Would You Like Some Jesus With That Coffee?
Customers slather bacon jam on scones and the smell of a chai latte wends its way through the rectangular brick building. A lithograph for sale proclaims, “All I need today is a little coffee and a whole lot of Jesus.” The furniture is mismatched, the feel eclectic, and a couple of religious icons adorn the walls. On Wednesday evening, an Education for Ministry (EfM) group will gather here at The Abbey, a combination church and coffee house in the Avondale community of Birmingham.
What makes this group unique is not only that they meet at a coffee shop where priests perform baptisms and Eucharists, but the fact that this assembly consists of people who primarily range in age from 26- to 30-years-old—those young adults that churches crave, who grew up in the Internet age where freer-thinking and a multitude of spiritual options have significantly diverted a younger generations’ attention away from traditional church.
At 30-years-old, the Rev. Katie Rengers is one of the elder members of the group that she co-mentors. Rengers is also vicar of The Abbey, which is a partnership between the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, where Rengers is associate rector for young adults. The EfM program, which initially began at St. Luke’s three years ago, marks a new success for Rengers as associate rector. She initially feared that young adults wouldn’t be interested in the amount of reading and time commitment involved in the EfM program.
“Nothing else I have attempted to do with young adults at St. Luke's has worked at all, but somehow EfM is on fire!” she said. “I feel really strongly that the EfM model works to empower lay people to take active, theological leadership in the church. Younger adults typically feel very disempowered and voiceless in The Episcopal Church. I want my group to feel like they have the scriptural and theological knowledge to become leaders in whatever unique way God is calling them.”
EfM is a four-year program for lay people that focuses on areas like the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, history of Christianity, and theology and ethics. The program promotes spiritual discussion and exploration and has a heavy emphasis on theological reflection utilizing personal experience and beliefs, cultural observations, and church tradition.
Karen Meridith, executive director of the School of Theology program, said she is pleased to see younger participants and mentors are finding value in fresh perspectives. “While the average age of EfM participants is still in the low 50s, it has been coming down. We are seeing younger members in groups, especially in the online groups, but also in traditional face-to-face groups across the U.S. and in international programs,” Meridith said. “It was once thought that before midlife, individuals are not ready to begin—or perhaps are just not interested in—a program that explores the intersection of faith and life in the way that EfM does. More and more we are seeing that this assumption does not hold.”
Of the 17 people in the Birmingham group—which includes five new members this year—many are single or recently married without kids. The majority joined EfM at Rengers’ recommendation or through other friends in the group. They meet as one unit to discuss weekly readings and then break into two groups for discussions. The EfM model limits the number of members to 12 per group to promote a stronger sense of cohesiveness and to increase discussion participation.
Kirby Pool, 26, is a first grade teacher at Advent Episcopal School in downtown Birmingham and a member of the EfM group. “I decided to join because I was drawn to the idea of studying the Bible and the church more academically than standard Sunday school classes,” she said. “I also liked that it was geared to young adults. I had not encountered many other young adults at church, and I was excited to find a place where I could share my interest and love of the church and the Bible with other people in the same stage of life as me.”
Pool, who is in her second year of EfM, said she enjoys the interaction amongst the different year levels in the group and the process of theological reflection. “It provides a structure to look at any experience, story, or idea, and find God's presence in it,” she said. “It has helped me to search for God's presence in my daily life, as well.”
Rengers noted that the group often discusses the evolving nature of the church “They are a great resource for getting a sense of how Millennials feel about The Episcopal Church, and what they think the future holds,” she said. “They do a lot of complaining about the church. In particular, they get annoyed with the ways the church tries to entertain them with gimmicks.”
They also don't feel like they have a place in the way church leadership is currently set up—they don't want to be on the altar guild or the flower guild,” she added. “They don't want to be on a committee. Clubs like The Episcopal Church Women (ECW) just don't make sense to this generation. Oh yeah, and they really, really don't want to be asked for money.”
EfM is attractive to young adults because it’s not gimmicky, Rengers said. “The readings come from scripture and tradition—the most fundamental Christian sources. The theological reflections are about real, authentic, often difficult, issues—there are no pre-packaged answers. I've heard a couple of my year three participants talk about EfM as ‘life-changing.’ I think the commitment and authenticity EfM requires is very powerful for young adults today.”
EfM has been life changing for Kevin Burke, 38, the second oldest member of the group and also a co-mentor. Burke, who co-owns a personal training studio, grew up a Roman Catholic but started going to an Episcopal church about three years ago. He said that EfM helped shaped his spiritual direction and he is currently in the discernment process for ordained ministry.
Rengers and Burke met one day over coffee and were discussing topics like organizational finance when they got on the subject of EfM and she invited him to join the group of young professionals.
“I was secretly coming to grips with my own calling at the time,” he said. “When I read a little bit about the program it was like it hit me like a ton of bricks. There is no way I could not take part in this.”
“I love how EfM breaks you down and challenges your belief system,” Burke added. “It makes you really actually think about what you believe and actively discern what that is. Then at some point it is like a light bulb comes on, you realize it is OK, you are OK, and at the end of the day it's all about God's love for you and your love for God and your neighbor.”
Katie White, 35, is a counselor at an eating disorder clinic who loves adventure travel. She is in her third year with the group.
“I decided to join because I wanted to know more about the Bible and also I felt the knowledge from the class would help me help my clients to grow spiritually,” she said. Among the good coffee and theological discussions with friends, White’s spirituality and relationships have grown deeper. “I love the depth of the conversations and how we challenge each other's beliefs,” she said.
The group initially started meeting at St. Luke’s, but moved to The Abbey when the coffee shop opened in February 2015. Rengers credits the laid-back setting with being more conducive to discussions and for making EfM more attractive and inviting for young people. Rengers, who helped start The Abbey, calls it a place where the secular world and the spiritual world come together—a shop that not only offers coffee, church and open dialogue—in a venue where non-believers are just as welcome as cradle Episcopalians.
“The mission of The Abbey is to be a safe and comfortable space where the traditions of Christianity can be rediscovered and re-imagined. The coffee shop atmosphere is far more enticing than meeting in a Sunday school classroom,” she said.
In addition to an EfM meeting place, The Abbey hosts musicians and poets, both secular and Christian, and acts as a mission church for the community, providing coffee and baked goods to local charities, in addition to a number of other outreach efforts. For more information on The Abbey, visit: theabbeybham.com.