Baptist minister Paul Unsworth established a commercial coffee shop, which is also home to a church community, in London's Brick Lane. Kahaila opened in June 2012 and there are now plans for another.
When I began the initiative to set up a coffee shop, with the intention of planting a congregation among the many young adults in the area of Brick Lane, I had no idea how things would develop.
I'd always had a heart for those in their 20s and 30s. I was youth pastor at a church in Hackney for eight years and Youth Coordinator for New Wine (London South-East), but it really came home to me that I wanted to do something more when I came down to Brick Lane one Sunday morning and saw thousands of people visiting the market. I saw tarot card reading, I saw people of other faiths trying to reach out to the crowds but the Christians were all in church. I knew we had to do to be right at the heart of these crowds.
I could never have imagined what has happened since then and I am in awe of all that God has been doing since the café got off the ground. We have had a very good response from local people and businesses and we are generating four times as much business than we originally anticipated! That is particularly good because we are a charity, so any profit that is made goes into supporting local community projects and other causes.
In order to set up a café in Brick Lane, we needed to raise a lot of money which I knew would require a great deal more of my time. As a result, I left the church I was working in and approached the Baptist Union's Home Mission for financial help in setting up Kahaila. They knew it was a high risk project requiring a lot of investment, they also knew there was a lot of uncertainty as to whether it would succeed or not.
In the build-up to all of that, we just prayed that if it was what God wanted, then He would provide for us. Within the first six weeks of me first trying to find the money for this project, we managed to raise £60,000. We also had a significant loan but were able to pay that back within 18 months. The start-up costs were very high, in the end we raised over £100,000 but this was because the property required a lot of renovation and because it is Brick Lane – incredibly close to the city and a very popular area.
Home Mission awarded us a grant in 2011 and others believed in it too, with friends in the Anglican church and many individuals giving cash backing. Kahaila opened its doors to the public in June last year and things have gone so well that the trustees of the project agreed they would not need any Home Mission Support after the end of 2012.
Our goals were:
- To build a community that brings life in all its fullness through enabling people to know Jesus Christ.
- To reach out to young adults in their 20s and 30s, the declining generation in church.
- To reach out to the estimated 20,000 people who visit the area every Sunday.
- To run a successful business where profits are reinvested for the purpose of mission.
Our biggest challenge after the fundraising was trying to get a property on Brick Lane. It took about a year and a half and we secured the lease in April last year. Again, we had to invest a lot of money into it; gutting the place, rebuilding the back section of the roof and removing over 20cms of concrete from the floor – but God provided the key people with the key skills so there was a real sense of God's provision throughout.
It took a huge amount of faith on many people's part to get this off the ground – to get the money and to get the building. Then, once it had been transformed into a café, the challenge was, 'How can we make sure it makes money? It's a business and, if the business fails, the mission fails'. So we needed to really invest in the business to begin with.
Since then, people have been blogging about us and complimenting us on how they love Kahaila for its coffee, food, customer service and general atmosphere. We have also had the additional comment, 'O, and these guys are Christians'. I like that because we're being seen as people who are looking to serve rather than control. Other businesses have taken note of what we've been doing as well; we're now seeing many more shops putting cakes in their windows! One of our aims from the beginning was to become one of the best coffee shops in London. I am not saying we have achieved that as yet but we are making good progress. It's all the more special because the very first Baptist church in the UK was planted in Spitalfields in 1612 and exactly 400 years later we planted Kahaila in exactly the same area.
Why the name? We wanted something that created a bit of curiosity and the two words we kept coming back to were 'Life' and 'Community'. In order to come up with a more unique name we looked for these words in different languages, Hebrew being one of them. The Hebrew word 'Kahila' means community and the Hebrew word 'Chaim' – sometimes spelt 'hai' – means living and is associated to the word 'life'; so we took 'hai ' and placed it in the middle of 'Kahila'. This gave us the word 'Kahaila' pronounced Ka-hi-la.This really represents what we believe we are called to do, to bring life to the very centre of the community.
At this stage in the life of Kahaila, we are constantly experimenting as to how we build community and relationship through intellectual, creative and social events. A monthly 'bring and share' supper club involves us inviting regular customers to come and have a meal together. The regular programme of activities includes things like origami, a book club and live music and poetry. Much of it develops because someone enjoys doing a particular art or craft, for example, and they ask if they could do it in the café. We just say, 'Do it and see what happens'.
We have church every Wednesday night where we try different styles of worship and allow time for discussion after the teaching. Diversity in the worship is important because we don't want to be labelled as an evangelical church, a post-evangelical church, a charismatic church – or however people see us. We now have around 40 regular attenders, some of those that come regularly have either never gone to church before or have not been to church for a long time.
We are very much learning as we go along so some things have worked well; other things haven't worked at all. At one point we put out cards with discussion starter-type questions on them but when we got to our discussion time, everyone upped and walked out! We used to close the café on Wednesday nights and then open the place up again for church a short while later but that didn't feel right at all; now we stay open but tell everyone in the coffee shop, 'You are welcome to stay but, just to let you know that church will be happening here at 7.30'.
Kahaila is a 'crossing place' between Christians and non-Christians and, as a model, it demonstrates that the faith community (church) is at the centre of the café and all its activities. As a result, I feel like I have more significant conversations with people in one week than I had in one year working in a church building. What encourages me is that these conversations just happen by being available in the café. There have been so many examples of this, including a Muslim man from a neighbouring shop who came in and asked us to pray for him. So, in the middle of the café, we prayed God's blessing on him in the name of Jesus.
I always say that what we are doing here is exploring how we model a church that engages people; those people who see church as being a bit like a red telephone box – an amazing building that's part of our heritage. They'd never want it removed and they love to see it in the high street but they don't ever use it.
They look at church in the same way. They love the architecture, they love the fact that it's part of our British culture but it's not for them.
Another fantastic thing that we see happening is the effect on those working with us at Kahaila. We have a core team of about 20 and I believe that all of us are called to leadership in one form or another. Encouragement of young leaders is particularly important to me and we have seen many of them go much deeper in their discipleship; in their early 20s they are developing ministries to prostitutes in the area, to ex-offenders, to those in desperate need. My role involves looking at how I can release people into the calling that God has placed on them. They then go on to inspire others to do the same.
If I really empower and release them, I have to get out of the way – otherwise I cause a bottleneck in what God is doing in their lives. It's not that I, as a leader, don't get to live out my calling because the fullness of my calling involves creating a way forward for others.
Availability of Christians also plays a really important part in this. There is so much activity in churches which means that Christians, in many instances, are not available to meet non-Christians at all. On one Sunday a month we say to people, just go and be with your family and friends; be intentional about it. The café stays open but we give an opportunity for many of those involved to go elsewhere and they love that.
I don't see us as being 'radical' in any way I think we're just doing what Christians have always been called to do – which is to go. When the Spirit comes in power it sends us out. So we probably just need to get out of our churches a bit more and start meeting the people where they're at – rather than expecting them to come in to where we are.
As time goes on, the challenge will be that it's easy to try lots of different things when you're relatively small in number but when you get bigger, I think that becomes harder to hold. In a year's time we could be a church of 60-80 people so we'd then need a bigger space but if it means we move out of the café for church, then the danger is that we become a 'normal' church service somewhere.
The temptation is to pull back to what you know. Mission flows out of our Wednesday night gatherings; the aim is not to bring people to a service to be transformed but that significant discipleship can take place through relationship and community.
I do want to see big things for Kahaila but I think that would involve more of what we're doing already in different ways; we're looking at setting up a bakery so we'd then look at how we might do church in a bakery and at Kahaila. We want to plant out again because we believe Kahaila is having an effect; we have baptised people in the café and helped others on the road to faith.
Originally our aim was to reach those in their 20s and 30s but now many families come. How do we do Kahaila for adults and children? At the moment we are looking at the franchise model but remind ourselves that the vision is about reaching people for Christ; it's not about business.