It's a Thursday night at the Bakery Blessings & Bookstore @ the Bar, and Matt Grimm is talking about our tortured relationship with food.
That's the topic of the week at Lifetree Café, a project of Group Publishing, a religious materials producer, that is being used by Lexington's Centenary United Methodist Church. Lifetree is described as a way to reach the unchurched by gently broaching faith-related topics in a nonchurchy setting. There is no singing, no preaching.
Grimm, a Centenary member who works as a producer at Kentucky Educational Television, is one of five "hosts" at Lifetree Café Lexington; they work on a rotating schedule.
"No judgment," Grimm announces to the group as he kicks off the evening's discussion. "It's OK to disagree. You're at Lifetree."
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Lifetree founder Thom Schultz said in his blog Holysoup.com that the program was for those who "may not be seeking a religious experience, but they're open to connecting with God," albeit not on a "churchy schedule."
Schultz is a national leader on bringing the unchurched into a church setting in a non intimidating manner: The author of Why Nobody Learns Much of Anything at Church, he is the founder of Group Publishing and Lifetree Café, which has branches nationwide.
The café provides a smaller, informal way for the church to interact with people about subjects that lend themselves to religion but also can be considered challenges of living a considered, ethical life — from dealing with mental health issues to the dilemmas facing caregivers. Started in 2007, Lifetree cafés take place in bookstores, hotels and churches.
"At Lifetree I enjoy having conversations about deep, important topics," said Peter Cook, 32, a Centenary member who is director of interactive production for Cornett Integrated Marketing Solutions.
"We are not just scratching the surface," Cook said. "It is a chance to get to know friends better and share my thoughts. My wife and I have even grown closer from the discussions started at Lifetree. ... I know my wife is particularly interested in a topic planned for Lifetree in February: 'Do dogs go to heaven?'"
Centenary started its Lifetree affiliation in November, gave it a rest during December, and started it again in January.
During the conversation about food, each attendee was given a list of grocery labels and asked to identify the food by its ingredients — including such products as chicken noodle soup and Red Bull. One participant said some of her employees eat three meals a day at fast-food outlets. A young doctor nearby shook her head in dismay.
Participants were asked to divide into groups depending on which factors, including time, quality and the elusive "something else," drive them when in the grocery store. Only one brave soul goes to the corner of the room that signifies that "time" is his biggest influence in grocery shopping; he opines that he thinks some of the others are not being totally honest about their preference for convenience when buying groceries.
Grimm said the point of the Lifetree hour is to get possibly reluctant churchgoers "to put their toe in the water."
The format is more like a noncredit college class than an introduction to church teaching. Church can be uncomfortable and intimidating, Grimm said, but everyone feels comfortable having an informal chat with a few others.
The goal is four people to a table, and no more than 50 people total. On this Thursday evening, the group of about 20 ranges from students to seniors.
Potential attendees find out about Lifetree via Facebook and word of mouth, although "nothing beats word of mouth," said Aaron Ames, pastor of discipleship and evangelism at Centenary, a participant in the Lifetree event this evening.
Lifetree Cafés also are available in Bowling Green, Stanford and Murray. The groups follow a standard curriculum than includes "Care for Caregivers" and "Where is God When Life Turns Tough?"
The conversation also continues online, at Lifetreecafe.com, where visitors are invited to participate in the same conversations that occur at the live events.
"The goal is really to keep it intimate, and small," Ames said. "This is a conversation café. ... The point of this is to have a place of open dialogue, and through that to build community. It is a place that we hope to experience God. It's the beginning of a conversation."
Cook said most people come to Lifetree based on an invitation from a friend.
"There are a lot of people who have had a bad experience at a church, or sitting in pews and singing songs just isn't their thing," he said. "... And that's why Lifetree Lexington isn't at a church, and instead meets a bakery café."