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Making connections, one cup at a time

Making connections, one cup at a time

It’s no secret that people tend to bond over food and drink, particularly if the seating is comfy and the setting is cozy.

Throw free Wi-Fi into the mix for 21st century appeal and a corner nook turns into a people magnet.

Just ask Starbucks, the gourmet coffee chain that has become indispensable to many a modern java junkie.

The ministry possibilities of such a setting aren’t lost on some UMC churches in the Florida Conference and beyond. 

Isaac Giles, assistant coffee house manager at Van Dyke Church, serves a visitor
Isaac Giles, assistant manager at Van Dyke Church's new coffeehouse, takes a visitor's order. Photo by Susan Green.

About two months ago, Van Dyke Church in Lutz transformed its bookstore into a coffeehouse, and already hundreds of people share cappuccinos and stories of Christ on a weekly basis.

“We wanted to provide a place for people to hang out and talk and develop a community,” said Rev. Rob Rose, Van Dyke’s executive director of discipleship at the 25-year-old church that hosts numerous gatherings for members and nonmembers throughout the year.

He said the bookstore was doing well enough as a fixture in the church’s Spiritual Life Center. But with Internet outlets supplanting traditional booksellers and the ministry potential of a coffee café, the time seemed right to trade the racks of books for display cases of desserts and sandwiches that complement quality coffee blends.

The shop is open for lunch Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and people of many different denominations meet there weekly for Bible study. Staff members often open on demand for young adult events, volunteer socials and church staff meetings. Rose said the church is particularly interested in developing a post-football game ministry for high school students. 

Van Dyke Church Coffee House scene
Van Dyke Church's new coffeehouse lends itself to conversation and relationship-building. Photo by Susan Green.

Church planter Sean Peters liked the coffee klatch concept so well, he and his wife, Sandra, are developing The Journey UMC in downtown Crestview around it.    

“I love the atmosphere of it,” Peters said. “It gives us an opportunity to meet people in a safe place.”

Traditional worship services are held weekly at the local high school, and coffee customers are not pressured to worship, though the UMC connection is advertised.

“We make sure people understand that we are a nonprofit and … proceeds go to missions for the church,” Peters said.

The Shalimar congregation donated two pews, and Sean and Sandra painted them and added cushions before placing them inside the coffeehouse.

“It gives us a really neat, eclectic feel, but it ties us to the church also,” the pastor said.

Journey Java Connection
Visitors share coffee and conversation at the coffeehouse founded by The Journey UMC in Crestview. Photo courtesy of The Journey UMC.

Peters is a former Florida Conference pastor who moved to the Alabama-West Florida Conference a few years ago, first with a pastoral position at Shalimar UMC. When he received an appointment to start a new church in Crestview in July 2011, Peters and his wife decided to open Journey Java Connection with the church offices behind it.

The shop in the heart of downtown Crestview respects the historic feel of the community’s main drag while incorporating some of the modern flavor of a coffeehouse with lattes, cappuccinos, macchiato drinks and smoothies. Early this year, Journey Java began offering healthy salads and sandwiches, filling a niche for the lunch crowd.

The shop also invites local artists to perform or display their work there, which brings more people in.

“What we’d love to do is create a worship space … with couches and chairs that lends itself to relationship-building,” Peters said.

Also in the Alabama-West Florida Conference is the historic Perry Home Coffee House, a ministry of First UMC, Pensacola.

Jeb Hunt, spokesman for First Pensacola, said the congregation bought the historic home of a former governor in 2008 and remodeled it to include a Christian gift shop and coffeehouse. It was open to the public for a few months, until a commercial coffee shop opened nearby in downtown Pensacola. 

A rack card at First UMC, Pensacola, accentuates the homey feel of the Perry Home Coffee House. Courtesy of First UMC, Pensacola.

Now the coffeehouse is open at certain times during the week, including on Sundays, when a service headlined by a contemporary Christian rock band is held in a space inside the Perry Home adjacent to the café.

First Pensacola has a large, beautiful sanctuary, “which can be intimidating for people who are not regular churchgoers,” Hunt said. The Perry Home service has drawn smaller crowds of people who otherwise would not have attended worship.

The house is a Pensacola landmark, owned for more than a century by a private group.

“People saw the building but they could never go in,” Hunt recalled. “People are curious about the building inside. … Eventually they will come to a service. We find that it is a good front door for us.”

Back in the Florida Conference, Pastor Todd Stube at Good Shepherd UMC in West Palm Beach has been trying the coffeehouse concept in two parts of a campus built when the congregation was much larger.

The neighborhood around the church has become a low-income district, and there’s a “strip joint” across the street, Stube said.

“We are looking for nonthreatening ways to meet people,” Stube said.

On the first Friday of each month, the church transforms part of its fellowship hall into the Celebration Arts Café, inviting local artists to perform clean music and asking for a $5 “cover charge.” The first one in November attracted about 40 people, mostly young adults.

“They aren’t going to come to church,” Stube said. “This is an unchurched community. But maybe they’ll come to our coffeehouse and start there. … It’s a place to hang out.”

For regular churchgoers, the congregation knocked out a wall in the 1,800-seat worship center and remodeled what had been dubbed “the parlor” into a coffee café.

“I’d love to have little Starbucks tables and chairs,” Stube said. “Right now, we throw tablecloths over our old stuff. … Anything to make people stop and connect with others.”

Celebration Arts Cafe logoChurch representatives interviewed said the cost of setting up a coffeehouse environment can vary from almost nothing to several thousand dollars, depending on the furnishings and equipment desired and the availability of volunteer labor.

Sean Peters in Crestview said he and his wife bought used coffee machines and received some training in how to make good quality coffee and specialty drinks from the seller.

“We taught ourselves through YouTube quite a bit,” he added.

He said appealing, informal settings like the coffeehouse are indispensable to church planters.

“More and more, non-churchgoers … aren’t necessarily going to be looking for church services,” Peters said.

“Instead of saying, ‘Come to us,’ we’re saying, ‘We’ll come to them.’”