The Other Coffeehouse Ministries of the 1960s

Trevor Burrows

In 1958, a nondescript coffeeshop opened up in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. It did not take long for the storefront to become a center of activity for up-and-coming writers and artists of the Beat persuasion, as well as for musicians of the folk scene. The first payments Richard Brautigan and Gary Snyder received for reading their work were earned there ($5 each). The likes of Joan Baez and Dave Van Ronk performed and hung out there. A short-lived but important publication featuring some of the earliest writings from Brautigan and others, Beatitude, was published on the premises. But little about its activities or appearance hinted at its origins: it was an experimental project funded by the Congregational Board of Home Missions. The “Bread and Wine Mission,” a name reportedly coined by the writer Bob Kaufman, was in fact a Congregationalist coffeehouse ministry.

Recent scholarly interest in the Jesus People has persuasively suggested that evangelicalism’s encounter with the counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s decisively shaped many contours of contemporary evangelical style and thought. (Charity Carney’s recent post on the Jesus People nicely elaborated on this point.) Central to the Jesus People story is the phenomenon of the coffeehouse, reflecting in physical space the ethos and style of the movement and its engagement with the attitudes and aesthetics of the period. But the early presence of Bread and Wine reminds us that Jesus People were hardly the first to explore such approaches to ministry. Bread and Wine’s leader, Rev. Pierre Delattre, explained his motivations behind the ministry as inspired by a recognition that many of the smartest and most creative young adults he met wouldn’t come near the church. Coffeehouses and bars, on the other hand, seemed to attract and sustain “tremendous vitality.” After Rev. Robert Spike, then the General Secretary of the Congregational Missions board, tapped him to lead the project, Delattre successfully made the mission a focal point of Beat life in the city and later went on to help found the 14th Street Art Center, funded in part by the Presbyterian missions board. [1]

Over the course of the early 1960s, several dozen other coffeehouse ministries opened across the country. In one of the most well-known examples, Father Malcolm Boyd of the Episcopal church gained notoriety for his choice to relocate his campus ministry to a coffeeshop, the Golden Grape, while working as a chaplain at Colorado State University in 1959. Church-related coffeehouses came in many formats, but many downplayed their religious affiliations and opened their doors as a place for literary readings, musical performances, art exhibits, and conversation. The popularity of coffeehouse missions inspired John D. Perry, a Yale Divinity graduate and himself a leader of a coffeehouse campus ministry, to undertake a study of such efforts. In the resulting book, The Coffee House Ministry (John Knox Press, 1966), Perry wrote that over a thousand church-related coffeehouses were in operation across the United States; most were extensions of college campus ministries, but increasing numbers were popping up in urban storefronts and even the suburbs.

The Coffee House Ministry was intended as a handbook for such efforts, providing both a theological framework and practical advice for operations (including a few coffee recipes!), and thus offers an intriguing glimpse into where these coffeehouses might fit in our understanding of mid-century Protestantism. For Perry, coffeehouses were something of a third way between the “revivalist” evangelicalism that sought explicit conversion and the “membershipist” evangelicalism that sought to add names to church membership rolls. They offered an opportunity to take the gospel out of the churches and into the world, to create a neutral space for genuine dialogue between all sorts of people, believers and non-believers alike. Perry was adamant that the coffeehouse had less to do with soul-saving than with listening and serving; its success was not to be measured by conversions or new members. Instead, programming was to “raise questions, rather than give answers.”

Importantly, the coffeehouse ministry was to be undertaken as much for the health of the church as for the good of those it served. If carried out in the right spirit, the ministry would “lead to a radical open-mindedness toward different religious traditions and theological systems,” cultivate an “increase in ecumenical fervor,” and deepen volunteers’ own theological knowledge and commitments. It would also develop an awareness of where the gospel was already at work in the world, in art and culture, even if the language used or ideas articulated were not explicitly Christian in their vocabulary. The church, in short, was to learn as much from the world as the world might learn from it. But in order to achieve these aims, the coffeehouse ministry required a certain relinquishment of the idea that evangelicalism required the church to present a message and persuade others, by argument, of its absolute rightness.

It is tempting to compare and contrast these earlier experiments in coffeehouse ministries with the later work of the Jesus People, and some differences come easily to mind. Perry’s text is peppered with references to Fredrick Kraemer’s A Theology of the Laity, Harvey Cox’s Secular City, as well as works and ideas from Peter Berger, Martin Marty, Kierkegaard, and Bonhoeffer, thus placing his thought within a constellation of liberal theologians and Christian existentialists, proponents of church renewal, and advocates of a new radical engagement with the world. The coffeehouse culture described by Perry also seems more receptive to inviting engagement with social and political issues in ways that the Jesus movement shied away from, a possibility that I have found reflected in the activities of some “liberal” church-related coffeehouses in Chicago in the ’60s. Indeed, Perry placed the coffeehouse ministry alongside the church’s involvement in matters such as civil rights, and warned against the ministry becoming an “escape route” by which churches absolved themselves from leadership on the many pressing issues of the period.

But there are also many affinities to be noted. Like many in the Jesus movement, Perry saw the coffeehouse ministry as an actualizing of the gospel in the world through service and practice. His scriptural references frequently highlighted the example of the early church as a model, and he emphasized the figure and example of Jesus as central to coffeehouse ministries. Finally, like many in the early Jesus movement, Perry articulated a radically inclusive, “come as you are” attitude to evangelism that emphasized the opportunity of the coffeehouse as a field of engagement over the importance of immediately winning converts. Recalling these earlier experiments in coffeehouse ministries, then, does not just remind us of precursors to the Jesus People's coffeehouse and concert venue experiments, but also offers an opportunity to discover points of resonance between the two.

[1] The most thorough treatment of Bread and Wine (and Rev. Delattre) that I have found is featured in William Hjortsberg, Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2012). Delattre’s quotes are from “Far-Out Mission” in Time, June 29, 1959.