To be this Good, You have to be Bad

Are you needing some extra ‘edge’ to your mission activity? We met with the people behind ‘Sup? – a café church project in Harrogate UK who will stop at nothing to share their faith.

‘Café Church’ has been something of a buzz word in recent years amongst the more missional-focussed and has quickly crossed over from emerging church communities into mainstream church activity. The idea is simple – people like to drink coffee and hang out in nice cafes, so if you run a good café you have an environment that people feel comfortable in that can be used for missional activities. It’s much easier to invite someone along to an evening at a good coffee house than to one at a church. Cafés also make a great home for a generation who feel that the trappings of traditional church rarely relate to 21st century life and so a café is a good, authentic base from which to be church.

At first glance the coffee shop I’m visiting on a busy shopping street on the outskirts of the town centre seems to tick all the ‘cafe church’ boxes. It’s a small but smart, stripped-down space with reclaimed second-hand wooden chairs and a leather sofa. Contemporary artwork hangs on the walls, the espresso machine fizzes away at the counter and a chill-out compilation is playing just loud enough as I enter – I think it’s a Moby track. A magazine rack has mostly surf and skate magazines and a modern translation of the bible in magazine format. A poster advertises discussion groups, searcher evenings and mid-week worship with DJs. And crucially there’s a constant flow of customers, many of whom clearly welcome a short chat with one of the team as much as the excellent frappes. But it didn’t always run as smoothly as this.

“We used to have a big image problem.” Explains team leader Stephen over a skinny cappuccino. “We’ve always been up-front about being Christians but as a result developed a reputation as do-gooders. So we were only getting other do-gooders coming into the café. We wanted to reach out to a wider section of society. Something had to be done. Something radical.”

The café itself is fortunate in being self-supporting which pays the daytime counter staff’s wages. The rest of the team volunteer on evenings and weekends apart from Stephen who receives a stipend which enables him to combine working part-time in the cafe with studying for a PhD in Postmodernity and Cross-cultural Semiotics in Contemporary Urban Mission. His dissertation is on the lyrics of Faithless as viewed through a pre-Pauline missiology. And so it fell to Stephen to make the radical moves.

“We needed some big statements,” he says “something to prove we were real people who also make mistakes in life. And what’s bigger than the 10 commandments?” With the full support of the project’s advisory group, Stephen set about appearing to break several commandments in order to gain some street credibility.

“Remembering the Sabbath was an easy one.” he claims with a twinkle in his eye, “We’d long since abandoned Sunday as the day on which we gathered as a worshipping community. I just needed to make my self visible as not being at church.”
And so Stephen could instead be found anywhere on a Sunday where lots of people might gather – football matches, in the pub, in the bookies, shopping or just hanging out in the town centre usually wearing a t-shirt with the slogan ‘I’d rather not be at church’.

The second commandment to go was honouring his father and mother – both regular attendees at their local Methodist church. With their agreement Stephen would shout abuse at them in the street whenever he saw them. “Obviously this was just for show,” he’s eager to point out, “I’m always polite when I go round for tea on a Thursday. It’s great they’ve been so supportive. I think they’re quite proud of what I’m doing.”

However, breaking some commandments inevitably skirted the very laws of the country. “Stealing was a tricky one. I decided that to be at ease with myself, I should only steal things that I didn’t actually need. I don’t drive, so I started pinching things from the car accessories shop in town. Air fresheners and lamps bulbs are easily done, hub caps can be a little trickier and I did have a near run-in with shop security at one point trying to get a full body skirt set out of the store. But touch-wood I’ve got away with it.”

But for the charade to work, Stephen had to be known to be stealing. So Saturday mornings are spent at the local car boot sale where his ‘second-hand’ automotive supplies stall is deservedly popular. In order to witness, Stephen usually plays Mat Redman songs on his car stereo as he sells the stolen goods at discount prices.
“It’s a small gesture,” he admits, “but it has prompted some good conversations and led to opportunities to talk about God.”

He raises his voice markedly every time he mentions God or Jesus, almost shouting the word as if cursing. “It’s an easy way to be seen to breaking another commandment.” he says conspiratorially.

But the ruse which has had the biggest impact was committing adultery. Stephen’s wife, Amanda, who is also one of the café church team actually came up with the idea. With her help over a number of weeks Stephen gradually built up the image that he was having an affair.
“It was little things,” he explains, “such as having a smudge of lipstick on the collar of my hoodie or making lame excuses to Amanda in the presence of others as to why I’d be home late. The hardest part was actually filling the time when I was supposed to be having the affair.” Needing to keep away from anywhere he might be spotted alone by people who came to café church, Stephen volunteered to work at the local street project cooking meals for homeless people.
“It’s been very rewarding,” he says, “although several times I nearly slipped up and forgot to turn up at café church looking tousled and smelling of perfume.”

‘Sup? is proving to be a big success. Known locally as ‘the church led by the bad boy’ numbers to worship have doubled and this year even the local bishop has given up a different commandment every week for lent in an attempt to work similar magic within the Diocese.

“We’re very happy with how it’s going.” he admits. I had planned to quiz Stephen on theology and how it’s explored within the group but sadly our meeting is cut short by a visit from two local policemen who want to ask Stephen a few questions about his Saturday morning activities.
“It’s another chance to witness!” he beams as they move to a back room for a more private conversation. As he’s led away I catch a little of the conversation in which he seems to be telling them about being born again. The last word I catch is a loudly shouted “JE-SUS!” which carries clearly across the café further bolstering Stephen’s reputation as the man who breaks the rules, but saves the souls.