Seven Differences between Your Church and a Cafeteria

By Thom S. Rainer

I have pretty clear memories of my first visit to a cafeteria. I was five years old, and my parents wanted our family to experience a Morrison’s Cafeteria in Montgomery, Alabama. 

It was amazing. I saw untold numbers of dishes of meats, vegetables, salads, fruits and, of course, desserts. I had never seen anything like it. Mom and Dad had already given my brother and me strict instructions on how much we could choose. But, for a small-town kid who had never seen such a feast, I was amazed. 

The concept was basic. If you paid your money, you could choose whatever you wanted. Your preferences were paramount. It was all about you.

It sounds like some churches we know. 

Though we don’t have the numbers of cafeterias we once had, the lessons are instructive. Simply stated, your church is not a cafeteria. Here are seven differences. 

  1. In a cafeteria, you pay for your preferences. In a church, you should give abundantly and joyfully without expecting anything in return. If you ever hear someone say, “We pay the bills in this church,” you know they act like the church is a cafeteria.
  1. In a cafeteria, the focus is on you. In a church, the focus should be on God first and then others. If you ever hear someone say, “I’m not getting fed in this church,” you know they act like the church is a cafeteria.
  1. In a cafeteria, you demand to have things your way. In a church, you should sacrifice your own needs for others. If you ever hear someone say, “I want the order of service to be like it’s always been,” you know they act like the church is a cafeteria.
  1. In a cafeteria, the business must continue to make things more appealing and attractive for you to return. In a church, you should not expect to be entertained to get you to come back. If you ever hear someone say, “I’m going to a church where the music is more exciting,” you know they act like the church is a cafeteria.
  1. In a cafeteria, if the customer does not get his or her way, the business must make every effort to address and remedy his or her complaint. In a church, we should be so busy doing for others and serving Christ that we don’t have time or the desire to whine or complain. If you ever hear someone say, “People are saying . . .”, you know they act like the church is a cafeteria.
  1. In a cafeteria, you have a full staff serving you behind the glass partitions, indulging your every desire. In a church, you should not expect the staff to do all or most of the ministry or service; instead, the members are to do the work of ministry. If you ever hear someone saying, “Pastor, you should . . .”, you know they act like the church is a cafeteria.
  1. In a cafeteria, you will likely complain to others in person or on social media if you are not fully satisfied. In a church, you should not have a gossiping or complaining spirit; instead, you should be building others up. If you ever see someone complain about their church on social media, you know they act like the church is a cafeteria.

Cafeterias were fun when I was a kid. But Morrison’s went out of business and the pieces were picked up by Piccadilly Cafeterias. And Piccadilly declared bankruptcy in 2012. 

The big cafeteria chains have not fared well. And neither will churches if they keep acting like cafeterias.

Posted on February 17, 2020

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Ralph Hough says on

    Thank you, Thom.

    I do use some of your materials with my boards and council to stir and broaden our Kingdom thinking and have used your “I AM A Church Member” as a 6 week sermon series for our people!

    Coming from a denomination that eschews non-denom anything thing and that smacks of a non-confessional approach to church/ministry, I certainly understand the ‘cafeteria’ approach being harmful to the church as listed above. However, maybe it becomes more instructional for us as pastors and teachers who are seeking to make disciples for our Lord to better use God’s good gifts (anything that is not morally or ethically forbidden by Scripture) to win people to Christ. Paul speaks of this in 1 Corinthians 9: 19. So I have responded to each with a basic approach to teaching so as to deal with “Christian Cafeteria’ thinking of both churches and attendees!

    1. Generosity – turning takers into willing givers
    2. Salvation and life eternal
    3. Humility calls for humble order
    4. Accepting what is, knowing that God works through those who love and obey His
    5. Address spiritual needs by asking “Why do you think this?” or “What makes you say
    that?” – Seeking to understand what people are seeking for building in them
    Kingdom plans and purposes
    6. Training to equip for serving
    7. Matthew 18 – confront them individually first before assuming the worst

    I know this akin to preaching to the choir… Thanks for your time!

  • Linda Tyne says on

    Great read and food for thought! thank you Mr Rainer! In our church we have a member who pushes and pushes for messages to not be more than 30 minutes long. he sets a timer and when it goes off gets up and walks out and makes sure that the pastor and everyone around him knows he’s leaving. He wants control but so far hasn’t made any inroads. Most messages here are 35 to 40 minutes long – not sure what he does when he goes to a movie. But, his attitude is disheartening and he will not discuss it. Guess he doesn’t care for the choices on the menu. 🙂

  • Good points but allow me to clarify one (in my seldom humble opinion!) I person should be a tad selfish. God provides us with multiple worship opportunities because some are best for certain people and others are the best way for others to grow closer to God. The rock band does not feed me but I am thankful to God that it exists because it is a spiritual path for other people. So if a person is not being ‘fed’ spiritually, they should politely and sincerely discuss their needs with their pastor and, if needed, find the place where they are fed. Worship is intended to move us closer to God and provide us with the sustenance to serve God. If that is not true, I encourage people to find a place that feeds them.

  • Unfortunately, a better title would have been “7 reasons your church is like a cafeteria.” Great article, could not have been more spot on in a self-first culture that has undoubtedly made its mark on most churches as well.

    • Ralph Hensley says on

      Thanks Andrew. We were recently discuss the “me first” world in which we live today. I don’t know if this phenomena is only relevant to the US or is the attitude worldwide or at minimum throughout the industrialized nations. It appears to me that we’ve gotten ourselves into this “me first” environment by taking our focus off of the “family first” and the relationships between each other especially our neighbors. It seems that the electronic “social” environment in which we live today has played a huge part in not only bringing us closer together but also in dividing us and focusing on the “me first.”

  • Guy in the Pew says on

    Nice thoughts but all just wishful thinking.

    How many articles, blogs, and books have been written on this same subject about how church members shouldn’t be concerned about preferences but about ministry? And yet, this mentality gets more entrenched everyday. The truth is as long as church leaders continue to present the church as a cafeteria members will view it as a cafeteria. As long as church leaders are more concerned with making consumers rather than disciples none of this will change. As long as you have multiple churches on the same block competing for business members will continue to be indulged. As longs as church members continue to threaten to take their business elsewhere they will be pandered to.

    The truth is the American church is not a Biblical church. It is a consumer based business masquerading as a church.

    You can write all the blogs you want but the only thing that will change the current model is intense persecution that renders the current model unprofitable and forces people to reexamine the Biblical purpose of the church.

    • Craig Giddens says on

      I think if church members would focus on studying the Bible and do what Paul says and rightly divide the word of truth, this would do more to render the current model unprofitable and force people to reexamine the Biblical purpose of the church. Why wait for persecution when the answers are in the Bible.

      • Guy in the Pew says on

        Persecution is a Biblical answer. Besides, while we’re waiting for something, I believe persecution will happen a whole lot sooner than church members en mass focusing on studying the Bible.

      • Craig Giddens says on

        Studying the Bible is the “Biblical answer”. Nowhere are we told to seek persecution, but we are told to study.

        1 Timothy 4:13 Till I come, give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine.

        2 Timothy 2:15 Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

        2 Timothy 3:16-17 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.

        2 Timothy 4:2-4 Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.

        Titus 2:1 But speak thou the things which become sound doctrine

      • Guy in the pew says on

        Anyone who desires to Godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.

        In this world you will have trouble.

        It’s no accident the two churches in Revelation under persecution received no criticism.
        If Christians aren’t receiving some sort of persecution from a godless world then something’s wrong.

      • Craig Giddens says on

        Guy in the pew said “The truth is the American church is not a Biblical church. It is a consumer based business masquerading as a church” and “persecution is a Biblical answer” which seems to be contradictory to what the Bible says … “all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12).

        If the American church is not a Biblical church (as Guy in the pew says) then most likely it won’t face persecution since they are most likely not living Godly lives. Those living Godly lives are the ones who will be persecuted. What the American church needs is salvation and spiritual growth which comes from the preaching and teaching of the word of God.

      • Guy in the Pew says on

        If you don’t think God uses persecution to bring about spiritual revival, you’ve never studied the Bible. The church is there buried under the façade of what we typically see on Sunday morning. Just as gold is refined by fire, so the church is refined by persecution. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely believe in the primacy of preaching God’s Word but we live in a time when nobody seems to take God’s Word seriously, a famine of the Word as Amos put it. Remember as well that God’s Word often promises judgement, not just eternal judgement but judgment in this world.

        But I go back to my original point: How many books, articles, and blogs have been written on this subject and yet nothing changes. And as long as the current model is profitable, there is no reason to change. You want the church to change from within and voluntarily set aside profits. That’s never going to happen. The catalyst for change will have to come from the outside, just as it did for Israel so many times.

  • David Rollins says on

    Can I reprint this in a newsletter as long as I give you credit?

  • So well articulated… especially in Established-Heritage churches that have for so long applied the “Favorite Desserts” on the menu and have kept the “Spiritually Healthy Meat” off … Hebrews 5:12-14
    How do we go about getting permission to “reprint” some of these points for our Church Newsletter as It does get posted on-line and want to make certain I am abiding by copyright.

  • Jerry N Watts says on

    The reality of this article is stark and true. Makes me sad when I view it through the lens of one who visits many churches. I pray we can turn the tide on these things..

    • Ralph Hensley says on

      Jerry, Why is it that you visit many churches? What are you searching? I am interested as I too visit many churches looking for a place where I feel I belong. Looking forward to your reply, Ralph

  • Article is SPOT ON!

    Your insight brought back memories of the first time I ate at a Wyatt’s cafeteria at Big Town Mall in Dallas. Thanks.

  • james hunt says on

    Maybe the problem is that the western church approach has, in general a consumeristic model. Attraction, entertaining music, charismatic communicators, fancy buildings, etc. Maybe the problem is the church model, not the people coming. We set up a cafeteria for them then complain about what the members/attenders are doing. Just a thought…..

    • Indeed! No maybe about it! Get people to come to church. Get people to give to the church. Get people to come to the church on time. Get people to serve (at) the church. Hmmm, I see a pattern of focusing on ‘the church’. We even equate this focus as commitment (to God?) but perhaps if our focus was on the Kingdom and the King…

      Oh, wait, Jesus seems to have something to say. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you…”

      Naw, can’t be…. He hasn’t had to deal with our culture today….

      • Don’t forget that Jesus declared that he will “build his church” (Matt 16:18) so the church is part of God’s program to build His Kingdom. The vast majority of the Epistles were written to local churches. It is through the church that God seeks to build His Kingdom at this point.

  • Very timely blog. Thank you!

  • David G Troublefield, PhD, DMin says on

    The 4 must-do’s (“functional imperatives”) of cafeterias AND congregations: integration, motivation, adaptation, and goal achievement. Without these, cafeterias AND congregations become unhealthy organizationally, their reasons-for-being are not fulfilled, nobody is served well by them, and their ceasing to exist logically follows.

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