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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  • lovelypeace says on

    I have to disagree with the “being fed” argument. I find the complaining about those who complain about not being “fed” as disingenuous at times, especially because a lot of people simply are being fed surface level “baby Christian” material – when they aren’t “baby Christians” anymore. And leadership (by their behavior and the environment they’ve created) doesn’t encourage people to “level up” in a meaningful ways (in some churches, not all).

    That doesn’t mean that we view church as a cafeteria. It means that we don’t want to put up with a toxic and destructive behavior anymore.

    A lot of lay people accept and realize that everyone (including church staff) has bad days, but bad days aren’t supposed to last 365 days out of the year. After a certain point, it’s not you that has the problem. It’s the other person and if the other people are in church leadership….then eventually, decent people will move on to other churches and complain about not being fed. It’s legitimate to complain because they starving for the love that they keep hearing about and aren’t receiving. And when you’ve been to other churches where you are treated well…..that just makes the choice to leave a lot easier.

    It’s not about just “being selfish”. Regrettably, this is the circumstance my family is going through and we are moving on because my husband is just at the point where he will not attend church at our current church anymore. I was able to reel him back a few months ago, but now he’s just “over it”. He will not go back. Ever. The main issue is leadership not wanting to deal with toxic staff people. We continue to pray for the situation because we have good friends at the church, but we just can’t be in it anymore. The bad outweighs the good at this point.

  • This is all well and good … if the only people we want to reach are mature believers. If we want to reach people who are far from God, we cannot expect them to show maturity. Ephesians 4 says it’s the job of church leadership to help move people towards maturity, but the implication is that they (we) start as children. We have to teach them that the church is not a cafeteria, but that takes time and patience. However, it is certainly a problem when people who have been part of the church for decades demand to have things their way.

    Some years ago there was a song that began:
    “It’s all about you, Jesus,
    and all this is for you,
    for the glory of your name.
    It’s not about me,
    as if you should do things my way.
    You alone are God, and I surrender to your ways.”

    I love that song!

  • michael coxwell says on

    Can I share this on our social media?

  • It’s hard to tell a family they are dysfunctional in a counseling session because that is their normal and it is a reality that they have created even though it doesn’t work. When family or in this case organizational systems, relational systems failures show up, the solution is the cafeteria model instead of family systems therapy. Applying mechanistic models that promote cold engineering processes instead of looking at the way people relate to God, the self, and the fellow man in balance. It is not only the people who go to the cafeteria but the ones designing and running them. Sometimes the norm becomes abnormal and it is hard to break free from a familiar and unproductive way of living. IMHO

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