Can we make our congregations as welcoming as a coffee shop?

Have you ever entered a space and immediately understood what it was all about? Like you just got the vibe?

Maybe it was a specialty retailer that carries your favorite brands. Or it could have been a giant IKEA warehouse, where you walked through the sliding glass entrance and thought, “I’d better stick to my list!” Or maybe it was the Chick-fil-A drive-thru, where you pulled away blessed by your server’s “My pleasure!” benediction.

In each of our lives, there are places and spaces that feel like home. They get us, and we get them. And for me, one of those places is my local coffee shop, Bean Traders, in Durham, North Carolina.

When I’m at Bean Traders, I am in my “third place”; I feel safe and productive, and my mind wanders freely. More than once, I’ve asked myself, “What does this place teach us by the way we are treated? How do the behavior and actions of the staff embody the shop’s culture?” And even more than that, “What could Bean Traders teach congregations?”

It’s people, not coffee

Any store can sell a cup of coffee. The elements are simple. But in 2008, Howard Schultz, then the CEO of Starbucks, wrote, “We are not in the coffee business serving people. We are in the people business serving coffee.” Bean Traders gets this, at least as well as the local Starbucks does. And I can see that Bean Traders “gets it” because it’s reflected by everyone in the shop, not just the owner or a few employees.

Recently, waiting for a drink, I heard a crash behind me. It sounded like a grid of Connect 4 discs spilling onto the tile floor. Imagining the bitter end of an epic battle, I peeked around the corner expecting to see two competitive children. Instead, I saw plastic cups scattered everywhere. Christine, a Bean Traders employee, had dropped the cups while restocking the coffee bar. She rushed toward the counter before any more of the teetering cups in her arms could tumble to the floor.

I and three other customers immediately jumped up. Folks started collecting the cups and neatly stacking them. The whole thing happened so quickly — it felt like seconds.

As we returned the stacks to Christine, she thanked us and then said the most remarkable thing. It was something like, “I knew that when I got back, they would all be cleaned up.”

How did she know this? Has this happened before? Did staff orientation cover the role of patrons in cup cleanup situations? Was this a test? Did we pass?

I think it was much more than this.

I suspect that she knew she would get help because Bean Traders has cultivated a culture of hospitality, care and community for more than two decades. She knew she would get help because here, “This is our place, and it is just what we do.” We meet each other’s needs; we watch each other’s stuff, and we take care of each other. We do this because it’s built into the Bean Traders culture and ethos.

A chat with Dave

As I reflected on this event, I wanted to know more. I reached out to David Chapman, who co-owns Bean Traders with his wife, Christy. He’s the head barista; she’s the lead chef.

Over the years, Dave and I have had many conversations across the espresso machine, and we’ve crossed paths at middle school sporting events as our children competed for rival schools. Ultimately, though, what I knew about Bean Traders culture and history I learned as a loyal customer. So after the spilled-cups incident, I asked Dave a little bit about his view from behind the espresso machine.

We met for coffee one afternoon. (Drip for me; “VIC,” or vanilla iced coffee, for him). I wondered whether there was a secret strategy behind my beloved hangout. However, throughout the conversation, Dave’s answers were simple. They never evolved into high-minded strategy or devolved into business jargon. Dave spoke from the heart.

Dave and Christy met at a Charlotte, North Carolina, coffee shop and were inspired by its owner, Bruce Howell, who became a friend and mentor.

“We loved the busyness of the shop, wanted to do a shop of our own, and we’ve just figured it out along the way,” Dave said. “Christy and I have always treated the shop like our home. We are inviting folks into our kitchen.”

Eventually, we talked about the Great Cup Spill. Dave wasn’t surprised at all by the incident. But he also said he didn’t have much magic to share.

“I work the espresso bar every day from open until about noon. I also hire and train everyone. Christy does the back-end business management and all the baking. We keep the culture by being here, living it, modeling it and sharing it,” he said.

“Coffee is for everyone,” Dave said. “Whether it is simple or decadent. A ritual or a treat. Everyone can enjoy coffee, and they are welcome to make Bean Traders their third place.”

I left the conversation with Dave with the abiding belief that actually there is a secret strategy to the shop’s culture: it comes from how they live and lead every day. Dave and Christy faithfully and authentically show up and surround themselves with others who want to do the same. They set the tone.

Taking coffee to church

Bean Traders has built the kind of culture we all want to be a part of. The staff makes us feel at home and cared for, so in return, when the cups fall, we step in to help.

It reminds me of a quote from Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer: “The culture you have in your organization is the sum of all the wanted behaviors that you celebrate minus all the unwanted behaviors that you tolerate.”

But with that in mind, what do places like Bean Traders have to teach our local churches? What do the behaviors we celebrate and tolerate tell us about the culture that has been cultivated?

Churches appear to want to welcome folks in. Everywhere you look there are vinyl signs strung between metal poles. Flashy ads displaying worship times: “All are welcome, see you at 11.” Not a one puts up a sign saying, “Maybe this place isn’t for you.”

But do we send that message in other ways? Churches say we want to welcome everyone, but do we really? Do our congregational cultures truly lead to behaviors that are as welcoming as third places like Bean Traders?

Our signs, bulletin boards and worship guides inform, but are they truly clear and hospitable? Do they reflect embodied values? Or do they exist for church folks to feel that they have done something, even if it’s the least they could do? When folks are brave enough to walk through the doors of a church, are they treated as well in worship as they are at the coffee shop? Are our leaders showing up, like Christy and Dave, to model and guide our congregational culture?

In our shared church life, with every act, big or small, we set our culture. Far too often, what we see and experience in church reflects a culture for insiders that doesn’t account for (or welcome) outsiders.

If we want to change that, we need to think about every door we open, weed we pull, greeting we offer, sign we refresh, coffee cup we fill, sidewalk we sweep, preschool space we renovate, letter we send — and even every cost-of-living increase we ignore. Each of these acts, large or small, shapes our culture.

If our culture is the sum total of our behaviors — celebrated and tolerated — what is our culture telling us about how we act? Are we OK with the culture we are shaping in our congregational life? Where is there room for improvement?

Unfortunately, in far too many churches, it seems that shaping culture is viewed as someone else’s job. Is it in yours? If so, is it time to make some changes? The answer is up to you. When the cups hit the floor, will anyone rush in to help?

Melissa was sitting in a meeting of church leaders, and she was ready to tell the truth.

“Before I say this, could you pass me the PayDay?” she said.

At that moment, the item she had requested — a PayDay candy bar with a grubby red, white and blue wrapper — sat in front of Jon. It had moved around the room in the past hour. I could tell: courage was winning over fear.

What does a candy bar have to do with courage?

At the opening of the meeting, I’d introduced the idea that courage was a gift that would be rewarded. Soon, I was watching grown adults vie for that PayDay. I know it seems a little silly, but it’s vital to find a way to speak more honestly with one another.

We meet often but not well. We attend long meetings that go nowhere. We meet to solve problems but leave pertinent concerns unsaid. We meet for healing but let fear drive out openness.

It is no myth that the real conversations take place in the parking lots and bathrooms. It’s true for me, and I’m trained to help people speak freely. I sometimes wait until I’m walking to the car beside a committee member to have the honest discussion I should have had in the meeting. Why? I didn’t feel safe to mention my concerns.

People have different reasons for keeping silent. Introverts may be internally processing and not want to fight for airtime. Others may sense that speaking about the elephant in the room is discouraged. Many may find that their fear of offending someone is greater than the value of sharing a sincere opinion. People with less power may feel that their voices are unwelcome.

How do we bring the candor expressed in informal settings into more formal meetings — where honesty can feed the potential for more lasting solutions? How do we motivate people to bring their voices into the room?

There are numerous techniques to structure meetings for effective outcomes. When I facilitate conversations, I love to playfully reward honest talk with a PayDay.

I start by saying, “Who will overcome fear for a PayDay candy bar? Who will give us the gift of your courage to speak the truth today?”

Then I pull out the promised reward. No one seems impressed. Typically, it’s been riding in the bottom of my purse for days. If the participants groan at the sight, I counter that fame goes hand in hand with this PayDay.

I explain: “Here’s how this works. You’ll know when someone is brave.

“For instance, one of you may say, ‘I like that vision statement, but I don’t love it. For me to love it, it would have to include something riskier, such as …’

“I expect one of you to shout out, ‘That deserves the PayDay!’

“A while later, someone may say, ‘I wanted to have a funeral for that practice a long time ago.’ If I see people around the table respond with wide eyes, I’ll know to walk over and put the PayDay in front of that brave person.

“There is only one PayDay. It sits in front of the last courageous speaker.

“You do not eat it. You bask in its glory.”

Many times, the participants aren’t convinced — until the first honest comment shifts the conversation and someone quietly passes the PayDay. The recipient grins, and the rest of the room gets it.

Then we’re off and running. The meeting gets more interesting and productive. People actually sit up, lean forward and appear more engaged, because the conversation seems more authentic.

Soon, some participants like Melissa are requesting the candy for themselves even before they speak. Recently, a quiet participant took the game so seriously that they raised their hand and said, “I have not received the PayDay yet, but when I do, could you not have it passed from the last person, but could you go get it and put it in front of me yourself?”

The simple delivery of a PayDay candy bar can minimize fear and motivate people to share new and diverse perspectives. It can help participants be more likely to address the core problem rather than just the presenting symptoms. Sometimes, this honesty can become “confession within community” and offer a chance at healing.

Seeing honesty take root, even in this lighthearted way, can create a confident momentum that builds on itself. After all, fear is not a theological concept. Casting out fear is.