The alcohol they drank while hearing about God and the Bible had no special meaning. It did not represent the body of Christ. It was a lager. It was a pale ale.
The talk about God did not come from a pulpit or in the form of a homily. The speaker had no vestments or special props. Instead, an author stood behind a single microphone stand and talked about the intersection of God and food for the several dozen people at The Camp House Thursday evening.
Even the "Theology on Tap" series, which brings in speakers to discuss faith and culture, is an outlier among the programs at the coffee shop on the corner of East Martin Luther King Boulevard and Lindsay Street. The shop hosts a variety of events, from stand-up comedy to concerts, said Matt Busby, The Camp House director.
"The Camp House is owned by a church, but if you polled most Chattanoogans, I don't think many would know that," he said.
While the shop is owned by the Mission Chattanooga, an Anglican church that meets there for services on Sundays, the choice to keep the space without the typical trimmings of a church — such as crosses, hymnals or stained-glass windows — is intentional.
The choice is one several area churches have made to shift their style of community outreach. No longer leading with the Bible and telling people to come to a Sunday service, these leaders are creating resources and more secular-looking spaces to serve local residents beyond the seemingly high stakes environment of a church pew and sanctuary.
The "Theology on Tap" series predated The Camp House's move downtown in 2014 but continued to engage people, Busby said. For six days a week, the space is a gift to the community in serving coffee and promoting events. This is one way the shop and church creates and promotes local culture, he said. They host musicians and comedians, artists and trivia nights.
"We have a whole theology of culture that's probably a lot different than most churches," Busby said.
The Book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, details how humans are tasked with creating art, he said. While The Camp House will likely not create the best art and culture, they can provide the space and the platform for those who do, Busby said.
Debbie and Danny Lance are attempting to do something similar with Local Coffee of East Ridge on Ringgold Road. Danny pastors True Life Church, of the Church of God, in a former hardware store, which is now part church sanctuary, part meeting room, part coffee shop.
The shop gives no indication of being connected to a church. In fact, the coffee shop and the coming arts center are registered as businesses separate from the church. The shop bears local artwork and decals promoting local coffee. Community members use the church's side room for meetings or parties, Danny said.
Local Coffee is the "front porch" of the church as a metaphor, Danny said, though the shop does serve as the entrance to the church sanctuary. While the church obviously wants people to come inside the house — to attend a service and be church members — a lot of relationships can still be built on the front porch, he said.
Churches can be intimidating for new people — families have their special seats, there are memorized prayers said aloud, guests may be asked to stand up during the service — and the church-going population is often unaware of this, Danny said.
"We have a perception, unwittingly, of not being comfortable," he said. "Like we're a club and you don't know the handshake."
Meanwhile, the majority of Americans who seldom or never attend church services still believe in God, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center. Research shows that people have questions about faith but they are not going to the church for answers, Danny said. Through something like the coffee shop, though, these people can at least meet a pastor.
"At the heart of it is the church, but we don't want to make it 'If you don't agree with us, we don't want you,'" he said. "We want to make on-ramps."
The Bible story of the Good Samaritan who helps a robbed and beaten traveler on the side of the road gets a lot of attention for how the Samaritan does the right thing in helping the injured man after a priest and a Jew did not stop. But most people fail to notice that to help, the Samaritan first had to cross the street, Debbie said. Churches often put up their buildings and expect people to come. They do not go out and listen to what is happening around them. Efforts like Local Coffee and its future arts center are in response to the surrounding community, she said.
Debbie said they are planning to expand their support for local artisans with a teaching space for a variety of classes, like dancing, writing and acting. The space, located in a building behind the church they are beginning to remodel, will also serve as a small theater. The second phase of the plan is to convert part of the church building into an auditorium for community arts events, she said.
Not a 'bless me' community
Other churches are following models similar to The Camp House and Local Coffee. Silverdale Baptist Church plans to open a coffee house of its own near the church building on Bonny Oaks Drive in October or November.
Oaks Coffee House is designed to be the third place for people to spend time after the home and the workplace, said Bobby Daniels, Silverdale communications director.
"Coffee houses have become the gathering place," Daniels said. "Back in Biblical times the well was the gathering place, the city center. People from all walks of life gathered [there]. That is what is happening, potentially, at coffee shops."
A 2018 article in Church.Design, a trade publication for architects and designers, said modern churches should take cues from the hospitality industry in creating a multipurpose feel for their spaces to appeal to worshippers as well as the general community.
Beyond being a space for intersections between those attending church and those who are not, the shop will use its profits to benefit local organizations working in inner-city Chattanooga, Daniels said.
"Our goal is that we would begin to see genuine change in our city, for the better. There are ministries already in place that are doing a fantastic job and they just need more funding."
Church leaders of the more established outreach ministries said the projects often start small. For example, Gennarino DeStefano began his work as a side job in the church setting out refreshments after the service.
Today, it has grown to a full-fledged food ministry and rehabilitation program.
DeStefano operates the M58 Cafe on Broad Street connected to Calvary Chapel and Farm 58. The farm in Dunlap houses 24 men who work on the farm for several months as the first part of their rehabilitation process. The second phase involves the men moving to Chattanooga to work at the church and cafe.
Unlike a typical church, which may only be open for a few hours on Sunday, the cafe has regular hours several days a week, which creates more opportunities for interactions. There is an almost "Biblical mandate" to share food with friends and strangers, DeStefano said. The restaurant averages more than 100 orders a day.
The cafe and farm programs were built in response to the growing problem of men who destroyed their lives, often through addiction, he said. Many of the men in the program have some connection to the church members. They are family, friends or neighbors, which is why houses of faith must be involved in solving community needs, he said.
"The church needs to be recognized as a solution to part of the problem that people in the community recognize as a problem," DeStefano said. " But if you're just a little 'bless me' community, then you're not helping."