Why do I think about and gravitate toward coffee shops so much? I write in them and about them constantly. I’m always on the lookout for additional favorites. What’s the magnetic draw? Does it touch a piece of heaven, or eternity, that just draws me in? Maybe it’s the coffee. It’s a bunch of people who hang out there because the coffee is there. They want to drink some and then, when their drink is done but they don’t want to go yet, they stay so they can at least smell it still. There’s a humming. A gathering (peaceful) around a well-loved centerpiece.
I think I love it because it reminds me of church. I think a lot of church happens in coffee shops because I think coffee shops—the healthy thriving ones with that magnetic pull, not always pretty and put together, but magnetic all the same—have an atmosphere that I think the church was created to have. In my favorite coffee shops, it feels like a place God frequents. A place He would hang out at a lot, a Central Perk I would find Him sitting in if He had some spare time or wanted to cross paths with His friends.
Those who go to church form a community centered around their love for God. Coffee shops are similar in a self-explanatory way. Perhaps there’s nothing else these people have in common except their like for this place or this drink. Or perhaps there’s more going on.
Perhaps someone will walk in and try a macchiato after hearing so much about coffee for such a long time, but it isn’t the amazing sweetness they’ve heard about and they spit it out, walking away from coffee shops forever because that one bitter espresso shot ruined the idea of the beverage for them. Or maybe someone will walk in looking for a deep, soul-awakening, strength of substance and flavor that wakes them from their drowsy Mondays, and instead they find the cotton candy whipped cream and chocolate in absolutely everything that coats their tongue and masks the poor quality of the roast underneath. What if they keep coming back because the sugar tastes good but deep down they want something more real?
Maybe people come and discover. They start their church attendance with sweet vanilla syrup in each order and frappuccinos with lots of chocolate chips on top of the coffee flavor, because oh my does this taste sweet, and they find God there. Then maybe after some time there’s this itch to try a new one on the menu. A latte with cinnamon but no chocolate whatsoever. And they get an entirely new perspective on what the term “coffee” can refer to. How drinking it in changes the rest of your day.
It seems like everyone has their own litmus test for coffee shops.
“Well if they can’t make a latte properly, how can anything else be good?”
And I think people have litmus tests for churches (and Christians) too.
“Well the worship leader can’t sing very well…”
“Well the preacher is pretty boring and not very animated…”
“Well the music selection isn’t very good, and the crowd is mostly older people…”
“Well that girl dresses way too casual every week…”
“Well the parking lot is way too small and it’s too cold in here…”
And they write off the entire place. I wish I could say I haven’t done it.
Not everyone does this though. I love it when people stick around after less-than-perfect results from that first litmus test. When they have a bad experience with one thing on the menu, and yet they come back to give the shop a different order and a second chance. When they discover that the people who hang out here on a weekly basis are really quality even if the space is a bit hot and smushed. When they discover that they can still find it in them to worship God with their whole hearts when the worship team has an acoustic day and there aren’t any flashy lights. When they disagree with one thing the pastor says but don’t throw the rest of the sermon’s truths out the window too. When they return because something about this place and these people just feels right.
I love that the atmosphere isn’t necessarily confined to the building itself. It can be found in homes, shops, restaurants, hotels, waiting rooms, and train stations. But it is an atmosphere that welcomes people in, no matter their current state. It is a place for brokenness and a place for celebration. I love that I have been the crying girl with her headphones in and a chai latte, and I have been the drowsy girl with a cappuccino, and I’ve been the guilty girl who wants to go without the coffee for a day but still wants to sit in her usual spot and smell it around her anyway. I love that churches allow for that, and of course, coffee shops do too.
Have you ever noticed that? How some people who don’t even like coffee (or who haven’t tried it yet) come hang out in coffee shops anyway? I love that because that reminds me of how God works. The greatest coffee shops are inviting for the blind and the sleepy and the lost too. Those who can’t see what makes the place great on the outside, but they like sitting there to smell what they don’t yet realize is the presence of God.
I wonder how many people would come and just sit in churches despite their disagreements or reservations or doubts or questions, if they knew they were welcome to just enjoy the atmosphere. God doesn’t come in a one-flavor suits all box, but He knows how to draw us to Himself even when we don’t know what brought us in the door. Even if we are mad at Him. Or don’t like Him and His rules very much just then. Sometimes we still want to be and rest and exist and work in atmospheres full of His presence.
So many times, that person has been me. Like a song that takes you back to a specific time or event, I can tell you exactly which lessons God taught me during specific times in my life, and which coffee shop drinks I now associated with them:
Macchiato: There are hard truths about Him that I won’t always understand, and they go down like a shot with a grimace, but I still find Him there.
Cappuccino: He’s getting me through this. It’s not going as well or sweet as it could, and I’m definitely making a mess, but He’s getting me through it anyway. There’s enough foam to cushion the rough falls.
Americano with one brown sugar packet: Getting alone with Him and these five truths is a healthy recurring event.
- He is more Sovereign than I understand.
- I am tougher than I know.
- There is work that must be done.
- Sometimes I won’t want to.
- He will come with me.
Vanilla Chai Latte: The death of a season is to be mourned. There is comfort here, and a promise of new life coming soon. (Yes, I know, not technically coffee, but He’s not confined by technicalities.)
Lavender Iced Latte: There is more to Him than I know. Him and I are not mundane or lacking spark. My perspective of Time is not His. He likes surprising and pursuing me still.
To this day I still associate these drinks with the side of God I met with when I had them, and love them for it. I even “send a text” invitation to Him by ordering them sometimes.
While I love how everyone has their own usual, I love it even more when usuals change in some months or years or eventful days.
December comes around and our primary view of God normally shifts from Almighty Creator to an infant Gift. From everyday Columbian with everyday creamer, to gingerbread and cream, sprinkled with joy and humility, generosity and peppermint.
It shifts again when the Lord asks me to do something I don’t want to do on an early Thursday morning. It shifts away from vanilla creamer entirely because what I need on days/weeks like that is the ancient strength and wake-up call from an Americano. The Lord is always kind, but he can deliver some tough wake-up calls with only a little packet of brown sugar and nothing more.
And then there is the beautiful, comforting vanilla and milk that is perfect for spring rain and that reminder during the rain shower that God brings resurrection after death. And remembering resurrection that is safety and comfort and victory and chai. That joy comes in the morning after long, painful nights. That the victory of that one Sunday is never out of place on any day.
And then there are long months of your usual. Your pot of coffee at home that you have every morning, day after day. And all of a sudden you find yourself in a coffee shop again and you see an ingredient on the board you don’t recognize. That you haven’t tried for yourself. That you wouldn’t have thought would go well with coffee.
You’re in church, like normal, and you hear that testimony, that word from the Lord, that you didn’t realize was exactly what you’ve been craving until you see the words in black and white. You listen to them echo in your head and you latch onto it yourself and try. It smells like lavender and tastes like new life.
It confirms that there is always more to Him than I know. That He is never going to let the romance of our relationship die. That He still sets aside time to take me by the hand and bring me into an adventure with Him that is entirely new, but it’s okay for each unplanned step because I’m loving just being beside Him.
Don’t get me wrong, not every coffee shop is for me. Not every single coffee option is what I have grown to know and love in that season either. But it’s pretty rare that I can’t find any trace of Him. It’s so easy to spot the places He sits or the tables He touches when you are looking out for them. And I want to sit in those places too.
Sometimes these places are ordinary and not glamorous. There are several pots of coffee simmering for hours and I get refills in Styrofoam cups while I edit a chapter of my scribbles to death, loving every second of that mess of a beverage that needs a little bit of whipped cream and grace to compensate for the simmering. Other times I walk into massive coffee chains with fancy logos and expensive looking everything. Sometimes the coffee here is burnt and weak, but sometimes I walk out with a gem of a mocha and a ham sandwich.
The point is, there’s good and bad coffee in good and bad-looking places. Sometimes it’s fancy and glamorous and looks great in a photo just like raised hands and fancy lights does in a church service. Other times, there are some really raw, really real moments in places I didn’t expect God to show up at. Places with orange and blue in the same photo frame that can’t be filtered out. Places with Styrofoam cups and not enough seating and dim lights and menus that look like they’re out of the 90s and no rustic/modern décor or a cool textured wall. (Is she talking about coffee shops or church? No one knows.)
But if I let my coffee shop/church’s presentation determine my God encounter, I’m essentially posting pics of a to-go cup that has been empty of anything life-giving for a long time.
Sometimes my coffee shop experiences are quiet and serene, and to sit there is to recharge. Other times they’re full of the hustle and bustle of steaming milk and rinsing blenders and customers who talk too loud with too much gossip.
So yes, like you read at the start, I think the best coffee shops are a lot like church.
I love sitting there watching people walk in the door tired and barely walking, and leave upright and bright-eyed and awake. Just like there is an unmatched joy in introducing a friend you care about to the God you love spending so much time with, and watching their eyes light up with understanding. That they didn’t know it could be like this, and yet there it was, on the menu the whole time.
I love consistently meeting with my best friends there, because when I catch up on life with them, they introduce me to the side of God that they have been encountering recently, and I get to expand my understanding of who He is and what He is like. I’m still learning to savor the coffee drinks without syrups or sugar added in, but in all honesty, maybe that’s because right now I’m still learning to be content with bitter things too.
Here, some people have delivered powerful, life-changing truths to me. Here, songs have played through the speakers in the background that reduced me to tears on the spot.
Here, I’ve seen the body of Christ do some of its finest work.
Here, Jesus has locked eyes with a person sitting alone and sent His date over to their table with His words.
This is the way it was meant to be. The community-type feel that welcomes anyone in, leaves people feeling more recharged, rested, motivated, and alive than they were when they first arrived. A place He visits often.
I encourage you not to settle for just stopping by on Sunday mornings. You can encounter Him anywhere, on any day, and He is always with you to remind you what will bring you fully alive, and to warm your hands and revive your spirit on cold, rainy days. And once you get to know Him, the real authentic version, you could be walking down the street one day and see steam rising from a little shop on the corner you’ve never seen before.
And the moment you walk inside, you know.
This is one of His favorite spots. And the people here love Him a lot.
It’s an atmosphere that smells like coffee and tastes like grace.