Coffee Shop Ministry
“I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that, in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation.”–John Wesley, Journal
As an adjunct lecturer at several local colleges and the pastor of a small house church, I have been given the gift of a flexible schedule. My pastoral duties primarily include preaching every other Sunday, leading worship, teaching evening Bible studies, and regular one-on-one discipleship. Much of my pastoral work is completed in the evenings and on weekends, leaving me with a fair amount of “free time” during weekdays.1 During the week, I typically teach one to three classes per day, sometimes in the morning and sometimes in the afternoon. As an adjunct, you do not have your own private office space on campus. This means you have to be flexible and work on the go. Most days that I teach class, I stop by a local coffee shop either before or after class for personal devotional times and to complete some quick work. Over the years, some of my most important times of ministry have taken place in a coffee shop.
How To Guide To Coffee Shop Ministry
Whenever I go into a coffee shop, I always make myself open to interruptions and conversation. Even though I often have work that needs to be completed, I never treat my work as more important than an unexpected conversation with a friend or stranger. In order to make myself accessible to other people, I make several conscious choices. One, I never wear headphones in a coffee shop, even if it is noisy. To me, headphones are a sign that you are absorbed in your own world and do not want to be disturbed. Two, I try to use my laptop as sparingly as possible. Laptops are a lot like headphones. When you have a laptop open on your table, it is a sign that you are immersed in important work. If I really need to use my laptop for something, I will, but otherwise I keep my laptop closed or in my bag. Three, I always put a book on the corner of my desk. Most of the time it is a book I am currently reading, but sometimes I put a book there just to see who wants to talk about it. Books are different than laptops and headphones. Since people can see the titles, they will freely interrupt you if the title catches their attention. Whereas laptops discourage interaction, books invite it. Four, I try to look up from my reading or work regularly to make eye contact with other people. Eye contact is another good way to show people that you are open to having a conversation. Lastly, I never enter into an interaction with an agenda. I do not think of it as outreach or evangelism. At the most, I think of it as spiritual conversation. If people sense that you have an agenda, that often limits your ability to interact with them.
Fortunately, I have a congregation that is supportive of my coffee shop ministry.2 Whereas a lot of churches might require their pastor to sit in an office and minister primarily to congregants, my church embraces the idea that I spend most of my time in the marketplace ministering to people who are not members of our church. Some of my coffee shop conversations have turned into the most important moments in my ministry. I will share a few stories and examples below.
“Can I Talk to You For a Minute?”
Just this past week I had one of those enriching moments. A man sitting behind me noticed that I was reading my Bible and saw Augustine, On Christian Teaching, sitting on my table. He came up and said, “Can I talk to you for a minute?” Of course, I gladly invited him to sit down, and I put away my work for a minute. At first the man just wanted to say that he appreciated seeing me studying diligently, but then he also wanted to know where I bought my hat. After talking about hats for a few minutes, the man said that he was a pastor who had just recently begun attending a new church plant in the city. He gave up his full-time ministry job in the suburbs to help this new congregation get started. At his new church, he recognized that he would need to find other employment to provide for his family’s needs. He mentioned that he was interested in teaching as an adjunct. At this point a big smile crossed my face because I had not said anything about myself. I informed the man that I was bi-vocational as a pastor and adjunct faculty. We proceeded to have a great conversation about ministry. I gave him some practical advice about being an adjunct, and encouraged him to trust in the grace of God to provide.
Another time I was reading Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain. A gentleman interrupted me because he had read the book and enjoyed it. The man was not religious himself, but his brother had recommended the book to him. We talked for a few minutes about the book and Merton. While we talked, a second man overheard us and joined in on the conversation. He had not read Thomas Merton, but he was taking seminary classes online and was interested in the subject matter. Eventually the first man excused himself, and I kept talking with the second man. As it turned out, he was only in town from San Diego for a few days for some military training. Somehow it came up during the course of our conversation that I was teaching a Bible study that evening, and the man asked if he would be welcome to attend. I gladly invited him, and that evening he came to my home.3 He worshipped with us, studied with us, talked with us, and prayed with us that evening. At the time, he was trying to make some difficult decisions regarding a romantic relationship. We did our best to offer our limited wisdom, and he seemed to find our advice helpful. For me, the whole experience was a powerful reminder about the “Church Universal” and the “Body of Christ.” Of course, the next day he returned to San Diego, and we never saw him again or heard from him again, but I know that the time we spent together was mutually beneficial.
While I never saw the man from San Diego again, other times my interactions with folks in a coffee shop have led to ongoing friendships. One time I said something to a young man who was holding a copy of Heretics and who looked a lot like a good friend from Atlanta. I got excited to see someone else reading G.K. Chesterton, only to find out that he did not know Chesterton at all. His book was on the history of heretical movements in early Christianity and was authored by someone I did not know. In spite of my disappointment, we talked for a bit and exchanged contact info. It turned out he was a middle school pastor at a large church in town. We ended up deciding to do regular coffee on Wednesday mornings, a practice that continued for about a year until his work schedule changed. Each Wednesday morning we would visit for a bit and then read a Bible passage together. Typically we read whatever passage I was going to preach on that week. Often times my friend offered some insight or thought that shaped my own reflection on the text and ultimately became a part of my Sunday sermon. In addition to this friend, I have met a number of fellow pastors who I talk with regularly when I see them at the local coffee shop. Sometimes we talk theology or biblical interpretation. Often times we talk practical ministry and real-world pastoral issues. I am always edified by these spontaneous interactions and conversations, even if they only last a few minutes.
“I Look Upon All the World as My Parish”
Of course, not all my interactions have been entirely positive. One time a guy interrupted me to snidely remark, “I didn’t think anybody read the Bible anymore.” For him the Bible was full of violence, bigotry, patriarchy, and dogma. Another time a guy walked by me, threw both arms up in the air, and shouted, “Titus! Yeah!” Truthfully, I was reading II Timothy, but he saw the page for Titus open on my table.4 Other times I have had conversations with people who self-identify as “atheist Catholics” or as “irreligious.” Sometimes people give me funny looks and seem to sit as far away from me as possible. One time a fellow regular sat down right across from me because every seat in the place was full except for that one. He said that the owner told him I would let him sit with me. I told him he was certainly always welcome to share my table. He responded by saying, “Well, the two of us sitting together is like God and the devil sitting together.”5 It is hard to know what to say back to a comment like that! Either way, it reminded me that there is a Christian witness in simply being present and being hospitable.
When I first began my so-called coffee shop ministry, my main inspiration was John Wesley. In his own time, he was criticized for crossing the geographic boundaries of parishes in England. The idea was that a minister did not pastor the sheep of another flock. Wesley’s style of ministry, which included the culturally offensive practice of open-air preaching, challenged the age-old parish boundaries. In response to criticism, Wesley famously said, “I look upon all the world as my parish.”6 In my own way, I feel like my coffee shop ministry operates in the same spirit as Wesley’s ministry, albeit I am probably much less overtly evangelical than Wesley. I talk to all kinds of people during the week, few of them are from my own congregation. Some of those folks belong to other churches in town and others have no spiritual beliefs at all. Either way, I look at all the folks that I encounter each day as my parish, and I am happy to have a conversation over coffee with anyone who interrupts me.
(1) People who know me know that I rarely sit around twiddling my thumbs. If I’m not doing work for school or church, I am typically watching my children while my wife does some work. So I use the phrase “free time” somewhat tongue-in-cheek.
(2) In fact, I think someone in the church probably started calling it my “coffee shop ministry” first. Each week people will ask at lunch whether or not I have any funny stories or interactions from the previous week. A lot of weeks I have some story to tell.
(3) Yes, inviting perfect strangers into your home can be a little bit intimidating, but this guy gave me a good “vibe.”
(4) The Titus guy ended up sitting down with me, and we talked for a bit. Turned out he was actually a Christian and had been reading Titus recently. He just made me feel awkward for a moment when he shouted in the middle of the coffee shop. Rarely do folks demonstrate such enthusiasm for Titus!
(5) Ironically, this particular man likes to talk to me most of the time when he sees me. This isn’t the only time we’ve shared a table.
(6) John Wesley, Journal (June 11, 1739).
Image from Flickr under creative commons use. Here is a link to the original image.