"At its best, a church coffee hour is a venue for the Holy Spirit to work."
Coffee Hour: A Path to Higher Grounds
I attend a church that boasts an interesting Sunday saying: Holy Eucharist followed by holy coffee hour. Indeed, as one long-time parishioner remarked to me, “A coffee hour is actually a congregation, isn't it? With refreshments.” I’ve polled parishioners of other churches, asking them how they feel about coffee hour. Responses vary from the effusive: “I love it. Instant conversations without expectations,” to the blunt and defeated: “I’ve given up.”
So what are the ingredients of a successful coffee hour? As we know, coffee hours don’t just happen. They take conscious effort and some committed people. For example, Who will take responsibility for supply cupboards, room setup, and beverage options? A staff member, requiring budget funds? A committed volunteer, subject to eventual burnout? A rotating weekly host, needing support or oversight? Finally, there are decisions about issues like budget, the role of children, and timing. Is your church coffee hour before and/or after the worship service? How does coffee hour complement or interfere with the Christian-education schedule? Patiently working through these perennial questions sets the stage for quality fellowship time.
Tips for Coffee Hour
Here are some quick ideas for church coffee hours. Of course, your community may already do these, or you may have other ideas. I hope one or more will spark your interest.
1. Avoid congestion. Mitigate crowding (or long lines) by offering multiple coffee carafes. Also, consider serving tables that are accessible from two sides, or round tables. This allows people to step in, grab a cookie, and step out.
2. Make sure people know where coffee hour is. This may seem obvious, but clearly announce your what, where, when. One couple attended a church for weeks before discovering that “join us for Higher Grounds” meant “stay for coffee.”
3. Take specific actions for welcoming. One parishioner told me, “Coffee hour works if a parish knows the rules of hospitality.” The trick is to open doors to newcomers, while also satisfying fellowship needs of the old-timers. Encourage people to wear name tags. In a large church, consider providing a distinct type/color of cup for newcomers. As one person explained to me, “As a newcomer, you need repeated outreach. Somebody saying hello once doesn’t make you feel that you belong.”
4. Think carefully about about seating and tables. Consider a cocktail-party setup, where people stand, snack in hand, allowing conversational groups to expand and contract fluidly. For newcomers, sitting at an empty table churns up the fear – or the reality – of being an outsider. One church-shopper with a child tells me how no one came to their table. But "someone did guide a 90-year-old with dementia to sit with us.”
Conversely, a newcomer may not wish to join an already occupied table, for fear of disrupting a conversation while entering or exiting the group. And yet it is important to provide a few tables, perhaps marked as priority seating for children and unsteady adults.
5. Consider your coffee source. Some churches purchase coffee from fair trade suppliers, which are often faith-based. In this way, coffee can spark interest in mission and sustainability. For example, see www.hopecoffee.com.
The Pastoral Side of Coffee Hour
Coffee hour is more than small talk. Sure, on the surface the conversation may appear to be of the cocktail-party-type. But there can be – and at my church there is – more going on. Congregants are spiritually nourishing one another. I’ve seen tears assuaged, courage transmitted, prayers whispered in the corner, and sermons positively discussed. I still remember a coffee hour 20 years ago when a certain Mr. Fetridge, with no knowledge of my deep sorrow, shared with me a Gospel verse that had mitigated his grief. At that moment, his story became part of mine. At its best, a church coffee hour is a venue for the Holy Spirit to work.
A friend succinctly summarizes her take on coffee hour: “Put some effort into it. Show it’s important. Get rid of the Styrofoam cups and donuts. Put out real creamer and some fruit or banana bread. Provide a conversation topic for those who aren’t good with small talk. All those little things add up to help create a feeling of community as opposed to institutional mandatory fellowship.” I agree with her; the little things do add up, drawing us toward a higher ground.
Evelyn Bence is author of Room at My Table: Preparing Heart and Home for Christian Hospitality (Upper Room Books). Her essays have appeared in the Washington Post, Washingtonian, Books & Culture, US Catholic, among others.
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