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Church Coffee and the Pursuit of Excellence

Not all church coffee is bad, but the issue that poor church coffee raises is deeper and more troubling. It is that much of what we do as churches can often be described as substandard, second best, mediocre or weak.

We’ve all come across signs of slackness in church life: heating systems so dilapidated that the congregation keep their gloves on in winter, PA systems held together by insulating tape and notice boards still advertising Christmas services in February; ministers who are underpaid, live in crumbling, damp houses and drive cars that barely pass inspection; music groups that don’t know how many verses to play and church websites that crash when you click on them.

I’m not criticising poverty in churches. There are many small congregations where few people are employed yet they somehow manage to do the very best with limited resources and many people serving voluntary. And I’m not complaining about ministers who, through lack of resources, have to do more than anyone ought reasonably to expect. What I’m concerned about is a casual attitude to church life that accepts second best as good enough for God. This can happen in any church but is particularly troubling in churches with wealthy members who seek quality and excellence in every other area of their lives.

Why do we have a quality problem?

• In some Christian circles there is still a belief that nothing should be enjoyable, especially church. Anything that smacks of pleasure is viewed with suspicion. In this perverse view there is virtue in hard pews, out-of-tune instruments and rambling sermons. Such things – and poor coffee – are supposedly good for the soul!

• There is an undervaluing of the local church. For nearly 2000 years Christians have prized their local church, but today the local church is no longer automatically high on a Christian’s priorities. There are even some who consider the local church to be irrelevant and dispensable.

• There may also be a particularly British aspect to this malaise in church life. As a nation we celebrate amateurism and informality. American churches are less prone to this, although they may suffer from the opposite temptation, aspiring to a professionalism that can produce professional organisations more akin to businesses.

Why should we pursue excellence?

• We worship a God who demonstrates excellence in all he does. He created the entire universe and then made that simplest and most satisfying of quality control statements: what he had made was good (Genesis 1). When faced with solving the problem of a human race that had rebelled against him, he chose the most costly of solutions: sacrificing his only Son.

• We serve a God who commands excellence. We may struggle with those portions of the Old Testament that talk about the details of the sacrifices and the furnishings of the temple. But what is clear is that to be one of God’s people in Old Testament times required enthusiasm, expense and commitment. God’s people were to ensure that the temple in Jerusalem was grand and beautiful. And as we pass into the New Testament, the spirit in which we are to worship God does not alter. God’s most excellent grace demands a response of equal excellence.

• We live among people who expect excellence. If you are reading this you are probably already convinced about the need for mission. Anything less than excellence undermines that message. People are not persuaded to accept Jesus by polished, well-done services, let alone a decent cup of coffee. God has done astonishing things in the shabbiest of churches and he can do so again. But if we talk of something that we claim is of life-changing importance and our actions reflect complacency and a careless attitude then people are going to sense a mismatch. The Holy Spirit can speak through anything but it’s presumption to rely on this. To offer people words and worship of quality (and perhaps some decent coffee as well) is to make a statement that we value both our faith and them.

Excellence is not achieved easily; it requires at least three things: time, money and effort. And this is why excellence is an endangered species in some churches.

• Time. Success does not occur instantly. Excellence takes time. We all know that time is the most precious commodity we have. The result is that we end up begrudging that hour cleaning the church (I have visited some disgustingly filthy toilets in churches on my travels!), the midweek rehearsing with the music group, arriving early to set up that good coffee and be well prepared for all the children’s activities. But as Christians we need to remind ourselves that we have eternal life. Let’s not begrudge a few hours on earth.

• Money. Excellence costs and we prefer to keep our money to ourselves. Yet nothing is a better barometer of our spiritual health than our giving. To sing about dedication and devotion and the wonder of what God has done for us and then to give almost nothing in response doesn’t demonstrate a living faith. If God gave himself for us in Christ then we who are saved by his life and death ought to respond with generosity.

Money isn’t everything; it is just one of the three elements. Nevertheless it is important and many of the problems I have described are attributable to a shortage of funding.

• Effort. Talk to an excellent musician, artist or writer and you will find that their mastery involved hard work, sacrifice and struggle. We need to adopt the same principle. What we do in our local churches is probably the most important part of our Christian lives. We come together in worship and fellowship as communities of people to offer praise to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and to be taught by him. We need to work to make that time the very best that it can possibly be. We need to put more effort in, to get more excellence out.

Ultimately, the weaknesses in our churches and organisations have a common root: the fact that we do not value our faith as we should. What we believe, and in particular what we believe about our local church, has ceased to become the central point around which our lives are built. It has gone from being a foundation of our lives to some sort of accessory and we need to adopt a very different mindset.

That we have poor coffee in our church is the most trivial of matters, yet I believe it is often a symptom of something very serious. It is too easy for us to be substandard in what we do for God. Friends, let us resolve to pursue excellence for the glory of God.

*Editor’s Note: What do you think? Is excellence valued or undervalued in your ministry?