When I was a student at Williams Baptist College I met a brother named Michael Carpenter. He is now a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary, a church planter (along with other WBC alumni) of the Church at Argenta, and will soon be opening Mugs Café, which he hopes will become the “third place” of the Argenta district of Little Rock, AR. What follows is an interview I did with him recently.
Dustin Finch: What is Argenta like and why is it a good place to plant a church? How did you end up there?
Michael Carpenter: The “white flight” to the suburbs of the 1970’s and 80’s left Argenta’s store fronts empty, housing dilapidated, and the area all but forgotten. Churches left for the contrived landscapes of the suburban sprawl and abandoned their buildings. The crime rate increased exponentially as gangs began to occupy the territory once home to a vibrant neighborhood. The old First Baptist Church building became a bar and strip club that served as a front for most of the criminal activity in Argenta. Argenta quickly became the unwanted dog of metro Little Rock.
Fearful and angry residents became weary [of] the many problems that were plaguing their once thriving Argenta Neighborhood – high crime, disinvestment, and abandoned homes.
Yet, the church remained absent. Fear of urban neighborhoods, fear of the “other,” and the love of convenience rather than the Bible, prayer, and meaningful discussions among fellow Christians have driven the church’s perception of neighborhoods like Argenta. Not surprisingly, this perception is largely negative. We have moved our homes and congregations to the fringes of our historic neighborhoods in the city to suburban enclaves. Moreover, we have learned to speak of these neighborhoods as places for rescue missions rather than places to live, work, and play.
DF: What challenges have you faced in Argenta? What victories have you celebrated?
MC: Remarkably, we have been met with considerable favor in the neighborhood. We believe this is due to a group of pastors and denominational leaders who prayed over this area for nearly two years before we arrived on the scene. We have seen lives transformed and a community of faith come together bound by a common commitment to God’s mission in the world.
DF: What is a “third place” and why is it important?
MC: Sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the phrase “third place” in his 1989 book The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You Through the Day. The subtitle says it all.
According to Oldenburg, the first place is our home and the people with whom we live. The second place is where we work and the place we spend most of our waking hours. A third place is a public setting that hosts regular, voluntary, and informal gatherings of people.
The third place is a living room, but not in someone’s house; a workplace, but not in someone’s office. The third place is embodied by the modern coffee house. At their core, third places are where people feel at home. They feel like they belong there.
Third places have always been an important way in which the community has developed and retained a sense of identity.
How so? One of the most important aspects of any city is its collective commons: the shared public spaces where people gather…be they streets, squares, parks, markets, playgrounds, or coffee shops.
Yet, even in the heart of a city in neighborhoods like Argenta, isolation is a word that describes the kind of lives many people are living today. More and more people are spending less and less time with one another. People no longer give time to civic participation, religious involvement, and neighborhood relationships. More often than not people spend much of their time alone.
The deterioration of social connections in our neighborhoods should drive followers of Jesus to action. God created us as relational beings. God designed us to be in a deep, abiding relationship with him. But we also understand that we are also to be in life giving relationships with one another. The idea of people sitting at home, dying relationally from the lack of basic human connections should inspire us to bring about change.
Therefore, the church needs to be at the forefront of enhancing opportunities for a richer, fuller life. Our motivation should flow out [of] the desire to see those who are relationally starved be drawn to a life-giving relationship not only with others, but ultimately with the giver of life Himself – Jesus Christ.
In addition, we need to recognize that people who are far from Jesus are not interested in church activities. The church, as the missionary people of God, must realize that we must engage people on common ground – third places.
It’s so easy for us to withdraw to the comfortable confines of our Christian sub-culture. But that is not the example Jesus set. He crossed every conceivable demographic and line. Think of it this way: Jesus did not hang out at synagogues. Jesus hung out at wells. Wells were more than just a place to draw water. Wells were natural gathering places in ancient culture. Jesus didn’t expect people to come to him. He crossed cultural boundaries and went to them. So, instead of building a traditional church building where people gather once a week, we are digging a well where people gather all day every day.
DF: What can your church do when Mugs opens that it can’t do now?
MC: Connect and build relationships with more people for the sake of the gospel. We are limited as individuals as to the number of people we can meet and develop lasting relationships with. Also, Mugs provides for us a financial stream that will allow us to do church for free. That is, the coffee shop will pay for our building and staff which frees us up to give more to mission.
DF: How important are hospitality and sharing meals to the mission of the Church at Argenta? Why?
MC: In today’s culture, the church needs to recover the conviction that table fellowship is essential to the Christian life. In the book, I Was a Stranger: A Christian Theology of Hospitality, Arthur Sutherland writes, “Hospitality is the practice by which the church stands or falls.” Sutherland suggests that hospitality makes the Church, so much so that the Church disappears without it. He argues that the Church, as Christ’s body in the world, comes to life through hospitality; that it lives and flourishes when it participates in, imitates, and extends the table fellowship of God, but withers when it neglects it.
Far from being a gospel option, the sharing of our table is an essential practice of the Christian life and the responsibility of all. Our faith in Christ ensures that there will always be a home for each of us in the presence of God giving us freedom to follow Jesus’ example as he models for us the profound power of sharing a table with tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees, and prostitutes. Surely this kind of hospitality is the locus of missional activity.
Willingness to practice the radical table fellowship of Christ is the beginning of spiritual vitality. In common acts like sharing a simple meal, we can begin to see others as uniquely fashioned creations of God with names and stories. And these encounters just might teach us more about God and his Kingdom than all the Sunday school classes we have attended. Just as the two disciples who were traveling home to Emmaus did by inviting an unknown man to stay with them who happened to be Jesus himself.
DF: You have had a coffee shop before, called Java Joe's in Lebanon, TN. What did you learn from that experience and what will you do differently this time?
MC: One doesn’t learn much about running a business in seminary. We made a lot of mistakes when it came to our day-to-day operations. However, good business practice alone will not by itself point people to Jesus. For that to happen we must be more intentional.
As a business we are committed to being an incarnational presence in our community and to encouraging those we do business with “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). To achieve this we must create a world of more conscious workers, citizens, and consumers. We are committed to creating a world that is rich in the values demonstrated in the life of Christ (Luke 22:24-27).
We believe that our business should engage in the spiritual growth of everyone who works for us. In other words, we will create a discipling culture among us by meeting God daily in a set time of prayer, allowing God [to] confront us daily through the Scriptures, and participate in God’s mission in the world by ever remembering the command, “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34).
We are committed to approaching everything we do from a systems perspective, a perspective that allows us to see the larger whole, not a fragmented, compartmentalized world, not just what we want to see, our own point of view, our own reality, but a world that is endlessly interconnected. (For more on systems thinking click here.)
DF: The first-century church spread throughout the Roman Empire in less than a century without buildings or professional clergy. Your church is also (currently) without a building. How does your neighborhood know about your church without your having a building or a sign? In other words, how does Argenta know of your church's presence?
MC: One word: relationships. For relationship is the means by which the gospel travels.
DF: What does it mean to be incarnational? (or) What is incarnational ministry?
MC: If God’s central way of reaching the world was to incarnate himself in Jesus, then our way of reaching the world should likewise be incarnational. At the very least, an incarnational lifestyle requires us to set up a real and abiding presence in a particular place with the basic motive of revelation–that is, people will come to know God through Jesus. By becoming one of us, God has given us the archetypal model of what true mission should look like and behave.
DF: What is the best way that churches or individuals can partner with the Church at Argenta and Mugs? How can people pray for you? How can they keep up with what the church is doing?
MC: The best way for churches to partner with us right now is through financial giving (see equip.churchargenta.org). This is our greatest need at the moment in order to get Mugs open. Our biggest prayer is that we will not fold in on ourselves and keep following the Spirit outward. People can keep up with us on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/churchargenta), Twitter (http://www.twitter.com/churchargenta), our blog (http://www.churchatargenta.org/blog), and our newsletter (http://www.churchatargenta.org/about/newsletter/).
DF: What is the first thing we need to order once Mugs opens?
MC: The first thing you need to order is the Wayfaring Slider for breakfast, the Smoked Salmon Club for lunch, and the Cuban to drink. http://www.mugscafe.org/menu/