I turned on my coffeepot and the water inside ran onto the floor. The heating element no longer warmed the surface. The small buzz that this coffeepot emitted – letting me know that it was on – no longer made its low-pitched droning hum. After 16 years of faithful service, my coffee pot was dead.
We have owned several coffeepots. This particular pot offered the “on/off” switch as its primary feature. Since it was so low tech it became my office coffee pot. When we wanted to get more high-tech at home we got a coffeepot with a timer. After that one died we got one with a timer and a grinder. After that one died we got one that looked really hip, had a timer a grinder, and an insulated pot. All of those coffeepots came and went – but tried and true was this old coffee pot. That was, until this one bit the dust. Now my coffeepot sits vacant, useless, on a shelf.
As a metaphor for the state of the church in 21st Century America, I want to think about what we do when things feel broken – and several potential strategies we might use moving forward.
Strategy 1: Ignore It
You’d be surprised (or maybe you wouldn’t) how many churches try this exact strategy anytime something does not work. After a while people start to walk around the things that are broken as they blend into the rest of the furniture. My broken coffeepot has been sitting on my shelf for about a month. Noticing my broken coffeepot sitting on the shelf for a few weeks prompted this reflection.
Strategy 2: Work the Coffeepot Harder
After I cleaned up the water that spilled on my office floor, checked the outlet, refilled the water, inserted new grounds, and felt good about this process, I clicked the coffeepot to “on.” Still nothing happened – no sound, no dripping, and no brewing. I sat and waited, staring at the coffeepot for a while, then started clicking the “on/off” switch back and forth thinking maybe this time it would work.
A very familiar strategy in churches when something no longer works is to take it apart, study it, and reassemble it in exactly the same way. We turn it “on” assuming that doing the same thing again will produce a different result. Maybe if we try harder, it will make a difference. Maybe if we work at it long enough, or wait long enough, or believe strong enough, systems will heal by themselves and the coffee will start brewing again. Albert Einstein once asserted that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. In churches we do this all the time. Maybe we need fresh ideas (besides a fresh cup of coffee). Or we might just be insane!
Strategy 3: Stay Home and Drink Coffee There
Since my coffeepot broke I have been drinking more coffee at home in the morning. I like it. I wake up a little earlier. I see my kids a little longer before we all have to get ready. No complaints. The problem is – I’d like a cup mid-morning. Sometimes I’ll bring a cup from home in a travel mug. Too often I drink it up before my mid-morning lull.
I wonder if this unintentional strategy is what happens in a lot of faith-communities and to a lot of our people in them. When systems are broken, we can’t nurture one another effectively. We start looking elsewhere. Maybe we find a great cup of coffee somewhere else. Maybe it is easier just to stay home, or give up coffee altogether. Before long we try to do it ourselves, forgetting what we are missing. Yet the mid-morning lull still comes and we aren’t sure why.
Strategy 4: Try Instant
Maybe it would just be easier to get instant coffee. But instant coffee can only go so far. It is quick and convenient but has no lasting power. Those little packets or powdery scoops aren’t even real, are they?
In churches we sometimes opt for what we think is going to be an easy fix. One program out of the box with the potential to brew the best coffee we have ever tasted. Sometimes it works. Most of the time easy fixes neither fix anything nor make things easy. They produce a short-term caffeine rush, but they leave a bad aftertaste, and that yucky residue in the bottom of the cup. The long-term work of digging in and developing a modus operandi that uses real beans and brews real coffee is worth it in the end. But it takes the time to let things develop and cultivate.
Strategy 5: Try Tea (or Something Else)
True confession: for a few years I rarely brewed coffee anymore in my coffeepot. I just happened to be brewing coffee the day my coffeepot broke. Instead I used it to make hot water. I’d get tea bags (I found I really like Green Tea); and enjoy it instead.
Maybe the problem with the church isn’t a faulty coffee pot as it is the coffee we brew. Maybe an alternative could revitalize what we are trying to accomplish. Sometimes we get in our own way, because we are afraid if we try tea – we might like it!
Strategy 6: Get a New Coffeepot
At some point I’ll want a new coffee pot. But which kind? One with fancy buttons and features? One with basic “on/off” switch that is tried and true? A black or white or metal one? The burning question behind all these questions is – how will it compare to the last one?
Do we take the time to discern what we really need? Maybe we need lots of features. Maybe the “on/off” switch is really all we need. Will whatever coffee pot we choose ever be the same as the old one? Of course not – but my last coffeepot lasted so long and worked so well, it will be missed. Can I get over it and move on – or will I resent the new one? However I answer that question will set the tone on whether I deem my next coffeepot worthy or not. How churches answer that question deems how they are able to cope with change.
Strategy 7: Go to the Coffee Shop
What if the thing holding us back is the “idea” of having a coffeepot in the office? Coffee (like other things) is best enjoyed when shared. Simply going out for coffee might bring some new insights into people’s lives and provide an opportunity to get up and see some new surroundings. We might even meet new people! For Christmas a friend of ours gave us a prepaid card to frequent a local shop. Now without a coffeepot in my office – I’m spending more time there.
Coffee metaphors aside – what the church needs more than anything in 21st Century America is getting up and moving around a little; seeking a fresh view on our surroundings; meeting the people who live around us and spend time chatting and listening to them. The world is full of possibility. Sitting in an office with a broken coffeepot means we miss out on a lot of things happening right outside our door. Maybe that is what is really broken.
The Coffeepot and the Church
In this “case of the broken coffee pot” I’ve placed the onus of what happens primarily on us. Yet God is the primary mover and shaker among us. However, our response and what we do as a result of what God is up to in our lives – does matter. Being church in 21st Century America is a great challenge, and we no longer live in an age where the coffee simply flows because we turn the pot “on” or even because God has turned the switch “on” in us.
My old coffeepot sits vacant, useless, on a shelf. Many churches find themselves feeling this way (tough I bet there is more vitality there than seen at first glance). That doesn’t mean the church is dead, or that God has abandoned us, or that we just lack the zeal or will to carry on. What it does mean is that we are called to think smart, pray boldly, use the gifts we’ve been given, and make connections where we can, as God keeps brewing faith in us. What strategy will work? Who besides God knows? For now I’m going to walk down the coffee shop and see what God is up to there. I could use the change of scenery. On the way, I think I’ll throw out my broken coffeepot.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)