Starting a Coffeehouse Outreach

Dan and Angie Cleberg - Red Rooster Coffee House

My sister, Kileen, and I started The Red Rooster Coffeehouse in a small (pop. 25,000) South Dakota college town seven years ago. Hanging on the wall under a lamp near the front of the shop we have a picture of a group of circus freaks. It's a photo from the 1940s film "Freaks" and in this movie the circus freaks sing, "You're accepted, you're accepted." This picture serves as the theme for our coffeehouse.

We have seen God shape it into a community that is open and caring to all types of people and we have learned the value of the coffeehouse setting in reaching out and demonstrating the love of God.

Coffeehouses are where people gather and are usually in no hurry, they talk and they listen. It's a place for sharing thoughts and ideas, where relationships happen and unintentional networking is formed. It's a picture of the Kingdom of God as people are brought from isolation to community.

A coffee house is a perfect setting for connecting with people, especially the more you get away from the Starbucks type of coffee house and get closer to the old-comfy-couches-artsy-Bohemian type. They're a safe place for people to speak their mind, for us to hear, respect and value them.

It's an easy place for us to demonstrate the character of Jesus, and win someone's conversation by simply buying their coffee for them. And because coffeehouses are second homes to many, there are plenty of regulars that you can end up in progressive, long-term relationships with.

People in underground subcultures are looking for acceptance, people they can trust in and rely on, and a safe place to hang out and be themselves. They can find that at coffeehouses.


The first day our coffeehouse opened I met Rob, an anarchist gutter-punk. I connected with him on the subject of rock music and demonstrated God's love by buying him a collection of KISS albums at rummage sales. I prayed for him, cared for him and eventually our conversations led to spiritual matters. One day he gave back the KISS albums saying they were interfering with his relationship with Jesus. Just a few weeks ago I dropped him off at church for a Wednesday evening service.

The most effective way to reach out in coffeehouses is the same as in any setting: Be intentional, be progressive, and be Christ-like. As you connect with people take notes. Write down their names, things about them, their interests, and their struggles. Pray for them. Connect with them based on their interests, care for them based on their needs. With the demonstration of the gospel as the foundation of your relationships, sharing your faith in conversation will be a natural part of the process.

In our coffeehouse we don't let people hand out gospel tracts or leave them lying around and we don't allow "power-witnessing." We've had to cool some overzealous jets. We value each person that comes into our coffee house and we take the time to know them and where they are coming from and demonstrate the gospel to them before we talk about it. We invest ourselves into people. We don't throw out sales pitches. (I've put a halt to some aggressive Amway dealers too!)

Rob, Tony and Sharon

Tony moved to town to work at the Wheat Growers Association as a safety inspector. Our conversations became long and deep. I prayed for him and looked for opportunities to care for him. One day he overheard a conversation I had with Rob about God. He stepped up and said, "I have real trouble believing in God since I took a World Religions class in college." Rob replied, "Oh, this book that Dan gave me will really help. Here, take it. I'm done with it." The book, more conversations and prayer eventually led Tony to faith in Jesus. He is now a leader in his church and God has led him to work as the volunteer coordinator at the local Salvation Army. He also married Sharon, a Christian girl he met at the coffeehouse.

Developing sacrificial, long-term relationships is the best outreach. A coffeehouse is a fertile garden to grow these relationships.

People have asked me, "I have a vision to open a Christian Coffee House to do outreach. What should I do?" My response has been, "Don't do it!" I say that for two reasons.

First, a Christian coffeehouse is for Christians. You need to rub shoulders with non-believers to be an outreach. We initially had to shed some rumors of our place being a Christian coffeehouse. We intentionally sought to make ours a place where everyone feels welcome, believer and non-believer alike.

Today, among others we gather lawyers, punks, bluegrass musicians, gays, pastors, new-agers, the knitters club and emo-kids. We have a chance to connect with them and help lead them to a place where they can "Breathe Deep the Breath of God!" As a Christian coffeehouse many of them would not have even considered coming in. Unfortunately, this is the result of a history of believers giving a false representation of Christ. It is our goal to do our part to get His good reputation back.

Second, why open a coffeehouse for outreach at all? If there are one or more coffeehouses in town already then you can do the outreach and let them do all the work! Hang out in their coffeehouses, form relationships with the regulars and the employees. Demonstrate the gospel, but let them make the drinks, sweep, do the dishes and pay the bills.

If there are no coffeehouses in town there may be other places where people hang out. Maybe there's a cozy cafe or truck stop that sees a lot of regulars. Anyplace where people hang out regularly can be a great outreach opportunity.

But, if your town needs a coffee house and/or you're convinced God has given you a vision to open one, then start it out right. Pray, pray and pray some more. Let God go ahead of you and set it up. It'll save you a lot of trouble.

We started with prayer. My sister and I prayed every day about this idea of a coffeehouse. Pretty soon my fiancee (Angie) got a job managing a coffeehouse in her hometown. Eventually she moved here to marry me, so the lady who owned the coffee house decided to close shop and offered us all of her stuff (machines, dishes, furniture, signs etc.) at an amazing price. We moved the equipment here and Angie trained us in. That's how God works and that's why I say, "PRAY!"

Practically, to be successful in business you need to be educated and surrounded by good counsel. My sister and I both have degrees in business, which was helpful, but we couldn't have done much without the advice of "smart people" with experience. It would be good to work at a coffeehouse for some time if you can or at least in some food service job. Try to get exposure to as much of the workings of the business as possible (bookwork, employment, marketing etc.).

There are great resources out there to help start a coffeehouse. "The Idiots Guide to Starting a Business" and a search on the web aren't bad places to start. A mission/vision statement and a business plan are a necessity to get you off the ground and in the right direction. For these I strongly suggest Tom Sine's book "Living on Purpose" ( and Tim Bock's workbook "Mission Improbable" ( Bock's workbook gets the reader to consider all the things needed to start a business as a mission, from checking your motives to developing a solid business plan while Sine's book leads the reader to reconsider their notion of success and to write a mission statement for life based on the Kingdom of God.

"Location, location, location" is what smart people will say is most important in starting a business. You must be where the people will see you and have easy access to you. We have found this to be very true, but when you have outreach in mind you may make a choice that doesn't look like smart business.

Jesus People USA started steel siding supply business in Romania. The economy there is terrible but the need and the opportunity for bringing restoration to people's lives in the name of Jesus was so great that they chose to make what seems to be a poor business choice.

For the Red Rooster Coffeehouse we chose a central location in the historic downtown of our city. We looked at the avenue where the mall and fast food spots are and though we may have made more money it wasn't the vibe we wanted, too hurried. The location we chose turned out to be just right for outreach. We're within 2 blocks of elderly and "down-and-outer" apartment buildings, the high school, a couple of music stores, some bars and a strip club. We are in the main floor of an office building so we ended up being the waiting room for hair salons, a dentist, counselors, CPAs and lawyers among others. You can imagine the variety of clientele we see and the opportunity we have to act out God's love.

Because we have made ourselves an outlet for creative expression we have also connected with artists, poets and musicians. There has been some debate in the Underground Railroad about the use of non-Christian music in outreach, but for me it has never been an issue.

We want to touch the lives of all that come into our coffeehouse. If someone comes in and has a point of view that is different than mine I respectfully listen and value their point of view and try to find a place where we can connect. I don't censor them or try to correct them; I attempt to form relationship with them by demonstrating the goodness of God. The same goes for bands and musicians. We wouldn't shun customers because they weren't Christians nor would we reject musicians because they weren't believers.

When bands are booked to play here we take care of them with free food and drinks and a place to stay. We enthusiastically listen and value the musical gift God has given them. We extend this attitude to artists who display work in our gallery and poets who read for open mic. Rather than not allowing them to express themselves because they're non-Christians we try to find a common ground based on a foundation of caring where we can connect with them. It's God's goodness that leads people toward His Kingdom.

On the other hand I have chosen not to book many Christian bands because they seemed too aggressive with a "message" and/or an agenda. But I have been very pleased with many musicians who are believers who have come and have really connected with people before and after the show.

Jeremy, Kol, Tony and Sharon

Before we started this business I was in a Christian band. Because of our blunt lyrics I wouldn't have allowed my band to play at the coffeehouse. So, sometime after we opened I started a band with Jeremy, one of the regulars. Not a "Christian" band, we sang about hot sauce, Y2K, other regulars and things like that. We were fun and included a dose of audience participation.

One day Kol, whose band played often at the coffee house came in and asked if I knew of anyone who needed a drummer because his group wasn't playing very much any more. I invited him to play with us. I began to pray for him, develop a friendship and look for opportunities to demonstrate God's love to him.

One night I was driving back to town from a conference on outreach. As I was considering all of the things I had learned I sensed God saying to me, "Talk to Kol about this, I've been working on Him." This would be a little awkward for me because I had almost no serious conversation about God with Kol up to this point and I thought he would have no idea what I was talking about. But a few days later I overheard him talking to Sharon saying, "God has really been working on me lately." I told him we needed to talk and long-story-short Kol is going to the outreach conference with us this year and Tony is helping him out financially to get there.

The final thing I would advise about coffee house outreach, whether it's your place or someone else's, is that you need to have a community for them to join once they begin to go in the direction of considering a relationship with Jesus. I have helped people find local church communities to be a part of but in the case of alternative types they don't feel comfortable or accepted in a regular church setting. My friend Joel, bartender, music store sales guy and the lead singer of a local band said to me, "When I moved to town, I knew God loved me but I didn't think they (church people) loved me." We had long talks, prayed, studied the bible with other guys and now he's excited to be a part of a local church.

Others, though, are either so hurt or turned off by church that we have started meetings for people at different levels of seeking. We have Chat 'n' Chew (a meal and open-ended discussion), Campaigners and Alpha (meetings to introduce Christianity to non-believers). "Experiencing God" Bible Study and Sine's "Living on Purpose" have been effective tools for discipleship. None of these meetings are at the coffeehouse or are linked to it in any way except by the relationships that started there.

If you are planning to start a coffeehouse let us know. We feel it is part of our calling to help others start coffeehouses and other mission businesses. We can help with many practical things from espresso machines and dishes to marketing and merchandising. Please contact us!

I challenge you to make it your mission to grow the Creator's community, to build God's Kingdom in a coffeehouse (or wherever you are) as it is in heaven.

Dan and Angie Cleberg -

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