Caffeine Nation

The self-confessed addict stares at the tablespoon of white powder on the table in front of him. He knows that to ingest less than 1% of this substance will give him a subtle boost, making him feel energised, alert – perhaps even happier. A little more would give him a bigger high, but if he were to consume much more, say 10%, he’d feel some potentially unpleasant side-effects. His heart would race, he’d begin sweating; his head might begin to ache. If he were to consume the whole spoonful, he’d almost certainly die. So an addict needs to be very careful about quantity.

This substance isn’t cocaine, or some other illegal drug, and this addict is no destitute junkie on the margins of society. This man is a regular person like you or me, and the potentially lethal substance on his spoon is something that most of us enjoy daily: caffeine.

If the pub was the social hub of the 20th century, the coffee shop is its new-millennium replacement

Caffeine consumption in the West is now at an all-time high, thanks partly to the emerging popularity in recent years of energy drinks such as Red Bull. Caffeine has found an unspoken but important place at the heart of our meetings and even our work ethics. Yet how much do we really know about this substance and what it does to us? Is it time we asked some searching questions about the addictive drug in our midst?

Caffeine Jolts

American journalist Murray Carpenter is the author of the new book Caffeinated: How our daily habit hooks, helps and hurts us (Collins). He sets the scene described above – in which he stares at caffeine in its pure, chemical form – before
embarking on an international journey that traces the rise and influence of the stimulant. It takes him from the coffee farms of Colombia to the tea rooms of China, and into the surprisingly lawsuit-filled worlds of caffeine gum and ‘extreme’ energy drinks.

On his travels he makes a range of startling discoveries, such as his claim that the amount of caffeine in two standard cups of coffee can vary wildly, even when served from the same café. He also meets researchers who explain and analyse the caffeine withdrawal symptoms that many of us know from attempts to abstain from the habit. One of these men, Roland Griffiths, tells him that regular caffeine consumption has all the features of drug abuse: ‘That is, it alters mood, it produces physical dependence and withdrawal upon abstinence, and some proportion of the population becomes dependent on it.’

Which of course is the most compelling and unsettling aspect of Carpenter’s argument. Caffeine is a potentially dangerous and (in various ways) addictive drug which, when reduced to pure form, looks and behaves very much like a Class A substance. Yet to make it similarly illegal would send a multi-billion-dollar industry into meltdown, and that, as we know from tobacco, simply won’t happen. So if big business is the key factor behind caffeine’s unchecked and unregulated rise, shouldn’t we be a little more questioning of it?

Café Culture

If the pub was the social hub of the 20th century, the coffee shop is its new-millennium replacement. The volume of outlets belies the size of the market: coffee chains are huge, not only because the drug they sell
makes us feel energised, but because the culture they sell makes us feel comfortable, sociable and even cool.

Caffeinated drinks have become a bizarre mix between status symbol and badge of honour

Many churches have fully embraced this coffee shop culture. Some, such as Chicago’s Willow Creek or Nottingham’s Trent Vineyard, have even installed Starbucks-style cafés on their premises. These churches know that cafés naturally draw a crowd, and also enable relaxed conversation, informal meetings, mentoring sessions and more. Their existence owes much more to the atmosphere they create than the products they sell, but they do – viewed through Carpenter’s lens at least – turn churches into peddlers of a mainstream legal drug.

Service with a smile

Long before Willow Creek created their Starbucks-beating coffee lounge, local churches everywhere had built caffeinated beverages into their DNA. ‘Join us for tea and coffee after the service’ has been a staple announcement in churches all over the Western world for decades. The idea that good conversation is facilitated by hot caffeinated drinks is a part of church culture. A more recent development has been the realisation in many churches that it’s not just the provision but the quality of your drinks that matters. Instant coffee, so long the darling of the parish church drinks table, has been replaced by its superior filter equivalent; the faithful hot water urn upgraded by an array of complex and impressive brewing machines.

This is almost certainly a good thing. It sends out entirely the wrong message if church is the one place in society where the hot drinks still taste like grit. Yet the transition to, and maintenance of, a quality coffee point is expensive, especially for a small church. Which then begs the question – how important is the quality of church coffee to the extension of the kingdom?

But the quality is by no means the most spiritually significant element to the beverages we consume. One very positive way in which the Church has engaged with caffeine in recent years is through its spearheading role in the fair trade movement. It is surely unconscionable to drink something that we know has been created in a context of injustice, and the Christian organisation Traidcraft is just one of a number of faith-based organisations that have sought to bring values of justice to developing world supply lines, especially around the coffee and tea industries. On a local level, many churches now run fair trade stalls, with these drinks usually being flagship items.

Idolatry and attachment

Used in moderation, most people would agree that caffeine use is perfectly acceptable. Sometimes we all just need a little help to wake up. The problem comes when the use of caffeine becomes more than just recreational, and begins in some way to take control of us.

That might not necessarily mean a physical addiction. For some of us, caffeinated drinks have become a bizarre mix of status symbol and badge of honour. It seems almost laughable that we could root any part of our identity in the carrying around of a branded coffee cup, yet in the past decade it’s become part of the aspirational uniform of the urban professional. Being seen with the right branded beverage as you zip through the streets on your morning commute can make a big impact on how you feel about yourself. At best that’s a bit silly; at worst, it’s a form of idolatry.

Our excitement about, and attachment to, certain coffee brands is no accident, of course. Starbucks and the rest plough a small fortune into the marketing budgets, subtly appealing to our desires to relax, consume aspirational goods and look and feel cool or culturally relevant. Similarly, energy drinks such as Red Bull seek to appeal to our desire to be superhuman: to achieve more than ‘normal people’ can. But it’s not just the individual chains and brands which market to us. The powerful, multi-billion-dollar caffeine industries have been seeking to shape the way we view these drinks for well over half a century.

In the 1950s, Carpenter explains, American marketeers successfully introduced the term ‘coffee break’ into the global lexicon (to a lesser extent, Diet Coke hijacked it in the 1990s). Then in the 1960s, the Madison Avenue ‘Mad Men’ invented Juan Valdez, a white-hatted Colombian folk hero who did for arabica beans what the Marlboro man did for cigarettes. Ever since they did, caffeine consumption has enjoyed a steady rise, Colombia asserting itself as a dominant coffee producer for reasons of marketing as much as taste. As in the case of all advertised products, sometimes we simply don’t realise that our choices are being made for us.

Benign Addictions

For some of us though, caffeine has become more than a habit. We’d claim we can stop at any moment, but deep down we know we’d get withdrawal symptoms if we did (much as we would if we stopped taking any other drug). One of the women Carpenter speaks to claims she doesn’t have an addiction, and only consumes two cups of coffee each morning, which she doesn’t need. When he asks her when was the last morning she didn’t have those two cups of coffee, she smiles and replies: ‘about 35 years ago’.

The desire to do more things than we were designed to do with the aid of stimulants seems entirely out of sync with a biblical view of rest and rhythm

What’s interesting is that we see and categorise addictions differently. We see some addictions as benign and others as malevolent, with the law and culture drawing the dividing lines for us. Class A drugs are illegal and dangerous; tobacco is now widely rejected socially. Caffeine consumption and – as Caffeinated terms it – addiction, is seen almost positively in comparison. Just because something is legal and popular, however, doesn’t make it healthy (just ask recovering pornography addicts). In the Bible, Paul talks of the body as ‘a temple of the Holy Spirit’, encouraging us to ‘glorify God in your body’ (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, ESV), and surely this should be our plumbline for what we consume. A few verses earlier, he says, ‘I will not be enslaved by anything’ (v12). The Bible seems quite clear on the fact that whatever culture says, all addictions are unhelpful.

Doing less in a do-more culture

Recent years have seen the emergence of a new kind of caffeine consumption. Red Bull, the humble sports drink which originated in Thailand but first appeared in the UK at the very end of the last millennium, has become one of the world’s biggest brands at the sort of pace that it claims to unleash in its consumers. With its offer to ‘give you wings’, it quickly captured the imagination of a generation of people struggling with that age-old problem of time poverty. Red Bull, and the wide range of copycat drinks which followed it, delivers on its promise to make us more alert and, in the short term at least, more energised. There’s a dark side, however: much of the latter half of Caffeinated is devoted to telling the story of high-profile deaths linked to these energy drinks, and the resulting health authority investigations.

Regardless of the potential dangers, this desire to do more things than we were designed to do with the aid of stimulants – be they Red Bull, coffee or even tablets such as Pro Plus – seems entirely out of sync with a biblical view of rest and rhythm. God’s work ethic includes a full day of rest each week; time spent eating and sharing in community with no sense of rush; time devoted to silence and prayer. If we buy in to the caffeine culture, we risk marginalising and even ignoring these things. The Church is called to be different in ways exactly like this, and yet caffeine consumption appears to be at the very heart of Church culture.

I wrote the first section of this article in a branch of a well-known coffee chain. As I write the conclusion, a half-drunk bottle of Diet Coke sits on my desk. Like all addicts, the test is whether I can give up if I wanted to, and thanks to the marketing men, I don’t. Is it time we all took a look at the place caffeine has in our lives and in our churches and asked: is it healthy?