CONWAY, SC (WBTW) — Matt Mitchell met his wife, Amanda, inside the C3 Coffee Co. He proposed to her there. They held their rehearsal dinner inside. The coffee bar was even their backup wedding location in case it rained.
Now, as the company’s general manager, he tries to use coffee to help people make their own connections — and perhaps bring youth back into churches.
“What we don’t see in the scripture is any kind of forcing or preaching at,” Mitchell said. “We take the same approach at C3. We are there to simply love the community and provide that space, and if your heart begins to pull and say ‘there is something special about this place and these people,’ then we are willing to walk through that journey with them.”
The coffee bars are one way The Rock Church has tried to engage Gen Z in church services, fighting against a nationwide trend of fewer and fewer youth identifying with Christianity.
The church, which runs the coffee bars, is entirely focused on youth, creating services geared toward the upcoming generation and placing students in leadership positions.
This generation is now
Josh Finklea took over as The Rock Church’s lead pastor in 2014, during a time when the congregation was grieving the death of Kevin Childs, its founding pastor.
At the time, the church had a congregation of about 800 and was facing daunting costs to construct its own building. Finklea, picking up on Childs’s vision, retraced his steps and looked at every facility the founder had.
Soon, the church had transitioned from mobile to owning an entire stripmall.
“That changed the game for us,” Finklea said.
Now, the church has a congregation of about 2,500 people, pre-pandemic.
With a mindset of, “this generation is not next, they’re now,” it primarily targets high school and college students, placing Gen Zer in charge of running services, teaching and working at its community coffee bars.
Those leadership opportunities, Finklea said, are crucial to the churches’ futures.
“If you don’t try to reach young people and stay active and let them lead, then you are basically leading our church toward eventual death,” he said.
While 72% of parents identify as Christian, 63% of teens do, according to 2020 data released by the Pew Research Center. About 24% of teens consider religion to be very important in their lives, compared to 43% of their parents.
Ignoring students, Finklea said, sends the message that the church isn’t for youth, which can affect their ability for ministry.
“What ends up happening is we sideline kids and students today who could make a major impact in the world, not just in their school, but a major impact in the world,” Finklea said.
Every aspect of services is geared to attract youth. Sermons are kept to under 30 minutes and are tailored to talk about what teens are facing in their lives. The music is contemporary, focusing on songs its young worshippers might hear on Christian radio. It has a “come as you are” approach instead of a dress code, welcoming jeans, baseball caps and sneakers.
Most importantly, Finklea said, there’s no separate youth service.
“We purposely do not do that, because we tell our teeangers that Sunday morning is for them,” Finklea said.
When giving examples, instead of using a marriage, he’ll talk about dating or school in order to connect with students. “It is constantly in the language, thinking I have to make sure a high-schooler hears what I’m saying right now,” he said.
He also isn’t worried about shying away from addressing racism, suicide and depression.
“Sometimes, as a church, we stay away from some of those topics,” Finklea said. “But, at the Rock, we don’t, because this is real life.
The approach appears to be working. The church is ranked the 77th fastest-growing in the nation, according to Outreach 100.
It’s a distinction the church partially expected due to the Grand Strand’s growth, but has also been unexpected due to youth being in charge of lights and other aspects of production.
“I am surprised because we are a church that is just raw, that is the easiest way to say it,” Finklea said.
But being Gen Z-focused can also lead to financial challenges. Finklea said the per-capita monetary giving for its high school and college students is significantly lower than the national average. With half of its congregation falling in that demographic, Finklea said the church relies heavily on volunteers, tries to keep its overhead costs low and has a relatively small staff for its size.
Even with shallow pockets, Finklea said the students still do what they can for their church because of its mission.
“Their giving is low, but they are willing to do it because they know that is what we are trying to reach,” Finklea said.
With a base campus in Conway and one at Coastal Carolina University, the church continues to grow. It plans to open a campus in Aynor, and has its eye on eventually expanding to Georgetown.
Community, coffee, conversation
On Sundays, C3 Coffee Co. turns into a church, streaming services while a pastor is on hand.
“It is a great gateway for people who maybe aren’t ready to step foot into a large church where it may be too loud or too difficult to do that way,” said Mitchell, who is a campus pastor in addition to C3 Coffee Co.’s general manager.
The coffee bars are set up to feel like a living room. Each has a community room that’s free to rent, there’s outlets for laptops and patrons are encouraged to stay for as long as they want.
“That is different than coffee culture,” Mitchell said.
It’s a unique model. Mitchell, who previously worked for another church, has only seen one other that uses coffee shops. Usually, if a church has one, it’s in the lobby and only open for Sunday worship services.
The shop crafts its own syrups, bakes its own pastries and sources ethically-sourced coffee that doesn’t use slave labor. When people walk in the door, Mitchell wants them to feel like C3 Coffee Co. is different and is a place where they can feel genuine love.
“The concept of creating a space for the community with no strings attached really drew me in, the idea that the church would invest the money and the resources to build a coffee bar really for creating a space to build community,” Mitchell said. “Conway, unfortunately, doesn’t have a lot of places like that.”
In addition to its Conway location, C3 Coffee Co. also has a Carolina Forest location, and had one in Las Vegas that shut down due to the pandemic.
The Rock Church launched the coffee bars as a place where people could feel like they mattered to God. As they became more successful, the bars have become a ministry and church-planting tool.
Although the shops are connected to the church, Finklea wants the focus to remain on building connections.
“We aren’t trying to pull a bait and switch, but there is just something that happens naturally when people find a place where they are loved,” Finklea said. “Our baristas, our managers, they know that their number one job is to love people and serve people well.”
Profits return to the local community. To date, C3 Coffee Co. has sold more than 600,000 cups of coffee and donated more than $250,000.
Finding The Rock Church and C3 Coffee Co. changed Mitchell’s life, and not only because it’s where he met his wife.
At 32 years old, he is one of the oldest people in its leadership.
“I know I was empowered as a young person, and that really changed my life and my trajectory as a leader, as a pastor, as a father,” Mitchell said.
Tucker Smithwick, a 17-year-old barista at C3 Coffee Co., has also seen his life change because of the opportunities the church has had available. In addition to working at the coffee bars, Smithwick taught third grade students Bible study classes when he was in the sixth grade. The church encourages older children to teach younger ones.
“It makes us feel proud of ourselves,” Smithwick said.
Having a teacher who is a few years older than the students, Smithwick said, helps the younger children open up and ask more questions than they would with an older authority figure.
Smithwick’s family has attended the church for the last 11 years. After moving to the area, they looked for a new church, and quickly found a home with The Rock Church.
He likes that the messages are aimed at people his age and that the music trades hymns for more upbeat songs.
“What really draws in the younger crowd is the contemporary, the things you hear on the radio,” he said.
Before becoming a barista, Smithwick had also volunteered that the church’s camp. He’d already been going to the coffee bar every week for the middle school-based ministry.
He began working at C3 Coffee Co. two years ago.
Once people come in, Smithwick said customers naturally start looking around and asking questions. He makes sure to ask people where they’re from and how they’re doing.
He’ll save up his loyalty points to buy drinks for his friends if they’ll watch the livestreamed service with him on Sundays from the coffee bar. He believes that one friend who occasionally attends a church would be attracted to The Rock Church more than his current one, which has a more traditional service that doesn’t use contemporary music.
“That model, yes, it works, but it doesn’t work on the upcoming generation,” Smithwick said.
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