Connecting and Building Relationships through Lifetree Café: Part 1

The following is from a fall 2015 interview between Chris Bolinger of Revitalize Ministries and Craig Cable, the National Director of Lifetree Café. The complete interview is in Today’s Vital Church, Volume 2.

Cable: The concept of Lifetree Café was born out of some prayer meetings that started a few years before I joined Group. The prayer meetings were on how to help the church connect with people with whom the church currently is not connecting. Through those weekly breakfast prayer meetings, an idea began to form: what if we created a place where the church and culture could come together and connect and build relationships?

I still remember the day Thom [Schultz] pulled me into his office. It’s always a little intimidating when the founder of the organization wants to see you! He said, “I have this idea. It’s this thing called Lifetree Café.” He explained that it would be a place where Group would provide training and resources to enable a church to create this type of non-traditional worship experience. Thom felt that we have to help churches build bridges to their communities.

He asked me what I thought. I said that I really wasn’t necessarily crazy about the idea. (Laughs.) I was contextualizing it based on my experiences in ministry. It was very different than what I knew and, because of the foreignness of it, I couldn’t get my head around it.

Thom asked me to leave my position as Product Manager and accept the position of Lifetree Café National Director to help further develop this ministry. While I didn’t fully understand the concept, I knew and believed in Thom. If he felt that churches needed this, then I had complete confidence to step out into that unknown to help them.

We conducted our first Lifetree Café session back in November 2007. We had invited lots of friends and family to the inaugural launch. Nothing seemed to go right. In fact, the fire alarm went off twice during the one-hour experience, which was quite unpleasant for everyone. So we spent nearly two more years improving on the experience and determining our content development and training methodologies…

…we launched with seven Lifetree Cafés…Shortly after the launch, we added five more. Believe it or not, the second Lifetree Café to begin operating is still operating today in Eustice, Florida. It’s a real testament to these pioneers who believed in this concept.

Lifetree Café started as a way for churches to connect with their communities through thought-provoking topics that were delivered every week in spaces that resembled a coffee house. We chose a coffee house because it was familiar and felt safe to people to come. We weren’t asking them to step back into a congregational lecture format. It was highly relational, highly conversational. That’s how it began.

Bolinger: My immediate reaction is that it is a great concept but very different from anything that I have experienced in the “church world”. Do people struggle with doubts as to whether or not they actually can do a Lifetree Café and succeed with it? Now that it has been six or seven years since Lifetree Café was first developed, what have you learned? Is there a recipe for success? What are the best practices?

Cable: Chris, we’ve learned a lot…Today, while the Lifetree Café experience can be very consistent from one to another, it behaves more like a content subscription service. Churches can come in as they wish and start subscribing. They can leave if they wish and cancel the subscription.

The one thing that we have been unwavering on is that they can’t modify the experience itself. The Lifetree content is the Lifetree content. They can’t adapt it. We knew, and we’ve seen this first-hand, that it’s not about the leader. It’s about the learner. Lifetree Café creates an experience that helps the people in the room connect with each other and with Jesus. If a church had the ability to modify that content, it would dramatically impact the effectiveness of the experience. We’ve been very rigid at protecting that one-hour experience.

We test everything in our own operating Lifetree, which has been operating every week since 2007. Every week, our Lifetree is open to the community. The people who come from our community may not know that there are other Lifetrees operating around the country. All they know is that they come in and participate in our Lifetree Café experience. We’re not testing occasionally with a focus group. We’re doing this with real people every week.

Over the years, I have found that I can predict fairly early in a church’s Lifetree Café effort, with a fairly high level of accuracy, whether or not the Lifetree Café will be successful. I have launched hundreds of Lifetrees, and we have watched some of those well-intentioned Lifetrees wither and die. The common denominator that will determine a Lifetree’s success is what we call its natural RQ. IQ is intelligence quotient; RQ is a church’s relational quotient.

If a church wants and is willing to commit to being in relationship, not only with each other but also with its community, then that church is going to find every means possible to facilitate connecting in those relationships. When a Lifetree is in the hands of a church that has a naturally occurring RQ and a hunger to grow in relationship with its community, because the people of the church love their community, that Lifetree will flourish. They’ll see new people every week and make hundreds, if not thousands, of relational connections in their community. The Lifetree is just an extension of what God has wired them to be.

Lifetree Café is not the meal. If you believe that faith is a subject to learn, you are going to hold Lifetree Café responsible for something that it was never intended to be. We set the table, and we give a reason to join the table, but the “food” – the actual nourishment that is being given – is a relationship with Jesus Christ that they are going to experience through us.

A church will struggle with Lifetree if the church believes that Lifetree is about what is said from the front. People who come to Lifetree Café will discover Jesus and have an encounter with Jesus through us at the table. If a church has a low RQ, isn’t relational, is protective, is legalistic, is not filled with grace, is not willing to talk about tough subjects, is not hospitable, is guarded, then it will find itself dramatically stunted in building relationships.

It’s tragic, but it’s rare that I find a church that is relationally wired for the success of Lifetree. Lifetree has continued to grow year over year, but it grows at the speed of churches that recognize that Lifetree is an extension of where their passions and love are already.

Bolinger: Does a Lifetree Café have tables of four?

Cable: Yes. Think small and intimate. Most Lifetrees seat 40 to 50 people, never more than 50, at small, café-style tables seating four or in seating clusters of four. There is a host for the one-hour experience, with a video component as part of that experience. Typically, it’s someone’s story shared on film around a topic, and it invites people in the room to discuss the topic and share their own stories.

Topics range from personal need topics, such as loss or forgiveness or grief, to controversial topics, such as the gun debate, legalization of marijuana, or same-sex marriage. Lifetree doesn’t shy away from a topic. We want the faith community and culture in the community at large to come into a conversation. It is rare for a church to want to have that kind of fearless conversation, but those that do really see how powerful this experience can be.

We’re all about tearing down walls. Pastors often tell us that we should have said this or that in the materials. “We could have nailed that conversation and proved to them that they were wrong!” I always tell pastors, “I’m more interested in the relationship than in being right.” I can be right, but that doesn’t mean that we will foster a relationship. We are a place where grace abounds.

The seating arrangement and the topic are amenities. They have their form and their function, but if they are provided without grace, those conversations are going to be stifled.

Bolinger: Do you have someone from the church at each table?

Cable: That is a common question. It stems from the question, “Do you need a facilitator at each table, someone to guide the conversation or just to encourage dialog?” The answer is, “Yes and no.” The “yes” is that we want your people engaged in Lifetree Café because, not only will they get something out of it personally, but also it gives them a chance to share their story. Part of their story is their faith story…

We have this radical idea: trust the Holy Spirit. (Laughs.) I’m not trying to be flippant. We find that God puts the right people at the tables, much better than I can. I see this every single week in our Lifetree.

A couple of years ago, I was sitting at the table, and we were having a fairly benign conversation that went somewhere unexpected. One woman had recently lost her husband when he went out jogging and was hit and killed by a distracted driver like a block from their house. The accident had occurred just a few months prior to that evening. This was one of the first times that the woman had been out of the house with people since the accident.

The man sitting to my right had lost his father years earlier in a tragic murder. He was much farther along in the grief process. He was able to minister to the woman from a point of experience that I never have had. He explained how he had gotten through it, talked about how hard it had been, and empathized with the woman and what she was going through. He ministered to the woman in a way that I couldn’t.

While I could have been the table facilitator, the Holy Spirit had a very different plan. He planted those two people at the same table. That is radically different than what we do when we try to control it.

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