Running Café Church … in a café

I went to church tonight. Except it was in Starbucks. Although it was definitely church. But the drinks were definitely by Starbucks.

Oh boy, another long winded rambling post about church and music and stuff. You can have the tl:dr version here: “Church in a café still looks and smells like church, which confuses me a bit.”

There.

Or read on to find out where I’m going with this.

I went to Sunday Night Live, a syndicated event run by local churches in places like their local Starbucks coffee shop. The premise is to get live music into these venues with a gospel twist. I gather that that’s a thematic twist not necessarily a question of genre, but I reckon you could play it both ways and still be OK.

The band this evening were One Step Lantern. They make music, and it’s very nice. You can buy their stuff and support WorldVision. I realise not everybody agrees with the way WorldVision operate or the standards they hold to, and that’s frankly not the point. The point is this: I went to a gig tonight, and it was charitable in so far as during the break between sets the lead singer was allowed to promote his own work and that of the charity he represents, and he made a good case for supporting them both.

The hosts had told Starbucks to give free cake away with drinks when purchased. They were paying out for our happiness and comfort, and although I can see this has merit in terms of fishing for the unwary unbeliever, it kind of didn’t matter because most of the people in the room were clearly members either of the host church or the church from which One Step Lantern hail.

OK, the scene is set, the sound check kind of carried out and they’re ready to rock Starbucks. That’s the Starbucks who don’t pay their taxes equitably. We’re paying them good money to drink their drinks, and the church is buying us all cake, and … again, not relevant to the discussion in my head, but another point to mull over.

What happened in the course of two sets was clearly church. a bunch of believing Christians meeting to share gospel truths (albeit in the form of songs; see Latin mass, Wesleyan chapels, Salvation Army, Armenian Orthodox liturgy, etc) and have a bit of a social. Really, apart from the teaching (we got an interview about the work and a promo for the charity instead) and the prayers, it was quite a model of church unfolding before my eyes.

There were certainly the usual church problems of what to do with your children while you’re engaged in the event. Half a dozen reasonably quiet but obviously bored ones settled at the far end of the café next to the toilets in the second set. I’ve never been in a church where the presence of children wasn’t a problem in one way or another. Exclude them, marginalise them or make them your centre of attention and somebody gets upset. Make them sit with their parents and neither parents or children enjoy themselves. It joins the list of things about which I will ask for direction once I get to heaven, because nobody down here seems to have fixed it.

Or how about chairs. I got up at the end of the first set, and by the time I’d refreshed my mint tea someone had taken my seat. Not just occupied it, you understand. This is a café. They’d taken it completely. I found a place to perch and made do. It’s not a big thing, but the parallel with church where people can get possessive over the same things struck me.

Overall, the experience was a positive and affirming one. I like the event and what happened. I just don’t get it. I’ve seen some churches try to run a “Fresh Expression” of church where they emulate a café style. I recall a wide range of levels of success doing that. Tonight I feel I’ve witnessed the other side of the same coin – taking a bunch of churchgoing Christians and putting them in a café. Again, the success was mixed. We have ways of being a body of people which don’t always match well with how we behave in the everyday world. This event highlighted that a little for me.

What intrigues me is whether there’s an issue here or not. SNL is obviously costing money to run, and I’m not involved so I couldn’t tell you what their idea of success looks like or how they measure progress towards it, but I do know it’s not at all what I expected.

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