Today, churches are offering a lot more than a cup of joe in a Styrofoam cup. With beverages and atmospheres that rival secular franchises, their champions have learned a lot in the process.
By RaeAnn Slaybaugh
Last winter at Canvas Church in Kalispell, MT, an underused storage space was transformed into a thriving coffee shop. Though the church had an espresso bar in the lobby at the time, it had been functioning on a limited basis for years.
The team leader suggested to Executive Pastor Phill Christiansen the idea of converting a large nearby storage space into a space where people could connect with each other — and the message — on the weekends.
“It literally was a closet,” Christiansen recalls. “All that was in there were a few pool tables and TVs that we rolled out and used maybe twice a year.”
No longer limited, the coffee shops mostly sells drinks, but also offers pastries, yogurt and smoothies. It’s open on the weekends, but also for weekly programs, including mid-week Sunday school.
Cup of Blessing Café at First Church of Christ in Garrett, IN, is aptly named: Every time someone buys a cup of coffee, someone else in the community gets a blessing.
This was precisely the vision Senior Minister Brother Bud Owen has in mind when he spearheaded this passion project a few years ago. At that time, his church’s weekend attendance had nearly doubled — and yet, something was missing. “I didn’t want to be a ‘minister that maintained,’” he says.
While on vacation, Owen read The Circle Maker by Mark Batterson. “It tells us to ‘grab that territory and claim it for the Lord,” Owen recalls. “And I couldn’t help but think of a building for rent downtown.”
Not long before, Owen had dismissed the space — it was too big for the youth facility he wanted for the church. A few weeks later, the possibilities for the rest of the space persisted in his mind. Chief among them: a café.
By the time Owen returned from his trip, he could hardly wait to talk to the real estate agent.
“In the end, we were able to get the building for only $25,000 — only about one-third of the original asking price — because the bank that owned it embraced our vision,” he recalls. “And, a couple from the church offered to pay for it. The church just paid for structural upgrades and maintenance.”
Today, the building is the home of Cup of Blessing in the front — open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day except Sunday — as well as a free consignment shop in the back, youth ministry setup upstairs, and a gift shop selling handmade items.
Aside from all the elements falling beautifully into place, Owen says he knew the front-and-center café would be a success for a few simple reasons. First, it’s the only coffee shop in town. “But also, I knew that most people wouldn’t walk by the church and say, ‘Here’s $2,’” he says. “What they would do is buy a cup of coffee downtown.”
Location is key
For Cup of Blessing, the local newspaper — which covered the story as the café was being launched — was helpful in a marketing sense. Today, however, word-of-mouth is pretty much built-in, given its downtown location. “We’re building relationship every day with the people who come in,” Owen says.
At Canvas Church, each first-time guest receives a free cup of coffee — more than 30 per weekend. Aside from this and a weekly mention by the pastor, the church doesn’t really advertise its coffee shop.
“It’s located off the main lobby, so not a lot of promotion is necessary,” Christiansen says.
At Canvas Church, Christiansen and his team have strived to make visiting the church coffee shop as similar to visiting a secular franchise as possible. “Our hope is that a secular café customer will feel right at home,” he says.
To this end, the church was fortunate to have a contractor on staff to spearhead its design and construction. The church also enlisted our volunteers’ input regarding layout, operations and what they wanted to sell.
From as supplies standpoint, branded cups — supplied by Canton, GA-based Your Brand Café — are almost mandatory, according to Christiansen. “We put sleeves on all our hot coffee, and all our iced coffee and cold drinks come in cups with logos,” he explains. “We’ve gotten quite a few comments on the professionalism this branding lends the operation.”
Canvas Church uses an industrial espresso maker that lets volunteer staff make about 100 drinks in 45 minutes — easily doable, as the majority has barista and coffee shop experience. A second espresso maker might be added soon.
Cup of Blessing also uses and espresso machine, which, Owen says, requires about a 10-minute tutorial to operate. Beyond this, he’s particularly proud of Cup of Blessing’s wide array of beverage offerings — all of them easily concocted by volunteer staff, many of them retirees.
“We can do anything Starbucks does! We even grind our own coffee,” he says. “We just do it all with love.”
To that end, the cafe uses DaVinci syrups — like Starbucks — supplied by Irvine, CA-based Kerry Group. This same supplier provides everything Owen and his volunteer team need to make caramel frappes, smoothies and more. One of its brands, Big Train, offers a church beverage program.
“We serve Big Train smoothies, which are super simple to make,” Owen says. “The main thing we’ve found is to have all your syrups on hand. People are very particular about their favorite flavors, so we carry 30 to 40 of them at all times.”
Effective for small groups
Though Cup of Blessing is a community café focused on helping the less fortunate, Owen says the church occasionally hosts small groups in the space, as well.
For Christiansen and Canvas Church, the coffee shop is a gathering place for members, guests and visitors all week long. “Life groups are held in the café space, and it’s a room we definitely leverage for events,” he adds. “It’s a smaller, more intimate setting.”
The stewardship of supplies
To secure the equipment and supplies necessary to get Cup of Blessing off the ground, Owen and his team enlisted the church’s and community’s support. A tree was set up in the back of the space with tags listing needed items and their corresponding prices. “That let people ‘buy’ utensils, equipment and so on,” he recalls. “Our whole list was fulfilled in just a few weeks!”
Additionally, the café consistently orders enough supplies to qualify for free shipping.
Local suppliers have proven to be another great resource. “Lots of people in the community know what we’re doing and why, so many of them offer us discounts,” Owen says. “For example, our bagels are provided at a 30-percent discount. They just believe in what we’re doing.”
Volunteers: the heart of the operation
Owen says he’s gratified by how Cup of Blessing has incited retirees in the congregation to volunteer, often for the first time. “Maybe a volunteer can’t go to Haiti on a mission trip, but he can come downtown and help out in the café!”
For Christiansen, finding baristas and store managers in the membership has been instrumental. “They have high standards, and their training is essentially done by the Starbucks of the world,” he explains. One of them — the team leader — coordinates captains for each of three weekend gatherings.
What do both teams have in common? They’re all volunteers. As any church leader can attest, keeping these individuals engaged and passionate is critical.
“Love goes a long way,” advises Owen. “Love your volunteers. Don’t make them feel like they’re married to the ministry. It’s a volunteer army, and they can quit any time.”
At the Canvas Church coffee shop, Christiansen agrees and has found free coffee gift cards to be a wonderful volunteer appreciation tool.
The biggest bottom-line benefits
As Owen explains, Cup of Blessing doesn’t make a profit; all proceeds go back into the community. The church pays for the café’s maintenance, supplies and operating costs. Open for two years, it has delivered about $35,000 in blessings to the less fortunate in the community — clothing, food, gas and much more.
Beyond community outreach, Owen says one of the biggest benefits of operating the Cup of Blessing is the friendships and relationships its volunteers enjoy. “Fellowship is happening all week — not just on Sunday.”
For Christiansen, the coffee shop at Canvas Church represents an intimate spot in a church that continues to grow bigger and bigger.
“We love it for the environment it creates,” he says. “Coffee Shops are such natural gathering spaces in our culture; to have one in our church where people can connect is a fantastic resource.”
The coffee shop’s proceeds help facilitate ministry in other areas of the church.