Monday, December 17, 2012

The Fourth Sacrament

Or third.  Or eighth, or twelfth, depends who's counting.  In any case, we're talking about the third-holiest moment of most Sunday mornings:  Coffee hour.

Lately, Fr. A. has been worshiping, principally in modo laico, with a number of parishes.  He has observed any number of liturgical variances (see under: hamburger buns), but none quite so variable as the practices around Sunday fellowship.  Some communities sit, others stand; some travel great distances through labyrinthine hallways and spend the day, others hand you a cup in the narthex as you leave, like lemonade to a marathon runner.  Some, defying convention, prefer to refresh themselves before worship.

And some churches, to our shock and horror, do not even have coffee hour.

This, we believe, is yet another case of man's inhumanity to man.  And woman.  And, frankly, even to child.  It is also an exceptionally bad pastoral strategy.

Coffee hour -- which need not include coffee, nor take an hour, although we at the Egg recommend both whenever possible -- is a remarkable tool for bringing people together, welcoming old friends and newcomers, and providing a forum for mutual conversation and consolation.  For a pastor who is willing to do the work of buzzing about like a bumblebee on amphetamines, it is also a remarkable opportunity to collect information:  who is sick, or frightened, or worried; who has something to celebrate; who needs a job or a referral or a prayer.

We have often set up our week's schedule based on the conversations we can have at coffee hour.  But it's not just about our needs.  As people come together, as they meet each other and talk to each other, things happen.  The Saul Alinsky school of organizing makes much ado about the magical "one-on-one," and not wrongly.  Coffee hour is a chance for lots of one-on-ones, as well as group conversations, among the faithful and specifically within the context of their spiritual lives.  From this conversation, we have observed, can grow any number of ideas, some bad and others good.  Above all, though, it is from this conversation that the community founded on the Word and sacraments begins to deepen its collective life, and take on what we might call its extra-liturgical shape.

Of course, coffee hour -- like worship, or even Bible study -- is not hard to screw up.  Making it as brief and ritualistic as (ahem!) our other common meal saps it of its charism.  (Marathon runners don't really talk to the people who slap those Dixie cups into their hands).  Holding it in some remote part of the building raises the bar for newcomers, and almost guarantees their exclusion.  Too much emphasis on the quantity and quality of the food creates an unsustainable burden for the organizers; too little makes it literally bland and unappetizing.

And making it a special occasion, tied to seasons or holidays -- the way the Reformed churches treat Holy Communion -- misses the point.  That turns it into a party, and parties aren't like family meals; people come with different expectations, carry themselves differently; they are more polite and correspondingly less intimate.  And they are there for a reason, rather than simply for the pleasure of being God's people together.

Still, like worship and Bible study, coffee hour isn't hard if we stick to the basics:

  • Set aside some time for fellowship, before or after worship;
  • Provide something to eat and something to drink;
  • Coach a few leaders, including the pastor, to be deliberate about greeting people;
  • Don't hurry things along, but don't drag them out;

And, the most important thing in our book:

  • Do it every week.  Every week.  Just like the sermon, just like the Eucharist, just like the songs.  because it's all part of the same thing.


Anonymous said...

As I tell the congregation frequently: We don't have tons of programs. We are a small group. We don't have fabulous choirs and stunning surroundings. But we do have lots to offer. Coffee IS OUR EVANGELISM tool. It's what used to be called the "entry portal". So do it. Just do it. And do it right. And I think they do. Do come and see for yourself!


Anonymous said...

This is beautiful. web