‘Coffeehouse Ministry’ Thrives Outside Traditional Settings
Neil Cole traded his pulpit for a patio table at a trendy California coffee shop — and started the first of his unusual churches. In 1999, Cole jettisoned his traditional pastoral ministry in Alta Loma to launch Awakening Chapel — founding it literally in the smoking section of The Coffee Tavern (TCT) in Long Beach, an urban beach town southwest of Los Angeles.
In a little more than four years, the crew he gleaned from the smokers’ ranks on the patio at TCT has ballooned into a movement of 400 churches in 16 states and 12 countries.
Almost four new congregations started up each week in 2003 under Church Multiplication Associates — the umbrella organization Cole leads and started simultaneously with Awakening Chapel.
The initial brainstorm of Cole, 42, was to birth a coffee shop — à la the Jesus Movement — in a storefront he had rented. He said God had told him: “‘Why don’t you just go to the coffeehouse where the lost people are already?'”
“Instead of trying to convert them from the coffeehouse they really love to our coffeehouse so that we could then convert them to Christ, we just went and hung out at the coffeehouse where they were already at,” Cole recounted to “Charisma” magazine in the May issue, out now. The full article on Cole can be found in the magazine.
This taking-church-to-where-life-happens approach has been a cornerstone of the movement since a group of about a dozen people started meeting at the coffee shop, as well as in Cole’s living room and in the storefront, to worship, read the Bible, pray and fellowship.
Not all the churches — which seldom grow to more than a few dozen members — meet at coffeehouses. One came together on the lawn of the art building at California State University in Long Beach, another in a parking lot in east Los Angeles and another on a local beach. Many meet in homes, but Cole shuns the classification term “house church” and doesn’t apply it to those groups.
“The church is not a building, whether it has a steeple or a chimney. It is the people,” he says. Nor are these groups defined as “cell churches” — because the term implies that the smaller, or cell, church is part of a larger organism.
The core of Awakening Chapel and the associated churches is called the Life Transformation Group. Usually only two or three strong, these same-gender units meet weekly for Bible study, prayer and confidential discussion of shortcomings. There is a major emphasis placed on new believers reaching out to the people in their circles of influence.
Cole comes from a Grace Brethren denominational background, but churches in his movement are aligned with many denominations. Pastors are called shepherds. They include people from a variety of backgrounds — a former grocery produce manager, a truck driver, an ex-party girl.
“The goal is to always see leaders come from the harvest,” Cole said.
Reprinted with permission from CharismaNOW, June 1, 2004 edition. Copyright Strang Communications Co., USA. All rights reserved. <http://www.strang.com/newsletters.php>