Church Makes Its Home in Local Coffee Shop

Posted January 5, 2011 at 5:50pm

Pastor Mark Batterson’s church doesn’t have rows of pews, stained glass windows or a steeple. Unlike most churches, it’s full of people chatting, reading and working on their laptops seven days a week. Batterson’s church is, in fact, a coffee shop.

Many of the patrons at Ebenezers Coffeehouse at 201 F St. NE may not even realize they’re sitting right below the headquarters of the National Community Church and right above a spacious basement where services are held on Saturday nights and Sundays. In fact, Ebenezers is one of six locations where the NCC parishioners gather to worship; the church also hosts services at movie theaters in Georgetown, Ballston and Alexandria, as well as at the GALA Hispanic Theatre in Columbia Heights.

The unusual settings aren’t because the NCC couldn’t find a traditional stone edifice. “We love doing church in the marketplace,” Batterson says. “We don’t build church buildings per se.” 

Batterson believes he’s following an example set by Jesus by holding church in centers of communal life. 

“He didn’t just hang out in the synagogue. He hung out at wells. Wells were these natural gathering places in ancient cultures, ‘third places’ if you will, so what we wanted to do was create a third place.” In urban sociology, a “third place” is a public space where people can spend time away from home and work. 

From early morning until late evening, Ebenezers is filled with the normal buzz of coffee-shop activity: Georgetown law students type on laptops, circles of friends gather to talk and Hill workers enjoy a bite to eat and a latte. The vibe is like a friendlier and more intimate Starbucks, with exposed brick walls and a signpost re-creating the intersection of Second and F streets inside the building. When services aren’t being held, the basement hosts a range of events, from musical performances to open mic nights.

The coffee shop’s fare includes the usual espresso drinks, pastries and salads, as well as subs for customers looking for something more substantial. The coffee is all free trade and organic from Pennsylvania-based One Village Coffee, and all profits from the shop go to humanitarian efforts around the world. Recently these efforts have included an orphanage in Uganda, a program in Thailand to rescue girls from the sex trade and a nonprofit that offers services to people with HIV in Ethiopia.

The cafe’s interior looks like it couldn’t have been built more than five years ago, which is why it’s a surprise to learn the building is more than a century old. It was originally a one-story diner serving passengers from nearby Union Station, but by the time Batterson moved into the neighborhood 15 years ago, it was “a former crack house with cinder blocks in the doors and windows.”

The NCC bought the building in 2002. “I felt like God put this thought in my mind that this would make a great coffeehouse,” Batterson says. “It took a lot of years of praying and rezoning and building to actually get this thing off the ground.” 

Ebenezers opened its doors in 2006, giving the neighborhood a new gathering place and the church a permanent home — before that the church held services on Sundays in the Union Station movie theater, continuing until the theater closed.

Since then the NCC has expanded to five other locations, each with its own campus pastor, but the church hasn’t finished growing yet. Batterson says the plan is to have 20 locations by 2020. Last August, the church bought a plot of land at Virginia Avenue and Eighth Street Southeast, near the Navy Yard, where construction will begin within a year on an Ebenezers-like coffeehouse with two large performance spaces and a child care center. The NCC is also looking for two locations a bit farther afield: in Maryland, where many parishioners live, and in Berlin, where a campus pastor is already on the ground scouting out locations for another cafe. 

Services at Ebenezers tend to attract the sort of congregation that you would expect to find five blocks from the Capitol. “We’re about 70 percent single 20-somethings,” Batterson says, “so it’s a very young congregation.” The largest demographic is Hill staffers, which leads to a turnover rate of about 40 percent per year, he says. 

“In a sense, we have a new congregation every two and a half years,” Batterson says, and he is pleased to report that the congregation is “absolutely bipartisan” and has included Members of Congress, Cabinet members and high-ranking officials. “I think what we’ve done is create an atmosphere where they can come and not worry about politics for an hour and 10 minutes,” he says.

Batterson isn’t aware of any other churches operating out of coffee shops, except maybe a few that learned from the NCC’s example: He has given away his business plan to any churches interested in emulating the NCC’s model.

“There’s not a week that goes by that we don’t have churches coming out to visit or churches calling,” he says. “I think it’ll be a growing trend.”