Christian coffeehouses--blending java, Jesus and live music--are perking up again in Orange County, where churches have found them effective in winning converts.
With names like Hallowed Grounds and Grounds for Hope, these cafes serve as safe spaces for Christians who want to relax with a Bible in public or fraternize with other believers in an atmosphere of low-key fellowship devoid of heckling, alcohol or smoking.
"The environment tends to be warm and friendly and nonthreatening," said Ted Lingle, executive director of the Long Beach-based Specialty Coffee Assn. of America. "It's a place where people feel comfortable talking about something as personal as religion."
The roots of church coffeehouses are in Orange County, going back to the Jesus People movement of the late 1960s founded by Pastor Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel.
Christian coffeehouses are among several innovations--including casual attire in church, a conversational style of preaching, hi-fi sound systems in sanctuaries and even the megachurch phenomenon--that are linked to the Jesus People, said Brenda Brasher, a professor of religion and pop culture at Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio.
Many of the coffeehouses closed as the Jesus People movement faded. Brasher said Christian coffeehouses made a comeback in the 1990s in tandem with the boom of secular coffeehouses.
While many are independently run, others have been founded by churches as part of their outreach ministry.
Calvary Chapel, for example, owns and operates Logos Cafe in Santa Ana, one of the biggest Christian coffeehouses in Orange County with more than 3,500 patrons a week.
Operating on the first floor of an office building owned by the church off MacArthur Boulevard, the coffeehouse bears few outward signs of its religious character.
"Ours is a Christian Starbucks," said Calvary Pastor Dave Rolph, whose nearby church has a congregation of 25,000.
Having a Christian focus can help independent coffeehouses stand out in a crowd of chain operations.
"Christian coffeehouses have really carved their niche," said Lingle of the coffee association. "It's really, in a broader sense, what we call 'community-based retailing'--stores take on their own identity relating to the communities they serve."
But a Christian identity also poses a danger, owners say. Too much religion can scare off customers.
Logos manager Wendy Vaughn set up her shop with bare wooden tables and a straightforward menu--no "Heavenly Muffins." But right alongside the table and couches is a small store with gifts, music and books that are strictly Christian-themed. Chess sets and board games are stowed underneath a counter--alongside a shelf full of Bibles.
"It's not a pushy place," said Vaughn.
The Streetlite Espresso Cafe in Huntington Beach makes java the first priority--spreading the word about Jesus comes second.
"We don't want it to be just a Christian clubhouse," said owner Oden Fong, who plays mostly secular music. "We don't want non-Christians to feel like they can't relax because it's too vibey. Then it's too much like church."
The common denominator is music, said Paula Antonelli of the Northern California Christian Coffeehouse Coalition.
"Music is a big part of the Christian coffeehouse scene," Antonelli said. "It's an excellent language to speak to people who don't want someone thumping them over the head with a Bible."
Believers say that they'd much rather stop in to a Christian coffeehouse--even if it takes a bit longer to get their cappuccino--than to a chain outlet. They say the fellowship is part of how they live out their call to be disciples but that it shouldn't substitute for going to church.
"You can get nurtured in a coffee shop, but you can't get really fed," said Antonelli. "For example, we don't have Bible studies in the coffee shop. You have to go to church for that."
Still, there are many Bibles lying open in the Christian coffeehouses, with believers getting wired on coffee and studying up on the Scriptures. For many, it's the perfect venue to evangelize, a place to try to get people high on caffeine and God.
"People can relate to a coffee shop atmosphere," said Jim Reppert of Santa Ana, curled up at Logos recently with a coffee drink and his Bible. "It's an easy way to open your Christian life up to people."