Has coffee become an idol in the modern Church?

'I could give up any time I want,' says the addict, before pouring himself another cup of aromatic black liquid.

Coffee is the world's favourite legal drug, a multi-billion dollar industry that keeps half the world alert; the go-to beverage of the high-functioning business leader and the hipster alike. Yet no-one really wants to think too hard about what it's doing to our health, and it remains dogged by accusations of slavery and unjust trade. You're possibly holding a cup of it even as you read this. But if you're honest, is it really holding you?

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In the church, coffee has taken on a worryingly important status. Not only do we dish it out before or after every service, but we tend to use it as an accompaniment to every meeting. Coffee shops throughout the land are littered with pastors planning their next sermon with a stack of commentaries, a Macbook Pro* and a succession of flat whites. We post pictures of our coffee cups on social media; we bore on to anyone who'll listen about the latest funky brewing techniques. Coffee has become the official drink of the christian subculture – and sometimes that's not entirely healthy.

*separate idolatry article needed

Given that the Church often has an unhealthy relationship with the idea of work-life balance, the idea of a substance which enables us to work longer and harder is a bit dangerous. Many of us involved in ministry glory in our ability to appear productive on a super-human scale, while often the expectations we place on our leaders to deliver a succession of brilliant talks alongside all their other duties are way beyond what can be realistically expected. The use of coffee as a drug that pushes us harder that we're meant to work has become as normalised in the church as it has outside it.

There's probably a link here with the temperance movement. The friars of the middle ages (or at least the one in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) would have merrily written a sermon while consuming jugs of home-brewed ale. We're obviously a long way past the days when people like – well, Jesus – would share a message over a few glasses of wine, but perhaps all we've done is substitute one more socially-acceptable drug for another.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with a few cups of delicious coffee in moderation. Everything is permissible, and all that. The desire to brew good-quality coffee at church comes from a great motive, and extends a welcome which better values our visitors. Sitting down to focus on the tasks of the day with a bit of brain-sharpening caffeine is a lot more beneficial than a 9am appointment with your to-do list and a G+T. The problems come when we let our self-discipline slip, and coffee either becomes a dependency, or an idol... or both.

Our caffeinated drinks – and indeed the brand or brewing style we choose – can quickly land somewhere between a status symbol and a badge of honour. Although it all feels a bit laughable when you stop to deconstruct it, some of us even root a little bit of our self-esteem in being seen with the right cup as we zoom through the morning commute (that's not a coincidence of course; coffee chains invest millions in marketing to make their brands more aspirational). And let me be the first to admit: there is something strangely self-inflating about sitting in a super-cool cafe drinking extra-special coffee that's been brewed in a test tube. It can make one feel a little smug and superior about the proles who bear that revolting instant stuff (ignoring the fact that it's more affordable).

All of that is a subjective matter of the heart, however. What's really dangerous is what addicted, continuous coffee consumption is doing to us. Aside from the debated health effects, and the fact that it can lead to seriously antisocial breath issues, caffeine drinks are designed to help us do even more in a culture of endless distractions and opportunities, when what we really need is regular rest. I write this on International Coffee Day apparently, and yes, while drinking a coffee. Perhaps, if we're honest, caffeine has become the vice that crept up on us. You don't need to switch to decaf, but maybe it's worth becoming just a little more aware of the harm that innocent-looking cup can do.

Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. Follow him on Twitter @martinsaunders.

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