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.

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.

Done and Gone…or Are They?

In my role as the Director of Church Publishing at Group, I spend a considerable amount of time chatting with pastors, denominational leaders, and church trend watchers.

About five years ago, I’d say that most of my conversations centered around whether churches in America were actually in a state of decline. Then, about three years ago, those conversations shifted to focusing on how fast are churches declining and what’s causing the decline.

As for my conversations now, the finger-pointing has essentially stopped. Many pastors I speak with are simply resigned to the fact that their church is in irreparable descent and, regardless of the cause or culprit, there’s not a lot that can be done except hold out for retirement or reassignment.

Or is there?

The Dones 

In June 2015, Group published a book by sociologists Dr. Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope called Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith. After sifting through hundreds of hours of in-depth interviews, Packard and Hope concluded there were four primary reasons why people are leaving the American church in droves:

  1. They are seeking community but have found judgement.
  2. They want to make a difference but have found church bureaucracy stifling.
  3. They want to have a conversation but have experienced only lecture.
  4. They don’t encounter God at church.

Millions of these “dones” are walking out of churches in search of something they simply feel can’t be found within our institutional walls. So where do they go? Have they lost their faith? And will they ever come back to church?

The answers to those questions may surprise you.

According to Packard and Hope, most dones are finding the community they were looking for. And, they haven’t lost their faith – they often say that they’re in active pursuit of more authentic ways to experience Jesus.

As for whether they’ll be back, that answer may encourage or discourage you based on how you define “church”.

According to the research, most dones will not return to the institutional church. It’s not that they have a particular disdain for the local church; they actually appreciate the important role that the church plays. They just feel that their spiritual and relational needs cannot be satisfied in a traditional church setting.

Rather than expending energy on trying to find ways to get the dones back in the box, maybe we should prayerfully be considering ways to think outside the box.

Reaching the Dones 

Back in 2010, we launched a highly relational (out of the box) outreach ministry called Lifetree Café. Lifetree Café is a weekly, one-hour, host-led experience that addresses a plethora of thought-provoking and relevant topics in a coffeehouse-style setting. Group provides the presentation and training materials via a monthly subscription delivered online. Churches or faith-based organizations typically sponsor these Lifetree Café ministries in existing church spaces appointed to look like a coffeehouse or at offsite locations like community centers, secular coffeehouses, wine bars, pubs, or cafes.

Many pastors have found Lifetree Café to be a much more economical and sustainable model than planting a church. We now have hundreds of Lifetree Cafes located in the U.S., Canada, and around the world.

When we first started launching Lifetree Café branches, we felt that this ministry would most likely appeal to people who had little or no experience with church. What we actually found was that most of the people coming into Lifetree Cafés had a considerable amount of church experience. In fact, many of our participants talked about growing up as regular attenders or even serving in leadership roles within the church. At some point in their journey, they just decided that church wasn’t for them. They were done.

Unintentionally, we had stumbled upon a ministry model that was attractive to people who were seeking community without judgment, free from bureaucracy, where they could ask questions and share doubts, and experience God in fresh, new ways.

The dones aren’t the only ones to which Lifetree Café appeals. We found that spiritually mature Christians enjoy their experience at Lifetree as well because it provides them a natural way to share their faith in a setting that encourages spiritual conversations. For the first time, people of all walks and beliefs can come together each week to grow in relationship with each other…and with Jesus.

For any church leader who may be reading this blog post and wondering what to do about the decline of their attendance, I’d like to quote the famous poet Dylan Thomas. “Do not go gentle into that good night.” There are amazing opportunities for ministry in today’s ever-changing, postmodern climate. It just may not perfectly match how you thought ministry is supposed to look.

The most critical tool in your toolbox is your willingness to consider change. I’m not talking about abandoning the foundations of the Christian faith, but I am challenging you to look objectively at whether or not the foundations that we’re often guilty of protecting are more self-serving than Jesus-centered. It’s when you focus on exploring any means possible to help people encounter Jesus that the doors of opportunity swing wide open.