Discussion topics vary, from crop circles to suicide to "Has God Left the Building?"
They might be faith-related, newsy or just fun. But all are intriguing and designed to engage strangers in conversation, says Craig Cable, national director of Lifetree Café.
The Loveland-based organization has branches - pun intended - across the U.S., in Canada and in other countries.
"It all started here in northern Colorado at Group Publishing," Cable said. "Lifetree Café was born of a desire to connect with the community in more meaningful ways and reach people who aren't members of the church."
His organization provides materials, training and support to faith-based organizations that want to launch a Lifetree Café.
"We were finding that churches were finding it more and more difficult to engage their culture in meaningful ways," he said. "This was born of an idea to find a connector - a bridge - to grow a relationship with others and with Jesus.
"We don't hide the fact that this is a faith conversation."
St. Patrick Roman Catholic Church in Colorado Springs will launch its Lifetree Café on Oct. 3 - becoming the first Catholic church in the country to start one.
It will be the second Lifetree Café in the Springs. The first is held at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, 4125 Constitution Ave.
The Rev. Larry Solan, at St. Patrick, admired the pilot Lifetree Café in Loveland and became interested in starting one. St. Patrick serves more than 2,000 families at 6455 Brook Park Drive, one of the largest congregations in the Catholic Diocese of Colorado Springs.
Rather than host the café at the church, St. Patrick opted for the public Third Space Coffee, which has a meeting room that suits the need.
How it works
For an hour each Tuesday evening, St. Patrick presenters will hold a Lifetree Café discussion on a topic chosen by the Loveland organization. After a brief video, the group will split into small factions. Anyone is welcome, regardless of religious background or lack thereof.
"For me, it's getting beyond the church walls and coming together in community to discuss these faith-life topics," said Ann Christensen, Lifetree Café coordinator for St. Patrick. "People are looking for someplace where they're welcome, where they can share. For 'What kind of faith perspectives might help me?' I think it's a valuable conversation."
It's about developing relationships, she said. "And as we learn more about welcoming people, we learn more about the importance of the relationship of the parish to others and our relationship with Christ."
Even with difficult issues such as child abuse and mental illness, the conversation is intended to be peaceful and civil.
"We want people to be respected," said Christensen, a 28-year member of St. Patrick.
Making a connection
Kristie Ewig, a longtime church member and former English teacher, has been helping to train volunteers and prepare for the café's launch. She will be a host - leading the café, addressing the topic and facilitating discussion. Ten church members have volunteered to act as hosts, and more will step up, she said. Other volunteers will serve as readers and support staff.
"Lifetree prepares these beautiful discussions," Ewig said. "It's light on the prayer part. It's really more about connecting with others, reaching the unchurched, the dechurched and 'PIBOs' (present in body only). That's really who it is designed for."
She said she likes that the program is not aligned with any particular religion.
"We never say anywhere that St. Patrick Catholic Church is sponsoring," she said. "It's really an outreach without proselytizing.
"We live in this world where a lot of language is divisive, inflammatory and unkind. We're just surrounded by that. I think there are a lot of people who want to live in a world that is more tolerant, loving and Christlike. That's what Lifetree embodies - that connection. I personally think many people are hungry for that."
Growing the branches
Since May 2010, Cable and his team have helped to launch hundreds of the cafés. The pilot has been held at Loveland's Group Publishing, where Cable is publishing director, since 2007. He heads a team of about a dozen people in support, marketing, design and media/visual roles who help with the launches.
"We probably launch 30 to 50 branches a year. Some will stop operating, so we add and subtract to that number," he said. "During any given month, we work with six to eight branches launching, and 20 to 30 that are still in the stages of getting ready to launch."
The launch requires a $200 monthly subscription for resources and purchase of a $29.99 starter kit. But there's no contract, and a church or organization can cancel anytime. More information is available at lifetree.com.
All Lifetree Cafés approach the same topic each week, whether in Cincinnati, Ottawa or Colorado Springs. The subjects are released in advance, so attendees can choose which discussions interest them. Attendance varies from group to group.
"Most Lifetrees average 18 to 25 people," Cable said. "They shouldn't have more than 50 people because the dynamic changes above 40. And it's not the same group if it's below 10."
It takes time to grow a following, he said. "It moves at the speed of relationship. You may start at 20 people and be up at 40 in a matter of weeks or months. But it has more to do with people than it does Lifetree. A lot of it is getting word out. It can take six months to a year to get going."
A café could see two to three new people a week, but not everyone will come back weekly, he said.
"In a city like Colorado Springs, less than a third of the population attends church. Another third attends, but infrequently. With the military coming and going, the community is transient," Cable said. "People have had some experience with church but aren't attending on a regular basis. It's easy to be anonymous in a large church. Lifetree Café invites people to participate."
"America's somewhat lost our ability to have a civil conversation. Our current culture is more divided than unified," Cable said. At a Lifetree Café, "Your thoughts are welcome; your doubts are welcome. It's an hour of stories and conversation to feed your soul."