Thirst Cafe Church

Monday, 11 July, 2011

Thirst Café Church 'officially' started in November 2007 in the community lounge of St Philip's CofE Primary School, Romsey Town, Cambridge, but Sue Butler tells how its beginnings go back a lot further than that.

Thirst has grown out of 11 years of relationship and prayer. As parents of primary school children, we used to meet outside the classroom at 'pick up' time. There were about 10 regulars every day morning and afternoon and we began to chat about our faith with each other - including some who did not profess a faith. We joked that we should have a coffee maker there because we were often hanging around outside school for up to an hour, just chatting and sharing prayer requests with each other.

Thirst - chairsOne friend, Rachel, and I met whilst we were at the checkout in the local supermarket one day. She wanted to pray about something and, out of that meeting, came an idea for a monthly breakfast at which people from all denominations would come to pray if they wanted. That group formed the basis 11 years later for Thirst. As we began to pray for the school, other people started coming to faith and getting healed and seeing answers to prayer in their families. We realised this was bigger than us and much bigger than anything we had anticipated up to that point.

At the same time, things began to move in a different direction in my own life. My children were getting ready to leave the primary school for secondary school, so my personal involvement there might naturally have ended. In 2005 my husband started ordination training at Ridley. I began to increasingly feel that God was saying, that my time and connection with the school was not over but that there was more that God wanted me to do there.

Thirst - doorsMy husband's Ridley friends kept asking me why I was not at Ridley training for ministry as well! I'd reply that there was no chance that I had been called to be a vicar. They used to encourage me to think about it, so much so, that I wondered if there was something that I should not be ignoring about ordination! There certainly was. I have just completed training as a mixed mode pioneer at Ridley, and I'm just about to be ordained with 50% of my time as OPM of Café Church from the Diocese of Ely and 50% spent at the local parish of St Philip's. Somehow God has combined my relationships, family life and calling to a place where he has already been at work. Like Moses, I felt that God asked me to take what was in my hand and use it in a wider setting.

During the same time In our ongoing relationships at school, those Christians amongst us at Thirst became known as people who would pray for people if they wanted it. We would often pray with parents in the playground, many of whom had no idea what they were asking for. We would find that people would simply stand where they were, bow their head and expect us to pray on the spot. When I look back on that period now, I suppose it was a case of God gathering people because they began to get healed, come to faith, and wanted to know more about Christ and how he could transform lives. It was about discipling them through relationship because many of them did not have any links with traditional church at all and some had never entered the doors of a church. They then began to attend Thirst and are an integral part of us now.

Thirst - mother and childI went through a phase of being concerned about the views that some people inside the traditional church have of people outside of the church family. The question was asked of us, 'Why don't some of these (unchurched) people come to church?' My response was to wonder why on earth they would! The church is an alien environment for many nowadays. We ask, even expect people to come and sit on a pew and sing songs, followed by a talk or lecture (as they view it). Both of these activities are unusual for many who have never been to church before. I wonder, what on earth possesses us in church to think that others outside of the church might want to do that? It is the Church that is alien in our culture, we are the unusual one, the minority.

I was talking to God about it and told him, 'It's no wonder people don't go to church.' I 'heard' the question, 'What would they come to then?' I thought of what we did as friends together: breakfast, drink coffee, pray together, laugh together, have relationship and support each other. I said to my friends, 'Let's keep on drinking coffee but, if it's going to be church, it has to have more to it than a coffee morning. It's about transforming the community that we live in through our relationships, and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Thirst - DVDWe didn't begin straight away because I was too apprehensive of starting something that did not last once it became official. So, we prayed about it for about a year before we started meeting in the school lounge in November 2006. We served good coffee, food, fruit and juice. Everybody invited friends and we had about 30 people there at our first gathering.

From the first Thirst Cafe, we started off by showing Rob Bell Nooma DVDs; I didn't want to get people to come to do things they didn't want to do or feel comfortable with and felt that a DVD was something that people could relate to. They did not have to make any kind of outward or verbal response to it if they did not want to. I was also determined that I wasn't going to start a discussion around the DVD subject. God surprised us again because we showed the DVD, and afterwards somebody visiting asked questions and began a discussion centred around faith. The conversation started and has been going ever since! We very, rarely direct these conversations. They just happen naturally and we discuss all manner of spiritual issues which often carry on long after Thirst is over and have helped to develop and nurture people in the faith.

Thirst - groupWe do now also have prayer time for those who are interested to pray. After a few months we started to offer one session a week where we have a meditation or devotion of some kind, during this time there is also a five minute talk and discussion on a biblical theme, followed by a spiritual exercise or activity of some type. Because of our relationship and growth together this is natural to people now.

It's interesting to see how things develop in a way you never expect or plan. From the beginning we called ourselves the Thirst Café Community because we wanted to keep the word church right out of it. Within two to three weeks, people started asking, 'Are you going to café church?' They weren't asked to use that description; it's how they saw it. We are still known as Thirst Café Church to many people!

About two years ago we started to think about what it means to be a worshipping community and how we encourage spiritual growth amongst new believers. We introduced a Bible study one afternoon in the week but the big question, of course, has been what to do about Eucharist. It was really difficult to explore ways through this but, in the end, we just thought, that if this is God's feast and his journey with us, then he will show us what to do. We decided to do a simple Eucharist with a short liturgy.

Thirst - foodWe wanted people to feel comfortable around Eucharist so I told people, not to worry about it, but that if they wanted to participate they should do whatever seemed comfortable for them. I invited a visiting chaplain to lead and she explained the meaning of each part and action of the service and this helped people to understand the Eucharist. It is always a great time and we and we look forward to it and it's part of our regular worshipping life at Thirst.

There are a couple of people now talking about baptism, which will be interesting. The discipleship of new believers is our next and most pressing concern and we are hoping to continue with exploration and reflection on the best ways to do this.

St Philip's School is in the parish of St Philip's Church. Their vicar is supportive of what we do, we are very loosely associated with them but don't see ourselves as 'belonging' to St Philip's. In saying that, we have done things together and the vicar regularly visits us. We supported St Philip's in their after-school Christingle and Easter service, but - as mothers - we are limited with time constraints. We have a very good relationship with St Philip's and they support us in many ways and we are thankful for the relationship with them.

Thirst - foodWe don't know how Thirst will develop; we don't know what's around the corner. We are wondering about our next step but we know that we need to be obedient to God and follow his leading. Two of the leaders lead an art group and some come to this group who do not feel comfortable in our Friday morning get-togethers. My vision from the start has been for a larger number of small groups, rather than one large group, although of course we are all connected through our relationship networks.

We still don't sing or 'preach' but we do proclaim in many other ways the love and grace and mercy of God. We always pray and we have recently begun Bible reading and daily devotion programmes with new believers asking for Bibles and study guides! We always pray for healing, wholeness and expect God to be present with us and to hear us and answer us, in a variety of ways. People pray for each other because they see us as leaders doing so.

I think people just think, 'this is the way it is done.' They assume this is church because they have no other point of reference. We model our faith and they come with us. They say it's about community, these are my friends, this is relationship, this is church! We expect much of God and he does not fail us!

Updates to, and learning points from, this story

Monday, 17 March, 2014 On Demand clip

Ordained Pioneer Minister Sue Butler updates the story of Thirst Too in Cambridge.

Monday, 10 June, 2013

Thirst meets in St Philip's School, Romsey Town, Cambridge. Sue Butler tells how members of Thirst helped to form a second community in the area, Thirst Too.