Business in Brick Lane: Reinventing Church in Multicultural London

“I’ve had more significant conversations in this coffee shop in one week, than a whole year working in a church building,” tells Paul Unsworth. “We need new models of church where people can have a sense of belonging regardless of what they believe.”  In a busy, multicultural and popular street in East London, this Baptist pastor is re-inventing church. He and his team started a commercial coffee shop – as a church. They learned some keys on the way.

The coffee shop opened its doors June 2012 in Brick Lane. In this area twenty thousand people come to visit the shops and market on a regular Sunday. Many kinds of faiths are shared, but Christians are hardly to be found. While walking here one Sunday, Paul knew, ‘We have to be here, among these crowds’. They named the coffee shop Kahaila, which is a word play with the Hebrew word Kahila, meaning community, and the word Chaim/hai, what is connected with ‘life’. These words represent their purpose of bringing life to the very centre of the community: to plant a church as a café. Paul, “Traditional churches work well for Christians, but we want to explore how we model a church that engages people outside the church. Those kind of people who see church like they do a red telephone box – an amazing building that’s part of our heritage. They don’t want these telephone boxes removed and love to see it standing somewhere in a street, but they will never use it. They look at church the same way: they love the architecture and the fact that it is part of British culture, but it’s not for them.”

No business, no mission

The whole coffee shop endeavour did cost a lot of money and effort. Over a hundred thousand pounds were invested; partly donated and partly borrowed. This meant that they had to run the business well in order to raise an income, and to attract clients. Their aim was to become one of the best coffee shops in London and they seem to be well on their way: nearly four times as much profit was made as initially anticipated. But what’s more: people are finding them and recommending Kahaila on internet for their good coffee, food, service and atmosphere. While regularly adding the comment online: ‘Oh, and these guys are Christians’.

Paul explains, “We don’t have Christian music playing or crosses on the wall, since we want non Christians to encounter people, not religious artefacts. Neither do we want to be a Christian hangout, instead we want to connect with people who aren’t coming to church; with them we want to build a relationship. We give attention to our coffee and food; that needs to be good and we need to give good services. When we don’t have a thriving business, we don’t have clients and therefore we don’t have a mission.”

‘If the business fails, then the mission fails’

Building community

The heart of Kahaila is the community of faith running the place. On Monday morning they start the week with prayer. Wednesday night they have the church service at the coffee place. In the beginning Paul closed the shop late afternoon, and than reopened it a bit later, but that didn’t feel good. Now they invite the customers to attend: “Stay for our church service, I tell people,” shares Paul, “People are surprised; the invitation catches them off guard and opens up for a conversation.”

The community members are experimenting with different events, “We had board game evenings, but they didn’t last. When it doesn’t work, we try something else. The evenings with live music go well, as well as the ‘bring & share supper club’ and the book club. For the book club we don’t choose particular Christian books, but books that stimulate conversations about life.”

The aim of Kahaila is to create a neutral space for the so-called generation Y, born in 1982 and onwards. This generation is not hostile towards church, but just think it’s not for them. Paul, “Their friends are not religious; the Church is outside their social circle. This generation wants to belong, before they believe, but the church is often centred on belief. So how, and where, can this generation of non-Christians start to feel they belong?”

‘How and where, can this generation of non-Christians start to feel they belong?’

This sense of belonging, is indeed happening. ‘Why didn’t you invite me?’ a customer asked when he heard that the faith community went away for a weekend. Paul tells, “He visited the shop regularly, but had told us that he was an atheist, so we hadn’t invited him for our weekend with a focus on prayer and worship. But his comment made sense. He had become our friend; he felt he belonged and therefore it was natural for him to come along, so we told him he was welcome to join.  The atheist admitted after the weekend that the prayer and worship ‘had got to him’”.

Church is a way of life

Church is not an event or a statement of faith, according to Paul, “Church is a way of life. Jesus said ‘follow me’; following Jesus is about real-life situations. So we don’t tell someone like this friend, who has become interested in faith, to join now a regular church as we know it on Sunday. We would be sending him into an alien culture.” 

“Christians need to be de-programmed,” Paul continues, “They often feel guilty when they don’t witness. We need to learn to be normal; not to force a conversation about faith, but to ask questions that show our genuinely interest in them as a person. They in turn will want to know things about us; in a natural way this can create opportunity to talk about faith. It’s about relationship and friendship, which happens here on every level.  The folks behind the counter, who are serving the clients ask them with interest how their day has been. After some time the café has become busier, which made it harder to have these kinds of conversations. So now we purposely over-staff. From a business point of view we could not afford to do this, therefore we work with volunteers from a mission agency to be able to give clients the same attention.”

‘Christians need to be de-programmed; they feel guilty when they don’t witness’

Before starting Kahaila, Paul was youth pastor in evangelical circles. But he grew up in a non-Christian background and his concern for the Christian faith to be known to, and be relevant for his generation, motivates Paul to seek ways beyond the way it’s done within church walls, “Traditional church as we know it, might be good for Christians. But to be more accessible for non Christians, we have to be prepared to sacrifice some of what we love about the more traditional model of church. I myself for example, have to give up preaching, which I love. Instead we usually have discussions, as it enables people to engage with scripture for themselves and it also enables non Christians to dialogue and ask questions.”

“There are some really big churches in this area, but the people attending come from somewhere outside the area and are not engaging with anyone in this neighbourhood,” Paul continues, ”New expressions of church need to be incarnational and connect with people in the community.”

Much more is going on

The neighbourhood is aware that there are Christians to be found in Kahaila. A Muslim, who worked in a shop nearby came to ask if they could pray for him, because he needed a visa. They did so, there and than. Apparently he got his visa, because he wasn’t seen in the neighbourhood any more. Paul, “We like to see end results, but often we don’t see it. We need to learn to think long-term, also about our influence in the neighbourhood.”

‘Loving is a way to make disciples’

Paul admits that he was a bit disappointed the first months after the opening of the shop, since no one had yet come to faith. But as he prayed, he felt the great commission of making disciples to be accomplished by obeying the Great commandment ‘to love God and love your neighbour as yourself’. Paul shares, “We are loving our neighbours and relationally engaging with them; loving is a way to make disciples. John 13:35 says that ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’ So how do we actively love the people who come into the café and who are in the local community?”

New leaders empowered

Meanwhile young leaders involved with Kahaila are empowered and starting new ministries. Paul likes to encourage and help them into what God has placed on their heart. Some started a mentoring and education program in a local prison. Others started a network among women who are trafficked into prostitution and these involvements developed into setting up a safe house: Ella’s home.

Entrepreneurship is part of Paul’s DNA, and being in contact with the vulnerable women victimized by trafficking, ignited the idea to start Luminary Bakery where these women can have a decent job, help them to learn within a save community and connect with Christians. Paul, “We need business for these women, because they need jobs. We sell much cake in the café, so we decided that starting our own bakery could be another profitable business.”

Being involved in the needs of the city, and seeking ways to help solve problems, opens up connections with different people in the city. “We need to get involved,” is Paul’s conviction, “We need to think about the big issues in our city and our world; what are they? We shouldn’t rely on government or church money, but create new ministry models. We can connect with others and work together while unashamedly following Jesus. It all starts there; with a love for God and people, and a desire that justice is restored.” 

by Gea Gort

This story was first published in Business as Mission by Gea Gort and is reposted with kind permission.

Gea-Gort-Portret-70Dr. Gea Gort is passionate about mission, especially in the urban context. She sees a grassroots missionary movement emerging. As journalist, missiologist and author she researches, writes and speaks about international developments regarding this movement. Gea is presently researching Business as Mission (BAM), and how that looks like in/from a European and Global context.


The Dutch version of the BAM book was released in November 2015, written by Gea, with the help of Mats Tunehag and researcher Monique Fahner. It is generating much interest in the Netherlands, bringing awareness within churches, mission organisations and Christian business networks. As they are embracing BAM, the book will contribute towards a movement in and from the Netherlands. 

The book alternates theory with stories. In short and easy to read chapters it explains the BAM concept, how BAM can contribute towards transformation, and how a global paradigm shift is taking place in our thinking about church, mission, aid and discipleship. The final part of the book gives tips how to help the movement forward. You can order the Dutch version at

Gea is currently working on the international version in English, with a focus on Europe, that will be available toward the end of 2016 or early 2017.  She is presently researching and interviewing Europeans, as well as some North Americans, Asians and Australians who are on a journey to integrate business and (holistic) mission, both in secularised Europe, as well as in developing nations. With about 25 stories, alternated with theory, the book will give a broad overview and insight how this can be done. 


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