Friday, September 19, 2014
Has anyone besides me noticed that American Christians are growing increasingly lax in arriving at worship services on time? I’ve been part of local church life in one place or another long enough to notice this trend toward habitual tardiness. Now there have always been those few who would be late to their own funerals, but I’m not talking about those folks. I’m talking about what is more and more becoming the majority of people who consider themselves church members.
The demise of traditional Sunday school classes may have something to do with it. Families would come to church early enough to attend the pre-service Bible classes and then move on into the sanctuary during the break. Pretty much everybody was in their seats by the time the organist finished playing the prelude and the choir members filed in. Choir and organ music or not, every church body I’ve ever been a part of began Sunday services with some kind of call to worship. Styles and music certainly change with the years, but the basics remain more or less the same. Tardiness, however, is definitely a contemporary development.
I have given this matter considerable thought and I think I know the reason behind American Christianity’s downward spiral toward careless indifference about arriving to worship services on time. The secret lurks in almost every church without respect to sect, style, or denomination affiliation. Whereas my Sunday school theory may offer a partial explanation, I think the real culprit behind the growing pattern of “lateness as lifestyle” is of a much darker nature. How dark you ask? Very dark - as in breakfast blend, French roast or even Sumatran. Ladies and gentlemen, possibly the greatest hindrance to worship services starting on time with the congregation bodily present is that perennial favorite beverage of Americans, the cup of hot coffee.
Scoff if you must, but think about it for a moment. What is the one obstacle between you and the pew on any Sunday morning? It is not the the gleaming coffee urn with its tantalizing aroma? How about the siren call of brightly labeled specialty creamers with exotic names like French vanilla, creme brulee, or caramel machiatto? Perhaps it’s the skurrrkkkk of the k-cup machine that woos and then deludes you into thinking, “This won’t take but a minute and I haven’t heard the musicians start up yet anyway.” You look at the clock in the lobby and realize the service is about to begin, and yet there you stand at the coffee station, styrofoam cup in hand to collect the steaming brown elixir. You pump some creamer into your coffee and rifle the stir sticks. A quick whirl of a stick, a toss to the trash can, and back to the carry-out lids for one to top your hot beverage lest you should scald yourself or soak the upholstery. You manage to find your seat at last, somewhere in the middle of the second song. And so it goes. You were almost on time, but then you stopped for a cup of the demon brew!
I jest, of course. If a church really didn’t want you to have coffee prior to a worship service (and even during it, in some places) they wouldn’t serve it to you in the first place. I know that my own church started offering coffee and a bit of food before services a few years ago because refreshments can really help people connect with one another face to face, even if it’s just for a few moments in front of the French vanilla creamer. Besides, most preachers I know would rather minister to people abuzz with a bit of caffeine then they would to a roomful of folks who can’t seem to keep their eyes open.
While I am kidding around about coffee being a tool of the devil, my observations about churches, coffee and the worship service do have some merit. I happen to lead the early worship service at my church. There’s a fifteen minute break at the conclusion of this service before the next one begins. During that time, I make my way out into the lobby, pour myself some coffee (hopefully there’s some left) and visit with friends. The vantage point from the cafe table that I normally retreat to gives me perspective on certain aspects of human behavior. I can tell you with all certainty that as long as the coffee is flowing, most church people these days will almost always choose to drink coffee and talk to their friends in the lobby over getting into the worship service on time. I have often seen people arrive very late and still choose to sit and drink coffee before going into the sanctuary, if it’s available. At our church the practice got so bad that we finally had to start clearing the coffee service by a certain time just to discourage it.
As a coffee drinker myself, I understand the attraction. What is more comforting and endorphin-producing that a fresh cup of Joe? As a worship leader, however, I am annoyed. The message to me is that what I’m doing, or at least a attempting to do - draw people into the presence of God - is not nearly as compelling as hot coffee. I fight the temptation to be annoyed about this constantly. I see visions of myself cleansing the lobby of coffee makers with my guitar strap, like Jesus took on the money changers: “This service shall be called a worship service, not a coffee bar!” It’s ridiculous, I know.
You may be thinking, “So I’m late to the service because I stop for coffee. What’s the big deal?” Addressing that would be another blog entry entirely. However, if you ever have to lead worship for a congregation that adds new participants every ninety seconds for fifteen minutes, you’ll know firsthand what the frigging big deal is! Uh, sorry for the outburst.... I think I need a cup of coffee.