It all started when St Paul's Church, Dorking, opened up its doors to a new 'audience'. As vicar Paul Bryer explains, the result is 'Café Church – church with a twist'.
Our monthly Café Church has been running for two years and it has had an enormous impact as it reaches so many people who would not otherwise come into St Paul's.
Members of our weekly congregation make up about half of those who come along but the rest just come to Café Church. Children's attendance figures have doubled as a result; we normally have about 40 children on a Sunday but at a recent Café Church we welcomed in the region of 80 with 175 adults.
The church building itself is on the way to a school so many parents walk past St Paul's during the week. Many mums and dads also drop their children off at our church nursery and, for quite a long time, we had seen people standing outside the church in the cold and the rain while on the school and nursery 'run'.
The thought came to us. Maybe we could give them coffee in the church instead of them having to wait outside? So we opened up the church doors, served coffee in one of our aisles and called it the Earlybird Café. People very quickly started to come in every morning.
The result was that we thought about how we could involve them a little more and invite them to our services. We also knew that if they came into church on a Sunday morning, it was possibly something they had never experienced before – we knew we needed to make it much more user-friendly. That's when we thought about making it a café based service, launched the Café Church on the first Sunday of the month and things have grown from there.
When people walk in they can go and get a tea or coffee, pick up something to eat from bacon rolls and croissants to waffles and homemade cake and take a look at the Sunday papers. Everything is set up around small tables, there's music in the background and it's all very informal. For the first 15 minutes, we just let them come in and 'be' and I then welcome them from the front – but it takes a while for people to settle down!
I explain the theme and tell them that everyone is free to come and go when they want and join in with everything or nothing. Our worship group then lead us in one or two songs which we try to ensure are familiar to those visiting us maybe for the first time.
Each Café Church is themed to run in parallel with the general teaching in the church that week but we make it accessible for this particular congregation. We have found that the only way to gather people together to focus on one thing is to use something highly visual so we usually make the most of a really powerful video clip to illustrate the teaching points.
I then explain that people can explore the theme in more detail in various ways. We have various 'stations' set up around the church to help people to do this. A small team got the whole idea of the different stations up and running but they have now grown their own teams to develop the work.
- creation stations – to make or create something as an act of worship in response to the main key point for that particular session;
- painting station – contributors paint an entire work of art during Café Church to have it ready by the end of the service;
- exploration station – to engage with people in greater depth. That may involve looking at some questions around the theme of the day or getting together in buzz groups;
- prayer station – to encourage various creative ways of praying such as a prayer graffiti wall and 'postcard' prayers as well as having a person available to pray with;
- giving station – highlighting different ways in which people can give, whether time, money, talents, resources or whatever.
That all happens for about a quarter of an hour and at the end of that time we then gather everyone together again. Children who have made something show it on our big video screen and we have a final song and then a prayer. It runs from 10.30am for an hour though lots of people do hang around to chat. The response has been huge and it's teaching us a lot about church and being church because it really does attract people who wouldn't come along to the other services.
A big issue now for us is what do we do the week after a Café Church Sunday? Is it enough for these people to double our congregation on the first Sunday of the month and then disappear? If they come to one of our traditional services, they can feel like fish out of water. What about ongoing discipleship? We are dealing with all ages from little ones to teenagers as part of this and it's the kids who are bringing their parents in.
For some people in our main congregation it has been a bit of a challenge but they can see the difference it is making. Thinking about the popularity of this form of service with families made me wonder about our context. We are in a commuter belt and many parents work really hard during the week and don't get to see their children very much because they're travelling. If they came to a standard service they would be split up again after 40 minutes when the children go off to their own activities but to have church where the family can all be together within a loving worshipful environment is a different model that seems to fit more comfortably with them.
The introduction of Café Church was a bit of a shock to some in the church but from day one it had an impact on everyone. It's incredibly rewarding how people have been touched with some finding their first expression of faith as a family together. We are always aware of trying to reach those who wouldn't be reached through traditional ways of doing things but it's not something you would undertake lightly. For instance, it was very different for all of us when Café Church fell on Easter Day but we thought, 'Well this is great because it means we can tell more people than usual about Jesus rising from the dead!' We offered an opportunity for people to receive Communion at the prayer station and there was a very warm response to that. Interestingly, they didn't wait in a 'churchy' sort of line for Communion; they just drifted up to the prayer station at different times.
None of what we have done is rocket science; most churches have run holiday clubs where they have creative activities and we have done that sort of thing too. It's just putting some of these things together and creating an environment where you are willing to take risks. It's also about being prepared to have 'holy disorder' while keeping that dignity of worship somewhere in the midst of it because there is an element of control that is right and godly.
We are just at the point as a church of envisioning what we could look like in a couple of years time and the feeling is that we need to become a lot more like Café Church in our outlook if we are to continue to be missional.