This winter, a small team of church members and their pastor ran Life Explored in a San Diego coffee shop. Each week, their friends, coworkers and even strangers joined in. A biologist, a Hollywood script writer, yoga students, and workout buddies were some of those that gathered to discuss questions of life, meaning and Christianity.
Soon, the course caught the attention of a local newspaper, who wrote an article about the group. The paper noted that while not everyone agreed with each other and discussion was lively, the atmosphere was warm and welcoming. The attendees said the same.
We spoke with the King’s Cross Church team to learn more about their experience running Life Explored in a coffee shop. Below is our conversation with Pastor Obed Brefo, Sierra Corban, Hayato Nakamura and Gabe Thurner.
How did you hear about Life Explored and why did you start using it?
Obed: I’m from London and had used Alpha while living in England. When I planted a church here in San Diego, I leant towards Christianity Explored resources because they were so biblically based. I started Life Explored in my second year at this church plant and it was a really good fit for our context.
Sierra: Doing Life Explored as a church was birthed out of a year and a half long study of Acts. We were feeling inspired and convicted to go out and follow in the line of Peter and Paul. So we started asking the Holy Spirit, “How?” Obed began gathering a team and we all decided Life Explored was the technique we wanted to use to start conversations about life and faith in our community.
How did you prepare your table leaders to run Life Explored?
Sierra: We met for many weeks prior to the course, going through the talks (which we gave ourselves using the transcripts), watching the story films, and talking about points that we could bring up in discussion.
Obed: We went through the course ourselves, discussing it and letting it impact us. I think the most effective way to lead a discussion is if the content has had an impact on you personally. Then you are leading out of the overflow.
How did it work logistically to run LE in a coffee shop?
Hayato: We had a good relationship with the café owners, who gave us permission to set up a screen to watch the Life Explored videos, which were important for us to use. People were able to have their coffees and sandwiches and just watch. Then one of us gave the teaching talk and led discussion. Our goal was to start at 5:45pm and finish when the shop closed at 7pm. But of course, sometimes things ran late, so we’d continue talking outside. It was an excellent space for the course.
The magazine article written about your group noted how welcoming the course was. How did you create this environment?
Gabe: In discussion, prior to starting Life Explored, we made sure to communicate that this was a safe space for opinions and disagreements. So that set the ground for being intentional about asking questions that were less intimidating, questions you didn’t have to be a Christian to answer.
Obed: Hosting Life Explored in a neutral environment like a coffee shop helped. There weren’t any assumptions, as there might be when someone walks into a church building.
Gabe: The coffee shop really settled people more. I think people feel more comfortable when it’s not a church setting. It breaks a barrier to some degree, where they don’t think they’re going to come and “get preached at.” Doing it in an open space also meant that people were always walking by. There were opportunities to hang out with people before the course started. We’d invite them to join us and sometimes, they would.
Tell me about the people who attended the course.
Gabe: We consistently ran about 8 to 10 people. Our largest week was 18.
Sierra: There was a mixture of believers and nonbelievers. Some weeks it was predominantly nonbelievers, especially when workout crews or yoga groups showed up. But then other weeks, it would be predominantly people who already considered themselves Christians or who wanted to learn more about the foundations of Christianity. If people invited a friend, we made sure to tell people to come with them too. That helps people feel more comfortable and that relationship is going to go a lot farther than just one talk.
Obed: One thing that was challenging was consistency. Not everyone showed up every week. When someone didn’t show up, it was easy to think about who wasn’t there. We had to learn to be grateful for who was there and trust that Life Explored was just one tool that God might be using to draw someone to himself. So we’d pray that when that person left, that God would send laborers, other believers, into that person’s life.
What has follow-up looked like?
Gabe: We tried to be intentional about getting contact info and following up, checking in later. Sometimes people don’t respond, but that’s at least how we tried to approach follow-up.
Sierra: We invited people to the church meet and greet, which was another chance to reach out. Some people even started coming to church from Life Explored! Now they’re a part of the church so follow-up is just interacting with them as part of the body.
A question we hear a lot from pastors is, “How do I train my people to talk to nonbelievers without dominating the conversation?” How did you make space for any nonbelievers or seekers that might come to the course?
Gabe: Well first, I would say that I’m not one of the smart, theological nerds of the church. For me, it was being vulnerable about my own coming to faith a bit later on. Being honest and saying, “Yeah this didn’t really make sense to me either at first.” I think that resonated with people and gave them the freedom to be honest. I tried to put myself in their shoes because I had been in their shoes.
Sierra: As far as certain congregants not overrunning the conversation, there was more of a spirit that, “It’s not my job to look cool or sound smart.” They weren’t seeking attention, they were there to evangelize. And that meant listening to what people had to say and then responding as led by the Holy Spirit.
Obed: One of the bigger things in engaging with nonChristians effectively was just asking more questions than contributing with our own voices. People have things they want to say and ask. Our goal is not necessarily to give them a straight answer but to help them get to the answer by asking good questions.
There was one guy that came that had serious issues with the resurrection. He was so honest about how he didn’t agree with it historically. I loved how our team engaged with him. They just listened, allowed him to talk and eventually asked him more questions to have him really think about what he was saying.
Hayato: Where we live on the West Coast, people are growing up in an extremely secular environment, but they’re having these strange “spiritual” conversations in their yoga or Pilates classes. That can make it complicated. So while we explicitly prayed for people to get saved in any given meeting, we all led the groups being comfortable with the fact that we were there to engage them and lead them in conversations. They didn’t necessarily have to get saved just in that limited space and time.
Obed: And lastly, it was just a lot of prayer. We realized early on how powerless we were to 1) get people to attend, 2) stimulate effective conversations and 3) for people to actually get saved. We were reminded often of the verse where Paul says he plants, Apollo waters, but God brings the harvest [1 Corinth. 3:6]. It was humbling, but at the same time, removed any pressure from us. So as pastors, as we think about putting our congregants in an environment to interact with the community, we need to realize that it’s all God and his spirit at work.
What was your biggest highlight or lesson learned from this session of LE?
Hayato: As a guy in the church who’s aspiring to build my business, a big highlight for me was just interacting with the coffee shop. A local, nonbelieving, family-run business let us have spiritual conversations in the midst of all their clientele. I was really encouraged by that. And we were actually able to give them business, which is something close to my heart.
Sierra: A highlight for me was one week that I was prepping to give the talk. Fifteen minutes before we started, only one person had showed up. And the talk I’d prepared was not meant for just one person! Internally, I was pacing and praying, “God please bring three people I know. Even if they’re the church people!”
And in walks three new people, coming to Life Explored! I thought in that moment that I didn’t even have the faith to pray for new people. But God answered even bolder than I was willing to pray. That brought me to my knees, reckoning with my own faithlessness and seeing God’s utter faithfulness.
Gabe: One takeaway for me was just how helpful Life Explored was in my own growth. I had opportunities to talk to nonbelievers about Christianity. That helped me see the importance of having those types of conversations and how to navigate them. I still am really nervous talking about faith to my coworkers, but this made me more bold.
Obed: Whenever God’s people are invited to step out into the community to open up a space for conversations about life and spirituality, God is faithful not just to help start it. But along the way, he does things that add wind to the sails. It can be so discouraging when you start and no one shows up. But as you heard from each of these here, there were times when it was discouraging. But God in his grace would do something that would encourage us to move forward. God is faithful and everything that happens along the way, he has purpose for it that brings about his glory and our good.
This month, King’s Cross Church started their next Life Explored course, this time in a local surf shop. Pray for the team as they lead and for those who attend, that they will encounter Jesus through the pages of Scripture and in community with other believers.