Trouble Brewing: The Great Refreshment Debate

This article might be a little provocative, but then, if we only wrote/read about that with which we agree, would we continue to grow? I hope this will at least stimulate debate, even if it falls short of direct suggestions or wisdom!

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In December’s article “Room at My table”, the theme was generosity through hospitality. For me, hospitality is an integral part of generosity, and if we can get hospitality right as a church, we’re on the right track. I often encourage people to think about what a really hospitable church would look and feel like.

Churches across the land are good at finishing a service by inviting people to stay back for a chat and a brew, i.e. offering hospitality. This is a story about that after-service gathering. It’s not really a story about any specific church but, in many ways, it is a story about all our churches. And it’s a story that asks a question: “What message are we sending?”

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“And don’t forget, at the end of the service you’re all invited back to our hall for refreshments.”

The vicar was going through the notices before we sang the final hymn and he blessed us and sent us forth to go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Amen.

I always try to hang around for coffee after I preach on Sundays, as it’s a nice way to get to know people and hear what they really thought of the sermon. After a few custard creams people let their guard down and tell the visiting preacher exactly how the sermon could be improved.

As an outsider / visitor / novice church-goer myself, I still feel like the Spectator of Parish Life. Sometimes, I have an internal voice that sounds suspiciously like Sir David Attenborough observing the congregation in their natural setting. Strange but true. On this particular Sunday, Sir David’s charming voice was saying:

“The parishioners were in their natural habitat, gathered around tables in small groups. The mostly female group was drinking coffee and tea, while a few males stood in smaller groups talking. There were plates of digestives, pink wafers and the odd bourbon, the biscuits of choice for the Anglican. The Parishioners appeared relaxed and content in their environment.”

Having been delayed by signing the register, I’d avoided the queue for refreshments, which, it’s important to remember, I’d been invited to partake in.

A very cheerful gentleman put his hand on my shoulder and steered me straight up to the kitchen hatch- behind which all the caffeine magic happens- and insisted, “Someone get this lassy a cuppa!” while another parishioner said, in a spot of post-generosity-sermon-banter, “And you’ll not have to pay for it mind, that one’s on me. See, we’re generous here!”, and they kindly paid for my brew. This was handy, as I had no money on me, having given it all at the offertory.

I was shown to a free seat to enjoy my coffee, and was thoroughly looked after by the jolly people of St. Somewhere’s, who made me feel ever so welcome.

But here’s the rub. Since my appointment 10 months ago, I’ve been lucky enough to visit and preach at dozens of churches. This exposure has been a great learning experience, and has taught me, among other things, that we, the Church are brilliant at refreshments. And, on a seemingly completely separate topic, we’re often rubbish at dealing with the subject of money.

Seemingly separate. But actually linked. You see we get in a right stew over “After service refreshments”. And we’re in a blend when it comes to providing refreshments, charging for refreshments, generously contributing supplies for the refreshments, inviting people to join us for refreshments and putting a plate out for donations for refreshments.

The crux of it is, are we collecting money, or are we offering hospitality? Of course, many people would say we’re doing both – the money covers the cost of the hospitality.

But then, is it really hospitality if people have to pay for it? Many of us would say that no-one actually has to pay for their cup of coffee, but how would a visitor know this? …

In the end, I’m not sure if we really can say we are both offering hospitality and also collecting money.

But wait there! I hear you cry. What if we want to pay our way? Isn’t that being generous? You might disagree with me here, but I don’t think it is. I think it’s like paying for goods rendered, much like in Starbucks, only much, much cheaper.

But more importantly, shouldn’t we consider the people who weren’t expecting to pay, gave all they had during the offertory, or can’t afford to pay? Could we put aside our desire to “pay our way”, in order to be more inclusive?

Bridging the Gap” Project Officer, Ray Leonard, says “Charging could exclude people who don’t have the money. They’re invisible because of the shame associated with not having enough money, so the problem is never known by the church.

“We’re called to be warm, welcoming and hospitable. Why would we introduce anything that might be a barrier for someone? A suggested donation would be better, but even that has its problems. Someone who doesn’t put money in might feel they’re being judged.”

So if the cost of refreshments isn’t covered by the “customer”…then, by whom?

What if the cost was met by common church funds? If after-service refreshments were first and foremost about generosity through hospitality, would it create the right atmosphere for strengthening bonds between the existing congregation, building friendships with newer members, and bringing into the fold the folks on the edges?

But wait there! I hear you cry again. Can our church funds stretch this far? What about our commitment to contributing our Parish Share to the common diocesan pot[1]? Isn’t the sale of coffee and biscuits an important revenue for our church? Don’t we need this income?

Yes… perhaps. But when it does come to fund raising, whilst every little helps, let’s bear in mind that it probably is just that: very little. If we charge 50p for a coffee, we move firmly into the realms of fundraising (or cost covering), and out of the land of hospitality. And yet we don’t make an awful lot of cash in the process, whilst potentially excluding visitors from partaking.

So, charging for hospitality, is it really worth it?

[1]                      If you don’t know what Parish Share is or what it pays for click here

5 replies »

  1. Dear Rachel,

    Spot on!

    I know a church in the East Riding where they have a couple of very attractively-built loos in their church. However, when you venture into them there was/is a small saucer with a note that says words to the effect, “These toilets cost money to maintain, please leave a donation”.

    I have told them more than once that in the same way that they wouldn’t charge a guest in their homes to pay for a visit to the loo, the same should be true for church! What’s more, I can imagine how little it brings in per year and I offered to give them the difference!

    I think the new Vicar may well have removed the saucer by now – I hope so!

    Keep up the good work.

    David

    Like

  2. What a great way to share this message. Although our parish doesn’t charge for Sunday morning refreshments, you have now got me thinking as to whether we should charge our youngsters their weekly £1 subs on Friday evenings, for which they receive hot dogs, toast, juice and youth activities. I would not like to think we’d excluded anyone if the £1 is too much for their budget. Prayer needed! I can well remember as a youngster, one of seven children, that we didn’t join in some activities simply because mum couldn’t afford them all.

    Like

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