If you’ll humor me for a moment, I’d like to talk about church coffee. As sacrilegious as it might seem, I think we can agree that churches don’t serve very good coffee. As Christians, handcrafted beverages just aren’t our specialty. In fact, outside of a vending machine or a hotel lobby, church is near the bottom of the list of places I would choose to consume coffee. And if you’ll excuse my coffee snobbery for a moment, what explains this strange accompaniment of worship by unexpected mouthfuls of coffee grounds?
A while back I was visiting a church with a friend. As we walked up to the entrance, everyone was standing outside chatting before the service drinking coffee. I noticed a row of coffee urns on display, so naturally I filled up a paper cup and took a sip. To my surprise, the coffee was actually pretty good. Clutching this heavenly drink I headed into the service thinking to myself: this church has it going on.
Inside I bid the greeter a customary good morning and reached for my bulletin. Instead of handing me the tri-fold paper, the greeter merely looked at my cup and said, “You can’t bring that in here without a lid.”
My coffee was evidently a spill hazard for the church carpet (a stunning prophecy that came true right after the service began). Quickly I apologized and went back outside to find a lid.
Returning to the coffee table, I discovered there were no lids to be found. I searched a second table full of coffee urns without any luck. Finally I uncovered a box on the ground beneath one of the tables. It was full of plastic lids. I popped one on my cup and went into the service.
A bit miffed, I assured myself that clearly this was simply a minor oversight. Some kindly volunteer forgot to put out the lids and the greeter was merely enforcing the rules. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not the worst thing to be asked to go search for a plastic lid. Even so, I can’t give them any points for their treatment of first time visitors.
Church isn’t Starbucks. But it does make me think about who and what church is actually for. At certain times I’ve found myself attempting to justify the existence of Christian community on secular grounds. I say things like “We provide such-and-such benefits to our community” or “Our student ministry helps the university with retention rates.” It sounds hollow even to me.
Bible commentator Thomas Long writes:
Sometimes churches with strong budgets, professional music programs, well-equipped buildings, and the admiration of their civic communities can miss a deep truth: there is no real social justification for the church. It proclaims a word that is often not welcome, with a love that is easily scorned, to a world that is quick to be cynical, in the name of a Christ who was rejected and despised. Congregations with frail resources, meager programs, struggling ministries, sagging buildings, and not enough people to fill up the choir loft may more quickly understand that, finally, all the church has going for it is Jesus.
And so I am reminded that the body of Christ is not an entertainment venue, a community center, or a social club. It does not serve any social agenda known to man. On the contrary, God’s church exists to “share in the heavenly calling,” a purpose not originating in any known location on earth. Our goals are spiritual, never material. We are founded by Jesus, sustained by Jesus, and wholly dependent on the Holy Spirit, with no discernible function in our greater society. Our good works and noble efforts, though plainly commanded by the Lord, don’t appear to be making much difference compared to the unending string of catastrophes that passes for the morning news. Apart from God, church is a waste of time, money, and human effort.
In my occasional travels I’ve had the privilege of visiting churches with few people, no worship leader, not enough money and little-to-no influence in their community. Humble though they be, each time I sensed the Spirit of God moving among the people there. Too often we treat small churches and ministries like they have committed some grave sin for not growing like a Silicon Valley startup. Other times we murmur that perhaps it’s time to pull the plug, as if it is somehow better if they didn’t exist.
Believe me, such ministries often do feel inadequate, as if they were misrepresenting God with their small numbers and modest worship settings. They know that “faithful” is Christian code for “perpetually struggling.” In other words, they already know their coffee stinks.
The church exists to worship God, build up His people, and advance the gospel. Yes, some congregations have more outward success at this than others. But even successful churches and ministries have an expiration date. Bound by time and space, one day in the distant future their doors will close and services will cease. History is littered with many examples and few exceptions. Old churches, if they’re lucky, find a second life as a museum or maybe an indoor skatepark.
Like the world around us, churches are marching onward toward a slow and inexplicable death. And yet a church cannot fail if it still has Jesus. Is there anything better than a church full of Jesus? For it is in church, under the banner of the resurrected Lord and standing in the presence of the living God, where our hearts are ripened and prepared for eternity with Him. At its best, this is how church transforms us.
If loving Jesus is all that remains, it will be enough. We’re not here for the coffee. Because if it was about the external benefits, most of us would have left Christianity long ago. No, Jesus makes himself real to us. He fills us with savage indefatigable hope. That’s why we meet together in different settings and different places week after week. Church is where we look to heaven, sometimes with a bad cup of coffee in hand, and devote ourselves to the Risen One. For it is there we are reminded that surely He is coming and surely He comes soon.