Monday, April 15, 2019

Anonymous Asks (35)

“Why is it ok for the church to sell coffee and other products when Jesus was outraged when merchants were selling things in the temple?”

Ow. That there is a zinger of a question, maybe the best yet.

Let me confess that I am not personally familiar with the practice of churches selling coffee. That’s a new one on me.

Churches Selling Coffee

A quick internet search for “churches selling coffee” confirms it really is a thing, and that some Christians and church visitors absolutely, unequivocally don’t like it. Yahoo Answers has some back-and-forth on the subject, and it turns out an organization called Coffee 4 Missions Consulting exists to help churches run coffee shops and cafés with a view to finding opportunities for evangelism. Heavily caffeinated evangelicals are indeed a fairly common phenomenon. I did not know that.

This being the case, let’s consider the morality of such an enterprise.

First, it may be argued that a church building is not really analogous to the Jewish temple. Local Christian churches cannot be reduced to mere bricks and mortar. They are made up of all genuine believers who gather in the name of Jesus Christ at a particular location, whether or not they own a building. Churches like this assemble, usually on a weekly or more frequent basis, to do things like worship, pray, teach and enjoy fellowship. I consider a church to be officially “gathered” whenever a meeting is called at which any believer of any age or demographic would be welcome to attend.

When they are not officially gathered like this, unlike the temple in Jerusalem, their building is ... just a building.

Gatherings of the Church

In my view, then, a Sunday School class, a youth group, a women’s Bible study, an elder’s meeting or a men’s prayer breakfast are not true “gatherings of the church”. They involve members of the church, and they often take place in church buildings, but they are not really church meetings as we read about them in the New Testament.

Charging for coffee or donuts in order to cover the cost of refreshments in these sorts of non-church-meeting gatherings does not seem unreasonable to me, though if the cost of having what everyone else is having is sufficiently steep so as to deter less-well-off believers or visitors from attending, I’d see that as a major negative. To exclude the poor, either actively or passively, is not terribly Christian.

Further, even if we were able to directly equate modern church buildings with the temple in Jerusalem, it should be obvious that selling refreshments, especially when the price only covers costs, is a little different than exchanging money to cover the temple tax, converting funds into the appropriate currency for tithing, or selling animals to be used for sacrifice. Jesus referred to the merchants and money-changers in the temple precincts as “robbers”, the implication being that rather than just providing a service at cost, they were engaged in profiting from people who had come to Jerusalem for the purpose of worshiping God. The problem was not so much the conversion of funds or the sale of sheep in general; the problem was where they were doing it, why they were doing it, and how they were doing it. All these things were inappropriate in the house of God.

Coffee, Worship and Works

But selling refreshments is entirely unrelated to worship. It does not have to be related to church functions in any way at all, unless we choose to make it so. It may keep us lubricated in order to worship with a less dry throat, or perhaps more alertly if we have been working night shift. It may grease the wheels of fellowship by providing an excuse to sit and talk. But coffee drinking is not in itself a spiritual exercise or a necessary part thereof.

It follows, then, that the practice of charging to provide that service is not intrinsically wrong.

What seems clear to me from reading the online discussion about the subject, however, is that large numbers of both Christians and the unsaved consider the optics of selling refreshments questionable under certain circumstances. This can easily lead to problems. All involved parties need to be able to participate in such things with a good conscience.

So then, how about this business of having an actual coffee shop in your church building that’s open during the week when church meetings are not in session, or funding a café off-premises for the purpose of evangelism?

I would say it very much depends on how it’s done.

Making Money and Saving Souls

First, there’s the question of motive. Making money and saving souls are goals that far too easily become mutually exclusive. If you are trying to do both, one priority will outrank the other very quickly. No man can serve two masters, and no man can cater to two mutually exclusive sets of criteria. When you are engaged in an outreach, I believe there should not be a dollar value attached for the recipient. Paul took great pleasure in presenting the gospel free of charge, even at great personal cost. We should give serious consideration to doing likewise.

Then there’s the question of where the money goes. I cannot see how running an “evangelistic outreach” that makes a profit, and then redirecting those funds to other church-related functions — or even appearing to do so — makes for a good testimony to the unsaved. This is true even if profits are going to a “good” cause.

Finally, there’s the larger question of public perception. If the neighbors are annoyed by all the coming and going, or if the general public impression is that your church is just in it for a buck, or to provide paying part-time jobs to Christian teens too incompetent to find employment in the real world, there are probably good reasons to reconsider the net value of the project.

Transparency and Free Goodies

If you have a look at the online furor over today’s Christian coffee enterprises, one thing quickly becomes obvious: if your church is going to have this sort of an outreach, and especially if it is to remain spiritually profitable, transparency is key. Maybe that means posting a sign explaining why your coffee costs what it costs, and where all the money goes. Maybe that means making sure nobody to whom you are going to preach the gospel has to reach into his or her own pocket in order to hear it. Maybe that means giving a lot of coffee or donuts away free, or at very least at cost.

One thing is certain: the gatherings of God’s people are no place for pedlars to engage in turning a profit. If we take home one thing from the various accounts of the Lord’s cleansing of the temple, we surely ought to hang on to that.


  1. As I recall, a lot of this may also depend on the quality of the coffee being served. That does often tend to be quite mediocre.