coffee beans

by John J. Thompson

I’m not sure how many times I’ve sat down to the task of choosing which worship songs to use at church the following Sunday. Leading worship has been a major part of my life since I was a teenager in the 1980s. I have faced this task hundreds of times. It’s probably my least favorite part of the gig. I’d rather sit through an hour of kick drum sound check than this. It’s on my to-do list today, again. Why do I dread this so? Time to fix a cup of coffee.

I suppose the simplest explanation of my angst is that I still feel like these choices really matter. Although I am painfully and wonderfully aware that worship is much more than singing songs, when it comes to our Sunday experience we have just a few moments in which we strive to help the members of our community transcend the stress of their morning, their fears of the coming week, or their well-fed complacency by singing together. The stakes are high.

My life’s work in the music business, and my years playing in a rock band, undoubtedly influence my choices at church. But how much professionalism is appropriate when it comes to Sunday morning? Am I approaching this as part of my job? I know something about entertaining a crowd. I know which songs are rising on the “worship charts.” Am I building a Sunday worship time the way I build a product for the market? Heaven forbid! No, there are some very specific questions I should be asking myself as I choose songs for Sunday. Which songs will best help aim the congregations’ hearts away from themselves and toward the source of peace we so desperately need? Lord, send me a text message with your preferred set-list, please!

Oh, my coffee is ready, and it is helping me think through this question in an interesting way.

The coffee in my office is pretty good. Actually, it’s excellent. It matters to me. I roast my own beans at home. I keep a Chem-Ex system, a burr grinder, and a temperature controlled water kettle in my office so that I can craft a pretty darn perfect cup when the desire arises. “Why bother?” one guest asked. “There’s a K-Cup brewer just 8 feet from your office door.”

Oh my. This guy doesn’t know me at all.

K-Cup coffee is better than my first cup of coffee by a mile. That’s not saying much, though. My first cup of coffee was from a vending machine at a rest stop outside of Springfield IL. It was horrendous. Even with half of the available space in my cup filled with “whitener” and sugar, I could barely choke the stuff down. It was cheap. It was convenient. It had caffeine. But it tasted like bitter, plastic, death. Fortunately, I gave coffee another try. Over the years I continued to learn better and better techniques for grinding, brewing, and even roasting the stuff. I’ve got it pretty dialed in now. Several guests who normally use cream and sugar in their coffee have told me that mine is the first they’ve enjoyed black. Small variables in the particle size of the grounds, the purity and the exact temperature of the water, and the amount of time the grounds spend in the water, all profoundly affect the final results. If I do it right I can coax out flavor notes of dark chocolate, apricots, cherries, and more. Roast it too long, though, and all you taste is char. Let it sit too long between roasting and brewing and the flavor simply escapes into the air. Grind it too fine and the solids are over-extracted, giving the coffee a bitter, astringent flavor. Grind it too coarsely and it will under-extract. All these variables, just for a cup of coffee. Is it worth it? I think so.

And yeah, it takes about 4 minutes for me to make coffee. The K-Cup machine is much faster. The problem, though, is that K-Cup coffee can’t be anywhere near as good as a pour-over. Every aspect of the K-Cup is about convenience. It’s also, ironically, the most expensive way to make coffee I have ever seen. The cups are an environmental problem, the cost is punitive, and the final cup is just not great. It might get the job done, and it’s not the worst coffee in the world, but it’s definitely not the best. It’s not designed to be.

And that gets me back to preparing for worship on Sunday. How might I be K-cupping this experience for the people I am honored to serve? How might the mechanisms of the experience – the equipment, the environment, even the lighting – be informing and influencing the final “product”? Am I looking for uniformity and predictability or authenticity and community? Am I dialing up convenience or pursuing art? Is this time going to be more like a carefully crafted cup shared with a friend, or a Grande something-or-another handed to a stranger through a window at a drive-through?

It took some time to learn how to roast my own coffee beans, but not too much. It took time to learn how to brew a great cup. But it wasn’t that hard. There is a value proposition at work here and, by and large, I find my coffee to be worth the extra hassle. That’s how I’m trying to approach church. How might I cultivate an experience that is good, true, and beautiful and not simply good enough?

Holy Spirit, reveal to us any ways in which we have allowed our worship of You to become commodified, commercialized, and automated. Help us to become mindful of the seductive power of convenience and to be driven to craft our communities with intention, servanthood, and excellence. You are worth it. Your people are worth it.