Lessons from a Coffee Shop with a Church

This is the third of a series of follow up reports by Acts 8 on the recipients of Church Planting grants funded through The Episcopal Church budget. The $100,000 grants are matched by local money to make new church starts possible to communities that would not otherwise have the resources to start a new congregation.

The Abbey is a coffee shop with a church founded in a partnership between the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Birmingham. When this new effort is fully launched in February 2015, The Abbey will provide coffee, tea, baked goods, and light lunches while also serving as a comfortable space to explore issues of faith and spirituality. In the meantime, a group of about 15 have been worshiping together as the Abbey, worshiping in the building on Sunday afternoons where the coffee shop will open.

The Abbey is influenced by the tradition of many monks and nuns who took on various secular professions – teaching, nursing, crafting, and even brewing beer. Besides being a way for monastics to support themselves, these were also ways in which ordinary folks came into contact with religious life. The Abbey hopes to be a place to rediscover and reimagine the traditions of the Christian Church in order to make Christianity readily available to anyone who wants to engage with it.

“As the world moves further away from the Church, it is time for the Church to move deeper into the world,” said the Rev. Katie Nakamura Rengers, The Abbey’s vicar. “This does not mean secularizing the Church — The Abbey is not an Episcopal Starbucks — but rather rediscovering and reimagining the traditions of the Church in order to make Christianity readily available to anyone who wants to engage with it.”

“One of my reservations, when I first conceived of the Abbey, was that a Christian coffee shop can come across as really creepy. There are certain types of churches that, if they started a coffee shop, I just wouldn’t go near it,” Rengers said. “If you want to get a cup of coffee and enjoy the place and leave, that’s totally fine with us. We aren’t trying to evangelize that way.”

Katie knows the area well. She is a cradle Episcopalian who grew up in the same Avondale neighborhood of Birmingham where The Abbey is located. She studied music in college, then went to seminary at Virginia Theological Seminary. Katie and her husband, Josiah, served two small parishes in the Black Belt before moving back to Birmingham.

In August, 2012, the Bishop’s office paid for Rengers to attend the Church Planter’s Academy which was held at Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis. There she learned of “3rd Space Ministries.” As she recalls from that meeting, “If Church is only available on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights, we’ve already lost… because people no longer block out those times specifically for worship.” If the Church building is open and available all week, for many uses and many purposes and particularly for activities that build community, then we are able to make spirituality and religion available at all those times as well.

Out of this desire to establish what Bishop Kee Sloan described as a “Church without Walls” a unique partnership developed between the diocese and a parish. Rengers will continue as a member of the staff St. Luke’s while serving as The Abbey’s vicar. The Rev. Kelley Hudlow will serve The Abbey as vocational deacon. Carrie Black, a member of the choir at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, has been hired as the coffee shop manager.

Visitors to The Abbey can look forward to great coffee, espresso and light lunches and snacks, “Java & Jesus” night; “Purple Hours” with our bishops; art and gifts for sale from around the diocese; a listening corner; a small group meeting space that will be perfect for reunion groups and bible studies; and new forms of worship. They also gather each Sunday at 3 p.m. for the Eucharist.

The Abbey has provided part of the match for the $100,000 Church Planting Grant with crowdfunding on Indiegogo. The goal is to raise an additional $40,000 to make the full launch possible. http://igg.me/at/theabbeybham

“The churches have started realizing recently in past years is that millennials have all but quit going to church,” Rengers said. “We need some ways to reach out into the community and into the world that are different than what we’ve always done, which is kind of staying behind our stained glass windows and closed doors.”

In reflecting on her more than a year of work on this new start, Rengers said, “At least once a day I tell my husband (who is also a priest) that I’m going to quit my job and renounce my orders.” She added, “But alongside the immense frustration has come incredible spiritual renewal, and a deepening sense of how God is calling the Church to respond to the needs of the 21st century. I’m sure my team would agree that building The Abbey has taken a level of courage and faith that we didn’t know we had.”

During this past year, Rengers has learned some lessons that should assist those who follow. Most of these center around being clear and open about expectations as well as communications among those making decisions. Some key points:

  • Provide clear guidance
    The Diocese needs to create a guidebook (or offer a committee, or policies, or some similar assistance) to help new ministry leaders wade through the muddy waters of church bureaucracy. This will make it clear who needs what reports when and what approvals are needed for which steps. It is difficult enough to deal with over-eager developers, grumpy architects, pharisaical city officials, health department inspectors, and on and on. Dealing with others within the church should be made as easy and as transparent as possible.
  • Follow input from those to be served
    If The Abbey is to succeed at all in its primary mission – to reach out to younger adults and the unchurched – then it HAS to be the visioning work of younger people.  Millennials, unfortunately, have zero power in the Episcopal Church.  They also know that they have no power, so they give up easily. The church needs to listen, really listen, to those we want to serve.
  • Fund for success
    A “church without walls” still costs money, and more than one might first guess. Start-up costs for The Abbey include architect’s fees, build-out of the coffee bar and equipment.  Then, they’ll be hiring 5 or 6 employees, purchasing initial inventory and advertising the business to the world. Whatever your model for a new church start, that model needs to include realistic funding that can be sustained across a lengthy start up period.
  • Bring in Professionals
    Good professional advice is critical and it is not always easy to find. The recent Taskforce for Reimagining the Episcopal Church final report calls for the development of regional commissions of architects, builders, developers, etc. Rengers says these should be Episcopalians in good standing who actively participate in the life of the Church. She adds that it would be helpful for the Bishop to speak honestly and openly with them about what services they are and aren’t willing to offer for free. This will give new ministries the professional advice they need to succeed.

Rengers in looking back on the year of work says, “I was comforted by one of my colleague’s sermon words yesterday on the 4th Sunday of Advent: ‘God doesn’t ask us to succeed.  He asks us to be faithful.’”

Being faithful in starting a new church or ministry requires a lot of tenacity and a great deal of faith. The more dioceses can be clear on expectations and communication, follow input from those we seek to serve, funds for success and brings in needed professional expertise, the more we will assist those on the ground who are faithfully seeking to serve our Lord in new and innovative ways.

For now, The Abbey is in the perfect location and well positioned to carry out its mission. Along the way many generous people and parishes have come forward to help this new church.  Rengers says, “The outpouring of faith and hope in this project has been wonderful and humbling all at the same time.”

We will check back in with this innovative new church in a few months to see how the funding campaign goes, and what they are learning along the way.


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