Recently, for the first time, I realised church cafes could be a good idea. By “church cafe” I mean a cafe on a church premises that is obviously part of a church complex/campus/property/institution. Until now my experience of church cafes have given me the impression that they are either cafes for church people, or church tourists, and I have never seen the appeal or point of that since there are so many good cafes around, why does a church need one?
Three weeks ago I went to Host cafe in London. They’ve been running for a year, so it’s early days, but I think it’s the best church cafe I’ve been to. If I had a “third place” test, Host would pass it. This is why:
Moot and new-monasticism
Moot, as their website describes:
…is a new-monastic community that seeks to live in a way that is honest to God and honest to now.
If you don’t know what a new-monastic community is, the easiest way to find out would be to click here to Moot’s page about it, but in a nutshell, it’s a fairly recent expression of being a church community based on some really old ways of being a church community.
A couple of years ago the Moot community made a 500-year-old church building (St Mary Aldermary) in central London their home, where all sorts of things now happen throughout the week. About a year ago they started Host cafe within the church building.
Before I describe why I think Host is onto such a good thing, let me describe the concept of “third place“:
Third place (or third space)
I can’t remember how I stumbled onto the concept of third place, but for many years now it has helped me interpret and critique some of the public spaces I interact with – which I consider falls into the area of communication.
Ray Oldenburg is an American urban sociologist who coined the term “third place” which:
…is the concept of community building to refer to social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home and the workplace.
Third places, then, are “anchors” of community life and facilitate and foster broader, more creative interaction.
All societies have these informal meeting places and you can probably think of some you go to and enjoy. Some third places naturally happen (like the old fashioned barber shops that men used to drop into to chat and hang out), they can also be created. Oldenburg suggests the following hallmarks of a true “third place” (thanks to wikipedia).
- Free or inexpensive
- Food and drink, while not essential, are important
- Highly accessible: proximate for many (walking distance)
- Involve regulars – those who habitually congregate there
- Welcoming and comfortable
- Both new friends and old should be found there.
My interpretation of third places is that the assessment of, or absorption into them is subjective, meaning a space I might find is a welcoming anchor that facilities community and creativity, might not be something you connect with as a third place. And this doesn’t matter.
My experience of “third place”
I have experienced some cafes and pubs that have managed to be third places for me, in fact I would nearly say my local pub four-minutes walk away from my house achieves this for me, some weeks I go there two or three times with friends. It only fails because it costs me too much to be there regularly (Oldenburg’s first point).
Getting back to church cafes. In my experience of church cafes none have drawn me in as third places, they have simply seemed to be cafeterias for church services, or post-event meeting places, or waiting rooms for play-centre parents. These are probably the planned intentions, so all is good, and since assessing third place is subjective, perhaps the church cafes of my experience have simply not been so for me (feel free to comment below sharing how these church cafes may be third places for you…)
What if churches intentionally tried to create third places? (Implemented the six points from Oldenburg.)
Host cafe, London
The name (and logo) in itself is a nice play on words – even a baptist like me can appreciate the connection to the eucharist, as well as the more explicit link to hospitality.
I’ve never been to a cafe before where they invite you to bring your own food (lunch), and with the these-days-expected free wifi, why wouldn’t you drop in if you worked in the area and wanted a “third place” to spend your lunch time or to meet with friends?
Host does start with a few advantages: being able to turn the back third of a 500-year-old building in central London on Watling Street with lots of week-day foot-traffic into a cafe. That’s a big head-start for anyone wanting to create a church cafe.
The building and decor isn’t everything
Moot have articulated some significant “philosophy” around the existence of the cafe. I think the language they use to describe the intention of their space could be applied to any church cafe building plan, this is more important than creating a “cool” space:
Host is an enterprise of Moot, a community of spiritual pilgrims stumbling and fumbling our way towards salvation. Our home at St Mary Aldermary is a peaceful sanctuary amidst the noisy, bustling streets of London. We built the café because we want people to feel comfortable and at home in the beautiful and relaxing space that the church offers, as we seek to restore the church building to its true vocation as a welcoming hub for the local community, a public space where friendships and connections can be developed. Since we started running the café in September  we have experienced the increase in the life and warmth that people bring to a building.
The local community are largely professionals who work in this part of the central city. The cafe is open weekdays when these people might be looking for a third space nearby.
More than just a cafe: a third place
Any church cafe could say those words I’ve quoted above, it’s the following ones that separated Host from any other I’ve experienced:
Alongside this we also want to offer the church as a ‘sacred space’, where there is permission and encouragement to give attention to what is often neglected – the deeper dimensions of life, the self and wellbeing that include the spiritual, without feeling under pressure to conform to perceived ideas of what it means to be religious and ‘go to church’. As part of our weekly rhythm of worship and prayer at St Mary Aldermary we are building a programme of arts, meditation, yoga and discussion groups to enable those who live and work in the City to access points of stillness and reflection.
And I did experience something of what is described above: On Monday 2 September I turned up at 12pm for the regular half-hour directed meditation. I joined 5 other people (obviously professionals in their lunch break) in a corner of the space that was clearly set up for it. I usually appreciate guided meditation, but don’t often have it as accessible as a local space where I can also eat my lunch, get online, and buy a drink. AND, have the opportunity to enter in, as fringe or as committed, to the life of an active faith community in a busy part of a city.
For me, this added dimension that provides sustenance for spirituality and social engagement, makes it a great church-made third place.
I get the sense that Host isn’t yet everything they want it to be. They have a business plan that sounds challenging, and they are still experimenting with what works best.
I can now say I’ve experienced a church/faith/(new-monastic) community that are running a “church cafe” which isn’t just for church people or tourists. Host is the closest third place of any church cafe I have seen. If I worked in the area I would make it my place too.
Summary (in case you just scrolled down looking at the pictures)
- “Third places/spaces” enhance community. Cafes can be third places (not all cafes are third places).
- Churches could create third places (for contextual, localised people groups).
- Churches have a unique opportunity to add spiritual resourcing to third spaces.
Do you have any church cafe or third place stories?
Images: Host cafe, London, Mike Crudge.