How is Coffee Changing Christianity?

If you’ve been to an evangelical, Pentecostal, or non-denominational Christian church in the last few years, you may have noticed a new refreshment in the lobby: coffee. And lots of it. And, I’m not talking about a crappy pot of diner brew, I’m talking Starbucks. In the foyers. Of churches.

Christians aren’t known for indulging in too many vices, but, man do they love coffee, and recently, it has become a way they attract and maintain their congregations. If you’re not familiar with these modern religious expressions or haven’t been to church in a while, this might sound ridiculous. Twenty years ago, a coffee shop in the foyer of a church would have been unthinkable, and perhaps even sacrilegious. So, what gives?

After the various public scandals of the 70s and 80s (think Jimmy Swaggart), a marketing shift occurred amongst churches. Families were busy and digital distractions increased (hello, Netflix bingers!) giving people every incentive to skip services. In response to that, some churches enacted strategic and (to steal one of their favorite words) intentional marketing methods to curb member loss. One of them was coffee.

I spoke with a church business director from a very large church in my hometown of Pittsburgh, and he said that they believe their “competition” is not other churches, but the Sunday paper, brunch spots, and Starbucks. He added, “People are tempted to see Sunday as a day completely off rather than a day devoted to the Lord.”

With Starbucks as churches’ main competition, many took an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach, and it paid off. Sacred spaces morphed into makeshift cafés. They didn’t just adopt coffee service, they adopted the aesthetic, music, and style of coffeehouses as well.

By mimicking the look and feel of a Starbucks, churches send a message (especially to visitors) that this is a place where they are welcome and invited to be casual, comfortable, and relaxed. This is a shift from what previous generations experienced in their place of worship. As a sacred place, churches were seen as more rigid and confining, and certainly not social houses.

Even in more vibrant worship environments like Pentecostal traditions, there was always a strong line between the sacred and the profane. Once you were at church, you were on “holy ground.” In other words, growing up, if I brought coffee into the sanctuary, I would have gotten an earful from my mom. But now the coffeehouse vibe easily transitions into sanctuaries, with people bringing in their drinks, and settling in for the service’s contemporary worship.

So what? So churches are serving coffee more now–what’s the big deal? Maybe it’s just an act of hospitality as this Christianity Today article stated. Perhaps, but maybe it represents something more. Maybe it represents a shift in theological focus as well.

I’ll write more about this phenomenon next week, but for now I ask you to think about the ways your church experience has changed (or not) over time, and what informs our ideas of what a church is “supposed” to look like. Reply in the comments with your thoughts!

 

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