Fancy a coffee? Look out – the evangelists are waiting for you!

A new religious initiative has arisen that — if we believe its propaganda — will soon be as big, if not bigger, than the Alpha Course.

It is called “Café Church” and is the brainchild of Baptist Minister Cid Latty of Christchurch Baptist Church, Welwyn Garden City. The concept is simple – people won’t go to church, so why not bring the church to the people via high street coffee chains? “The idea is to encourage those who might feel uncomfortable in a church building to worship in a more neutral environment,” say the organisers.

Costa Coffee has gone along with this idea and is permitting these church groups to operate on its premises. The Gloria Jean’s coffee shop chain is also taking part in the scheme. There are now 50 “cafe churches” operating around the country from Glasgow to Torquay.

The Waterlooville branch of Costa is hosting an Alpha Course starting this week, the first time one has been seen outside a church. Organiser Gary Chapman, from Church of the Good Shepherd, had the idea after attending two separate training sessions about Alpha and Café Church.

“It’s church, but not in a church building,” said Mr Chapman. “It’s taking the idea of church into the wider community. It removes that barrier that people sometimes feel about walking into a church building, and helps those who want to find out more about their spiritual side in a place they already feel comfortable. Most Alpha courses provide food. We’ll be asking people to eat before they come, but we can give them a nice coffee! And the programme for Café Church is quite similar to Alpha – low-key worship, the chance to build relationships and have discussion.”

“I think the model works” said Costa Home Counties Retail Development Manager, Sandy Gourlay. “I want to take it forward through Costa because here is a way for our stores to engage with our communities.”

Kristian Thorpe, CEO of Gloria Jean’s Coffees UK, describes the partnership with Cafechurch Network as “fitting with their ethos; ‘We love innovation and we value people. This whole project is thinking outside the box and believing in people. For that reason we have asked the Cafechurch Network to provide our stores with cafechurches.”

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said: “As commercial operators, Costa and Gloria Jean’s can do whatever they want with their own premises. But as a consumer, I have a choice, too. Unlike with my tax contributions, I can decide whether my coffee budget will be used to finance religion. From now on I will be patronising Starbucks, and I will write to Costa to let them know of my decision.”

Mr Sanderson said: “As commercial ventures in a highly competitive market, these businesses should be careful that this concept doesn’t import the failure of the churches into their own establishments. The empty pews in churches can easily translate into empty seats in coffee bars if they become too closely associated with this heavy-handed fundamentalist Christianity.”