Sam is one of the most entrepreneurial individuals I know. Approximately five years ago — just after he graduated from college — he started his own marketing company. He is a go-getter, and today his client list includes small businesses, public figures, and educational institutions. He does not have a storefront or an office. He works out of his home and his car, and he meets with clients in their offices or coffee shops.

Last year Sam and his wife began attending Northway Church in Macon, Georgia. I’ve had the privilege to serve as the pastor of this church for nearly a dozen years. Shortly after Sam joined, we completed a campus expansion project which included a 3,500 square foot coffee shop. Cathedral Coffee (cathedralcoffee.org) was intentionally built as a place where individuals from the community could easily take a first step onto our campus.

That’s where Sam comes in.

“I’ve been meeting with a client at Cathedral Coffee for several weeks now,” he recently shared with me. “I’ve known this guy for a couple of years. He describes himself as being somewhere between an atheist and agnostic. He’s not militant, but very firm. We’ve met in restaurants and coffee shops numerous times, and he’s never been open to discussing God. But, as we’ve met in Cathedral Coffee, he’s been asking questions. First about my church and what we believe, but more recently about my own faith. I would say he’s still a long way from believing in the gospel, but at least he’s cracked the door just a little and allowed some discussion about spiritual things.”

Losing Third Place

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz famously described his desire to see Starbucks become the “Third Place” for people in our country. Everyone has a third place, he argued. Home is first, work is second, and somewhere else is the third environment where they spend a large majority of their time. This may be a country club, a community center, a coffee shop, or some other venue where individuals are able to easily gather together.

The local church has traditionally been this third place for a majority of our nation’s population. Between worship, Bible-studies, and numerous fellowship activities, the church was a place where people found community outside of home and work. Now, however, church has lost its third place position in our culture. Decades ago, worship and Sunday School were the only options for those seeking community on a Sunday morning. Travel ball didn’t exist. There were few weekend tournaments. Businesses closed their doors, perhaps opening only after lunch. Now our culture offers a buffet of activities on the first day of the week. Those seeking community have plenty of options.

Can We Talk?

In an article about the rise of coffee shops in our nation over the last couple of decades, Dr. Timothy George, Dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, writes about the history of conversations transpiring within the confines of these venues.

Coffee houses brought together ideas and people from all walks of life—poets, playwrights, diplomats, laborers, and dissenters both political and religious. The conversations were often edgy and sometimes turned radical. Daniel Webster described The Green Dragon, a famous coffeehouse in Boston, as the “headquarters of the American Revolution.” From England and North America, coffee houses spread all around the world.

Not all conversations in such places are about politics and ideology. If you listen around the edges of conversations, you will hear people talking about all kinds of things: current events, sports, the weather, missed opportunities, broken hearts, new romances, what’s happening at work, issues of the day, and God. In fact, God is often just beneath the surface in conversations about the issues of the day and all the other stuff that comes out over a cup of java.

For those of us who follow Christ, a coffeehouse is the perfect place to engage someone with the gospel. Presentations of the gospel can be effective, but conversations about the gospel are far more. As a pastor, I’m not terribly concerned that my congregants know the four spiritual laws, or the Evangelism Explosion key question, or the FAITH model of evangelism. I’m more hopeful that they will know how to be effective listeners. And, perhaps over a cup of coffee, be willing to listen to a friend, co-worker, or client share their struggles, pain, hopes, needs. Then be able to respond with gospel-soaked words.

Christians Eating Their Own

I both love and hate social media. I love its effectiveness for communication. Our church can advertise an event and, almost instantly, have the majority of our congregation informed. Or we can share video of the previous week’s worship gathering, reminding people during the week of what they experienced on Sunday.

Conversely, I hate the bombastic, acrimonious words quickly and carelessly typed as one hides safely behind a keyboard and screen. If you spend more than five minutes scrolling through social media, you will see numerous examples of this behavior in action.
Several months ago a social media post about Cathedral Coffee went relatively viral. While most of the comments were positive, a small percentage were reckless and uninformed. Parallels to Jesus and the money changers in the temple were fallaciously drawn. Accusations of church greed were made. A few comments mentioned the pastor’s Mercedes (FYI, I drive a Chevrolet Suburban with 190,000 miles).

Interestingly, many of these negative comments came from those who claim to follow Christ. They condescendingly criticized the church for opening a coffeehouse, engaging in the retail business, and being only interested in growing the coffers of the church. Sadly, these jabs were not only misinformed, but a tone of Christian love was conspicuously absent.

The Fight Over Basketball

When we embarked upon this project, I thought often about a church somewhere in America, over half a century ago, making the decision to implement a cutting-edge idea: they would construct gym and encourage their members to bring friends to the church to play basketball. I’ve imagined the heavy criticism they received in their community for mixing sports and Jesus. Had social media been in existence, the comments would have been numerous:

• What does a basketball court have to do with church? There are other places to play basketball… church is about worship!

• I bet they are wearing shorts while they play. Can you believe it? Shorts at church?!? How irreverent!

• I heard they are charging $5 a person to play in a league. What are they doing with all that money they are making?

This innovative idea later became the premier outreach tool of churches all across our nation. For decades, churches would construct these Family Life Centers for recreational ministry. Members would invite friends who, perhaps, had little interest in church but loved basketball. Relationships were formed and the gospel was shared.

Coffeehouses are now a great environment for these gospel-centered conversations. Sam — as well as many others in our church — are using this tool for their own personal ministry. My prayer is that many in our community will one day begin the story of their spiritual journey with the words, “I thought I was just getting a cup of coffee.”

Kevin Mills is the Lead Pastor of Northway Church in Macon, GA.