I opened the doors to The Treehouse in Audubon, New Jersey for the second time on Friday, March 27. I was scheduled to interview the owner, Randy Van Osten, who is currently a student at Palmer Theological Seminary, pursuing a Masters in Divinity. He is also an associate pastor at Oaklyn Baptist Church in Oaklyn, New Jersey.
The interview was scheduled for 4:30, and it was only 4 pm, so I perused the menu of coffees, teas, and bakery items, many of which are fair trade and/or vegan. I settled on a cup of The Republic of Tea’s Strawberry Vanilla tea being that I have given up coffee in honor of Lent. I took the steaming cup back to a table by the front window and unloaded some items from my overloaded shoulder bag–a computer, a notebook, my field notes, and a pen. As I waited for my tea to cool, I scanned the room. In a Facebook message prior to our meeting, Randy had told me the family opened the cafe as a space where customers could feel God’s love and presences, and I wanted to see if that translated in my opinion.
I was drawn to a sign by the coffee stand and supplies, a sign that read “Mugs, Not Drugs.” I chuckled at the positive play on words. The owners definitely have a sense of humor. Additionally, the space was warm as the three baristas were singing a song together as they swept and wiped down the counters in preparation for the music event that would take place in the space later that night. I felt at home and settled in.
I must have felt more settled in than I looked because at about 4:30, I was surprised by a voice behind me. “Lauren?” the voice said. “Hi, I’m Randy. Did you need another minute before we get started?” I looked up and then quickly grabbed the books I had strewn on the chair across from me.
“Not at all,” I replied. “Please. Sit. It’s really a pleasure to me you.” I am surprised to see the figure matching the voice is wearing shorts, r sandals, a Palmer Theological Seminary t-shirt. He also has a piercing in his left eyebrow and long hair tied back with a bandanna. I feel like I have nearly forgotten that pastors can be regular people, too.
I opened my field notes book atop an outline I had made, and that’s when I began. I introduced myself and summarized my research, explaining my interest in spiritual journeys, particularly the journeys of millennials or those in their late teens and 20’s. At that moment, I could have thrown my outline into the wind because I only referred to it one time in the remaining hour of our interview.
Our interview, thanks to my introduction, opened with a discussion about millenials in church, as this is also something Randy is researching at seminary. According to his findings, this age group seems to have an aversion to church, about 33% of this group argues this aversion is predicated by the aversion to the formal structure of services. They also want to be able to make a difference, and the church doesn’t really give them that opportunity. Many churches today operate on the system of the 3 B’s: butts, buildings, and budgets. They aren’t as much about the people as potential members would hope.
Serving as a youth pastor for the last six years, this is something Randy is working to combat. His responsibilities include teaching and fostering socialization among the younger members of the parish. He mentions that the youth group, about 35 to 40 6th graders through 12th graders, at his church “likes to have fun” when they meet from 5:45 to 7:45 on Sunday nights.
In addition to youth group, Randy has worked to develop a contemporary service, the second service at his church on Sundays that targets an audience of mainly 30-to-40-something members with kids and families. This service includes a worship band, led by Randy’s wife, Theresa, that sings original songs and worship tunes from Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, and Hillsong United. The service also features a more interactive sermon with video clips and reenactments to keep churchgoers more engaged and interested. He notes that in 20 minutes time, only 10% of the church, the audible learners, would be able to remember a purely spoken sermon. Most people need a more experiential learning enviornment.
Randy acknowledges that this contemporary service may not be enough to draw millenials back to the church, suggesting that we “don’t do church the way it’s supposed to be done.” Many church goers hang up their faith when they leave, simply going through cultural motions. Church should really include building a sense of community among believers, a community in which they could share meals and share life. They could read more of the Bible at home independently and discuss. They could go out and do things that serve the town. Randy stated, “If churches want to be seen, they need to go out and love on their community. Love is appealing.” This is why he takes the youth group out on one to two service opportunities a month, including visits at the Ronald McDonald House and Urban Promise Academy in Camden, New Jersey.
On a personal level, Randy has been actively involved in church life from the time he was a small child. His father worked for the church, and Randy was in Bell Choir, Youth Choir, and Teen Choir. He also attended Sunday School, church, and youth group once a week from the time he was in Kindergarten through the time he was a senior in high school. Astonishingly, he received a calling to be a pastor at the young age of 13 as he listened to a family he was friends with speak at Camp Lebanon with his youth group. They had returned from four years of missionary work, and Randy explained that he felt God was speaking directly to his heart through this family. He felt that God was telling him he needed to be involved and be a leader.
From that point, he never questioned his faith, though Randy admits to leading a double life at some points, particularly during college in which he was torn between God’s ways and the temptations of the ways of the world. He attended a Christian college, but there was still peer pressure in this environment, a statement also made by Jefferon Bethke in his book Jesus>Religion. Randy, however, acknowledges the importance of those experiences because he feels he can relate to people more and serve them better.
To maintain his faith now, outside of church, Randy prays, reads the Bible, and the Book of Common Prayer of Ordinary Radicals regularly. He also does a devotional one to two times per week with his two young sons and with his wife, a practice that involves scripture reading and prayer. He used to play music, but between school and running his shop, he simply doesn’t have time time anymore.
I was still interested in what Randy meant when he wanted the shop to be a place with the presence of God’s love, so this is the moment of the interview where I returned to my outline and asked what he meant by this. The answer I received was awesome and in-depth, spanning nearly four pages of my field notes book.
He began by explaining that he wanted the interactions between the staff and customers to be likened to that of family and embody a familial atmosphere. Randy explained that God can move any way he wants in the space. It could mean someone just enjoys themselves to someone learning about faith in one of the many Bible study or church initiate groups that meet there weekly or bi-weekly.
With the recent news controversy about the Religious Freedom Act now effective in Indiana would have any bearing over the shop’s customers or target clientele, but Randy just laughed briefly and replied, “Jesus doesn’t discriminate. Not serving someone is crazy.” He explained that The Treehouse has suffered a bit from the stigma that might surround a Christian-owned business when they were located in Collingswood as opposed to Audubon. They were believed to be an anti-gay business, though this was never true, and were rivaled by another coffee shop in town owned by a gay couple.
About a year ago, a customer entered the shop with his daughter. He said she had been invited to a birthday party there and asked if he would be welcome in the shop, as he was gay. Randy said his wife comforted the man and rid him of any doubt that his attendance would be a problem. As Randy retells the story, the man cried tears of love and acceptance. Furthermore, there have been small services and weddings for gay couples at The Treehouse. The rumors, which followed them briefly on the Audubon forum, have been annoying to Randy, but overall, they don’t seem to have affected his business.
Expectations vs. Reality
I was so nervous going into this interview that I over-prepared and had more than 15 pre-written questions, categorized by topics of interest in my research. I arrived so early, thinking I was going to be late. I was worried I was going to be disjointed and jumbled, jumping topic to topic to make sure I thoroughly covered Looking back, none of those nerves were necessary. The interview was comfortable and conversational, in addition to being informative. It turned out that simply sharing the scope of my research and interest was enough to give my interviewee guidance in terms of topics to ponder and discuss. I am glad that I practically through my questions away and didn’t read from them.
I am glad, though, that I prepared them, because they did give me a mental checklist to ensure a thorough and complete discussion.
Questions and Next Steps
Going forward from my interview with Randy, who has so graciously answered to meet again if necessary to answer additional questions, I might inquire about some of the church groups that meet at The Treehouse and see if I can get in touch with any of their leaders. In addition to new potential interview subjects, this could lead to a looking or outing, if I am able to attend one of the group’s meetings at the cafe.
I would also like to do a bit of scholarly research on statistics about millenials in church to compare to the figures and information Randy supplied and provide additional insight to his comments. It must be a very broad topic if it is something he can cover in his masters research.
Successes and Room for Improvment
I think one of my greatest successes was my use of “on-the-fly” questioning techniques from InterViews by Brinkmann and Kvale. In my introduction, I started with introductory questions, asking Randy to expand upon things he stated. Then, as his answers expanded, I asked follow up questions and pausing after his responses to see if he would share more. I asked a few specifying questions, such as those about his services, youth group practices, and personal practices. Finally, I ended with direct questions, specifically the question about being a Christian business owner (160-2). This varied use of questioning enabled the interview to span the scope of nearly all of my research questions without becoming dull or routine.
Also, being different religions, we got into some cross-culture discussion and comparison, which was interesting and engaging, adding a secondary dynamic to the conversation. I was glad I had done some research on things like worship bands, which helped me understand what he was talking about a little bit more.
I almost wish, though, that I had stopped trying to connect my experiences as much as I did. I feel like he might have said more if I hadn’t spent as much time trying to relate with a personal experience to many of his comments. A bit of this enhanced the interview, but I worried I was doing too much.
All in all, I really enjoyed the experience, and I’m looking forward to additional interviews I will conduct.