From the Pastor's Study
From the Pastor’s Study
Coffee Bars and Communion Tables
Jan 11, 2023
I have been reading a book in which the author expressed a sense of dismay that the trend among many evangelical churches is to replace the communion table with a coffee bar. For those who have not had the experience, in many large, trendy churches, there is a coffee area in the foyer where it is possible to purchase a coffee before joining the “celebration” that takes place at the set hour in a large sanctuary. At the front of the church, on the stage, it is clear that 10s of 1000s of dollars have been spent on the best instruments, great lighting and the latest electronics. Absent from those stages are the pulpit, the communion table, and the baptismal font. Contrast this display with what we find in many older churches. The local Anglican Church here in Blyth, for example, has beautiful stained-glass windows, a pulpit, words of Scripture painted around the altar area, a prominent communion table, a baptismal font and at least one candle displayed prominently, the Christ candle, always lit during a worship service.
In essence, in many trendy churches, the communion table has been replaced with the coffee bar. Many would argue that this has been an effective move, for the traditional church gathers only a couple of dozen faithful while the trendy church gathers 1000s every Sunday. It could well be argued that the old ways are not effective anymore. The change was necessary, many would say.
The same author that lamented the replacement of the communion table with the coffee bar has been studying the evangelical churches of today and has been able to compare them with the main-line churches in the United States and Canada of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He has noted a remarkable similarity between these seemingly radically different sets of churches, and that similarity it this: both the main-line churches of 50 years ago and the evangelical churches of today have moved from shaping the world around them to being shaped by the world around them. Main-line churches, instead of keeping the atoning death of Jesus Christ central which is a rather grim message, began to replace that central gospel message with calls for justice and reconciliation among peoples, something that had become very popular in the secular world. While these calls to social justice can be considered to be part of the gospel, they are peripheral to the central message of the gospel, and when they become central, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ becomes peripheral. Today, in many evangelical churches, the central focus is to provide an atmosphere where worshippers are comfortable and feel accepted. Thus, coffee bars and bands become central and often the gospel of salvation from sin through Jesus Christ is made peripheral. In fact, in some evangelical circles, the songs that are sung rarely mention any of the truths of the gospel such as may be found in the Apostles’ Creed, for example but, instead, focus meeting the felt needs of those in attendance.
Common to both the main-line churches of the 60s and the evangelical churches of today is who does the shaping. Instead of allowing themselves to be shaped by the gospel as proclaimed by the church, the church allows itself to be shaped by the needs as proclaimed by those in attendance. Having a church feel like a local coffee shop or concert venue is comfortable, but by making these things central, the communion table is shuffled off to a back room to be forgotten. Gathering around standing tables with friends before church is appealing and fun, while gathering around the communion table can be sobering. Our friends at the coffee bar encourage us and make us feel better while sitting at the communion table forces us to confront the reality that we have not done as well as we should have, and our sin threatens our relationship with God.
The coffee bar may be appealing, but the coffee bar is not a symbol of salvation. The communion table is. While the coffee bar might give us what we want, the communion table represents what we need. When confronted with our sin, we also recognize that we need the grace that is offered to us in Christ Jesus. And grace is what is given at the communion table.
Don’t misunderstand me: there is nothing intrinsically wrong about serving coffee before church even if it is served in the same way as can be found at the local coffee shop. Still, when churches focus on something other than the gospel and put all their energy into making themselves appealing, we should be concerned. If the gospel message that Jesus Christ came to die for sinners so that we can be saved is lost, the reason for the existence of the church ceases. If the goal of the church is to be appealing to those in attendance, and if this becomes their primary focus, it may well be that the appeal will soon wear off. After all, coffee shops are better at the coffee industry than are churches, and places for good fellowship are open every day of the week, not just on Sunday. If that is the focus of the church, then why attend at all?
Those who study current trends are concerned that the evangelical church is following the main-line churches of the 60s. What is particularly worrisome is that while it took 50 years for mainline churches to become virtually empty, fears are that it will take far less time for evangelical churches to experience the same. There is a genuine fear that what is trendy today won’t be so tomorrow, and neither the coffee table nor the communion table will have many to gather around them. Already we can see signs of that in some places.
If the church is to be truly relevant, the communion table and all that it represents must remain central. If the church is to have a reason for existence, it must continue to proclaim the gospel message in which Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection and lordship over all is our only hope. Perhaps we can have a coffee bar before church, but we may never put away the communion table, not for any reason.