The Rev. Nikki Collins MacMillan went to seminary, not business school. But the past year has felt like a crash course MBA.
It all started in late 2008 as a conversation with First Presbyterian Church in Warner Robins, Ga., in the middle of the state. They were wondering, ‘How are we going to engage the world?’ The congregation was made up of mostly older folks with an energetic pastor. They realized that they were not reaching their neighborhood and were asking questions that many churches have been asking themselves: Where are our youth and young adults, and how can we reach out to those around us?
With about 70 folks in regular worship attendance and not a lot of money, the pastor and the session decided to set aside some funds to do outreach.
MacMillan was the part-time youth and young adult pastor of the church and found herself spending more and more time in coffee shops as a way to meet the community.
“I didn’t really want an office in the church,” MacMillan said. So, she took her office to the coffee shop patio and had conversations with people. “This is a good place for me to be a pastor — wouldn’t it be cool if the church were more like this?” she thought to herself.
After a mission study revealed that Houston County was the largest growing county in the state (outside of Atlanta), the church knew it wanted to do something but wasn’t exactly sure what that something might be.
“We didn’t want to do a typical (new church development) — we felt as though the church was on the cusp of something new — why start with an old model in the midst of a world that is changing so rapidly?” MacMillan said.
After lengthy discussions with a property developer about a ‘perfect intersection’ in which to build the coffee shop, the economy plummeted and the developer’s funding evaporated along with it. But the next week a sign went up across the street advertising space for lease — adjacent to a new 16-screen cinema that’s projected to draw a million people per year from a 40 mile radius.
“It’s been a slower process than we wanted, but during that time God gave us the opportunity to learn more about what we were doing and to get us to the right place,” MacMillan said.
Bare Bulb Coffee opened in October 2010, and MacMillan has become its fulltime ‘Head Percolator.’
“We realize that there is a lot about who we as a church are that has stood in the way for people to be able to see Jesus — we’d like to get out of the way, and then be there to help people see him,” said MacMillan, reflecting on some of the mission behind the coffee shop. “Plenty of our customers don’t know who we are in terms of our connection to the church — we are very careful about not pushing that part of who we are,” said MacMillan, adding that it’s not about being inauthentic but more about showing hospitality to all who walk through the doors.
Bare Bulb’s open mic nights on Saturdays quickly became the biggest open mic night in middle Georgia.
“Young folks wanted a place to share their talents and they didn’t really have anything that wasn’t a bar,” MacMillan said. That allowed Bare Bulb to fairly quickly foster a safe space within the community.
Out of that safe space, mission began to percolate as well as coffee. During the winter, one of the teenage patrons asked about collecting blankets for the homeless. Bare Bulb decided to collect 50 blankets in 50 days. They put the word out on Facebook and announced it at the open mic night, and after 10 days, they’d collected 107 blankets. One night after the open mic night a young man ran across the parking lot toward MacMillan as she was getting in her car to leave. “Here take this — I had this sleeping bag in my truck and I want to give it to the homeless.”
Sleeping bags turned to backpacks as Bare Bulb began to supply food for children who receive free school lunches during the week but often don’t have enough to eat over the weekend. They started with helping five children, which turned into 24 children in two schools. Each week a list is provided of the needs, and each week customers bring the items to Bare Bulb. On Friday mornings, a group of stay-at-home moms and retirees pack the backpacks and drop them off at the schools.
Reflecting on where the ministry has taken her, MacMillan said that this — running a business that sells coffee — was not exactly what seminary trained her to do.
“But now that I’m doing it, I’m not sure I could go back to doing what I used to,” she said.
Bare Bulb has begun to host a weekly fellowship that meets on Sunday evenings, sometimes with a bit of singing, a scripture reading or lectio divina, but always with conversation and dinner at the pizza place next door. When folks ask MacMillan when they will form a ‘real church,’ her response is often: “This might be what church looks like.”
For MacMillan, Bare Bulb is a daily exercise in interpreting church as community — though they did host an Easter potluck, if anyone is in doubt about their official standing.
“The folks that are attracted to this kind of community aren’t attracted to what we already had or they would have gone there,” MacMillan said.
It may not look what church looked like, but it’s going to be church, of that she is sure.
Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer, photographer, and pastor who lives in a small coastal community in Baja California, Mexico when she is not following her wanderlust out into the world.