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Story 58 - The Olive Branch Coffee Shop

Four Oaks Baptist Church, Sutton Coldfield
Written by Suzie Abramian in conversation with Revd. Phil Wilks - 18/11/2020

So often missional approaches are rooted in the desire to reach the lost, the broken and usually the poorest in society. And rightly so, after all, Jesus demonstrated this in his life and called us to do likewise. But the challenge of how to engage and share the gospel still remains for those churches who find themselves located in the wealthier, more self-sufficient parts of the country. Four Oaks Baptist Church in Sutton Coldfield near Birmingham is on a journey of recognising that the ‘normal’ styles of mission just wouldn’t work in their area. The church itself is in Mere Green, an area without council estates and next door to the exclusive area of Four Oaks, where the average house price starts around 1.5 million. Phil Willks, minister of Four Oaks BC explains, ‘if I was to run a soup kitchen, I’d get loads of volunteers, but I wouldn’t have anyone coming!’ Although there is poverty, Phil notes that poverty in wealthy areas looks very different, it can be better hidden with issues such as debt poverty and bankruptcy and ultimately found in spiritual poverty and the deep need for Christ.
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When Phil arrived at the church 3 years ago, the congregation were looking at an uncertain future, with only 25 elderly members in the congregation and few connections with the community outside of the church walls. Over the last few years there has already been a quite a transformation in terms of numerical growth, welcoming in millennials and particularly those who could be described as ‘dechurched’. Furthermore, Phil credits how the church have been accepting the need for change and have given him licence to step out and try new approaches.
 
Beginning with the idea to hold a weekly evening service, but not in the church building, Phil approached the manager of a local coffee shop to see if they could hold a gathering there on a Sunday evening. Interestingly Phil notes the importance of having already built-up relationships with the staff in this coffee shop for some time beforehand, partly out of a genuine need for internet, having none in his home or in the church when he arrived, and because of the desire to connect with those outside of church. Consequently ‘Aromatic Faith’ ran for a while in the coffee shop but when the shop had to close and the only alternative venue had the unreachable hire costs of a corporate chain, the church started to look at what they could do themselves. Looking to use the large foyer in their church building, Phil says how he felt challenged at the time whether to encourage the emphasis of bringing people into the building rather than going out into the community. However, Phil also notes how in holding their ideas lightly and allowing God to continually shape their plans means they have frequently been led along paths they wouldn’t have envisioned.MA Story 58 - Picture2
At the same time, the church also looked at what was happening in their immediate vicinity. Noticing that their car park had informally become the local drop off point for parents on the school run, they chose to see how this could be viewed as a positive connection. With 3 schools within a mile from the church and approximately 1 mile from the nearest coffee shop, Phil explains that they started to see how they could take the initial idea of a cafe style service further to have a more missional approach, inviting people into the church building.
Practically speaking this involved going further than the basic idea of simply serving a few hot drinks from a kettle to, as Phil puts it, ‘going down the full barista route’, with research into local roasters and ultimately creating their own coffee bean blend! Whilst on the surface this could party be attributed to Phil’s undeniable passion for coffee(!) it also demonstrates an awareness of the cultural phenomenon that is now found in coffee shops and a desire to use the same language when seeking to connect with the those outside of church.

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Launched in 2019, the Olive Branch Coffee Shop was opened by the local Mayor and started by opening two mornings a week with a couple of volunteers, trained as baristas. Over the last 18 months the coffee shop has made connections with local families which has worked through to the wider church and many relationships have been consistently built upon. However, it has been since the arrival of the Coronavirus pandemic that the coffee shop has seen the most amount of growth. Seeing from the government guidelines that it was much easier to open a coffee shop than hold a religious service(!) Phil saw the opportunity to open more frequently. When the guidelines have allowed, the coffee shop has been open throughout 2020 Monday - Saturday for 4 hours and usually running at full capacity.
Old furniture from inside the church was repurposed to make an outside seating area in the summer months and hot food has been served as well.
Above all, Phil notes the incredible conversations that have happened and how relationships are being built in a very organic way. It has also reached those who have been struggling with loneliness and isolation such as new parents and the elderly, providing a lifeline to those most in need.
Reflecting on the recent journey of this missional adventure, Phil says how something that had its own identity before lockdown, became a ‘completely different beast’ post-lockdown and if they hadn’t had the ability to step out into the unknown with the coffee shop the first time around, they wouldn’t have been set up to do what they have now. With the arrival of Covid, Phil also notes how the attitude of mission is shifting in the church, now no longer seen as a tag - on to the main church life but the main physical presence of the church itself.
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Whatever adventure in mission we may be on, Phil encourages us to remain faithful to our identity but to hold it lightly. In so doing, we can still hold to our core values whilst experiencing the joy of allowing God to lead us into opportunities we may otherwise miss out on.

 
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