“Taking the Gospel Outside the Four Walls of the Church” : Café Style Evangelism in Six Easy Steps

Reaching new people can be a significant challenge for many churches. There are still a few people who will come in to a church service looking for answers; but there are countless more who would never consider coming to church. For those of us on the inside, a church service feels both safe and familiar and so it is perhaps hard for us to grasp just how deeply alien it is to people who have never been.

One of my friends went to an evangelism-training event in Yorkshire. The trainer took the whole class to a betting shop and asked them to go in and place a bet on the 3:15 at Doncaster. Afterwards he de-briefed with them about their experience. Different members of the group said things like:

“I felt really awkward going in”
“I didn’t really know the lingo, or the etiquette”
“I didn’t understand the instructions”
“Everyone else there knew what they were doing”
“Everyone stared at me”
“I felt stupid”

What they all said was: “It was so awkward, I spent the whole time trying to find a way to leave”.

The point is perhaps obvious – that’s how your average secular friend would feel if you dragged them into church. The point is not that the Holy Spirit can’t overcome these barriers, more that the job of the church is not to put barriers between the lost and Jesus – but to “go” out into all the world to call people to follow him. That’s what the Apostles did repeatedly throughout Acts, encountering people in the streets, in public spaces, lecture halls, debates, courtrooms, prisons, marketplaces and the temple courts.

So, how can we take the gospel outside the four walls of our churches and engage people with the life-giving message of Jesus today? One tried and tested method we are involved in at Solas is café style evangelism (hotels, restaurants, coffee-shops, pubs, community halls and curry houses also count!) Churches across the country are holding events in venues like these, often working with Solas to reach the lost. Their experience has been that there are people who would never come to church, but who are interested in Jesus – people who will come, listen and respond.

So, how do you go about holding an event for the unchurched for the first time?

The first thing is to identify a good venue.

An ideal venue for an evangelistic event out in the community is one which is well-known to local people, easily accessible and able to provide a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere for everyone. Obviously, budget is a consideration and a restaurant is going to cost more than a café.

In Blairgowrie in Perthshire the church men’s fellowship had met for curry nights in a local hotel for some time, so it seemed sensible to use the same venue for a guest event. In Kinross, Loch Leven Church went for a large independent café and shop. They describe it as a “well-known venue in Kinross-shire where people can sit and have a coffee in a relaxed, familiar environment”, further North another church we work with uses a local hotel – because it is popular for weddings and functions and has a good reputation locally. Highland International Church in Inverness found the perfect spot for their event in the recreation hall of the local hospital. Many of the hospital staff live on-site, and the church has a lot of members working in the NHS so it made it very easy for them to invite friends and colleagues. The point all the churches make is that finding a venue which is familiar to people and easy to access with good hospitality is the key. Both independent cafe’s and chains like Costa have been used successfully by churches.

Andy Bannister has spoken at countless community-evangelism events like this. As a visiting evangelist the best venues he’s spoken in have had good food and drink (hospitality really breaks the ice and it’s easy to invite friends for a meal, or for coffee and cake etc), a friendly atmosphere, and ideally been a venue that’s known locally — this way you’re inviting your friends into a space they already know.

The second step to do is to approach the venue.

This can be quite daunting when trying it for the first time, after all a lot of people are suspicious of anything to do with the church and Christians worry that they might get turned away! Experience though shows that in practice most venues are delighted to welcome any community group who is willing to pay for their services for an evening or afternoon. If a local group like a church brings people into their establishment, it guarantees them a profitable day because the community group are effectively drumming up trade for the venue. In Blairgowrie the owners of the hotel venue were keen to describe themselves as atheists but were more than happy to host the event.

Two churches we worked with in Scotland who used hotel function rooms for their outreach events stressed the importance of developing a good relationship with venue management by holding a couple of private functions there first and becoming known as good local customers, before asking for the opportunity to use the venue for an evangelistic event. Offering trade, and building trust opened the doors for evangelism to follow. At Highland International Church, they simply emailed the venue, explaining the event and received a positive response – it was that easy! In Kinross they thought that “Loch Leven’s Larder” would be ideal as a venue because it has a large outdoor seating area and they started doing events there at the tail-end of the Covid restrictions. “After speaking with the church leadership team about the idea, and praying together, I phoned the owner of Loch Leven’s Larder to ask if we could use the outside decking area section of the restaurant for a Christmas Carols event.  She was happy to allow us to do this and kindly provided teas, coffees and traybakes to those who attended!” said Richard, their church leader.

(Oh, and don’t forget that the staff at the venue also get to hear the gospel! At one event Andy Bannister did for a church at a curry house, the restaurant owner and entire staff stood at the back and listened — and then Andy had a really long conversation about Jesus with the owner afterwards).

The third thing to do is decide on your aim!

This might seem obvious: the aim is to “preach the gospel”. Excellent, but it can be helpful to define your goals more precisely than that. Jesus spoke very differently to different audiences. He addressed the woman at the well in rather a different tone than he did the Pharisees for example. So, begin by identifying your intended audience. Broadly there are two main options here: evangelism and pre-evangelism. In evangelism your aim is to call people to trust in Christ for salvation there and then. That often pre-supposes that the audience have some knowledge of who he is and are ready for the call to commit themselves to him. In pre-evangelism the idea is to explain to people (who may never have heard much accurate information about Jesus before) why they should consider his claims at all. Pre-evangelism events can be especially helpful in launching evangelistic courses such as Christianity Explored, Alpha or Uncover Luke. At one event Solas helped a church run in a local hotel, they used the night to launch their new Alpha Course. We were thrilled that almost a dozen people signed up there and then!

Fourth, book a speaker and decide on a topic.

Many pastors or church elders love speaking at events like these; others prefer to bring in a visiting speaker who is more experienced in evangelism. It’s really important to find a speaker who is relaxed with and enjoys engaging with non-Christian audiences. At Solas, we love supplying speakers for these kind of events and travel all over the country facilitating them for churches. Work with your speaker on the topic and pick a subject relevant to your audience – and something the speaker is comfortable with too. Andy Bannister has recently used topics like “The Pursuit of Happiness” and “Plagues, Pandemics and Putin: Where is God in a hurting world?” and found significant interest from non-Christian audiences.

At Loch Leven’s Larder I used a recent news story to open up the topic of “Forgiveness” and why we all need it from each other and from God. One Baptist church we worked with on an event like this stressed that the speaker was only one part of the overall witness in their hotel-based event. Not only did they see offering good hospitality as important, but mentioned that the informal conversation around the meal tables was also significant, with church members informally sharing their Christian testimony with the guests they were seated with.

We almost always allow time for Q&A in our outreach events. There is something very powerful in being open and allowing guests to ask any question they like about the topic (or about Christianity in general). So we love to invite questions — whether from sceptics, doubters, or seekers. And remember: even if the questioner is apparently hostile, the fact they have come to your event and are asking a question is a positive step.

But again, handling Q&A with non-Christian people with grace, truth, winsomeness and wisdom is not everyone’s gifting or calling. So finding the right speaker for this is important. If we can’t supply someone for your event, we might be able to recommend someone who can, so please do get in touch. And remember, if you’d like help or resources on answering tough questions, check out the Short Answers video series on the Solas website.

Fifth – advertise the event.

All the churches I have spoken to advertised their events, but mentioned that almost all the guests who came from outside the church did so as the result of a personal invitation. Two churches we know had the bright idea of offering tickets in pairs, and only selling one to a Christian if they had a non-Christian coming with them. Wonderfully, using that model, both events sold out! One pastor in the Highlands of Scotland said to us that it is important to let people know that there will be an after-dinner speaker as you invite them, so that no one feels lured to the event under false pretences. However you do it, get the invitations out far and wide, because sometimes the most surprising people are willing to come, have a good meal, listen to a relevant talk and ask some questions. And of course, don’t do anything without a serious commitment to prayer.

Sixth, have a follow-up plan!

One pastor who regularly uses these ‘neutral venues’ wrote:

“Always have something to invite people on to afterwards, e.g. an Alpha course. In that way the speaker does not have to cover everything but to move people one step closer to Jesus and say enough to want them to explore the faith more.”

In other words, make sure that you don’t drop the ball but have some way of following up. Don’t ever get to the end of the evening and find yourself saying, “Thanks for coming, and I hope found that interesting. Goodnight”. Rather you want to conclude your evening by saying, “Thanks for coming tonight, I hope that you are interested in finding out more about Jesus. As you leave you’ll be handed an invitation to a short course we run at the coffee shop down the road on Monday evenings. We watch a short video together over coffee and cake and discuss life’s big questions together. We’d love you to join us, and we’re starting a new course this week” – or something similar. Critically, think through what to offer guests as they leave. Also, make sure that the speaker is fully briefed on what the follow-up is, so that he or she can lead towards it in their remarks.

Finally – thank the venue!

It may sound really obvious but thanking the staff and helping to tidy up can really help to further the ongoing relationship you develop with the venue which can lead to follow-up events. If you were considerate and gracious guests at a summer event, they are far more likely to welcome you back for a carol service. A thankyou card to the venue is always a nice touch, as is the practice of remembering to thank them publicly at the end of the evening.

So just do it!

Richard Gibb at Loch Leven Church wrote:

“Our experience has been really positive and I would very much encourage you to explore holding a community-based event – possibly in conjunction with one or other churches who have a similar vision to share the good news of Jesus Christ in your area.  It’s an excellent means for people to hear the gospel message who might not normally go into a church building and feel relaxed in an environment where they have the option of leaving whenever they want to or can stay to hear more.  Providing tea/ coffee/ food is always welcome, and helps to break down barriers enabling people to interact and feel relaxed.  You might also be surprised at the willingness of local venue owners to hold an event of this kind – and is a good way to support a local venue by treating attendees to some refreshments as they arrive.  Promoting the event in the local community in good time – through posters, social media and among other local churches – will also help to communicate information widely about the community-based event taking place.“

The “come to church and hear the gospel” method of mission certainly has its place – but it is far more effective in a largely Christian culture than in post-Christian secular Britain today. We are in a situation far more like the early church, who responded by taking the gospel out into their hostile culture. Café-style evangelism can be a very helpful way of doing that today. At Solas we have done a lot of these events over many years, have seen some wonderful conversions as well as one or two heroic failures. We’d love to work with you to help you run an event like this to reach your community.