Blog - Exploring Café Worship

Back in May, Rev Clare Stainsby wrote about preparing to go on Sabbatical. She is now back (doesn't time fly!) and has been thinking about Café Worship.

Sabbatical - what can I say? It was 97 days without emails, phone calls, meetings and general responsibilities. It was having time to do what I wanted when I wanted, whether it was a few days away, or a spontaneous afternoon out; a trip to the cinema or a bit of gentle gardening. Three months is a good long time to unwind, refresh and re-focus life’s priorities. I kept a diary every day, sometimes full of excitement and busyness of one kind or another; sometimes quite short, with little achieved. It was very far from being an unproductive time. My office is restored to tidiness, and a number of tasks I had been saving up were completed: the re-organising of my songs resources, and also the typing up of my mother’s hand-written recipe book for family members to enjoy.

The main focus of my time out was café worship. I visited a number of churches that had café worship on various Sundays through my time off. I reflected on my own experience of leading café worship, and I compiled some resources that others might use.

I decided I needed to identify what café worship might be, and so I asked the questions “what is a café” and “what is worship”?

A café is about light refreshments, offered in a relaxed setting. When looking for a café, one might consider the décor and busyness as seen from the outside, and perhaps a displayed menu outside may also be a source of attraction. Many people check out reviews of a café online, before choosing to go there, or may go there on the recommendation of a friend. The smell of fresh coffee, and the visual effect of cakes and sandwiches seen through the glass window may also be tempting. Those who choose to enter a particular café do so because it seems to offer what they need right there and then, and they are willing to pay for what is on offer, in exchange for a seat and a break from whatever they have been doing. For others, the purchase of a coffee and snack may allow them a place of refuge when no truly personal space is available. Another significant use of a café is a place of meeting. A café may be chosen for its ambience, welcome and refreshment opportunities but also for its accessibility and for its convenience as a place to connect with friends or colleagues.

Worship is an act of devotion to God, which may happen individually, but which is modelled by the church as a corporate act. It involves a community meeting together both to offer their praise and gratitude to God, and to learn and be encouraged in their faith. It involves the reading of the Bible, and the offering of prayers, though it may also involve other elements: singing, listening to preaching, and sharing in Holy Communion. Worship is the central activity of the Church wherever it is encountered. In fact church is seen to be the place where worship occurs, far more than it is recognised as a community of worshippers: for better or for worse, buildings built for the purpose of worshipping God are seen as “the church”. In most churches, you will find seating in rows, a focal area at the front, some kind of musical instrument or music leading area, and visual aids to worship, ranging from ornate statues and images, to banner and simple words.

Café worship, as it says on the tin, combines elements of both a café and of worship. In order for it to fulfil the definition of worship in must involve a recognition of the presence of God, and lead the “worshippers” into a place of encounter and faith. It should also involve the Bible and prayer, and may also involve singing, teaching and the sharing of Holy Communion. From the definition of a café, it needs to take place in a relaxed setting where refreshments are offered. It may be a place of meeting and engaging with others. It may offer a place to take a break from the humdrum of life, and do something different. It should be a place of accessibility, and offer opportunity to recharge.

I believe whole-heartedly in the value of café worship, though not as a replacement to all other kinds of worship. I know that it works better in some contexts than others. But the lasting memory of my experience of visiting different churches offering café worship, is the fact that, without exception, as I entered a strange building, not knowing what to expect, on every occasion someone greeted me, and invited me to sit with them for the service. We were able to chat whilst sharing a drink in an informal way, and I felt quickly at home among strangers. I believe that the café arrangement makes it far easy for a stranger to feel truly welcomed. There is something natural in the conversations that occur over refreshments face to face, which can feel awkward and forced when the seating is in rows, and the conversation is held over the gentle hum of the organ. It’s easier to slip in and slip out in a traditional setting, without engaging in any kind of conversation. That happened to me too. But relationships form as people talk, at whatever level. If we want our churches to be places where new relationships form, and where those who wander in as strangers become those we come to know as friends and worshipping companions, then I believe that café worship is a really value tool for the church moving forwards.

Just one thought among thousands that occupied my mind through 97 days off. Expect to become tired of the phrase, “when I was on sabbatical”, because I expect to use it a lot in the coming months!