“this God thing” at the Hard Stone Cafe

The Hard Stone Café (HSC) began at St. John’s (Stone) Anglican Church, in Saint John, NB, in 2002, as a connection point for youth, aged 13– 18yrs, and in particular for youth without a prior connection to church or Christianity.  This was one program in an umbrella of programs created to engage the community directed by Ven. David Edwards, Rector of Stone Church. David commissioned his then, newly appointed Youth Minister, Jonathan Springthorpe, to create an event for the young people of Saint John. What began as a monthly event developed into a community, and a fresh expression of “Church”.

Here, in his own words, Jonathan Springthorpe recalls the growth and development of the Hard Stone Café.

“The Hard Stone Café came from humble beginnings in December of 2002. The Stone Church Youth Group helped to construct a stage for musicians, put up decorations, and helped to create a menu of slushy drinks (non-alcoholic of course). As the event approached, my anticipation grew of crowds of youth piling into the church ready to hear the Gospel, yet instead of crowds only two brave souls entered the gothic revival exterior to attend the first Hard Stone Café. The youth group had not invited their friends with any enthusiasm, as they feared I would use the café as a “bait and switch” evangelistic event. After the first HSC event, the youth group invited their friends without fear and we had about 10-15 youth from the community at the second café.

Early on several colleagues in youth ministry inquired if they could bring their youth groups. David and I were committed to reaching the “unchurched”, and we wanted to protect the Hard Stone Café from becoming another event for church youth. We decided that while all youth were welcome we would not host organized Christian groups.

Within two years the attendance had grown to an average of 25-30 youth from the community. In spite of the growth, our experience was one of frustration. We longed to share the Gospel with those who came to the café but we felt like our hands were tied. We feared that any strong witness would break the trust we had worked hard to build and we found out that our fear was justified. On one occasion the Christian musical guests, contrary to our instructions, began the evening with the intimate worship song: “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” and all but four of the Youth Group cleared the room. It was as if someone was spraying teen repellent into the air. Most “unchurched” youth were suspicious, and often critical of “organized religion”. Many youth were reluctant to come to the café because it was in a church.

From the beginning we had hoped we could find Christian musicians who were able to play secular tunes as well. The evening would begin with secular cover songs, many of them classic rock of the 70’s, and 90’s. Once the youth were comfortable the musicians would play a Christian song or two, introducing them as a musical expression of a personal belief in God. Christians could share something brief about God, provided it was through the medium of music. Music is the currency of teen culture. This strategy worked well at times but we simply couldn’t find many musicians who were comfortable playing both secular and Christian music.

An important step forward happened when one of the youth group, asked me: “can my friend’s band play at the next café?” Permitting community youth to play presented us with potential problems: lyrics and spontaneous interactions with the crowd could contain profanity and offensive material, not to mention encourage “moshing” (definition available on UrbanDictionary.com). We became conscious that we were bridging two completely different worlds: the congregation of Stone Church, and the youth of Saint John. We agreed to let outside musicians play, but we drew up guidelines that they must abide by: “lyrics must be 100% free from profanity and explicit lyrics”; for safety reasons: “no moshing”, and musicians had to arrive an hour before the start of the cafe. Virtually all of the bands, in their gratitude for an opportunity to play were happy to respect the guidelines.

Certain aspects of teen culture can be baffling. In 6 years of hosting teen musicians, the audiences were uniformly supportive of their peers, even when an attempt at music was painfully amateur.  Subsequently, the Hard Stone Café became known as the “only all ages venue” in Saint John at the time. The youth of the community rallied around the café, helping to promote the events, spreading the word, and helping to recruit musical guests. Parents of band members stayed on occasion, and were thrilled with the Hard Stone Café. In a few years the phrase: “the café” was adopted in the vocabulary of local youth; this is a milestone of acceptance in teen culture.  A core group of youth from the community began to attend the café faithfully. They were not Christians though God was at work in them.

In May 2008, attendance at the Hard Stone Café reached record numbers through the popular social networking site “Facebook”. Over 800 invitations went out throughout the Greater Saint John area, one friend inviting another, and over 150 youth showed up. It was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. We had to ask some people to leave the loft area and move to the “overflow rooms” for safety. Nine bands had shown up to play and we came close to turning youth away at the door. There was no doubt that we had made inroads into the youth culture but we were still wondering how we could share Christ with them in this setting.

Not by some brilliant design but by necessity something happened. The café began at 7pm and finished around 9pm. The youth group from Stone Church remained till 10:30pm to clean up. Many parents from Stone expressed their displeasure that it finished so late. To address this concern we added a youth group sleepover after the Café. This served to reward the youth group who had worked before and during the café in service of our guests. These sleepovers became times of natural discipleship that I relished. We would worship and talk about the Scriptures together sometimes well past 3am. We began a regular time of worship that became the highlight of the evening for the Christian youth.

The next step forward happened when the core group from the community began to hang out with the youth group after the café. They requested to join the sleepover event. Initially, I was hesitant as I would need to contact their parents to be sure they were permitted to stay, and there was a question in my mind: would their presence interfere with our time of Worship? The first time our group was about to ascend to the upper room to begin our worship I wondered how they would respond. To my great surprise the visiting youth joined us, mostly out of curiosity. These non-Christian youth experienced in their own words: “something inspiring”, though they did not know exactly what.

In the following months this core helped to welcome other youth to the worship session after introducing it as “this God thing”. Over six to eight months teens who were previously hard against organized religion were softening to the Gospel. God was at work in these lives and a number of them came to faith.  The Hard Stone Café had evolved into a form of church that was drawing youth from the community without having to strategize. A new Christian community was forming.

In hindsight, the program that started in Dec. of 2002 that would evangelize young people, turned out to be the start of a remarkable journey. Through much of the journey we felt lost and unable to reach the youth of the wider community for Christ. We learned the importance of community. We learned to work as a team, with the Stone Church Youth Group, as partners in outreach, and seeds of a community were sown.

My time in leadership of the Hard Stone Café came to an end a year ago with a move to Toronto to attend Wycliffe College. The Hard Stone Café continues under the direction of, Catherine Bonham, one of my colleagues in Threshold Ministries. It is my conviction that the way to reach “unchurched” young people is through fresh expressions of church.”

Jonathan Springthorpe

Evangelist, Threshold Ministries

see the HSC in action

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