This is part of a series I’m writing about My Dream Church. My Dream Church is a Cafe Church (not a church with a cafe). See the Introduction here.
My Dream Church is a Cafe Church called Perkatory. This is not a church with a cafe, but a cafe that is a church. The cafe serves as a central element to the rest of the church. See how Perkatory does Discipleship to see how the cafe functions as a ministry element.
I want to do a cafe because Portland loves coffee. It loves beer, too, but a church pub already exists in Portland. And even as a beer-liker, I am still a Methodist, and My Dream Church has to be safe for those battling addiction. The cafe is part of the culture of the neighborhood in which My Dream Church would sit. Furthermore, cafes provide what churches too often lack: casual low-expectation comfort. So the cafe part is partly about what cafes do. It is also about what has become of the church in my particular area.
The neighborhood in which My Dream Church would reside, Sunnyside, is baking a new layer of gentrification. Home prices are rising sharply, the demographic is younger and more affluent. In many ways it is the poster child of the gentrification trend that is a major driving force in Portland. (See what happened to an avenue to Sunnyside’s south in just a few years.) In the 1970’s the rental rate in Sunnyside was ~85%. Now home ownership is the norm and people are paying good money for smaller houses. Sunnyside just happens to include two trendy avenues of shops and restaurants. The neighborhood is white, even more so than most of the Northwest. And the population is on a sharp projected increase. According to MissionInsite, people in Sunnyside are happier than their peers in other locales. They worry much less about job security than others. They are concerned about the environment and highly value money as a way to measure success.
You know what people in Sunnyside are NOT doing: going to church. Portland is ground zero for the rise of the nones. Some 31% of Sunnyside’s residents have no religious affiliation, a 2% growth in the last decade. That number will increase. For church goers who are considering leaving the church, ~80% cite “Disillusionment with religion” as a reason to leave church. “Distrust of church leaders” also accounts for 80% of people’s reasons for leaving church. The reasons for people leaving church are strong and philosophically and morally based. And the atmosphere of the neighborhood is indifferent altogether with religion. (See MissionInsight information for Sunnyside neighborhood.)
The Church’s choice then becomes 1) beg people to give us another try or 2) create new ways to engage the population. Both of these require a heaping dose of humility, something American Christianity struggles with. With the sharp decline in Christianity in America overall, I believe that it is of utmost importance that the followers of Christ understand the dilemma correctly. The dilemma is largely about the loss of confidence and respect for the church. These qualitative elements are the real crisis, far more so than our statistical decline.
An even greater concern for me than the closing of churches is that the teachings and purposes of Jesus will disappear. Who will call us to the more difficult forms of love? Who will offer repentance and forgiveness of sins? Who will call us to loving our enemies when we are a superpower. Who will speak to difficult moral dilemmas where right and wrong are less obvious? Who will be there when tragedy strikes the community? These qualitative roles of the church are as needed today as ever.
My current congregation bears some sharp contrast to this local population. We are white but only somewhat affluent. We have been a progressive congregation for a very long time. We welcome the homeless, feeding and housing them. We are a Reconciling Congregation in a town and neighborhood that values inclusiveness. As gentrification swept over Sunnyside fifteen years ago, the church found itself at odds with the neighborhood regarding the homeless population, so much so that city council tried to shut down the church altogether. We know that even today, the less-well-off are in the neighborhood. Rather than living in Sunnyside, they are here as service workers. We still receive the homeless without judgement, helping them as much as possible. Sadly, the congregation has decided to close due mostly to weariness. It is hoped that something new can preserve the good programs that are still flourishing at Sunnyside. But it will most likely not be a United Methodist endeavor.
Nevertheless, I see the potential of a cafe church taking root and providing vital Christian presence in that neighborhood, even with all the present socio-economic and cultural challenges. But a more fundamental question needs to be addressed:
What is a vital Christian presence in the midst of gentrification?
I think that United Methodism is uniquely positioned to have an important presence in a gentrifying neighborhood. We have a distinct love for the poor. We have an evangelical heritage that is undergirded by pragmatism. We have a robust theology that calls all persons to a deeper love of God. And we have experience ministering in both needy and well-off locations. While it would be relatively easy to place a theologically tepid but theatrically showy congregation in this neighborhood, I don’t think that would necessarily speak to the current spiritual dilemma. And there are plenty of those around anyway. Furthermore, an affinity-group style of new congregation, I believe, misses an opportunity for the Conference to address the phenomenon of gentrification in Portland.
Addressing the Phenomenon of Gentrification through Good Old-Fashioned Relationship Building
If you Google gentrification, the #2 listing is an article about Portland, behind only the Wikipedia definition. This article includes an interactive map of Portland and defines gentrification as the process of “urban revitalization that leads to mass displacement of poorer residents and ethnic minorities”. It’s not wrong for people to want to move into a neighborhood. I’d love to live in Sunnyside! But the rapid and careless displacing of poorer people is contrary to a just society. According to the linked map, the gentrification of the Sunnyside neighborhood has already happened.
A ministry for the neighborhood is essentially a ministry to the recipients of gentrification. By and large, these are economically comfortable people. They aren’t looking to kick poor people to the curb per se. They just want live in a great neighborhood with good schools and an enjoyable lifestyle. The kicking of the poor has, in essence, already happened. So what then is ministry to them? How do you promote a savior who told Peter to leave everything?
This is where approach is just as important as content. A cafe church, well-designed to be a just, Christian presence, will know better than to shout condemnations upon the neighborhood. In many ways, the approach of Perkatory is old-fashioned: it’s about making relationships within the community and revealing the kingdom of God through the relationship. It is with loving kindness that a Christian community addresses a matter of justice. In the Perkatory/Sunnyside context, the raising of awareness towards the dignity of the poor is the starting point. Actions of solidarity and compassion follow, as would actions of repentance and reconciliation. My Dream Church is a place of dignity and awareness in a neighborhood reshaped by dismissal and displacement of the poor. That sounds like Methodism for the 21st century.
Through its structure, its disciple-shaping scheme and its cultural affinity to the neighborhood, a cafe church stands as good of a chance as any at making a truly Christian impression on the community. I’m dreaming…