The battle over Communion and church coffee

The danger of replacing Communion with a coffee bar.
by Paul Louis Metzger
Prof. Multnomah University,

It’s very difficult for many contemporary Christians to recognize how much we have been shaped by the consumer culture in which we live—it is in the air we breathe and the water (or coffee) we drink.

Consider that in many churches the coffee bar has displaced the Lord’s Table as the place where real community happens. Due in part to the neutralizing of sacred space that has been popular since the 1980s, churches began removing or de-emphasizing the Lord’s Table and introducing coffee bars. Without doubt the desire has been to build community by offering people a culturally familiar setting to engage one another. But we must ask: What formative message does a coffee bar convey?

A coffee bar mostly carries the values of our culture. We’ve come to expect coffee bars to offer a number of choices to meet our desires (decaf, tea, hot chocolate), and the setting is one of leisure and comfort. We usually gather in affinity groups. We sip the beverages not because we’re thirsty but because we’re conditioned to want them.

By contrast, what does the Lord’s Table convey? It is a symbol of sacrificial love that breaks down cultural divisions and barriers of affinity. It reminds us that life is about being chosen by the Lord for interpersonal communion rather than choosing to consume stuff, and it reminds us we are called to take up our cross rather than seek personal comfort.

Both the coffee bar and Lord’s Table affirm community, but the kind of community they affirm differs significantly. Churches with coffee bars may have to work harder to ensure they are fostering community around the values of Christ rather than casual consumerism.

At the same time, there is no guarantee that a church that prominently displays the Lord’s Table and forgoes coffee will automatically model unity, pastoral care, or break down cultural and generational cliques. It’s particularly hard when we engage the Lord’s Table privately or solely with our friends and loved ones.

A congregation I served restructured its space to celebrate Communion with greater intentionality. One Sunday after the sermon, the congregation proceeded to the fellowship hall to celebrate the Lord’s Supper around large, circular tables. We were encouraged to intentionally sit with people with whom we didn’t normally associate and to share with those at our table what the Lord’s sacrifice meant to us personally. After each person shared, everyone was to break bread from the loaf provided and dip it into the Communion cup at the table. This process was to continue until everyone had shared.

One woman came to me several weeks later and said that this had been the most meaningful celebration of Communion she had ever experienced. She was grateful the church had restructured its space to move us beyond our comfort zones of associating simply with the people we already knew.

In this example space, and how we utilized it, became a medium for communicating the values of the gospel and deconstructing the values of our consumer culture.

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