A busy cafe table is turned into a church family every Thursday night, as faith-filled people studying the Bible speak their truth with love.
All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. ~ Acts 1:14
Having a Bible study fellowship group in a public place is not a radical new idea. For some people, though, it is a big departure from their usual comfort spot. After all, in a place like Connecticut, how many times do you encounter people talking about the Bible in public, much less reading it? In decades of commuting in and out of New York City, the only time that I recall seeing someone other than myself reading a holy scripture on a train was an Orthodox Jewish man studying his Torah in Hebrew.
So when I first floated the idea of a Bible study group in a public place in my local church, I wasn’t surprised that it took a while for people to respond to it. But after a few months, we formed a core group of people dedicated to witnessing to our faith in coffee shops. We park a little laminated tent sign out on our coffee table to proclaim the presence of the church in the world, and then we turn our focus to drawing close to one another and God through the Bible, as others nearby listen in.
Creating a safe place in public spaces
This fellowship group is about far more than people who want to talk about the Bible. It’s about forming a safe and loving community where people can feel free to share their thoughts and feelings without feeling uncomfortable. I have led several Bible study groups over the years, usually using materials from some pre-determined study plan that has a special study book with questions and a leader’s guide. These sorts of groups can be very rewarding for many people, especially when you have a leader who knows how to try to keep people from dominating a discussion. But often there are people who feel intimidated by a formal course of study – they may feel that their answers are going to be “wrong,” and leave it to “experts” to give all of the “right” answers.
When I was a relative newcomer to my current home church, I led an adult study group, and made sure to encourage everyone to feel that it was safe to share their thoughts. A relatively quiet couple occasionally chimed in at first, and then became fairly regular contributors. Some time later a church member said to me, “You know, John, I’ve been in this church for years, and that’s the first time that I’ve ever heard them speak in a Bible study!” Feeling safe and free from domination is important in any group, but in a Bible study, it’s especially important, since it brings us close to the real concerns of our hearts. Creating a safe place in a public place is that much harder, sometimes, so it becomes even more important to let everyone feel respected and valued.
Here I am, Lord. Here I am, world.
For our cafe Bible study fellowship, there are a few things that keep it healthy and essential for everyone. First, we make sure to take time for real fellowship. We all get to the cafe about 7.30 in the evening, and begin to talk informally about our lives and our concerns for a few minutes. Soon, though, we choose someone – it could be anyone – to lead us in an opening prayer. This combination is really important – we draw close to one another honestly, and then we draw together to God honestly. It’s like saying, “Here I am, Lord. Here I am, world.” Our willingness to be honest with one another in a public place and to draw God into that honesty right away sets the stage for opening our hearts to one another, as the world in the cafe takes quiet note of us. Another key element of safety and respect for our Bible fellowship is that we rotate the leadership of the discussion whenever possible, usually weekly. Everyone is encouraged to be that week’s “lead explorer” – not an expert, but just someone who’s willing to seek answers. I help with moderation when needed, but mostly I just try to empower that week’s leader with a sense of respected leadership.
From Bible Stories to Our Story
Our topics are wide-ranging. Someone might bring a personal Bible reflection from a magazine like The Upper Room daily devotional or Our Daily Bread, another a printout of materials they’ve found on the Internet, someone else some excerpts from a book on Bible history or on a topic like angels. Last night someone brought a fill-in-the-blank multiple choice quiz on Bible verses. While the materials matter, because they draw us to specific topics, it seems that no matter what the materials, we are drawn through one another to God’s story, and we start to open up about what’s happening in our stories. We may start talking about how we can tell who is really wicked, based on the words of Psalm 1, but soon we begin to realize that the real topic is how we feel about things that we’ve done that feel wicked. It’s in moments like this that I may put on a more pastoral cap and draw people towards Christ’s message of reconciliation, healing, and hope – and, often enough, a good dollop of Wesleyan theology. But mostly it’s about allowing the group as a whole to draw us together towards God’s loving truth. The person who’s been quiet most of the night chimes in with precious wisdom, someone who’s been afraid that their theology is “out of line” feels accepted in love, even if their views are different. Topic by topic, night by night, we knit together a fabric of trust, respect, and family-like love that fills our lives with comfort and hope. I think of us being a little like the first followers of Jesus, who, after he had ascended to heaven, gathered as a family of believers to keep Christ alive in their lives. I have come to think of these people as my most trusted faith family, and they have never let me down.
“Thank you” tells you the Word was heard
We close with a heartfelt prayer, holding hands, calling out our concerns that we’ve raised for one another and for others. Often, whoever leads the prayer is followed by someone else chiming in with a prayer, and then, sometimes, an extra prayer. As we get ready to go, there are often hugs and kisses, “meetings after the meetings,” and, more often than not, someone looking up from a nearby table and smiling at us. “Hope we didn’t bother you,” someone from our fellowship might say, and almost always the answer is something like, “No, not at all, thank you, I liked it.” We haven’t been able to persuade these folks to join our table yet, but, in a sense, they have already. This public place has become a holy place, a place where it’s safe to be with God, and safe to be near people being with God. The Word has been heard in our hearts, and in the hearts of others. Good sandwiches, good coffee and sweets – and the sweet Word of life! Not bad for a Thursday night at the cafe.