Connecting and Building Relationships through Lifetree Café: Part 2

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.

To read Part 1, click here.


Cable: We find that we should just say, “God, we’re going to have a room full of people, and we pray that You put the right people at the right tables for the right conversations, because they have been predestined to be here, and You know what is stirring in their hearts. We will sit back and enjoy and marvel at what You are about to do in the next hour.” If you come in with that mindset and relinquish control to the Holy Spirit, you’ll be amazed what happens.

Bolinger: This reminds me of our experiences in youth ministry. We found that the youth who asked the best questions were the “unchurched” kids. The “churched” kids didn’t ask a lot of questions and had the “right” answer to your questions. You have to provide an environment where the “unchurched” kids feel safe enough to ask real questions. We used to encourage our youth to write any question on a piece of paper, and we promised to give them an honest answer to any question, even an embarrassing personal question. It helped to break down barriers.

It seems to me that Lifetree Café has the potential to capture that type of youth group experience for adults. You can develop real relationships so that people are comfortable talking about real things. “I’ve always had this question.” “I’m really struggling with this.”

Does a Lifetree Café have elements of a youth group such as food and icebreakers and games? How long does it take for people who attend a Lifetree Café to get comfortable with sharing? I would think that it would take a while.

Cable: Let me debunk the myth that it takes people time to become comfortable enough in Lifetree to become transparent. That’s actually not true. We find that people are incredibly transparent from the first time they walk in. We liken it to riding an airplane. When you’re on a plane with a perfect stranger sitting next to you, you’ve got nothing to lose. If it were true that, the more time people spent together, the more transparent they became, then we would have churches that are filled with transparent people.

At Lifetree Café, people are incredibly transparent with where their struggles and pain are. You don’t have to guess what it’s about. They are coming for a specific topic that addresses the issue that they are dealing with. They dive into that.

As for having elements of a youth group, we recommend that every Lifetree has complementary snacks. People who have a snack in one hand and a cup of coffee (or water, or tea, or another drink) in the other are far more comfortable. It’s like when someone visits your home. You welcome them in, you tell them that you’re glad they’re there. It’s the nature of good hospitality. If you can show that type of hospitality, people feel comfortable, and they feel safe in opening up.

I’ve seen Lifetrees incredibly stunted in their conversations, and it’s because it’s not the right environment. They haven’t set the stage for transparency because the environment is sterile. And more of an impact on that is if we’re sterile, if we’re not transparent. If people sense that we’re guarded in having an honest conversation, then they’ll be guarded.

A Lifetree is all about fearless conversation. Your thoughts are welcome. Your doubts are welcome. Anything is fair game to talk about here. It’s a guided conversation in that we are focusing on a particular topic but, if in the midst of that if a conversation turns to a different thing, you don’t say, “Wait! I’m sorry that your husband died six months ago, but that’s not the topic here this evening.” If the conversation leads there, then the table conversation goes there.

The Lifetree experience starts with a fairly light, get-to-know-each-other question. As in youth ministry, it’s an icebreaker. It’s a way for you to build comfort and rapport around your people. We don’t have people walk in and join a table and say, “Welcome to Lifetree! What’s your deepest, darkest sin or secret? I’ll give you a few minutes to talk about that.” (Laughs.) It’s something more like, “What was the highlight of your week, and what was a lowlight of your week?” That’s a way to demonstrate that we’re going to practice conversation here. And through the experience, it goes deeper and deeper and deeper.

On a Sunday morning at a typical church, when the message ends, and even before the message ends, people are up out of their seats, and they’re already starting to leave. At Lifetree Café, part of the ministry is what we call After Words. When a Lifetree session ends, people won’t move from their seats for 20, 30, or 40 minutes. That’s because they’re continuing their conversations with the friends at their tables. Sometimes they’ve known these friends for years, and sometimes they have known them for an hour. That’s a true testament to our ministry, when we watch them continue that dialog.

As people critique Lifetree, they sometimes ask questions like, “Why didn’t you unpack the entire Gospel?” Well, for one thing, we have only an hour. But we don’t want the conversation to stop at Lifetree. That’s the head jump that the church has to make. It’s not about you, the church, and what you say.

People who cut their teeth in youth ministry have a much easier time with Lifetree Café. They get it. Others who get it quickly are pastors who are bivocational or who worked in the secular world before they moved into the ministry world. When they see Lifetree and who it’s for, they see themselves. They say, “Boy, I wish Lifetree had been there 20 years ago, when I went through my divorce.” They know what it would have meant to them when they needed that.

If you’ve lived insulated, and you’ve been marinated in a church culture, and you’ve never really experienced the real world, it’s hard for you to relate to the real-world formula or ethos of Lifetree.

Bolinger: …do you…offer training? How should I consult with Group to make sure that my Lifetree Café is running as well as it can?

Cable: We have found that, to do a successful Lifetree, you have to change how you approach doing ministry. It is the antithesis of how we have been trained and how we measure effectiveness. Statistically, you should be able to get the right answer 50% of the time. We discovered with Lifetree that, if we offered a church two choices for how to do Lifetree, the Lifetree way and the traditional church way, 95% of churches would gravitate toward the non-Lifetree way. They had to relearn behaviors and measure things differently. So training is essential.

But churches are very resistant to change. And they were resistant to the training.

Lifetree training is available online. It includes videos and best practices. Whereas before it was required, now it is suggested. We’ll let you make the most common and avoidable mistakes. We hope that the problems that a church encounters are not fatal because, the more people bump into challenges, the more open they are to coaching and development. We love those opportunities to be able to mentor them.

The churches that get it – who understand what they are trying to accomplish and the rhythm of Lifetree – find that Lifetree transforms their churches from the inside out. It’s amazing how transferable the Lifetree training is to other ministries. You will do youth ministry differently. You will do children’s ministry differently. You will do church differently. If they think that Lifetree is a little side ministry and the church is what matters, they will find after a year that they should be doing church like Lifetree. That’s exciting when that happens.

Bolinger: I wonder if house churches are attractive to some because they are more like a Lifetree than like a traditional church. Of course, a church has some elements that you don’t have in a Lifetree.

Cable: Let me clarify that every Lifetree episode, regardless of the topic, always has Scripture and always has a prayer. There’s always a faith “a-ha!”, regardless of whether it’s a light topic or a serious topic. It’s always very intentional. People talk about Lifetree Café as something radically new. It’s so new that it’s about 2,000 years old. There’s really nothing new here. We’re trying to bring it back to what it was all supposed to be about in the first place.

It doesn’t matter what type of church or ministry you are in – if you try to imitate “big church” in a small format, it’s not going to work. How many times have you been to a church plant where they have parking attendants and there are 12 cars? They’re following the wrong model.

Our culture is rejecting the congregational lecture/listener big church model. People are not moving away from Jesus. 30.5 million Americans have walked away from the institutional church, but they are pursuing a relationship with Jesus.

This will be the next chapter of my time at Group. We’re now saying, “How do we help and resource the church in the four walls of the building and outside the building?” The people in the building may say that it’s not church if people are sitting in a living room and talking about life and faith and where Jesus fits into that. It’s seen as “not church” because it misses the trappings or the ways that we measure what church should be. When I walk into a Lifetree and see the conversations of people coming to faith, I ask, “How is that different from the church?” If anything, I see that happening more outside the walls of the church than within the four walls.

Now, I hope that everyone hears me not knocking the four walls of the church. Keep doing what you’re doing. There are people whose needs are being met in the four walls, and that’s where their connections are. For people who gravitate toward an auditory learning style and are looking for that kind of community, the church serves that purpose. But an aircraft carrier can’t be our only method of transportation. We have to have different ways to engage people.

We’re not compromising the tenets of our faith. We are centered on Jesus, but how we do that can take a lot of different forms.

Bolinger: To use a mathematical term, what a church does within its four walls is necessary but not sufficient. It meets the needs of some people, so we shouldn’t stop doing it, but it’s not enough anymore. I’m not sure it ever was enough.

Let’s say that my relatively small church has 10 people who are excited about doing a Lifetree Café, but we’re not sure that the 10 of us can pull it off. Should we look for 10 more people at a church down the street? Or does it work best if a single church does it?

Cable: I would answer with a question: What would preclude the 10 of you from starting a Lifetree? Lifetree actually struggles in larger churches and can explode in a small church. Success has little to do with numbers.

One of the most successful Lifetrees, which is still operating today, started with six women and a minivan. It’s in Fort Dodge, Iowa. It’s a ministry called Cana. They use this ministry to connect with people in their community based on where their own hearts are, for the least of these. Their location was an abandoned space in a strip mall across the street from a women’s detention center. As women walked out of the gate with literally no options, they would walk into Cana. I can’t tell you how many ministries have been spawned out of that ministry: counseling ministries, art ministries, equestrian therapies…all born out of the hearts of six women who have a love for the Lord and a deep love for people who are hurting.

Bolinger: What are the costs to do a Lifetree? Let’s assume that we can find a venue that is free.

Cable: The content is $200 a month. Even with snacks and other expenses, a Lifetree will cost $300 to less than $500 a month total. Most Lifetrees operating outside of church buildings are in venues for which they are not being charged. Some utilize time in local restaurants or coffee houses when there are not many customers there. Some use community centers and YMCAs. Just go where people are gathering already.

When you use a restaurant or coffee shop, it actually helps the business owner. The more foot traffic you can bring in, the more people begin to patronize that establishment. It’s a win-win.

I’m just amazed at how God opens doors that you never thought would be opened. People support it with their presence or their funds. Having a church connection is no indication of success. You just need passionate people who see an opportunity to serve their community in this way. That Lifetree is unstoppable.

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