My church recently changed the kind of coffee we serve on Sundays. We also changed the appearance of how the coffee is served. In fact, or so I thought, we were changing the entire coffee experience. Before we made these changes, we served coffee out of those giant percolator vats that produced something that tasted like a combination of tar and mud. People would shuffle through a line, grab a cheap Styrofoam cup and proceed to find a place to stand among a circle of chatting people in a wide empty space.
Now people come out of worship on Sundays to a series of coffee stations with self-serve air pots and a variety of small tables and seating options. Bare walls have been replaced with artwork. Fluorescent lights have been replaced with track lighting. Bulletin boards have been replaced with a video monitor. And here’s what I’ve noticed; nothing has really changed. We changed everything about the appearance of our church’s Sunday coffee experience, but the coffee experience itself remains exactly the same.
My church has a vibe. (Every church has a vibe.) There is something communicated to those on the outside that can be sensed through what we do and how we do it. We communicate our identity as a church through a series of behaviors. When visitors come to my church, they witness and experience those behaviors. They feel our vibe.
Knowing Your DNA
Think about it this way. A mass of organic juice and smoothie bars won’t stay in business in Chicago. Multiple hot dog and Italian beef stands won’t survive in San Francisco. One Starbucks is enough for Albuquerque. One Tex-Mex cantina is enough for Seattle. But the DNA of people in Seattle is such that you can have a gourmet coffee place on every block and they all make it. There’s no such thing as too much Italian beef in the DNA of Chicago folks. And there are plenty of choices for great barbeque in Texas.
When it comes to restaurants, knowing the DNA in the appetite of your community makes all the difference in the world. Churches have DNA just like any other community. When someone walks into our church and experiences a Sunday with us for the first time, they sense our DNA. They pick up our vibe. Without using words, we communicate very loudly what we value as important in a church by what we do and how we do it. Sometimes that vibe resonates with visitors. Sometimes it does not. But the worst thing for a church is to be totally unaware of the vibe it is sending to those who enter for the first time.
DNA Is Not Cosmetic
The vibe a church sends out is not in the superficial surfacey kind of stuff. A church does not hold its vibe in things like the trendy wardrobe of the preacher, the style of worship music, or the brand of coffee it serves. Those things are cosmetic. Vibe comes from DNA. The DNA of a church manifests itself in a collection of shared values. Sometimes churches have identified and written down those values—they know what their vibe is. Many times churches have not identified those values—and are totally unaware of their own vibe.
And so as a church considers the impression they give to their surrounding community, they might be tempted to think about the cosmetic things. They pay attention to things like worship style, sanctuary appearance, and—yes—the kind of coffee they serve. But vibe is based more on behavior than appearance. And church behavior is an expression of important shared values. And it’s these values that make up the DNA of a congregation. This is ultimately the source of a church’s vibe.
What Your Church Coffee Says About You
Let’s take coffee as the example. Let’s say there is a church that carries a strong shared value for close relationship among all members (typical among smaller churches). That value is part of the DNA that shapes how a church behaves. Chances are this is a church that serves its coffee after the worship service because people value the time they are able to informally stay and interact with each other. The kind of coffee the church serves has nothing to do with the vibe of this moment. As people grab their coffee, the vibe is sent in an obvious signal. The DNA is displayed in an after service coffee time where nearly everyone stays and talks together for an extended time.
But there may be another church that serves coffee on the way in the door before worship begins. People bring their coffee into the service with them. And when the service is over, folks mostly walk straight out to their cars and leave. Maybe this is a church where people value relationships in the context of small groups (or “missional communities” for my hipster-church friends) or other mid-week experiences where the relationship is about more than visiting and chatting, but is about doing something. And so the people of this church pick up coffee in a place that also features clip boards of sign up sheets and postcards with information about different gatherings and opportunities. As people grab their coffee, the vibe is sent in an obvious signal. The DNA is displayed in a menu of opportunities to be involved in relationships that take place doing things outside of the Sunday worship experience.
In both cases, the brand and appearance of the coffee have nothing to do with the vibe of the church. The vibe shows up in how the coffee functions to communicate the DNA of the church. So as it turns out, church coffee really does say something about you. But it has nothing to do with the brand of coffee you serve or the appearance of the serving space. Church vibe does not come from appearance. It comes from DNA. Church DNA comes from the community-shared values. Do you know what your church’s vibe is? And what does your church coffee really say about you?