The church café.

Some churches offer refreshments before, after, or even during the service. My current church did, before the current pandemic made us suspend it. At one of my previous churches, one of our pastors’ wives who loved to cook (who became known as our “minister of munchies”) would have so much food available, you may as well skip breakfast at home, ’cause there was plenty of food at church.

But many churches—namely the churches which get so big, refreshment tables get cleaned out within minutes—have decided to go with cafés. They stick it somewhere near the front of the building, and sell coffee and doughnuts—and other drinks, and other foods.

A friend likes to sarcastically call them “concession stands.” To him, the church café is just a money-making scheme… kinda like the moneychangers Jesus had to throw out of temple ’cause they turned it into a marketplace. Mk 13.13-17 In some churches, that’s precisely what their cafés feel like.

But the purpose of this article isn’t to bash church cafés. It’s to remind us of the point of providing food and drink for the people of our churches: Fellowship. Food and drink mean fellowship, and fellowship grows God’s kingdom. In many cases it grows it a lot better than sermons and worship music. You know the saying the fastest way to a person’s heart is through their stomach? Works in church too.

Growing God’s kingdom… or not.

The first Christians used to eat together. It was part of their worship services: Read some bible, talk about what Jesus taught, pray, anoint the sick, have holy communion, and have lunch. Yeah, they were largely hanging out together for a few hours, with some formal parts of the service, and a lot of informal, interactive parts. When we moved out of the homes and into church buildings, we lost a lot of the informality. Particularly the meals.

And the reason churches put out refreshments is to give people a reason to stick around before and after the service… and interact. We gotta wait in line for the coffee urn, and make small talk about weather. We gotta take turns with the toaster, and make small talk about baseball. We gotta semi-sincerely tell one another, “No you take the last strudel… well here, we’ll cut it in half.” And so forth. We gotta talk. And at some part we might actually run out of small talk and get into deep talk.

Whereas with a church with no refreshments? Oh, they bolt for their cars right away. As soon as my current church stopped serving refreshments, people cleared out of the services almost as soon as they were over. Really easy to get ’em out of the building. We have a reputation as a friendly church… and once you take away the refreshments it is so easy to dissolve that reputation.

So do I recommend the practice? Heck yeah.

Doesn’t have to be anything special. Just please, for the love of God, don’t buy Folgers. I know it’s the cheapest coffee there is (unless you have a Costco membership; then it’s usually Kirkland) and there’s a reason for that: It’s not good. It’s what people who don’t drink coffee buy when they gotta buy coffee. Don’t do that to your people. Find out who all the coffee snobs are in your church, and get them to take care of it. They’ll do you proud.

Likewise with the food: Doesn’t have to be anything special either. Discount doughnuts, day-old specials, Little Debbie snack cakes, homemade coffee cake (if anybody likes to bake), finger sandwiches, deviled eggs, a big jar of Tootsie Rolls, whatever. Bring anything. Something is better than nothing, and somebody’s gonna appreciate it.

What if people spill coffee in the auditorium, or otherwise make a mess? Clean it up. If it doesn’t clean out, you’ve either got ineffective cleaning supplies, or inferior carpeting and upholstery. I drink coffee all the time; I’ve spilled a bunch; it only ruins paper. Everything else, it cleans right out of. (Yes, even laptops.)

What if homeless people start showing up to get at the free food? GOOD. Share Jesus with ’em as well as the food. See if you can help in any other ways, while you’re at it. Maybe you can; maybe they don’t want any help; either way, be good news to them.

Switching to a café, and how not to do it.

Now like I said, if your church has a lot of people, you’re gonna run out of food and coffee quickly. So you gotta put some brakes on them, and that’s where money comes in: People aren’t gonna casually swipe all the doughnuts and drink all the coffee when they gotta pay for it.

Churches don’t always realize this is when or why they oughta charge for food. More often they start charging because some church leader says, “What’re we paying for coffee and doughnuts every month?… That much? Why don’t we charge people for them then?” They wanna pinch pennies, or they wanna raise money. So they put up price tags… and in so doing, kill the ministry.

I visited a friend’s church a few years ago. They had a café. They charged $2 for black coffee (same as most places), $4 for mochas and lattés and other coffee drinks; $3 and up for pastries. Roughly the same prices as any other coffeehouse. Because that’s what they were mimicking: Other coffeehouses. Hey, if Starbucks can charge you $4 for a latté, why can’t they?

And I remind you: The point is fellowship. How many people are gonna buy church café lattés? How many are gonna buy church café pastries? (Especially once they ask themselves, “Wait… is that Kirkland coffee? Are those Kirkland pastries? Why am I spending full coffeehouse prices on Coscto food?”) Are the poorer members of your church even able to fellowship at your café? If not, you’re doing it wrong.

A few decades ago my church’s café shut down: It made so little money, and the volunteers didn’t last long, so the church let it go dormant. Then it handed the café over to the Christian elementary school which shared the building—where I was a teacher—so we could use it for fundraisers. We ran a fundraiser or two, but once the fundraisers were over, the café went back to being empty.

Then one summer I was put in charge of it for the school’s summer day camp.

Theologian that I am, I needed to know the purpose of a church café before I ran one. So of course I came to all the conclusions I articulated above: It’s about fellowship.

Not profits. Yeah, ideally you should cover expenses… but there’s no rent, barely any utility costs, you got an all-volunteer staff, so if you sell everything at slightly more than what you paid for it, the prices are gonna be ridiculously low. And they were. I slashed all the café’s prices to a dollar or less. Coffee was now 25 cents. Espresso drinks were $1. Bottled water was also 25 cents. Doughnuts were still a bit expensive, but at 50 cents they sold out fast… and we still had plenty of other, healthier alternatives.

When people discovered bottled water was 25 cents instead the $1.50 they expected, they’d buy multiple bottles. Same with a lot of the other items. And if our 25-cent coffee was Folgers, they wouldn’t care or complain; they’d just be thrilled there was someplace on earth 25-cent coffee still exists.

My principal was worried the café couldn’t possibly make any money with those prices. We did volume business: We made way more money than before. So much so, the church took it back over the next year. (And didn’t learn from my example, hiked the prices back up, and did just as poorly as before.)

During that time, there was a crowd round the café every Sunday. Not just in line: Seated at the tables, eating together, drinking with one another, interacting. Fellowshipping. Talking about the service, talking about life, talking about what God’s done in those lives—being the body of Christ together.

Goal achieved.

Unexamined priorites.

To a point Starbucks tries to encourage fellowship too. Their vision is more secular: They want their coffeehouses to be a “third place,” other than home and work, where people gather and share life together… and while they’re at it, buy Starbucks products. They get the point. Churches don’t. And of all people, should.

Instead, too many of us think of the church café as a side business. Something that’ll raise a little money for the church, to make up for the fact our members aren’t putting enough in the offering. Or because they covet the business coffeehouses get: “Why can’t they hang out at church the way they hang out at coffeehouses?” So they try to duplicate the coffeehouse experience. Poorly.

More often, it’s just because the leadership thinks it’d be really cool to have a coffeehouse in the building. Saves ’em the trouble of going elsewhere for their caffeine fix. So their motive is convenience. Not fellowship, not profit. Hence it encourages little fellowship… and isn’t all that profitable either.

How does a church café grow God’s kingdom? That, and that alone, should be the only thought in mind when churches decided to create a café. How does it help Jesus? Or does it?—’cause in some churches they really don’t. They’re simply a dividing wall between the wealthy, who can afford it; and the poor, who can’t, and feel pushed outside because of it. Would Jesus encourage it as another means of spreading the good news, or would he get the whip out and overturn its tables?