For most Americans, coffee is not just consumed regularly, but is used and referenced as part of one’s personal identity. On social networking sites, the act of drinking coffee is often found listed in the “About Me” section, and personal blogs are often lined with coffee-themed stock photos (I myself am still the technical owner of a myspace page that features a background full of coffee beans).
Then there is the plethora of coffee decor that is available outside of the “virtual” world, and of course, the actual coffee, which is not only bought for its “use value” as Marx would label it, but for it’s social value or “exchange value.” For instance, I can drink coffee simply for its calories, taste, warmth, etc. (its use value), or I can drink coffee because it completes my outfit, image, or identity (the coffee is being exchanged for a perceived image of myself as a “coffee-drinker”). Thus, to borrow syntax from Browning, “the drinking of coffee is symbolical.”
To be clear though, the point of this post is not to weigh the pros and cons of “coffee as identity,” but rather, to accept its suffusion within society and contemplate the Christian response to this.
Outside of church trends that encourage the use of coffee houses for fellowship and potential evangelism, the topic of coffee within the church seems largely un-reflected upon. Perhaps the most relevant article I stumbled upon in my research, came from belief.net, which is not an exclusively Christian site, but rather an interfaith community. Entitled, “The Sipping Sacrament,” this article led with the claim that “coffee, dispensed in nearly every church in America, has become indispensible to American spirituality.”
Among the various historical and trivial interactions between church and coffee covered in the article was the prevalence of coffee drinking as a post-service tradition: “In most mainline Protestant and Catholic churches, parishioners gather immediately after services in the parish hall or church basement for kaffeeklatsches that often bear modest names like “fellowship hour” or “community hour,” (though an old Lutheran joke calls coffee hour the “third sacrament,” after baptism and communion).”
While I agree that coffee fellowship is a longstanding tradition in the church, it seems like its contributions are often thought of on a side note. From the church that allows its creamer carafe to run dry to the one that puts in a “church coffee shop” that charges for coffee (unless such a shop is used as part of a temporary fund raiser), an attitude that views coffee as distinctly separate from rather than integrated within the Christian lifestyle may inadvertently hurt church community, ministry, and growth.
Conversely, when practiced right, coffee can benefit the church in many ways.
1) Coffee is a tradition that contributes to feelings of completeness and comfort.
For many people, coffee is a routine if not daily habit that provides the drinker with a sense of completeness (the perfect start or end of their day). In this way, coffee is an emotional comfort. (Of course, coffee is also a great physical comfort; thus, if you are a church that is located in a cold climate, do not underestimate the virtue of a warm drink). By providing coffee in a routine, dependable way, a church can help promote an environment where people find comfort and completeness, and hopefully, an environment to which they will return.
2) Coffee promotes social connection by being both a social lubricant and an equalizer.
Coffee is an impetus for gathering a crowd. Besides providing people with a reason for standing around a table, it also gives individuals something to do with their hands (in a non-distracting and non-complicated way) as well as something to talk about. The fact that coffee does not seem to discriminate based on gender, generation, ethnicity, or social strata also makes it an easy common denominator for conversation and connection.
*The provision of other less caffeinated beverages (such as tea, hot chocolate, etc.) is also worthy of consideration, in order to include those individuals who do not care for coffee.
3) Coffee provides us with opportunities to be hospitable, to serve, and to be open to the movement of the Spirit.
Oftentimes, the first thing a host will do for a guest is ask him if he wants something to drink. Water, perhaps a cup of tea, or, depending on the time of day, a pot of coffee. In this small act, the host pauses (often from self-focus) in order to think of the guest and his needs. In the environment of a church, coffee can be used as an opportunity for both welcoming and serving others as well as a training exercise in pausing from self-focus, opening up our day and schedule, and giving God the space to lead us to those he may want us to talk to.
Of course, I must make clear that coffee is in no way the sole factor in healthy church fellowship, and the occasional out-of-order coffee machine should never make or break a church. Perhaps the only point that this post hopes to make is that how a church approaches little things like coffee is a microcosm of how that church approaches life and the call to infuse all aspects of our life with Christ-like behavior.
Therefore, brew and drink. Do so in service to the Lord.