Accordingly, the next evening, after sermon, I reminded them of two things: the one, that it was not decent to begin talking aloud as soon as service was ended; and hurrying to and fro, as in a bear-garden. The other, that it was a bad custom to gather into knots just after sermon, and turn a place of worship into a coffee-house. I therefore desired, that none would talk under that roof, but go quietly and silently away.
What would Wesley make of church life today? And what would we make of his threats to ‘mend or end’? The cultural gulf there is vast.
In the contemporary church it can feel as though the coffee is the main event. The area available for coffee in any venue being used by a church is a key consideration. When new church buildings are constructed no one now thinks about the need for a graveyard, but we do think very carefully about the space available for coffee. And in church buildings throughout the land, whether new builds or reconfigured ancient spaces, the highest aspiration seems to be the potential to open a coffee shop – because there is of course a terrible dearth of coffee shops on the typical British high street.
The church I pastor constructed a new building last year. Sadly there wasn’t space for a coffee shop but I sometimes fear that the most tangible legacy of my ministry will be getting rid of instant and insisting on at least drinkable filter coffee. “Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawn in two; they were killed by the sword…and some ensured there was a semi-decent cup of coffee available after the service.”
What would Wesley say?
Our culture is a remarkably informal one. That has been one of the great social transformations of the past 70 years and it has of course been reflected in the church. 70 years ago a church minister would have always worn jacket and tie (as would almost all men, on almost all occasions) and probably clerical garb. And he (and it was always ‘he’) would have been addressed as Rev So-and-So, or at least Mr So-and-So. Today, my church would find it odd if I wasn’t in jeans, and even the three year-olds call me Matt. We don’t often notice this change, but it is profound.
There are benefits to informality but what Wesley’s reaction to the goings-on in Norwich helps us see is the distinction we must make between being informal and being casual. These are terms we use interchangeably (e.g., informal clothes = casual clothes) but they should be quite distinct when it comes to our worship.
To be informal in worship can be helpful: It is much easier to be expressive in worship when wearing clothes that are comfortable than when constricted in a stiff suit. By the Spirit we cry out, ‘Abba, Father!’ In worship it can be appropriate to laugh, cry and dance: I am a charismatic by conviction!
Yet we cannot afford to be casual in our approach to God. He is to be regarded with holy awe.
Probably the clearest biblical example of this distinction is found in 2 Samuel 6. Uzzah is casual towards what is most holy, reaching out to steady the ark, and in consequence is struck dead. Then, when things are done with due reverence and the ark is finally brought to Jerusalem, David dances with an informality that causes his wife to despise him.
Our worship needs to reflect something of this ‘liberated awe’. We might succeed in serving the best coffee in town, but we mustn’t settle for what is in the end merely coffeehouse Christianity. Come before Him with dancing (Ps. 150:4). And come before Him with reverence and awe (Hbs. 12:28).