I am a coffee snob, but I have good reason. I have been cupping coffee for websites and coffee distributors since high school. It started at a little cafe in Glendale, Arizona, where the owner would cup coffees on Thursday afternoons, usually all from the same region. Once you can taste the glorious wonders of difference between an Ethiopian Harar and a Yirgacheffe, you are doomed to a life of wondering if this came from a can.
My girlfriend’s dad was offended that I wouldn’t drink his canned coffee, even though he knew that I drank coffee all the time and hung out at coffee shops. All it took was one french press of a fresh Kenyan coffee, and he was off to the races. Soon he was buying straight bags from Costa Rica and giving me my own home roasting kit for Christmas. I started cupping for his local green coffee bean company, then he bought the company, and now years later my dad owns it. So I have been tasting, describing, and rating coffees for two decades.
When my wife and I got married, she was frustrated that though I owned 18 methods of brewing coffee beans into a cup of coffee, I didn’t have a regular drip machine. Between that cafe and marriage, I was ordained (as a Baptist minister and later as an Episcopal priest), and spent the same time in churches and dioceses working. I have been in hundreds of churches over the last twenty years, in addition to growing up in Southern Baptist churches and visiting with friends.
So, this all leads to one overwhelming question: Why does church coffee suck so much?
Think about it for a moment, especially if you are clergy or a committed church member. Why would we serve absolute crap in a cup, knowing that it is terrible? Why would this crap in a can be normal?
I mean, I could point to any number of ways that church communities suck. There is abuse and hypocrisy, there is bad music and abysmal theology. I can tolerate all of those. I am an Episcopalian after all. But why bad coffee?
Consider the poor visitor, the family member or young date who gets dragged into your church community for the first time. They are up earlier than normal to go to a strange place full of strange people who are going to notice that they are there. (We will leave it at that since the range of responses to a visitor ranges from overwhelming joy and neediness to disdain and even fear. We may hope for a simple friendly greeting, open welcome and offer of help, but . . . ) They get dressed to be there and put up with a completely foreign experience for most modern people, a community singing and listening to readings, lecture, and prayers, much less communion. They are in completely foreign territory. And then they spot the sweet comfort of a cup of coffee, usually left self-service on a folding table, like we are all in AA. The comfort, the familiarity, the simple hospitality of a cup of coffee dissolves as the smell reaches the nose milliseconds before the flavor invades the tongue.
It is the stench of sloth. It is the odor of carelessness. Like the old sock smell of an unclean locker room at a gym. Like the dirty smell of pee in a unclean truckstop bathroom. Like the distinctive smell of cat in your crazy aunt’s house. It tells you that this place does not care for you. That it is even possibly unsafe.
It says, You are not welcome.
The thing is, we would never make this stuff for ourselves. We would not boil coffee in a giant old stained percolator and drink it out of a toxic styrofoam cup. We would not set a coffee service on the counter at a dinner party and tell people to get their own, at least not if we were hosting strangers.
See, that is the thing. Bad coffee says, This is for us, and we don’t care. Our architecture often says that in our gathering spaces. Our bulletins often say that. Our insider language sometimes says that. Our prayers may say that too. But the cup of coffee feels personal, like an slap instead of a handshake.
I walked into a church one time that knew I was coming in the Bay Area and was told no less than four times in the service and on paper and in greeting that I was welcomed. But the bulletin’s insider language and the lack of invitation to the coffee hour said otherwise. The rector’s turning aside to talk to someone else without a greeting or smile said otherwise. But it was the horrid coffee from a giant pot on a little table on the side of the room where I was being ignored at the coffee hour that really conveyed that the Rule of God did not Rule here. This was their place, and they were fine without me, thank me very much.
I am sure they didn’t notice when I left.
On the other hand, I was greeted at another church in the same town coming in the door early by a warm cup of really good Sumatran coffee, that was a little burnt even for a Sumatran coffee, but was handed to me by a member who showed me around and invited me to leave my cup outside the sanctuary. I went back frequently to Saint James and later served there. I would have joined Saint Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco just for the care of the coffee hour that always appeared like a magic trick at the end of the Eucharist. They never left any doubt that you were welcomed.
These weren’t cafe coffees. They were small estate lot coffees brewed by the cup from a V60 pourover. They weren’t French or Italian. They were just signs of a welcome that was more than a line in a bulletin and a muttering at the Peace.
Good coffee is normal these days. When someone is coming over, we prepare. We makes sure to have good coffee to serve. Sure there is decaf, and you could get all Anglican and serve tea. But we show who matters in how we prepare for them.
Jesus is coming again, we proclaim every week in a thousand ways. We believe he will come in some amazing way, and maybe he will, only the Father knows. But I would just hate for Jesus to show up and have to search for a toxic cup of sludge on a folding table in the secret coffee hour.
I can only imagine how rough his reaction would be. Do you remember the cleansing of the temple? I doubt he would just walk out.
So look, get a Bunn or clean your old one. Buy decent coffee, at least what you would serve, and prepare for the day of the Lord.
*The image above is from our family photo album of our summer in the United Kingdom found here.