On Doing Church in a Pub

“You aren’t an emerging church until someone eats dessert while you are trying to have communion” – Cafechurch saying.

It occurs to me that this blog is supposed to be about doing church in post-modernity, and I have been mainly blogging about culture, not church. The problem is, it is so hard to start – I’ve been so involved in this for so long and I have so many thoughts that is hard to find a way in. However, I have to get over the fear of the blank page, shut the inner critic in the attic, and screw my courage to the sticking point, and begin somewhere.

I’ve been involved in Cafechurch Melbourne for eleven years now (since 2002), at first as a member, then as an elder an sidekick to Steve (our beloved founder) , and finally as the leader. In that time we have met in a lot of pubs, cafes and bars. In fact, in the thirteen years Cafechurch has been running, we have met in no fewer than eleven venues, moving on as they shut down, changed hands, or, on one memorable occasion, took to noisily cleaning their cappucino machines while we were trying to pray. And for Cafechurch, meeting in a bar isn’t just one of those temporary, part time, occasional things – it is absolutely core business for us. Church in a third space: that’s us. This post is an attempt to consolidate a few things have learned – the good, the bad, and the unexpected.

Here are a few places where we have met:

  • A fairly quiet pub where we used to meet upstairs, directly over the kitchen. The ventilation didn’t work very well, and there was something drastically wrong with the wiring, which meant that we quite often sat in semi-darkness, shrouded in smoke. Hard to talk about the Kingdom of God when you’re somewhere which reminds you so much of the other place!
  • A place on a restaurant strip where the owner was initially eager for our custom and gave us a special deal. But because there were now a whole bunch of us sitting in the restaurant, it looked popular, which brought other people in, which meant he didn’t feel like he really needed our custom any more. So he made us uncomfortable enough to leave. Which, in turn, meant his restaurant didn’t look popular any more, which means no-one came… and so it shut down. We refer to that as the Curse of Cafechurch.
  • The café which we described as follows: park in the brothel carpark around the corner, then we are in the café with the explicit & life size scene from the Karma Sutra on the ceiling. Walk  past the dope smokers up the stairs, being careful not to go through the door which opens into nothing at all, and find the room with the pictures of naked ladies on the walls – that’s us. (Thanks Brian – hope you don’t mind me stealing your joke.)
  • I could go on, but you get the idea. Lots of places, lots of stories. One of the things you have to give up is control over your environment.

A couple of years ago at an event a nice, well meaning person asked me how it was going, witnessing to the staff at the bar. Another well meaning person once suggested that we should be handing out tracts to the other customers. Both of those ideas displayed a bit of a misunderstanding of what we are doing in a pub in the first place, and what the relationship with the venue is really like. I guess what they both had in common was a sort of sense that they thought we were venturing into unfriendly territory, a lightening raid where we get in, do our thing, and get back out again. Really, that’s not the case at all. We aren’t raiders, we are settlers – we want to become bi-cultural, as it were: able to communicate equally in secular and religious seeings.

Really, the first rule of meeting in a public space is this: don’t piss the staff or other customers off. If the staff don’t like you, then they have ways of making your time unpleasant enough to be entirely untenable. You are a guest there, mind your manners. Would you like it if you were trying to go about your business in a busy cafe and some religious nutcase kept hassling you? It’s possible that they are going to be predisposed to disliking you anyway, don’t push your luck. If you are lucky, all they know about religion is gleaned from popular culture. If you are unlucky they have some horrible religious experiences behind them, and if you are really unlucky, they are going to blame you for them.

Generally though, people are kind  and the bar staff are hospitable. If they aren’t, then you should probably just chalk it up to experience, and graciously find somewhere else to meet.  At least they will have one positive experience of religious people.

Likewise with hassling the customers – you will wear out your welcome very quickly indeed if you start costing the cafe business. Again, you are a guest there, using their space on sufferance.

So if we aren’t there to try to convert the bar staff or the customers, then why meet in a pub in the first place?

As far as I am concerned, the only reason to go through the enormous hassle of meeting in a public space is just that – you want to meet in a public space. It’s a safe space – nothing embarrassing is going to happen. It’s a culturally comfortable space – people go out for dinner in a bar all the time. You have made the gesture of moving out of your comfort zone into theirs, and it is a gesture of welcome and invitation. At Cafechurch we buy people coffee to symbolize that. Melbourne culture is pretty serious about coffee, so you might want to think of something more culturally appropriate.

That offer of safety is the main point I think. Consider for a moment how you would feel walking into a betting shop or a mosque – you wouldn’t know what to do, you would feel highly conspicuous, it would be an anxious experience. This is what walking into a church building feels like for a lot of people – in Melbourne, it’s like that for most people.

The thing is though, it’s a safe space for them, not for you: that’s kind of the point.

I have this theory that there is a certain amount of suffering inherent in going to any sort of church meeting, whether it is in a church or a public place  (I have a similar theory about software design, fwiw.) If you meet in your comfortable, safe space – say a few sofas in the back of your church – then you feel comfortable, but the people you are hoping to reach – the church abuse survivors and seekers and the merely curious – will feel a whole lot less comfortable. You’re expecting them to step well outside their comfort zone into a place which might have seriously bad associations for them. But if you go to a place where they feel comfortable, the chances are that you might feel uncomfortable. You aren’t in control any more, you don’t know who is going to show up, and you are reliant on the good will of the venue. You are making yourself vulnerable.

At least, that is how it feels to me. There is something about taking something sacred and bringing it out into public where you aren’t sure how it will be received thatis risky. And it’s right that it feels risky – you are asking other people to trust you with what is precious in their lives – their stories of hurt and triumph, their hesitant perceptions of what is of ultimate meaning and value in life. You should have some skin in the game. The least you could do is to put yourself out there into a neutral space where you aren’t in control either, and trust that God really is to be found outside church buildings.

3 comments

  1. Sticky date pudding to be precise. And it was very good.

  2. Also, this was a very good read

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