No more tea vicar
Steve Collins


What if church was like your favourite cafe, in fact what if your favourite cafe was your local church? We chat with Steve Collins about his COFfEe concept.

as an interior architect you presumably spend much of your working life considering corporate colour schemes, branding and how public spaces can represent the ideals and image of a company. are your 'COFfEe' concepts born out of frustration at the Church being totally useless at such things?

no, they were just born out of seeing an environment that i thought would make a better church, namely the coffee houses of austin, texas. the CoffEe business was a pun that occured to me a while before - it was clearly appropriate for this use!

branding is, or was initially, about selling - making a clear statement in the marketplace, attracting and keeping customers. organisations that don't see their primary purpose as competing for sales [or haven't until recently] don't have brands, and struggle to create them. the national health service doesn't have a brand, nor do most government bodies. likewise churches - all these things have been 'service providers' [no pun intended] for complex needs not reducible to consumer goods. the recent extension of branding into the construction of the self, and into a general symbolic language, means that these organisations have been obliged to develop branding, in order to deal with anti-branding. by which i mean, that everything you do is now read as branding anyway, so if you don't take care it just looks like bad branding. which is what has happened to a lot of the church.

branding is about clarity, communication, recognition. brands are succinct summings-up of what you stand for. most of the church doesn't have clarity, can't agree on what it stands for, is full of dissenting voices and loose cannons. successful branding requires coherence across the whole organisation, so that people receive the correct message wherever they touch it. everyone has to sign up, everyone has to be on-message. which isn't the church! the parts of the church that are successful with branding are small enough or coherent enough or have a single agreed purpose, such as mission agencies.

there's also the matter of design. brands happen because a small part of an organisation has been tasked with creating a brand which can then be imposed across the whole organisation and all its works. rebranding, say, the church of england would require centralised control of a kind which isn't there. you have to stop mrs. bloggs using the wrong font on the church noticesheet! and rebranding a local church requires sufficient expertise [and agreement] within that congregation, which isn't going to happen in most places. where it does happen is in alt worship and various kinds of youth church where it is agreed that design and image are part of the agenda for that church.

that expansion of branding into 'the construction of self' - the clothes you wear, the pc you use, thecar you drive all saying something about who you are - do you think it's possible for a re-imagined and consciously branded church, such as your COFfEe concept, to tap into that trend?

yes. i find myself thinking of catholic and royal iconography of the 17th century, probably because i just watched a programme about king james 2nd. he and others like him used painting, sculpture, theatre, interior design, even clothes and forms of behaviour to communicate their identities and beliefs. the counter-reformation deliberately created a visual world that would make catholicism understandable and attractive. this construction of identity, or offering of identity, by the church through material means was not something that happened much in protestant countries. here the construction of the self depended on words, spoken and written, and the 'inner' and intellectual was privileged over the outer and sensual. but we now live in a society that prefers the visual and wears identity on its sleeve. so get your rosary out like madonna!

which immediately reveals two traps. one is those who flaunt their christian identity in ways that are very uncool - and feel that they're being biblical when people mock them 'for the sake of christ'. the other trap is the hyper-cool christian who we just know is trying to sell us something.

the CoffEe thing, and many other things i've done, are attempts to reconsider the whole interface between christianity and the world around. if the purpose of the church [greatest to least] is to connect people with god through christ, how could that happen? if the usual formats fail, what else could be done? and i'm assuming that god is active and we don't have to do all the work. so the whole framework of encounter could be different. maybe a coffee shop, a chill-out space, a skatepark, a bouncy castle, whatever. the church as something that resources encounter rather than claiming a monopoly on it.

but branding - ie communicating - that requires a visual and symbolic language that can be owned by those within and understood by those outside. the traditional symbolic language of christianity is lost, or dormant. all we seem to have is a cross and a fish, and those have current meanings - religious/catholic and born-again - which aren't helpful in communicating this new thing. so it becomes like a commercial exercise, starting from scratch. i suspect it's necessary to start from basic values, forget about religious heritage which churches can never bring themselves to do - you can only bring that stuff back in when you've forgotten about it and thereby created a whole new framework for using it in.

if you were to recommend to the church a commercial example(s) of where a re-imaging of function and branding has successfully been embraced by popular culture, what would it be?

hmmm. straight off i think of skoda, who rebranded themselves by:

  • fixing the product first - from scratch,
  • advertising how people were still too embarrassed to be seen in a skoda, even though they admitted it was a really good car now thereby
  • humorously acknowledging the problem;
  • still getting across how much the product had changed;
  • and gently mocking those people who still clung to their prejudices despite the evidence of their own experience.

the church could learn a lot from that! but note: FIX THE PRODUCT FIRST OR IT ALL FAILS

but the new skodas, however acceptable, haven't yet 'been embraced by popular culture'

so how about burberry - from staid and stuffy to almost too hip. get a hot designer to reimagine traditional elements in ways that appeal to a new generation, without losing the sense of history that gives the brand substance. get the right celebrities to wear it. and people will want it so much they'll buy fakes. see also gucci.

[haven't we been here before with christianity?]

you mean the reformation... i often hear people in the emerging church now saying they think that the reformation threw out the baby with the bathwater. but i guess it's one revamp and rebrand that has lasted a good few hundred years and had a massive impact on the world not just in terms of religion, but also politics, social trends and quite possibly resulted in workers with the right mindset to fuel the industrial revolution. which is where things started to get difficult for the church again... do you feel there is a theology of constantly reimagining and representing christianity?

re-reading my mail i can see why you think that, but [haven't we been here before with christianity?] was referring to people wanting to buy even fakes, which was me thinking of constantine or maybe other times and places where lots of people wanted to be seen as christian, wanting to be in, without necessarily being true believers. victorian england?

i think christianity constantly *gets* reimagined and re-represented... the theology, i'd say, is that christianity is actually a meta-religion with almost no prescribed outward form, so it can inhabit many cultures. but in having no prescribed form of its own it is constantly taken captive by its containers. the container is eventually assumed to be an essential part, until someone sees the distinction again and breaks it open. very distressing, if you loved the container and didn't see the distinction.

it's also a matter of 'human religion' - that tendency of humans to add distancing devices such as rituals, priesthoods, sanctuaries; to add rules, laws and 'works' that earn us our own righteousness; to fix forms in case god is angered by change. christianity proper cuts away all of these things - all the parts of religion we do for ourselves. they are expressions of our discomfort at direct approach to god. christ has torn the curtain, but we struggle to accept it.

Steve Collins is an interior architect and member of 'Grace' alternative worship group in London. He was a founder of the st pauls labyrinth, now touring the uk and available here and in america in kit form and writes regularly for 'movement' - the magazine of SCM.


Steve's website of thoughts, theory, designs, photographs and other good things reflecting on spirituality, the church and other stuff:

Small Fire - Steve's site documenting the alternative worship movement through photos:

Alternative worship theory and portal:

above: steve's design for a promo postcard from the CofEe idea. click on the image to open full size.