It was called a “brew-haha,” and it all started because you decided to tweet about coffee, Pastor John. On September 30, you posted a quote from Hebrews — and of course a chorus of “he-brews” jokes followed. But that text, Hebrews 12:28, is no joke. It’s an anti-joke, a serious text that raises questions about the tone of our Sunday gatherings.
Hebrews 12:28 says this: “Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe.” And then you followed that text with a comment — even an open question, not a statement. It was this open question: “Can we reassess whether Sunday coffee-sipping in the sanctuary fits?” A provocative question for sure, especially here in the States, where Sunday mornings can be a pretty casual experience in many churches.
Your tweet very quickly got loved, and it got hated, and it got spread all over the Internet, like things tend to do that are both loved and hated. After a couple weeks, it had 1,000 retweets, 1,500 comments, 3,000 likes, and 2.7 million views, and it sparked feature articles from Fox News here in the States and the Daily Mail in the UK.
I didn’t see any of that, Tony. I did not see one retweet. I follow my one hundred people, and those people are all nice people. This was all news to me when people said, “Have you seen what happened to your tweet?” I said, “I have not seen anything,” nor to this moment have I. So, what you’re saying — I’m taking your word for it.
All right, well, all of that is true. And thousands of people loved what you said online, too, just to be clear. At least as many people loved the tweet as hated it. Not knowing if you had seen all of the responses (and assuming you had not), I gathered up a dozen or so of the themes I saw and sent you a digest of responses to see if you were willing to jump in and address this hot-button topic further. You said yes, so here we are.
I doubt this will be one episode. Likely, it will be a little series on transcendence in our Sunday worship. We’ll see. So let me start this conversation by simply asking, Now, after seeing this huge online response, and reading a digest of some of the themes of what people were saying in response, what’s your response?
Let me try to get right to the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter is not coffee in the sanctuary. That’s only a symptom, and there are lots of other symptoms of what I’m concerned about. The heart of the matter is the absence of an existential, ongoing, terrifying, shocking, awe-inspiring, trembling, mouth-shutting, comforting, safe, satisfying encounter with the majesty and mercy of the great “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14), whose Son said, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). And he was killed for it.
More Than a Coffee Mug
What’s missing is a kind of experience of God that shapes a person’s entire life with serious joy, glad gravity, sweet sorrow, the weight of glory. It’s the kind of experience of God that has transformed reverence and awe — those two words from Hebrews 12:28, “reverence and awe” — from being mere words into being the profoundest of experiential pleasures.
And I say all of that without denying the preciousness of the ordinary, the down-to-earth, the everyday, the casual, the kiss-your-baby-on-the-cheek life that we live most of the time. I’m not calling the preciousness of any of that into question when I talk about what I’m so concerned about here.
I’m pleading for the kind of experience of God that makes a person hungry for regular encounters with God and his people that capture and embody something of his majesty, something of the infinite scope of his boundless power and inscrutable wisdom and furious wrath and sovereign grace that leave the awestruck soul speechless with thankfulness and then overflowing with the praises of serious joy, lofted on the wings of the kind of gladness that soars only in the atmosphere of the grandeur of God. That’s what I’m after. That’s what I so long for, for myself and for others.
“The heart of the problem is not the absence of rules, but the absence of reverence.”
I’m arguing that many Christians have not tasted this existential, terrifying, awe-inspiring, trembling, mouth-shutting, comforting, safe, satisfying encounter with the mercy and majesty of God. Therefore, when they hear me question the appropriateness of coffee-sipping in a certain atmosphere of reverence and awe, they have no experiential categories to grasp what I’m talking about. Inside their experience of God, nothing is more natural than to meet him in worship, coffee mug in hand. It’s just so natural. “What’s Piper all worked up about?” they say.
So, the heart of the matter is not the coffee mug in hand. It’s the absence of a kind of experience with God that would make a Christian soul long for regular encounters with God and his people that are so profoundly satisfying in the depth of their being, with his majesty and his sweetness, in the seriousness of their joy and the weightiness of his glory, that a coffee mug would simply feel strangely out of place.
Let me try to shed light on what I’m saying by simply putting two kinds of Scripture side by side. The one that I quoted in the tweet is from Hebrews 12. Let me give the context. Here’s what it says:
See that you do not refuse him who is speaking [that is, God]. For if they [the Old Testament Hebrews] did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” . . . Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. (verses 25–26, 28–29)
That’s really serious. And so, God says in Isaiah 66:2, “This is the one to whom I will look: he who . . . trembles at my word.” Now, that’s one dimension.
Here’s the other dimension: Matthew 11:28–30. This is Jesus now:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
God is our friend. He’s our Savior, our Shepherd, a person with whom we can relax. Yes, we can be close, casual. We can. He will meet you in your pajamas in the middle of the night. Yes, he will. I know that from a thousand experiences.
My concern is that, in the last forty years or so, the evangelical church has put so much emphasis on the casual, the intimate, the “come as you are,” the accessibility of the gentle Christ, that two unfortunate things have happened.
One is that this emphasis has morphed into a pervasive form of entertainment-like worship, with an atmosphere of chipper, funny, lighthearted cheerleading, so that nothing would feel more natural than to grab your drink and join the party as we go into the worship space. And the other effect of this lopsided emphasis on the casual approachability of God is that the kind of existential encounter with the majesty of God that I’m talking about has become, for many people, inconceivable and, therefore, undesirable.
The irony of this is that I’m really a low-church kind of guy. I don’t think the solution to this problem is the embrace of a prescribed, formal liturgy. I think that approach to corporate worship does not provide enough freedom, and it can be too vulnerable to sounding like empty, rote recitation. I think the way forward is not rules.
In fact, when I think about rules, I don’t think that in my 33 years as a pastor I ever said anything to people about bringing drinks into the sanctuary, pro or con. I don’t think I ever mentioned it in 33 years. The heart of the problem is not the absence of rules, but the absence of reverence.
So, the way forward is (1) a fuller, deeper vision of God, (2) more God-centered, serious, passionate, Bible-saturated, whole-counsel-of-God preaching, and (3) worship leadership that fosters an atmosphere of sustained, God-focused, experiential gladness and gravity, with minimal distractions from a radically vertical orientation.
Maybe next time, Tony, we could go there. We could try to get more nitty-gritty practical for pastors and people about how they can move a church away from inappropriate casualness in worship and toward something better.