Coffee bars are a common fixture in our American megachurches. Most weekends, we can find some uplifting music being shared at a makeshift coffeehouse in a nearby church basement. And every regular churchgoer quickly learns that church foyer coffee is a rich source of satire (and deservedly so) American Christendom.
It seems that, at least in the United States, church and coffee are inseparable. But should they be? Since caffeine is a drug, should we rethink its prevalence in our churches and its use among Christians?
Christians are not prohibited from drinking coffee and other caffeinated beverages. But, as with anything that we put into our bodies, we must be mindful of its physical effects, and the ways that it can lead to behavior that does not honor God.
Food and Drink, Revisited
When we discuss food and drink, we often start by revisiting 1 Corinthians 6, where Paul reminds us in verse 12 that even though all things are permissible, we should not be mastered by anything. And a few verses later, he reinforces this idea by reminding us that our bodies are God’s temples (1 Corinthians 6:19).
So we start by considering if and how caffeine harms the body or causes us to dishonor God with our bodies. And also, we should consider the ways in which caffeine can, through addiction or dependence, take mastery over us.
Throughout the world, caffeine consumption is a socially accepted vice. It is, in fact, the world’s most commonly consumed drug. And as we’ve noted, coffee is found closely associated with church culture in America.
There are two reasons that coffee has managed to escape the scrutiny that other drugs are subjected to, both by the church and by society at large.
Caffeine is Natural
One reason that caffeine is the most widely consumed drug in the world is that it is readily available. Caffeine occurs naturally in the seeds, leaves, and fruit of plants native to three continents, and has been cultivated on all inhabited continents.
Unlike alcohol, which is formed by transforming plant products (through fermentation), caffeine is naturally present in its host plants. And so, caffeine does not need to be manufactured but merely accessed. And this is not hard to do.
When not eaten directly, caffeine is accessed by the relatively simple process of infusion. By steeping the caffeine-bearing parts in water (usually, after the plant products have been dried), caffeine is drawn into the water.
The Effects of Caffeine
Caffeinated beverages are popular, in part, because they are easy to produce. But also, because their effects are mild and, in lesser quantities, perceived as beneficial.
Caffeine is a psychoactive drug, meaning it affects the function of the nervous system. As such, it has the capacity to impact our mood, perception, and cognition. But where alcohol produces an immediate and measurable effect of impairing judgment and slowing perception, caffeine has a seemingly opposite effect.
Caffeine increases alertness and is used often in the morning to aid waking and bolster cognitive activity. In moderate doses, this increased alertness is generally accepted as a beneficial effect. But can there be too much of a good thing?
It is certainly possible to become dependent on caffeine. And for the caffeine-dependent, a lack of caffeine can lead to sharp headaches which interfere with routine activity.
But the solution is not simply to take in more caffeine, as an excess amount of caffeine can have its own damaging effects on the body. Symptoms of excessive caffeine intake might include irritability and nervousness, in addition to more dangerous effects such as insomnia and heart palpitations.
As Christians, we are always called to be mindful of the things that can harm our bodies, and moderate our intake to avoid such harm. This is just as true of caffeine as it is of alcohol, or even simple dietary elements such as sugar.
Masking Other Addictions?
Earlier we touched on Paul’s warning to not let anything become our master. Caffeine, though capable of inducing dependence, does not do so as quickly or as obviously as alcohol or opioids. But perhaps because of its comparatively mild visible effects, caffeine can be unknowingly used to mask or enable other vices. This is particularly true of behavioral and lifestyle traps that are common in the modern West.
Caffeine versus Rest
People are not very good at sitting still. This is particularly obvious in the hyper-connected and always-busy United States. We increasingly allow our work to encroach on our time. We answer emails at all hours, even after spending 60 hours each week at the office.
This is not the life that God intended for us. As our designer and creator, God knows that we need rest. He even commands us to rest, having set aside the Sabbath day as a gift to us. Observing the Sabbath is enshrined in the Ten Commandments. And in Mark 2:27, Jesus reminds us that the Sabbath was made for man.
When we use caffeine to enable us to work through our weekends, or to replace our proper daily allotment of sleep, we disobey God’s command. But more than that, we miss out on the physical, mental, and spiritual benefits of rest that God intends for us to have.
Time spent in excessive activity adversely affects not only our rest but our relationships and our priorities. Our time spent with our families and with God is often set aside for the sake of productivity, or even just the need to always be ‘on the go’.
In such a scenario, it might be a stretch to suggest that caffeine intake is a sin, in and of itself. But we can reasonably determine that caffeine use enables our overactive behavior.
As with everything we eat and drink, we can continue to enjoy our coffee. And we can even do so in our church settings. But we must be watchful for those areas where our caffeine intake harms our bodies. And we must guard against the temptation to forego the rest that God commands and the priorities that He invites us to embrace.