Coffee Hour -- America's True Religion

If you want to comprehend the politics of American religion, "coffee hour" is a first course.
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(Here's one from the vault! from 1984... it ran in CoEvolution/Whole Earth Review, which was a journal of countercultural thought and technology produced by Stewart Brand and the folks at the Whole Earth Catalog. Shortly after my article appeared, I went to worship at a Gnostic church in Palo Alto, and at coffee hour afterwards I found myself chatting with another young bearded guy holding a styrofoam cup. We were shocked when we shared our names with each other: he was Jay Kinney -- the Whole Earth editor who had published my article!)

Coffee Hour: America's True Religion
By Jim Burklo
Published in CoEvolution Quarterly magazine (Whole Earth Review), Spring 1984
Reprinted in News That Stayed News: Ten Years of CoEvolution Quarterly, 1974-1984 (North Point Press, 1986)

Her hands gripping the fingers of a seventy-year-old-man, a child jumps and does a heels-over-head flip back onto the linoleum. Nearer the aluminum coffee percolator, where a line of people wait to fill their styrofoam cups, a young engineer talks about the contracts his firm is seeking while a high-school girl and her stepfather listen over the animated tones of a cluster of people behind them. The church janitor, a middle-aged school administrator, the widow of a college professor, and a phone company executive and her two children speculate on the reasons for the success of the recent rummage sale against the poor showing of last year's.

Rule of thumb: The folks who stay after worship for "coffee hour" are the ones who run the American church.

If you want to comprehend the politics of American religion, "coffee hour" is a first course. The disparate doctrines, structures, and worship forms of American Christianity distract us from proper respect for this informal time in the social hall after worship. I began to appreciate the importance of this phenomenon when I tried to schedule a seminar immediately after the church service. Ignoring my pleas to come into the classroom, people continued to hang out together by the coffee pot until after several Sundays of futility I concluded that coffee hour was a permanent fixture of Christian orthodoxy. This has proven true in each of the churches I have served since.

The Baptists and the Catholics, the Unitarians and the Pentecostalists all drink from a common styrofoam cup. Coffee hour has a function in America that transcends the divisions of the church. This is a huge and lonely country. New people keep moving in, and the rest keep moving around. The American local church is an extended family, a clan, for people whose natural clans are scattered and lost. It is a family for people who would otherwise be strangers to each other. It is a place for teenagers to know elderly people, for new parents to inherit baby clothes, for newly divorced women to hear about part-time jobs from business people, for single newcomers to town to meet people.

The clan conducts its affairs most intensely during the coffee hour. Stories are swapped, dates are made, plans are laid. It becomes obvious over several coffee hours that certain people know most of the others. These people, regardless of their official titles in the church or lack thereof, are the ones who have the greatest political influence in the church. Denominational officials make it their business to know these people and consult them, as well as the officers of the church, on the state of the church. These are the people who can introduce you to other people during coffee hour; the informal network that is the real foundation of the church is in their hands.

The dominant political system of the Christian churches of the United States is "congregationalism" -- local church autonomy. The Baptists (in all their many flavors), the Congregationalists, the Disciples, most Pentecostal churches, and many other denominations totaling the largest number of American churches are structured so that each local church owns its own building, chooses and fires its own pastors, and determines its own doctrines and by-laws. This system has crept into the Presbyterian churches, the Methodist churches, the Episcopal churches and others with a more centralized political system; these denominations are giving in increasingly to local church demands for control over ministerial appointments, budgets, and worship forms. Americans are drawn to churches more because of their local characteristics than their denominational affiliations. This year, for the first time, the delegates to the World Council of Churches meeting joined together in a common celebration of the mass. Why is this possible? Because years ago, their local church constituents concluded that coffee hour was more important than creedal purity. Christian hierarchs have for a long time convinced themselves that they still lead the church, while the people years ago began to ignore them while lining up behind the aluminum urn.

The staggering varieties of American religious forms displayed in the hour before coffee still have, of course, important functions, not the least of which is the primal need of any clan to have a unique, identifying ritual. The ritual may have lost much of its original meaning, but it remains potent as a way for the community to recognize itself. The hymnal of my church consists of the top ten hits of the 1840's, but while even the strongest defenders of the use of the hymnal would be hard-pressed to explain the meaning of the words, its value is primarily as a means for the church to express its identity. Is the minister or priest or elder really in charge of the worship service? I find the opposite. I am strongly subordinated by the liturgy itself, and thus by the congregation.

Rule of thumb: The more obscure and dated the worship, the more democratically is the church run.

Why do more Americans go to church than Europeans? It is certainly not because our worship is more meaningful. It is because coffee hour is as much a feature of our social landscape as shopping malls, fast food, and baseball. America is set up in such a way that people need coffee hour. You can worship at home, praying before a candle or turning on a T.V. preacher. But what is there to replace the church potluck, the ladies' bazaar, the rummage sale? How many other places can you mingle with people of such diverse ages and life-situations?

I am in agreement with the political persuasion of my denominational leadership. However, as a parish pastor, I know that it matters very little to my church members whether I lean to the right or the left, as long as I love them. The preacher's political religion and religious politics can be ignored or affirmed as long as they do not prevent people from enjoying each other's company in the social hall afterward. It has amazed me how little I have bothered people with what I say from the pulpit. There are folks who completely disapprove of my convictions while getting along warmly with me on a personal level -- which is the level they seek when coming to church in the first place. Coffee hour does not force any political point of view on anyone; thus, in a time of radicalization of the pulpit, the social hall has become the sanctuary of the church. Radicals and Reaganites can carry on about anything from Kierkegaard to croquet as they sip coffee after church.

Rule of thumb: Brew two cups of coffee for every three people attending worship. This allows for the abstinence of children and those who had their coffee early in order to make it through worship.

If democracy is the free and equal exercise of power by each citizen, then coffee hour surely qualifies: most churches do not charge for their coffee, and you can help yourself until it runs out. This is certainly the most important form of democracy -- economic democracy.

So, to understand the political life of American churches, one must begin by recognizing that their members are primarily attracted by the fellowship life of the church, and are largely immune to the belief systems and lines of authority which form their facades. How many Catholics use birth control? How many Southern Baptists ignore Jerry Falwell? How many members of the liberal Protestant churches that have condemned nuclear weapons production are still working for the defense industry? More than the supposed leaders of Christendom would care to admit. In fact, Christianity in America is completely out of control of anyone except this Sunday's coffee host.


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