Coffeehouse sanctuary

November 25th, 2014

“This is the story of David vs. Goliath,” a business owner told the reporter. The British Broadcasting Corporation recently ran a story about the potential closing of Highland Coffees, a local coffee shop just off the Louisiana State University campus in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. When news of the expected closing hit social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) news feeds were flooded with pleas and petitions begging for community intervention. The outcry was loud enough that Highland Coffees negotiated a new lease to ensure that the coffee pots would be brewing for years to come. Although it would be interesting enough to study the influence social media has on “real world,” decisions, what caught my attention was how much the devoted Highland Coffees community sounded like a church.

“This is my sanctuary,” a young woman replied.

“We’ve laid to rest some of my friends who used to come here,” a man said with regret.

“If this place wasn’t here, I’m not sure what the future would hold,” another man lamented.

These words of celebration and mourning sound like a welcome video for an early morning worship service, but they aren’t. Here is a community using words traditionally offered in the context of faith communities, yet I’m not convinced that even the most devoted java-seeker would suggest that Highland Coffees is a religious expression. Or maybe they would? Here are some thoughts:

It’s not about the coffee 

In my opinion Highland Coffees serves the best cup of coffee you can enjoy anywhere. This is a bold claim, and I stand by it. Interestingly, no one in the video suggested that Highland Coffees is meaningful because of the coffee. The customers talked about a welcoming community, an inviting environment, and the feeling of acceptance. Certainly coffee plays a role in the formation of community. Sharing some caffeine and muffins around wooden tables is bound to become a tie that binds. Methodists wouldn’t know what to do with themselves should the carafes run dry. If I were writing this 15 years ago I might suggest that you model your youth area after a coffee shop, but it’s not about the coffee. It’s about the community that has formed around it.

Sanctuary of self

The story opens with a young woman saying that the coffee shop is her sanctuary. I am certain she doesn’t mean the communal areas contain a chancel, font, pulpit and pews; rather she captures part of what a sanctuary is — a safe place. Maybe it’s time for the church to give up “sanctuary” as a place of worship. At least, where the word is proclaimed and the sacraments shared shouldn’t be a safe place as much as it should be a place of challenge where our assumptions are rocked and our soul is stirred.

But I’m not ready to give up the word just yet. “Sanctuary” also means “holy ground.” It’s the kind of place where we hear a voice from a bush unconsumed by flame calling us to devote our lives to ending oppression. It’s the kind of place where we dream of a ladder upon which angels freely come and go because God is present and we didn’t know it. It’s the kind of place where we offer to Christ what we think is nothing, and thousands are fed through grace. The coffee shop sanctuary certainly is a place of safety and comfort, but ultimately it’s a sanctuary of self. The only thing it asks of you is $5 and your time. Some would say that it’s really starting to sound like church.

A cup of social media

It may be a bit dramatic to say that social media saved Highland Coffees. I think I can safely say that being savvy with social media won’t save the church either. With that said, the digital sharing that Highland might soon close stirred up a real passion in the community. The click of a share button, repeated several thousand times, can lead to real world change. There is a simple beauty in the way this works. Simple systems reproduce quickly, and simplicity is not a word often used to describe the mainline Protestant tradition. To be clear, I do not think following Christ is easy, but the church would benefit from institutional simplicity.

Who’s wagging whom?

The real question with which I wrestle is why the coffee shop sounds like a church? Is the coffee shop mimicking the church DNA? Maybe the Holy Spirit is moving away from the locus of lazy worship to where young adults are already gathering. God’s patience has waned before — “Your incense is an abomination to me. Your festivals are a burden to me, and I am tired of bearing them” (Isaiah 1:13-14). Could the coffee shop be the altar to an unknown God who will soon be recognized as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Could it be that the hallway coffee and altar wine have switched places?

Has God forgotten his people? No, but a coffee house sanctuary should be embarrassing to those who thought they had the word monopolized (Romans 11:1, 11). I am thankful for Highland Coffees, I am thankful for the Church, and one day, heaven and earth will be one.

Matt Rawle blogs at

comments powered by Disqus