October 9, 2012

The Unavoidable Coffee Hour

My church has made coffee hour unavoidable, and that’s going to make all the difference.

This past Sunday marked the beginning of an experiment at St. Luke and St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, the congregation that my partner and I have been attending since this past Easter. When we entered the sanctuary, we noticed the back pews were gone. I have no idea if the pews are being stored somewhere or if they’ve been destroyed. What I do know is that this has created space for all sorts of things.

There’s space now, for instance, for an exhibit of local artists’ work, hung from a temporary wall within the sanctuary. There’s less space for hiding in the back of the church; congregants are pushed closer together and closer to the altar. But perhaps most importantly, there’s space for building community. As of last Sunday, coffee hour will now be taking place at the back of the sanctuary.

Previously, coffee hour had been entirely avoidable. In fact, it was basically hidden. Congregants who wanted to go to coffee hour had to leave the sanctuary, turn right, walk down a lengthy hall, ascend two steps, turn left, descend two flights of stairs, turn left again, walk down a shorter hall, and end up in a dark and dank basement where the requisite watery coffee and spongy pastries were served. (And all this before the usual awkwardness that comes with coffee hour.)

Is it any wonder, then, that my partner and I, who both score as off-the-chart introverts, frequently chose the easier path? Straight out the sanctuary and straight out the door.

This past Sunday was different and it had everything to do with the changed space. Congregants who are determined to leave immediately now need to be extremely disciplined. To do so, they’ll need to ignore the smell of coffee, close their eyes to the tray of pastries, make their way through the throng of friendly people who are milling about and chatting, and not get caught up looking at some vibrant art along the way.

My partner and I hung around, of course, and I’m so glad we stayed. As coffee and conversation filled the sanctuary, I came to see the space in a new, warmer and welcoming light. We looked at the art, poked around the sanctuary a bit, and ended up bumping into a young adult lay leader. We learned that she’s in the ordination process, that she leads a Wednesday night event for young adults, and very soon we were being invited to another function later in the week.

Building community is tough work and many of our church buildings make it even more so. How can we create (or recreate) spaces to encourage community?