The coffeehouse church
Leaders of a 100-year-old United Methodist Church in San Antonio discerned a call to create a new, missional community. But instead of planting a church, they planted a coffeehouse.
March 2, 2010 | Situated close to Highway 281’s frenetic northbound lanes, about 30 miles north of downtown San Antonio, Texas, a coffeehouse called The Loft beckons visitors into its cozy interior.
Visitors are enveloped by the warmth of a wood fire and the smell of fresh-ground coffee and cinnamon rolls. Cushy leather sofas frame the stone hearth, and a wooden staircase leads to a loft with work stations.
“Customers might not know that this is a church,” said Tami Piatnik, who works on Saturdays. Indeed, The Loft displays few crosses or other signs of its affiliation with the United Methodist Church.
Though it wears its identity lightly, The Loft coffeehouse is a core ministry of Riverside, a church community in Spring Branch, Texas, (pop. 7,200) planted six years ago by San Antonio’s Alamo Heights United Methodist Church.
Riverside was born of a pastor’s two epiphanies: One by the Jordan River in Israel, and one in a Texas Starbucks.
The church plant began with The Loft coffeehouse, then expanded to include a food bank, thrift store and a resource center for the needy -- all before it held its first Sunday service.
Though Riverside now holds two Sunday services with about 500 worshippers, the community still has no formal membership and owns no church buildings.
“We’re the smallest church you’ll ever meet, because we have zero members,” said the Rev. Scott Heare, Riverside’s pastor. “Or, we’re the largest church you’ll ever see because we believe that all people in our community belong.”
A church in transition
The Rev. David McNitzky is the popular and erudite pastor of Alamo Heights, a 5,000-plus member “high-Methodist” congregation. It is the second-largest United Methodist Church in the Southwest Texas Conference, founded in 1909.
McNitzky joined the Alamo Heights staff in 1995, soon after the church moved to its 13-acre hilltop campus dominated by a soaring sanctuary. Locals have dubbed it “the Methodome,” a not-especially-welcome reference to San Antonio’s Alamodome.
Though clearly a successful leader of a venerable church community, McNitzky found that Alamo Heights was not immune to the national trend of declining attendance.
“Those who used to come every Sunday came for three weeks, those who used to come three Sundays came two, and so on,” McNitzky said. “If people could drop away from worship so quickly, what were we really doing? Were we really helping them? Were we really growing them?”
The trend caused McNitzky to reevaluate, and now he is piloting what he describes as a traditional church undergoing a transition. Alamo Heights has been renewed and challenged by its leaders’ conviction that the future of Christianity lies in actions that advance God’s kingdom.
And his willingness to empower other pastors and lay leaders to experiment has helped bring about that transition.
“It takes some courage to try and do something in a brand new way,” said Robert Scott, a longtime member and former trustee of Alamo Heights. “David is very permission-giving.”
The Rev. Heare is a young and energetic minister, a graduate of Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology. After arriving at Alamo Heights, Heare found in McNitzky a “spiritual father,” mentor and close friend.
Alternately, McNitzky said that his younger partner has challenged and surprised him over the years. When together, their easy-going enjoyment of each others’ company is tangible.
Both pastors share a keen interest in the Jewish roots of Christianity, in particular the teachings of the Rev. Ray Vander Laan, who advocates that Christians draw lessons from the Hebrew culture of Jesus’ day.
They also share a commitment to the missional church, which McNitzky defines as “simply meaning you’re there for others, to be in the world, not trying to gather people into the building.”
Soon after arriving, Heare pioneered a contemporary worship service that draws younger families, and McNitzky realized his associate had a gift for innovation. “When Scott first came, he was obviously talented and gifted. I got a sense from God, in a way, that I was David and he was Solomon, and the next big building is his, not mine.”
Neither pastor knew that “the next big building” would not be a building at all.
A lesson at the Jordan River
In 2002, McNitzky initiated a strategic planning process for the church. The planning group’s method was to read and discuss books on church growth. “After several months, we weren’t getting anything,” he said.
Turning to prayer, McNitzky changed the process to “strategic listening” in order to discern where God was leading the church.
The approach yielded a clear message -- three committee members, almost on the same weekend, got the same sense from God that they were supposed to start a second campus, McNitzky said.
That direction became even clearer after Heare had a pair of epiphanies.
The first came in the summer of 2003, when Heare visited the Jordan River on a study tour of Israel.