Coffee Shop Church-Talk: “Church-world” problems

I have a new favorite coffee shop. It’s in downtown Rochester. They roast their own beans. They slow “pour” every cup of coffee through a filter. Their cappuccinos are a work of art with the little hearts drawn in the foam. They have great food. And its great work space for someone like me with ADD. Just enough distraction without requiring my full attention. They even have one table covered with pictures of Bob Dylan.

The only drawback to this provision of work-space designed just for me is all the churc-talk. This place is always packed with pastors. Right now, I am surrounded by three tables of pastors who are talking about church problems. Now, I know that this is one of those self-centered, grumpy posts. But don’t they have offices to work in? Don’t they have a conference room in which they can meet?

To be fair, they are less annoying than the two “Glee” teenagers who loudly and with great affectation discussed who would be the right actors for which roles in the upcoming high school musical (Lots and lots of talk about having the right timbre for a particular role).

But here’s what really gets me about these “staff” meetings that occur in MY work space. They are full of serious, earnest discussions that only matter to churches that seem to be conceived of in terms of member satisfaction. At one table, music-style and presentation software is being discussed with observations about how certain choices leave members more or less enthusiastic. At another table, pastors are talking about the benefits or lack thereof to Sunday night and Wednesday night offerings. This conversation, which I am soooo happy not to be a part of, is full of sentences that begin “people just won’t,” or “people don’t see the benefit” or “I wonder if people would come if…” And several sentences about whether or not it would matter if child-care were provided. Several.

You’ve heard the phrase “first-world problems.” The Hold Steady has a great song called “Rock and Roll Problems.” Both phrases refer to things that are not real problems, but problems only within a certain frame of reference. These guys are discussing “church-world problems.”

And here’s the thing, churches should be discussing real problems. Their leaders should be spending their time on real problems. For God’s sake, these guys live within a stones-throw of Pontiac and Detroit, areas aching and throbbing with real problems. And figuring out how to please the members of the church is a huge distraction to that enterprise. (A day to feed the homeless now and then suffices to quiet that impulse). 

I’ve long been convinced that once a church becomes a certain size, the energy it takes to sustain the system is overwhelming of all other concerns. The institution takes on a life of its own and demands constantly to be fed. Here, people are made for the Sabbath. Let the reader note the irony of churches designed to satisfy the needs of consumers ending up requiring that said consumers serve the needs of the institution.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate these pastors. I do. I used to do this kind of work all the time as well. And I know that some good will come from seeking this kind of wisdom, and by making certain decisions and not others. But I also think that this is not the reason a lot of persons go into ministry. And I’m also pretty convinced that the reason seminary numbers are rapidly declining is that ministry is seen as dealing with “church-world” problems.

Well, they’re gone now. I can go back to writing articles for journals few people read. 

About Mark Love

I am the Dean for the School of Theology and Ministry and Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who is a practicing new monastic in Abilene, TX. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and two amazing granddaughters.
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6 Responses to Coffee Shop Church-Talk: “Church-world” problems

  1. Mike Friend says:

    Hey Mark! Great comments and observations (as usual)!

  2. Anne Vyn says:

    “This place is always packed with pastors.”
    This is a good strategy, Mark. Once those pastors find out their conversations are being posted here, you’ll have lots of space to yourself next time you go 🙂
    A great reminder on staying aware of worldly distractions!

  3. Margaret-Ann says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. The church, as defined in the new testament, was designed to be a growing entity which was self-sustaining. It was designed to grow, supplant itself elsewhere, regrow, and repeat this process. I would be interested to hear your ideas on how to balance big church existence and community driven, more personal outreach.

  4. Benjamin says:

    Welcome to coffee talk! All of this talk of church-world problems is making me verklempt: Talk amongst yourselves. I will give you a topic: contemporary, seeker-sensitive churches are neither sensitive nor contemporary. Discuss!

  5. jeff says:

    Thanks Mark, this made me smile. “Church-world problems” good phrase, need to incorporate in my vocab

  6. logan1949 says:

    This is like a sermon I heard a month ago: it seemed to be the “gospel according to church growth” rather than the “gospel of Jesus Christ.” How they were going to target the 13-33 year-olds — whatever it takes — as if no one else mattered. It was all about what WE can do to build a bigger church (have more members, not build a building). God and Jesus seemed to be incidental – something to be used.

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