"Jesus Turned the Water Into...Coffee?"

I pulled open the glass doors and stepped into Kansas City’s best coffee shop. At least, that’s what the local coffee connoisseurs told me. The metal and glass décor of the shop felt sleek and new, but the grunge artwork lining the walls held an edgy vibe.

Walking up to the counter, I ordered my usual—a small vanilla latte.

“Our coffees don’t need syrups,” a bearded barista replied, indignant. He then pointed his tattooed hand toward the shop’s six-item menu printed on recycled paper with hand-stamped artwork next to each drink. Sure enough, the bottom line read, “Our coffee offerings are served without milk or sugar.”

I didn’t know I had entered the Napa Valley of the coffee world, I thought.

My barista continued, “This one has more of an apricot hint to it, and this one has tastes of cranberry and lime—”

I interrupted. “Can I just have a plain latte?”

Disappointed, he agreed to taint their coffee with milk for me.

Drink finally in hand, I slid onto a stool by the window to take my first syrup-free sip. It slid over my tongue, the smoothest coffee I’d ever tasted. Even without sugar, it was so sweet I could hardly tell whether I was drinking coffee or grape juice. 

Napa Valley, indeed.

Christians and Coffee

Years after my first visit, I was shocked to discover that this rebel coffee shop was owned by one of the elders of the church down the road, Redeemer Fellowship in Kansas City. The coffee shop, Oddly Correct, is not known for being Christian: It’s known for selling good coffee. But behind the tattoos and artwork, the owner loves Jesus.

And this is typical of Kansas City, which is home to
approximately 50 independently owned coffee shops. I asked Nick Robertson, 30,  a fellow believer who owns the local Messenger Coffee Roasters, how many of those are run by Christians.

“Almost every coffee shop is Christian-
owned,” he said.

Is Kansas City unique? I started doing
research. Apparently, Christian-owned coffee houses are currently a nationwide trend. From California to the Dakotas to Arkansas, Christians are becoming obsessed with good coffee. It seems to
be a staple of every church trying to be “relevant” or “seeker-friendly.” Even in my own little 200-person church, our bulletin allots space to submit a request for prayer—or a new flavor for the coffee shop to feature next week.

It seems there are undercover Christian baristas nationwide.

“When we went to the U.S. coffee competition in
Seattle, we were surprised at the number of Christians we found doing the barista competitions,” says Aaron Duckworth, 41, manager of The Portico, a coffee shop in Graceway Church in Raytown, Mo. “[The baristas] weren’t known for their faith. They were known for making excellent product. And oh, by the way, they love Jesus too.”

Why Coffee?

If Christians believe in community, coffee shops fit their values like a glove.

“Coffeehouses are where people gather and are usually in no hurry,” write Dan and Angie Cleberg, owners of Red Rooster Coffee House in Aberdeen, S.D., in the blog The Underground Railroad. “It’s a place for sharing thoughts and ideas, where relationships happen and unintentional networking is formed. It’s a picture of the Kingdom of God as people are brought from isolation to community.”

Jean Boulanger, 51, general manager at Red Rock Coffee in Mountain View, Calif., sees her shop as a space where people are free to discuss anything and form new connections. “Politics and the things you’re not supposed to talk about at a dinner party get brought up here,” Boulanger says. She tells stories of business meetings and Bible studies happening side by side, sparking new conversations. “We give table space and big communal tables for people to sit and meet each other and interact.”

Many Christian baristas feel coffee shops provide a nonthreatening space where difficult conversations can happen outside of church. Bo Nelson, 31, owner of Thou Mayest in Kansas City, Mo., sees his shop as an expression of something deeper, something he hasn’t found in churches. Some people won’t go to church, but they’ll come to a coffee shop. 

“It’s awesome for home churches trying to reach people outside of the church,” he explains. “You’re not going for the coffee. You’re going for the relationship.”

Good Coffee Speaks for Itself

Many coffee shop owners don’t run their stores in a stereotypical “Christian” way—such as by blatantly proselytizing their customers. They just make good coffee. Their best witness, they say, is offering an excellent product as a reflection of God himself.

“All truth is God’s truth,” says Kate Matsch, 28. She runs Ibis Bakery in Lenexa, Kan., in partnership with Black Dog Coffee House next door. “When you do something with excellence, that’s a characteristic of God. You lay a platform for Him to do more work.”

Likewise, California’s Red Rock Coffee, owned by the Highway Community Church, has built a reputation for quality in the heart of Silicon Valley. In an environment known to be hostile to Christianity, the church started the coffee shop to reach the local residents. Highway Community Pastor John Reimenschnitter, 47, sees quality and Christianity going hand in hand. “To be a platform for the Kingdom, we have to be good at what we do.”

Duckworth, of The Portico, agrees quality is essential. He jokingly points out that Jesus’ first miracle was to make good drinks. 

“But for real,” he adds seriously, “if you go back and read that story, the host praised the groom. ‘You’re doing it different than how everyone else does it. This isn’t just good, this is great.’ ” In a sphere that’s very secular, Duckworth feels the quality gives Christians their “street cred.”

The Portico’s philosophy of excellence has been noticed in the community. Duckworth uses his church’s coffee shop to train baristas who are now highly in demand all over the city. Over the last seven years, 26 of the church volunteers he’s trained at The Portico have gone on to earn paychecks at other coffee shops in the metro area.

“Coffee shops will ask me to do consulting for them,” Duckworth says. “I tell them, ‘I’ll help you, but we’re going to do it my way, and it’s going to be excellent.

Originally published in the January/February 2018 issue of Citizen magazine.

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