Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Church and Starbucks

A friend sent me a video link that touched off some thoughts linking the church and Starbucks:

FIRST, the video link: It’s called “What if Starbucks marketed itself like the church?”
It’s an amusing, but biting, satirical look at how our efforts at “hospitality” (evangelism) may be seen by outsiders. A young couple enters “Starbucks,” simply looking for the refreshment of a “cup of coffee” and is bombarded by a medley of self-serving, corporate-centered tactics. It’s worth watching and discussing on many levels. You may see yourself or your congregation there.

SECOND, it made me pull out my copy of Leonard Sweet’s “The Gospel According to Starbuck’s” once again and read on page 15 how he thinks the word “evangelism,” which has its root in “good news,” has been sullied by its practice in our own nation and our own time. Sweet writes:

“The church has taught evangelism as a meeting of two antagonists—one righteous and right, the other dead wrong. The point of evangelism, according to this school of thought, is to win an argument. Evangelism has also been taught as a spiritual sales pitch, more nuanced perhaps than a religious argument but still relying on high pressure and ultimately committed to closing the deal. And if not an argument or a sales pitch, the gospel is neutered or reduced to an objective, nonrelational exercise in logic. The strategy is to convince others, not to appeal to them.”

Watch the video again for reinforcement of the idea.

Sweet continues:
“Somehow the church lost touch with the meaning of good news. And why wouldn’t Christians lose touch with the heart of the gospel? I’ve never met anyone who was energized by cliché one-liners and subcultural kitsch. But offer people a meaningful, earth-changing mission and then just try to hold them back! The Jesus example of meaning and passion over duty and obligation moves people. Starbucks understands his, and so should the church.”

Sweet’s own model for the church and for evangelism in a postmodern age is his “EPIC” model. It’s a model he probably spells out more fully in his book, “Postmodern Pilgrims,” but which he repeats again here:

• It is Experiential.
• It is Participatory.
• It is Image-rich.
• It is Connective.

THIRD, I remembered an old article in Christianity Today, still available (Click Here)
Entitled “Starbucks Spirituality,” that tells the story of Daniel Hill and his ministry to GenXers at Starbucks. Hill and others describe the approaches (mostly in harmony with Sweet’s “EPIC formula) they find are necessary to reach the current generation and the postmodern mindset.

FOURTH: One of the reasons Starbucks thrived is that it set out to be a lifestyle, not a coffee shop, a life house more than a coffee house. It recognized that people need “third places” in which to thrive, places which are not your office and not your home. Those third places are places where conversation, community and interaction take place. Interestingly enough, Starbucks began to run into trouble when it expanded its business so fast and in so many venues (kiosks, vending machines, airports, etc.) that it ceased to be a “third place” and just a seller of coffee. People discovered they could get their coffee cheaper at Seven-Eleven.
The church needs to be reminded of the importance of “third places” in people’s lives. Clearly the church itself can be such a “third place,” and it is for many. Time and again, when I ask people what they like about their congregation, they say “This is my Christian family. This is the place where I come for love and support and service and growth.”
But the church must recognize that there are other “third places” – like Starbucks or even the corner pub – where the church might be part of the conversation. Perhaps the current generation can show us the way.

And FINALLY: As a Lutheran who is both missional and confessional (I think the two go hand-in-hand.), I find the Experiential, Participatory, Image-rich, Connective (EPIC) formula to be stylistically valuable, but potentially weak in substance. The message one could take is that the approach should work regardless of the “product”, whether that product be coffee or the gospel of Jesus Christ. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it, or Starbucks! We need to be in dialog with the culture, but that dialog must always be a prophetic dialog and prophetic dialog ultimately moves beyond a relational formula to a prophetic certainty of “Thus says the Lord.”. At the moment I can’t find the source for the quote below, but it describes “prophetic dialog”.

“Mission must by all means be dialogical, since it is nothing else finally than the participation in the dialogical nature of the triune, missionary God. But it must be prophetic as well, since, at bottom, there can be no real dialogue when truth is not expressed and clearly articulated.”

The challenge, I suppose, is to express prophetic truth in an Experiential, Participatory, Image-rich, Connective way. Classic deconstructive, relativistic Postmodernism has had trouble linking those two strands. So has the kind of Modernism described in Sweet’s first quote above. Perhaps in the emerging constructive, collaborative, dialogical Convergence Culture described in other postings, it may be possible. There the primary role may be neither that of a polemicist, apologist, or even a relationship starter, but the role of a witness. A witness may be both “EPIC” and prophetic..

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The video does a realistic job of describing first impressions all the way from the locked doors to the reserved parking spots. I travel quite a bit and am always surprised how often I approach a church on Sunday morning and have to hunt around to find the way to get into the sanctuary -- and I am a dedicated "churchgoer" !!!