen, Skip. When you work at a Central Baptist, you see what they do and you work through that. You accept the programs, the salaries, the safety and the security. That’s your mission field. You don’t come here and stay here wanting to start coffeehouses in the landing. You come here and stay here by putting the coffeehouse in the youth facility once a week, and then trying to give one of those kids the vision to take it across the street. You take the missions trip, but you teach a vision for missions that will send some of them far beyond that.”

Skip was quiet. Austin was, as usual, much wiser than anyone gave him credit for. He was right that a church like CBC was a base; it wasn’t going to do all the ministries that Skip could see in other places, not at this point. It raised up young people who would one day carry that mission out in a way that Skip and CBC never could. CBC was many things, but diverse enough to take this kind of risk? Not yet.

Austin could see that Skip heard him and understood him, so he continued. “We’re going to inspire people to be part of a mission that goes way beyond this kind of church. The stuff we do here isn’t worthless if we put the vision for a larger, better mission at the center of it. So you have to take what you are seeing and feeling, and pass it on in a way that will one day, in God’s time and place, get beyond CBC. We don’t do eveything we can dream of, Skip. But we can pass our dream on to better people, who will make it happen.”

Skip rubbed his eyes. They were tired from looking at the computer screen for two hours, thinking about his resume and writing letters looking for a new position somewhere. “God is the one who is stirring me up, but God is also the one who put me here, and somehow, God may even be the one shutting this door so he can open another one.”

“Exactly. That coffeehouse can be a reality someday, but the CBC staff isn’t going to start it. But someone AT CBC right now- someone you might never anticipate- may be the one who will make it, or something even better, happen. Use the platform God has given you to teach the vision, even if you can’t totally bring it to pass. Be stirred up, and stir someone else up. That’s part of our work.”

Skip smiled. “I need to buy you a vanilla shake at the Corner. I’m feeling generous.”

“See- salvation by works isn’t a bad deal at all. I like it.”

The two young ministers headed for the parking lot. Skip looked at his friend. “But I still may revise that resume.”


  1. That’s the Kool-aid we drink, isn’t it? “Someday, someone will do better.” But then the next generation comes up and they too decide to play it safe, and they demand that their church plays it safe, and the ministers play it safe and they all tell themselves that someone, somewhere will do it better. But then the next generation…etc.

    The Kingdom isn’t about play it safe. This is why the world doesn’t take us serious, quite often.

    It’s a shame that Skip didn’t say, “You know what…I was that visionary kid your talking about. I was the kid that the last generation taught and they were counting on me to reach this generation and to take the risk they were afraid to take. I caught their vision. If I play it safe, and hope for some kid I’m teaching to catch my vision and actually go do it, then it’ll never get done. If this is God’s vision, then it’s God’s vision for me. Hey, Austin…do you want to be music director at my new coffee house? I’m turning in my resignation here.”

    Just an alternate ending…

  2. good alternate ending. more are welcome. i’m not preaching with this story. its the real world. i believe that austin is both right and wrong.

  3. Malu Lani says

    Wow. There is much here to think about.

  4. Michael, fantastic story – this is great stuff to grow on, thank you.

    I felt myself sympathizing with Skip all along unitl Austin showed up… I think too often we look at thinks like Skip and not enough like Austin. Perhaps the motives behind not wanting to open the coffeehouse in the eyes of the rest of the staff were shallow and hard to swallow, but the bigger vision of what God wanted to happen was not thwarted in this, as Austin pointed out. How much more effective would it be for Skip to teach and show “missional” to two or three of his youth that could be changed by that vision casting alone? I think Skip’s intentions are great, but his ego has also played a role in this. Missional is not something that is immediately understood by most church people, so he can’t just start big and expect it to be okay. Missional is where we want to be, but as one who is reformed and missional in an entirely tradtional setting, I can affirm Austin’s suggestion of moving into it little-by-little. Some people will always be opposed, but those who have a true relationship with God and want to see His Kingdom’s purpose fulfilled will surely catch that vision.

    Thanks again!

  5. In the realm of the modern megachurch, there exists the mentality of ‘crapped if we did, crapped if we didn’t’ that is present.

    If the church decided to pursue the coffeehouse, then Billy ‘big bucks’ Businessman would take his large money elsewhere and his influence in local politics, property zoning, etc. elsewhere.

    If the church decided not to pursue the coffeehouse, then Skip would have left over time and a ‘faction’ of Skip lovers would leave also.

    The problem with ‘trendy evangelism’ such as Christian coffeeshops, etc. is that:

    (1): Christians are usually too late in getting into the trend because they wasted too much time wondering if the coffeeshop was ‘of God’ or not and face stiff marketing competition already present that have survived via the product offered, entertainment value, etc. without the prosletyzing.

    (2): These environments start out with a bang with instant success but over time hit the ‘brick wall’, become stagnant, and eventually people start not going there and go to the next ‘craze’ place of social gathering. Much like a nightclub.

    (3): The trends start to die and become replaced by a new trend. However, the financial investment is so much in the dying trend that the only option is to try to stick it out and recoup what you can because the shift in trend has negatively affected resale value that would it be worse to take the loss via the sell or take the loss that leads into being insolvent.

    (4): When the ‘word on the street’ gets out that the coffeehouse is Christian, the sinners steer away from it like they do the church on Sunday mornings. If it is located in the college district, the only time sinners will come in is when they are wasted, have no money to buy a drink at another bar, and will listen long enough to get to the bathroom to relieve themselves of the alcohol they consumed at the bar down the street an hour ago, and then leave.

    (5): When the theological beliefs of the owners come out, other churches in slight disagreement will preach against it and condem their own youth from going there.

    I’ve seen four different Christian coffeeshops come and go in this town of mine. The first one suffered through #2 and the ownership eventually sold out ahead of time to another Christian who ‘had other ideas’ and changed the focus from coffeeshop to youth club to make the business/ministry work.

    The second one was started by a church and of course, #4 took place where the church had to put their name on the outside and decorate the styrofoam cups, napkins, etc with crosses, and the Campus Crusade spiritual laws, etc. It was gone after two months.

    The third one started out with a bang and #5 happened where a locally known independent Charismatic fellowship known for spiritual abuse rented the place on Sunday mornings and concerned Christian parents prohibited their children from going there. After the group moved to another facility due to growth, the coffeehouse months later eventually hit #2 (partially contributed by the backlash of #5 where people still doubted the theology of the owners and theology of guest performers) and was gone within eight months.

    The fourth one started out with a bang and was in the midst of the downtown college bar scene. It went through both #4 and the fact that many high-school aged parents didn’t let their kids go because it was near the bars while others allowed their kids to go there and the place survived for some time after that. Then it went through #2 and ‘re-focused’ itself to survive for a while until #3 was the death blow that closed it down.

    The modern idea of relationship evangelism is a grand and novel concept, but it will not be found in trends because when trends come and go, if the relationships made are founded within the trends, then that relationship will come and go also. The relationship needs to start off with the common interest but needs to grow above the surface level to where the welfare and well-being of the soul goes well and beyond the trend.

  6. I think the problems scenarios totemtotemple lists are not dissimilar to the situation faced by a Christian bookstore which does not want to go down the road of “Christian retailing” described here:
    and in the LA Times article linked there.

    None of these scenarios is inevitable if those involved are clear from the start that this is not a business venture (i.e. it is not expected to make money or break even, but will require ongoing funding as a missionary project), nor a PR stunt for the church (thus no church name over the door, no crosses on the cups and napkins, no tracts littering the place), nor a “quick fix” solution to the problem of evangelism. It cannot rely on the bulk of the church youth either, for the reasons totemtotemple lists.

    For these reasons I think that this sort of a project will not succeed as part of a church’s youth program but only if there are a couple of visionaries (who understand all this) to lead it and a handful of people with the right connections and perhaps some money to put towards the kingdom to support it behind the scenes. Then it can draw on those young people of various churches who are really fired up for missions, and are perhaps old enough and independent enough for their parents to not worry overmuch.

    Otherwise it will quickly mutate to something else, more provitable and sustainable, but much less missional.

    BTW here in Austria where I live there is no “Christian Retail” scene which might sustain a Christian bookstore — we have a handful of Christian bookstores in the country and they only survive because their owners and staff are content to work for very little money or hold other, “proper” jobs to feed their families. From that perspective things look entirely differently 🙂 One of the families running a bookstore also ran a cafe for a number of years; it was the scene of many profitable conversations, encounters, etc. but in the end it became too much of a burden to staff, pay the rent for, meet all code requirements, etc., and it recently closed.

  7. What I have never heard in my 43 years of being a Christian adult is why church kids don’t know these kids at school. The answer is the school “cliques.” The church never helps their youth in learning how to transcend the cliques in their schools, so Christian kids many times end up in their own “Christian” clique. I don’t think many Chrisitan kids would want to evangelize at the coffee house because they don’t feel comfortable with the non-church kids. If we would help kids go over clique lines at school, there would be little need for coffee houses…right?

  8. Relational evangelism appears “modern” because of the Christian “ghetto” that so many of us have fallen into (myself included). Christian “work” can be part of the trap. My lack of funds for Christian high school for my kids may have been one of the best thing that happened to our family. It brought us out of the ghetto and forced us to navigate the landscape of everyday life with unbelievers on a more frequent basis. More than providing a settin for spiritual conversation with others, I think it brought my sin and unbelief more to the surface and I was forced to admit how poorly I loved others. It also brought me into discussions with my kids about forgiving, being unequally yoked, etc. My kids even set examples for me in caring for and dealing with the sin of others. I tire of hearing of the latest trends in evangelism, but I never fail to be refreshed by someone who loves others (me) well.

  9. Diane, I don’t agree with your comment. I think the very problem with our “evangelistic outreach” to youth is that those who are in the church look and many times act just the same as those who are outside the church. Read any of the material produced my Josh McDowell and the statistics will suprise you. The reason kids whose parents aren’t Christians don’t come to church is not because of youth church cliques. It’s because the youth that are churched aren’t talking to anyone about Jesus, church friends or not, any more than their parents are with their friends and co-workers. We’ve worked so hard to entertain our youth in churches that we’ve missed the mark completely. I know from being a youth pastor, through personal experience that youth are more than comfortable with those of their peers who are unchurched. They’re just like most of them in a lot of ways and that is what we must work against, that is the pattern that needs to be broken.

  10. How can we inculcate the virtue of HOSPITALITY in our people? Do this “thought experiment.” Start inviting people from church over for dinner. See how many dozens of families you have to feed before one returns the invitation. Our culture is broken in this respect.

    Think about the millions of foreign students in our country, only a small percentage of whom will ever be invited into an American home.

    A church that takes hospitality seriously don’t need no stinkin’ coffee house. Nor no stinkin’ “youth ministry” neither.

    But how can we transform the culture, to make family-friendly ministry happen?

  11. I have to admit that after reading this post, I am working through a variety of emotions. I’m frustrated with the church for wanting to play it safe economically and physical neighborhoodly. I understand Austin’s rebuff, but I’m frustrated with the “we’re the base to inspire someone else to do” mentality. Who’s going to do, then? But after reading totemtotemple’s points as well as both the comments of Diane and kennicon, I think I’m left with this feeling of how do we communicate and incarnate Christ’s love and truth in a meaningful way to this culture without being either isolationist in our own programs/cliques (which is how I grew up in youth group) or being so anxious to hit the trends, that we lose Christ in the marketing? (see for my specific frustrations on one church service) How do we maintain a love that is different, spiritual disciplines that set us apart as disciples of Christ but still a love that makes the world see that they matter to us and to God?

  12. u2wesley says

    Great story simply because it’s true and it happens every day. Regarding the comments that follow, each has its own insight as well. But I think what all of this points to is the absolute failure of evangelicalism to construct any sort of theology of culture that didn’t look like a crooked politician reading the latest polls and developing policy accordingly. As one who spent 20 years “in the ministry” and has now spent the last 7 years “out of the ministry” but now has more of a ministry than I ever sniffed when I was taking a paycheck from a church, I have a lot of empathy for Skip. I think Austin is the liberal pastor from that X-Files episode about snake handlers.

  13. After mulling over this story for a few days, here’s what I think. I think that Skip FELT like this idea of a coffee house ministry downtown was daringly and exhilaratingly “out of the box.” In some ways it was, but he maybe didn’t recognize that he had simply exchanged boxes, not discarded one. The new box might have been bigger, but it was still a box.

    Skip felt restless with all the emphasis on “program” but didn’t see that running a coffeehouse was also a program. Maybe it wasn’t purchased from Group Publishing and maybe it didn’t have a denominational stamp on it, but it was still a Great Big Important Work the church was going to do.

    See, I think that Skip was so thoroughly wired for “program” that he didn’t even recognize program in a less-familiar form. If his heart was purely and surely all about ministry to the guys who wanted to hang out in a coffee house, he didn’t need to be the guy in CHARGE of the coffee house.

    Nobody was stopping Skip from finding a likely, local coffeeshop and making that his hangout. The problem was that Skip didn’t REALLY want to _just_ hang out with the down and out. He was still a youth pastor who NEEDED to run things. He needed that coffeehouse ministry to BE a program….or, well, he would be out of a job. Because anyone can go sit at the local Starbucks and talk to people.

    I think the change needs to be deeper than simply changing venues from the church youth center to a more neutral setting. Maybe Skip has the seeds of a dream that he needs to pursue, but I would guess that a real life Skip would need to first figure out that he can, in fact, just go do the relational, organic thing at the local Starbucks! It doesn’t need to be a Big Thing that HE is in charge of.

    That’s how I read Skip…good heart, good intentions, possibly with great potential…still more of a koolaid drinker than he knows.

  14. I’m sorry, Michael. That comment came out more harshly than I intended it to. I really enjoyed this parable and it spurred me to think HARD. Thanks for that and sorry for any abruptness. Blessings, Barbara

  15. Beyond Words,
    I think you may be on to something there…

  16. Indeed a typical story of everyday church, regardless of size or denominations. Leaders/Christians are continuing to build churches instead of making disciples. Churches are not built, we are the church. The church of Jesus Christ is made up of disciples who, “hates his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life.”

    How can parents call themselves disciples of Jesus when they are not willing to lose their children. They have not ‘counted their cost’ in following Jesus (lk 14:28). Jesus said, “those who save their lives will lose it, those who lose their lives will save it.” By saving/protecting our chilren we only end up losing them.

    One of the hardest part in doing youth ministry is dealing with parents who are not willing to, “deny themselves, pick up their cross, and follow Jesus.” The bulk of Jesus ministries took place outside the ‘churh’. It’s clear that His followers are not going where He went and is.

  17. During a conference Q&A session I asked a pastor who lives in and leads an inner city church whether he thought it was responsible to expose our children to danger by moving into the inner city.

    He laid into me, saying that he had grown weary of Christian parents using their kids as excuses. Our job, he said, was not to protect our children, but to raise in the admonition of Christ. And, the pattern of the cross should compel us to take risks.

    I still think he was more than a little self-righteous in the way he responded, but much of what he said is true.
    The problem with Austin’s acceptance of the status quo is that most of the kids in the big youth group grow up with little appreciation for what it means to suffer in Christ.

  18. If any man care not for his own, specially they of his own household, he is worse than an infidel and hath denied the faith.

    Be that as it may, the most thought-provoking movie I ever saw on child rearing was the George C. Scott vehicle Hard Core. A control-freak calvinist father learns, the hard way, that it is God’s grace that redeems, not his controlling spirit.

    Sending kids to public school is irresponsible. So, too, is inhospitable isolationism. When done right, home schooling opens doors for outreach around the dinner table. It’s a real eye-opener for a six year old to realize that the sweet young muslim couple is on the road to Hell. The couple you know personally, love dearly, and have had over for dinner.

    Frankly, I’m not that enamoured with “youth ministry.” A normal Christian family, I suspect, is engaged in “family minstry” — ministry as a family.