When she began the church planting process, the Rev. Jennifer Wickham of The Hub in Ottawa, Ontario, thought she knew how she wanted to do it—in a local coffee shop. Then she learned that planning what will work and discovering what actually works are not always the same thing.

In our original planning and preparations to plant The Hub, we decided to have a coffee shop as our primary place of interface with the community. To test this out, we rented a local coffee shop on Sundays. The coffee shop space we rented was everything we wanted—and completely didn’t work.

The coffee shop was also a roastery. It smelled wonderful. Also, it already hosted arts events so people expected activities to happen there. Each Sunday was an adventure. We arrived at 3:30 pm when they closed for the day. The first week, the shop was empty when we arrived. The staff cleared off—until the sermon time—when they hovered in the doorway to watch. The next week a woman who spoke no English greeted us, sat to the side with her rosary during the worship and then closed up behind us. (Turned out she was the owner’s mother.)

Over the next few weeks, we had customers wander in to buy bags of coffee. (“Oh, can we just come in quickly, please?”) On other weeks, the staff would forget to turn off the music and we would have progressive jazz through the service, or they would cash up during the prayers and we’d listen to the till roll print for three minutes.

Coffee Mug

The first Sunday of Advent there were several tables still full of customers when we were fully set up. (The shop had been closed for 45 minutes at that point.) The customers stayed until after we had finished the opening prayers, lit the advent candle and sung “O Come Emmanuel.” Another week a family came to visit the owners and stayed for the service.

We experimented for three months.

None of us regret the effort, time or awkwardness of those months. We learned a tremendous amount about ourselves, and “space.” Some of it we knew but thought we could work around, and some of it took us by surprise. In fact, the lessons were also sort of conundrums.

Public space. Being in a public space increased our passion to pray for the city. Every week, I heard people praying for the neighbourhood in ways they hadn’t before. At the same time, the space was borrowed. We felt out of place even though we frequented the same space for coffee during the week.

Goldfish bowl. I think the public space issue was further intensified by the openness of the space. This we loved because people could see we were meeting. We loved it because we were connecting worship to the normal places of our lives. We loved it because we could see the neighbourhood we love. The early church would have had bystanders in the early days, we thought. However, worship requires an un-self-consciousness. To abandon yourself into worship you need to stop thinking about yourself. That is difficult when you are being watched—quite literally, watched. “Seekers” are interested. Observers are just, well, observing. We are not used to our worship lives being public. (You could argue that, despite Facebook, we keep most of our lives very private.)

Comfort level. Of course, it was not at all difficult to walk into the coffee shop. People were completely happy to come and check it out. The challenge was the disconnect. The coffee shop space is so defined in people’s minds that making the transition to worship was too much of a leap in the five minutes from 3:30 pm to 3:35 pm.

Children. The children were totally comfortable. There was no sense of intimidation about the space. Of course, this meant that they acted in a “coffee shop way,” not a “worship way.” Coming into the space while it was “still” a coffee shop and expecting them to make the shift to worship, without doing more to the physical layout of the space, was more than we could accomplish there.

What do we do with the conundrums?

Well, church planting seems to be an exercise in interpreting conundrums. Planning what will work and discovering what actually works are not always the same things! Since we didn’t own the space, we couldn’t control many of the variables we encountered. I don’t think we would even have to own the space. If we’d had a little control, we could have told the customers that a service was starting and invited them to stay or leave.  We could have had our music playing when people arrived to enable a transition. If it were our space, even just for the time we rented it, the staff would not have been spectators.  I’m not a control freak, but some control would have gone a long way!

The part of the coffee shop experiment that has taken us forward came from the big windows facing the street. These kept the neighbourhood in mind. This has intensified prayer for the neighbourhood, and even better, translated into commitment to missional living. It will continue to be a conundrum worth wrestling with: being in a public space to keep us focused on mission while creating a conducive space for worship.

The Rev. Jennifer Wickham is pastor of The Hub, an “inside out church” in Ottawa, Ontario. Contact Jennifer