In the early 1970's, Christian coffeehouses became extremely common throughout the country, as a way to communicate the gospel of Christ with street people and others who would never set foot inside the doors of a traditional church. This was at the beginning of the era in church history known as the Jesus Movement. That term entered the consciousness of mainstream America when Look magazine published an extensive cover story on the phenomenon in 1970.
People who belonged to and identified with the Jesus Movement were Christians who embraced certain cultural elements characteristic of the hippie movement (such as the rock music, the clothing and hair styles, and in a few cases, the communal lifestyles), while rejecting elements (such as the use of illegal drugs) which were deemed incompatible with their Christian beliefs. In a sense, they were more revolutionary than the hippies, since they took a radical stand which embraced neither progress nor tradition for their own sakes. Instead, they believed in a third way, based on the idea the people had a moral responsibility to exercise discernment. Different groups experimented with this idea with varying degrees of success. In a few cases (such as the well-known group The Children of God), unbiblical and cultish characteristics arose among certain groups, but that was the exception, not the rule. Often, the people who were at the center of the Jesus Movement went on to become spiritual leaders in their local churches.
The members of the Jesus Movement were sometimes known as "Jesus people" or "Jesus freaks". The latter term was sometimes used derisively by non-Christians (just as the term "Christian" was used derisively during the first century). It was embraced, nevertheless, by those who understood its potent appeal to the outcasts of conventional society.
The decor at Christian coffeehouses was often typical of what one might find in a hippie hangout, with blacklight posters, crudely constructed furniture (such as recycled telephone cable spools), drippy candles and so forth. Music (which was usually live) was usually in a folk-rock style, dominated by acoustic guitars, but Christian rock bands occasionally made an appearance as well. Sometimes, traditional gospel music groups would also perform, but they had limited appeal to the demographic group which dominated in such coffeehouses. Those who attended such coffeehouses were primarily students in high school and college. They were the generation which supported the first musical performers (such as Larry Norman, the Children of The Day, Love Song, Randy Stonehill, Barry McGuire, Nancy Honeytree and others) who were the pioneers in what eventually became known as contemporary Christian music.
Members of the Jesus Movement had to deal with resistance, both from ultraconservative Christians who regarded the music and attire as inherently un-Christian, and also from members of the secular counterculture, who felt justified in excluding Christian rock music on the grounds that it was "inauthentic", since they defined "authentic" rock music as music which thumbed its nose at traditional beliefs such as Christianity. To be a "Jesus freak" was to understand firsthand what it meant to be persecuted (or, at the very least, ridiculed) for one's beliefs.
Christian coffeehouses were sometimes the focal point of evangelistic activities which would spread out into the surrounding streets and neighborhoods, with Christians periodically coming and going throughout the night, in-between excursions during which they would approach strangers on the street, engage them in conversations about the Lord, and hand them gospel tracts (which were miniature printed sermons designed to appeal to the unsaved). Often, an encounter on the street would lead the Christian to invite the unsaved person back to the coffeehouse, and many people accepted Christ as Savior as a result of such personal attention.
When properly conceived and administered, Christian coffeehouses served other purposes, too. They served as meeting places for like-minded Christians throughout the cities and towns in which they were located. Baptists, Assemblies of God, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and many other Christians found common ground, as well as opportunities to exchange ideas about their doctrinal and political differences in an environment of mutual respect, friendship and Agape love.
Socially, Christian coffeehouses met the needs of numerous Christians. Many friendships were forged, and more than a few marriages resulted from encounters which took place in Christian coffeehouses.
Today, there are still a few good Christian coffeehouses in the country, but there are also large regions of the country where there is a real void in terms of such ministries. In some cases, there are no Christian coffeehouses at all. In other cases, the people who run what they describe as Christian coffeehouses don't really understand what it takes to create a successful coffeehouse ministry. Instead of running ministries which are making a major impact on their communities, they limp along year after lonely year, eventually coming to believe that second-best is the most they can ever hope for. Often, such ministries are little more than an exercise in nostalgia.
What are my criteria for a successful Christian coffeehouse ministry?
First, in order to be really successful, a Christian coffeehouse should be supported by numerous churches, as well as other Christian institutions in the area, such as Christian colleges. A coffeehouse which is just an extension of a single local church (or which is just a church in disguise) fails to meet this standard, because other churches tend to see that coffeehouse as "the competition", when they ought to see it as a resource.
Second, a really successful Christian coffeehouse should be in a neutral location, such as a storefront, so as to attract non-Christians who might be averse to the idea of entering a traditional church. For the same reason, the name of the endeavor should be subtle in terms of its references to Christianity. By definition, a coffeehouse with a name which is blatantly Christian will attract very few non-Christians.
Third, a successful Christian coffeehouse must be built on a solid business model so that its continued existence will not be at the constant mercy of the benevolence of others. Even though it may be a non-profit endeavor which accepts donations, a successful coffeehouse ministry needs to have other substantial sources of legitimate income to supplement the money from donations, since the attendance at most Christian coffeehouses can ebb and flow with the seasons (especially in cases where large percentages of those in attendance are college students). Numerous non-profit groups and church groups sell products and/or services in order to supplement the money from donations. These days, there is an amazing variety of legitimate fundraising options from which to choose. For people willing to consider such options, and to clearly communicate their vision and their needs with Christians who are in a position to help, there is no reason to be hamstrung by financial limitations.
Fourth, a successful Christian coffeehouse must be in tune with the times. Things considered "hip" in the early 70's are not necessarily considered to be hip anymore. People's expectations have changed. This is not to say that every aspect of the old coffeehouses should be rejected by someone wishing to start a modern Christian coffeehouse ministry, but it is to say that the coffeehouse should be updated in such a way that it is appealing to people living in this century and this decade.
For example, a single drip coffeemaker might have sufficed in the early days, but people are now accustomed to fancy coffee from places such as Starbucks, Julius Meinl, Caribou Coffee and Seattles' Best Coffee. Expecting to draw huge crowds consisting of a healthy percentage on non-Christians, with little more than drip coffee, lemonade and a few storebought cookies, is irrational.
Fifth, the music at a modern coffeehouse should be eclectic. It should cater to people with a variety of stylistic preferences, including soft and hard rock, folk, jazz, new age, electronic music, country, bluegrass, Latin, R&B, soul music, blues, hip-hop and even classical. (NOTE: By "new age", I mean music, usually instrumental, which fits that description stylistically. The term "new age" can also refer to a set of specific religious beliefs which are contrary to the teachings of Christianity. Obviously, music promoting such beliefs would be inappropriate in the context of a Christian ministry!) Other types of performance art and related events (such as Christian "poetry slams", dramatic presentations, and more) should also be considered.
While I'm on the subject of music, let me say that there need to be some minimal standards in terms of the talent. If a place gets a reputation for featuring substandard acts, that can greatly dilute its effectiveness, especially in a large city where unbelievers have their choice of hundreds of professional music acts on any given night. This is not to negate the value a Christian coffeehouse can have in terms of giving stage experience to musicians who are just starting out. There is a time and place for such performances, and the time and place is "Open Mic Night". (Many secular nightclubs devote one night a week to such an event.) People who attend "open mic" events do so with the expectation that high quality is not guaranteed. "Open Mic Night" can also serve as an audition, for musicians and other performers who don't yet have good demo recordings and/or videos.
Sixth on my list (but first in terms of its importance), the underlying motive must be a passion and a deep love for lost souls. A coffeehouse which is not regularly bringing in "new blood" by means of evangelism will ultimately fail, regardless of whether or not it continues to exist as an entity. That passion for evangelism must be built on a solid rock consisting of scriptural teaching, fervent prayer, and intelligent planning.
Is the Christian coffeehouse a relic of the past? The answer, in my opinion, is a resounding NO! Yes, the implementation should be revised in order to keep up with the times, but Christian coffeehouses once met certain needs which, even today, are difficult to meet in any other way. In my opinion, it's a crying shame that many of those who started the original Christian coffeehouses lost the vision or just plain gave up.
I want to start a new Christian coffeehouse, preferably in a location (such as downtown Chicago) which is desperately in need of such a place. However, I would not want the ministry to be limited to the coffeehouse. Rather, that would be just one aspect of an extremely ambitious ministry which would have the larger goal of helping to reverse the moral decay so prevalent in modern popular culture.
Such a ministry would tentatively go by the name of the Christian Artists' Resource Center. The ministry would focus on all of the arts, not just one or two art forms. The ministry would include a coffeehouse, a bookstore, a multitrack recording studio, numerous soundproof music practice rooms and rehearsal spaces, a radio station (focusing primarily on satellite radio, "podcasts" and digital broadcasting), a record company, a concert hall, an art gallery, an art "colony" (with residential facilities for those wishing to access the numerous material and spiritual resources of the organization), an international web-based artists' community (including e-commerce capabilities for members), a graphic design studio, a book publishing company, a movie studio, a Christian botanical garden with sculpture and topiary (a/k/a God's Glorious Gospel Garden), and much, much more.
The objective of such an organization would be to eliminate the impediments which currently result in the relegation of faith-based art to a fringe subculture which has minimal impact on mainstream society. In short, I want to initiate what I like to call a "righteous renaissance". In addition to the very worthwhile goal of winning individual souls to Christ, I want to play a role in transforming society for the better. I am not naive. I know that there will always be an element of society (especially in the "last days") which will rebel against God. Nevertheless, using that as an excuse for a failure to do everything one can do to create a better world is unacceptable.
I plan to create additional blog posts in the near future in order to more fully communicate my vision, hopefully in such a way as to elicit participation and support from other Christians who recognize the validity of that vision. Such support will be essential (since my own personal resources are currently very limited) in order for any of these ideas to get off the ground.
Stay tuned! Good things are sure to follow.