I’m convinced that one very accurate measure of our generosity and hospitality is how we operate our church coffee. I’m talking here about the post-service get together over coffee. And it boils down to this: is the coffee a gift – an act of welcome, hospitality and shared fellowship – or do you put out a begging bowl?
Let me try and paint the picture for you. I had sat through a less-than-inspiring but incredibly well-meaning URC morning service as a visitor. I was looking forward to meeting and chatting to people over a cup of coffee.
I arrived at the head of the queue where I was welcomed by a smiling church member who asked me whether I wanted tea or coffee. I asked for coffee, and watched while she carefully measured out a small teaspoon of coffee, skillfully ensuring that the grains covered the bottom of the spoon (but no more) and shaking the excess back into the tin.
Now, I’m a “builders’ coffee” kinda guy. I like coffee. I like it strong and to be able to know at a glance I’m not mistaking it for a cup of tea. So I said (rather embarrassed), “Is it possible to have it a little stronger, please?” “Of course!” said my host, clearly surprised but game. She dipped the spoon back in the tin
and equally skilfully measured out a heap of grains that could now justifiably (but only just) be called “rounded”. “How’s that for you dear?”, she asked, beaming with evident satisfaction at having been up to meeting my peculiar request, transferring the coffee into a mug and pouring on the water before I could respond.
I watched the splash of milk turn the contents of the cup a faintly brownish-white and gave up on any idea of a cup of coffee to enjoy. I determined to endure it with heroic fortitude. Jesus did say we needed to take up the cross, after all …
Rather than hand the cup to me, my host then put it down right next to … the begging bowl. A folded card standing prominently next to it proclaimed that it was for “Donations”. The notice was significantly bigger than the bowl, which was already full of coins. The majority were £1 coins; there were a couple of £2 coins, a substantial number of 50p pieces, and some shamefully spendthrift 20ps. The money already formed the sort of rounded heap that I wished had been mirrored by the spoonful of coffee I had been given (I use the word “spoonful” technically rather than accurately).
I fished in my pocket. I had a single £2 coin. Quandary! Do I pretend I don’t have any loose money? Put in the £2 and ask for change? Put it in and take change? Tell them honestly that I want the money to buy the Sunday paper? Suggest that they consider part of my offering a donation towards the coffee? In the end, I bowed to pressure, put my £2 in the donation bowl, and went outside to empty my cup of ditch water into the flower bed. I said a hasty farewell and left, a very bad taste in my mouth.
Now, I may be over-sensitive to this sort of stuff: after all, my experience is probably replicated in at least half of most churches, Sunday after Sunday. But that’s my problem: this is a situation that is far too normal! It is so normal that most of us will be shocked and horrified to think that it is anything other than okay. Yet, if you’re someone who isn’t fluent in the more bizarre ways of “being church”, it conveys a miserly, unwelcoming, anti-gospel message.
Unpack that experience for a moment. When God gives, Jesus tells us, “a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be poured into your lap!” (Luke 6:38). And when we come to the Communion table, what do we see? We’re reminded that Christ is the host, and that God gives us what is best, costliest and most precious. “The gifts of God for the people of God”, the minister says, presenting the broken bread and poured out wine just before distribution. This is gospel hospitality made visible: it is free, generous, self-sacrificial. Nothing is held back.
When the church is the host, by contrast, it’s the exact opposite. It may technically be free, but let’s not kid ourselves: the expectation is that people will pay, and it’s pretty impossible not to feel the pressure to “donate”- especially if you’re a visitor. That pressure makes a nonsense of the word, “donation”, which means “gift” (ie “freely given”). We ought at least to be honest enough to label the begging bowl “voluntary charge”, because that’s why it’s sitting there: we’re handing out coffee, but wanting people to give us money in return.
And what a return on outlay! My local cinema in Bowness charges £1 for a cup of coffee. It’s from a cappuccino machine – real coffee that you can taste.
Do the maths: a cater-size tin of Fairtrade coffee costs a church £25. There must be 500 spoons of coffee in that – way more, if you use them as sparingly as this church did. If everyone “donated” £2 per cup, that’s £1,000. A 40,000% return on investment!
It’s not generous, either. It’s calculated. So, instead of experiencing it as a gift of welcome and fellowship, I find myself working out how much I’m being ripped off by a miserly church that is taking every opportunity to monetise everything as shamelessly as any cutthroat business. My “donation” isn’t a gift freely given in response to the generosity I’ve received: it’s me being forced into the church’s game of “Waste no opportunity to get more money out of the punters!”
And it’s not hospitality. In African society hospitality is a sacred duty and joy. The poorest family will go hungry in order to provide the visitor with as much food as they can eat. They’ll feed you till you have to leave something on the plate: it’s not hospitality unless it’s a gift, pressed down, shaken together, and running over. Go to a Sikh gurdwara and you’ll be given a meal. For free. It’s not charity – it’s a gift, an act of hospitality. It normalises the fact that love is expressed in generosity by the giving and receiving of gifts. It creates relationship. It reflects the character of God. And we know that ourselves – in every area of our lives and interactions other than church, apparently. After all, we wouldn’t dream of inviting people to a meal at home, and putting out a begging bowl with the Sunday roast. Surely …?
So back to the Communion table for a moment. The Communion meal takes us again to the foot of the cross. We are invited to the table as passionately loved children, to see God’s very own beloved Son, given to us and for us as a gift of love. No strings attached.
Picture the scene. You’re there, on Golgotha. You look at Jesus, and as you bow your head in wonder, your eyes are caught by a bowl next to the foot of the cross, with a prominent notice: “Donations”.
Lawrence Moore, September 2016.