Churches and other houses of worship have historically played critical social and political functions in American society. But fewer people are attending religious services, and the decline of churches and other houses of worship threatens to leave a void that could potentially be filled by coffee shops.
“For so much of American history, the church has really been — or their congregations have really been — essential, providing an unheralded role in providing cohesion and connectedness in communities … encouraging civic engagement and political participation,” says Daniel Cox, director of the Survey Center on American Life and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
“It was not happenstance or luck that the civil rights movement emerged out of the church,” Cox says. “And you see that cross-culturally … whether it's in predominantly white rural communities, in the suburbs, wherever, churches have historically been really, really important.”
Churches and other houses of worship have also played a role in helping immigrants assimilate once they arrive in America, Cox says.
In 1999, 70% of Americans said they belonged to a church, mosque or synagogue. By 2020, that number had dropped to 47%. A 2019 survey found that only about three in 10 Americans say they attend weekly religious services.
Lack of involvement and affiliation with churches, mosques and synagogues means people might be missing out on what urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg dubbed as “third places” — public gathering spots that offer something that home, the “first place,” and work, the “second place,” might not.
Oldenburg argued that third places are critical to a community’s social vitality. An October 2021 survey conducted by the American Survey Center found that commercial spaces like coffee houses foster trust and connection in American communities and could help fill the void left by churches.
“If you're a regular at a cafe, the barista may know what you usually order, and they can make it for you, and that feels good,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Maria Espinola, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.
“It feels good to be recognized, to know that people are expecting you, to know that people care about you, to know that you belong, because the need for belonging and human connection is a fundamental need that we all have, and it's important to have that fulfilled in different ways,” Espinola says. “So, places like third places can allow us to do that.”
In the past, churches and other houses of worship have been a third place for many Americans. In 2019, 67% of people surveyed said they have a third place — a coffee shop, bar, restaurant, park or other place in their community that they visit regularly. That number dropped to 56% in 2021 — a number that could have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What we found was that people who had a third place were much more connected to their community,” says Cox. “They're much more likely to engage in other activities there. They are much more trusting of their neighbors. There's a whole great array of positive social outcomes that were connected to having a third place … and for a lot of Americans, it's a coffee shop or a cafe.”
What coffee shops have in their favor is that they can be found almost everywhere, all over the country, and anyone who wants to can stop by regularly. And many are open most days of the week.
Cox says even brief coffee shop encounters can increase a sense of belonging.
“I think there's a lot of potential here, and a lot of it is unrealized potential,” Cox says. “But in terms of what they could do, there's a lot there. I've been in places where the same group of folks come in there to play chess. Or they have their informal bunch of retirees. … They just got together, and they talked and chatted and caught up with each other. … I don't know where else they would have gone — maybe a church, but maybe not — to share information, to encourage each other to maybe get involved in an activity. And I think that is what is so powerful about coffee shops.”