The Rev. Mark Hargreaves recalls how “Café Church” was all the rage amongst church growth experts when he left England. Congregations were encouraged to worship in a secular space and arrange chairs around tables, like in a café. But it wasn’t until a recent circumstance pushed his congregation out of their comfort zone that they unwittingly experienced this style of seating themselves.
When the organ builders moved into St. James-by-the Sea in La Jolla, and rain prevented the congregation from worshiping on the patio as planned, Rev. Hargreaves made the quick decision to relocate to the Cuvier Club across the road. It was set up for a wedding reception. There was no other option. The wedding reception’s round tables were just as good as any pew for Sunday’s service.
The 10 o’clock congregation filled the room, sitting around tables, and enjoyed a spirit-filled service in community.
Rev. Hargreaves noted how much closer he felt to his congregation while preaching and appreciated being in proximity to the choir. But what stood out the most was the feedback from congregants. Many engaged with one another around the tables and talked with more people than any other Sunday. Some even talked to others for the first time, despite having shared a pew for years. The seating arrangement made a significant difference. The congregation’s energized and animated demeanor was evidence of its unexpected success.
The Rev. Hargreaves couldn’t help but see a lesson in all of this. He pointed out how easily people can fall into habits and resist change. By trying something new, such as changing the way we gather in worship, one might be surprised at how refreshing it can be.
The accidental experiment in café church seating demonstrated the power of trying something new. It allowed the congregation to engage with one another in a different way and brought them closer together. It began with a circumstance that forced them out of their usual worship environment and ended with a realization of the potential blessings that come with embracing change.
Over the course of the pandemic, churches throughout the diocese experimented with new ways of approaching worship together. Many moved to online worship, zoom bible study, and eventually outdoor-patio worship services. Now that things are beginning to return to normal, and we celebrate returning to our beautiful buildings of worship, take a moment to consider if there are still new things worth experimenting with.
What are some experiments that your community has tried in the past? Maybe it is time to revisit something old and make it new again, or try something for the first time. Sometimes just reorienting the way you sit can help reorient yourself toward God and the community. Rev. Hargreaves is looking forward to doing Café Church again soon.
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