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Christians need to take risks and ‘be the church’

By Shawn Ankenmann

With fewer and fewer people attending traditional Sunday morning worship, some churches are coming up with innovations, such as Jazz Vespers and Messy Church, as well as worship services held on different days or settings. Though church leaders undertake them with the best of intentions, they’re simply moving the box around and redecorating it. It’s still church. Instead, we need to step outside the familiar — and the comfortable.

The church is being called to minister to the greater community, and that doesn’t mean bringing a vision of what church is and will be. Instead, it requires us to allow the community to tell us what it needs. There’s huge potential when a congregation is open to addressing the needs identified by the community, itself, and reaches beyond what people define as “church” to offer ministry, utilizing the assets and capital at hand. 

In my own ministry, I found myself in a community that lacked a hub, where people could gather for coffee and conversation. Our rural Ontario town of 700 had several food venues, but no coffee shop.
Over the last 20 years, I have had many conversations and composed more than just a few sermons in such a place. The value of a coffee shop to the life of a small, rural town cannot be understated. It provides a place for people to gather while getting caught up on the latest news or gossip. It offers much needed part-time jobs for local students and, most importantly, it’s where the local community is built, affirmed and celebrated to tourists and locals alike.

So with the blessing of my congregation, I set out to establish a coffee shop specializing in the social justice values long held by the United Church of Canada. Our coffee, tea and chocolate products are fair trade and organic. We sell products from local producers and artists. 

Although the shop is not formally connected to my congregation, it quickly became a component of the ministry that we share with the greater community. People are more comfortable meeting with me here than in a church office or their homes. As a result, most of my pastoral conversations happen in the shop. We also act as a hub with numerous community groups and neighbouring clergy using our facilities for meetings and conversations. What’s more, being a community-minded barista allows me to have meaningful contact with people who would not otherwise reach out to the church. Doors open when fresh coffee is offered!

By identifying the needs of those around us, and having the courage to reach out and address them, congregations can do the same, be it establishing a day care centre in the church basement, offering a seniors’ lunch in the fellowship hall and, yes, even offering something different and radical, like a coffee shop or a café.

Partly because of my role as minister, our shop remains a safe place where all people — regardless of gender, race, orientation, abilities or disabilities — can meet and greet each other with openness and respect. Though not officially a part of the church, it allows for a different kind of ministry, in which much needed community-building can happen over coffee and conversation.

Shawn Ankenmann is the owner of Highland Grounds coffee shop in Flesherton, Ont.

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