Everyday millions of Americans shuffle into their local coffee shop, some seeking a pick-me-up, others seeking community.
They used to sit at the local diner, sharing a malted milk shake. Now they sit brooding over a triple-shot latte, pondering the mysteries of life, relationships and the universe. Over the past decade the American coffee shop has become the meeting place of our culture. It has become a place where businessmen-and-women meet to iron out the details of a transaction, where lovers come to decompress and work through their issues or friends come to share a quiet evening of intimate conversation.
But more than this, the American coffee shop is the Mars Hill of our culture. It is a place where ideas are shared, where pop psychology meets the every day reality of each individual that darkens the door. It is not unlikely to find a barista with a master’s degree in philosophy or theology. As our society has devalued these disciplines, where else can one ponder the mysteries of the universe than the front row seats of the American human experience that is the coffee shop?
This doesn’t mean that everyone who drinks coffee and/or makes a latte is a cultural savant, but there is a common cultural experience that binds us. Every table, couch and chair is a booth of humanity, allowing individuals to exist in a community of individuals that are wholly other, and yet just the same as us. Though we may never know the name of the people that surround us, they are our people, the people of our city, of our borough, of our reality.
The American coffee shop transcends the social stigmas and unwritten caste systems of American society. It is a place where the desirables and undesirables gather together. It is a place where a rich businessperson and a weary transvestite sit at adjacent tables, each involved in their personal reality and yet existing in the public sphere of our culture. These are the people of our world, fledgling and seeking inclusion in something that is bigger and of greater value.
They have not found solace in the hollow and two-dimensional characters on their television screens, but have ventured into the public realm seeking meaning. The American coffee shop is our place and our community, inhabited by an organic cast of characters with lives just like ours.
It is easy to ignore the importance of coffee shops as the cultural artifact they have become. To the untrained eye of the morning work rushers, the coffee shop will never be more than a means to an end. But for an entire generation, the life of the coffee shop comes into being when the sun goes down. An outsider may only see darkness and melancholy, but those on the inside see the searching of souls for meaning and purpose.
Many a church has tried to manufacture the experience that is the American coffee shop, and some have even succeeded in doing so. While there is no inherent danger in the church coffee shop, there is something that seems to disconnect their creation from the incarnational nature of the Christian faith. Perhaps they point to the unfortunate tendency to fortify our faith, or maybe something far less sinister. While they can have great value for those within the church, I have little faith in them as significant tools for outreach or connection with the world at large. In a world full of those who are terrified of the church, why would we believe that anyone would overcome their fears for a cup of coffee?
The American landscape is littered with spiritual seekers, but many of them have already established their holy places of worship and are certainly not desirous of ours. They do not have a desire for a sermon, or moral lecture, but are more than willing to enter into conversation. They are real people, with real needs, hurts, hopes and dreams. They have stepped out, seeking something, and as long as we sit in the comfort of our walls there is no hope of them finding anything but more of the same empty answers. The American coffee shop stands as a significant battleground for a generation seeking meaning. Step into it and enter the conversation of humanity.