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The Gospel According to Starbucks

By Chris Carpenter Program Director - For coffee drinkers, there is nothing quite like wrapping your hands around a steamy, aromatic cup of your favorite blend first thing in the morning. You cherish the quiet surge of happiness you feel as the richly dark hues in your mug fade to a robust tan upon adding cream. If you are a “real” coffee connoisseur you absolutely relish the jolting sting of coffee taken black.  

For better or worse, coffee has become more than just a caffeinated drink favored by cowboys, corporate executives, and stay at home moms looking for an edge. Coffee is more than a drink.  It is a savory experience.

No one understands this better than Starbucks. Customers flock to Starbucks not to stand in line to order a cup of overpriced coffee. They come for the Starbucks experience. For you see, there is nothing like connecting with friends over the warmth of a cup of coffee.

Noted theologian Leonard Sweet believes the Church can learn a great deal from Starbucks. In his book, “The Gospel According to Starbucks” (WaterBrook Press), Sweet argues that many Christians completely miss the warmth and richness of the experience of living with God due to a Church’s failure to attract and engage people in meaningful ways. Program Director Chris Carpenter sat down with Sweet to discuss coffee, Christianity, and how Starbucks does a better job of evangelizing than your local church.

Chris Carpenter: Let’s jump right into this. What is it about coffee that is so appealing to people?

Leonard Sweet: It is a social lubricant.  It is a drink that when you sit down, it is just part of hospitality. You ask somebody to sit down and ask them what they want to drink. Food was really important to Jesus. He had these food rituals and hospitality rituals. I think it is important for us too, whether it is tea, coffee, whatever.  But it is just as important to us as a social lubricant.

Carpenter: Let’s take that up a notch. What is it about Starbucks that is so appealing to people?  I must confess, I am one of these people who will go into a Starbucks because there is just something about that place. When I walk in there is something that screams ‘you need to be here.’

Sweet: I am arguing that the brain that has been wired by digital electronic culture is being wired in more EPIC directions. In other words, print technology wired the brain in a certain way and the church got accustomed to the way that brain was wired. The Church got comfortable doing ministry in that culture. There is a whole new culture out there that is wired very differently by digital electronic culture. And Starbucks understands this.

Carpenter: Let’s jump into that a little bit. How or why do you equate Starbucks with the Gospel message? Based on the title of your book you are obviously making comparisons here.

Sweet: This culture is hungry for an experience. You can have all the experiences you want but your soul, your being was made for only one experience that is going to bring you fulfillment and wholeness. That is an experience with God. So if anybody should understand the hunger of this culture for experience it ought to be the Church.

Carpenter: In your book, you focus heavily on an acronym you have created called EPIC. It stands for Experiential, Participatory, Image Rich, and Connective. How does this connect a coffee shop with the Church?

Sweet: When you go to Starbucks you get an experience. You don’t pay money for a cup of coffee. I don’t go to Starbucks to say ‘give me a cup of coffee’ please. That is because there is no such thing as a general cup of coffee anymore. The modern world is shaped by that culture. Electronic culture creates interactive people. It creates participatory people. Nobody can take a General Foods approach anymore. It’s got to be customized. It’s got to be made personal just for you. This is the whole notion of the Incarnation. The Incarnation is that God became one of us and by one of us I mean not a generic one of us but an individual for all cultures, for all people. The idea of everything being participatory today is huge. As far as Image, the modern world is all about words. We learn how to critically interpret words. Advertisers don’t waste their time giving you words. They give you images. The cultural currency is images. Then why is the Church so silent?  With Christianity, image is everything for us. The image is Jesus Christ.  He is the image of God.  That is who we should be lifting up.

Carpenter: Connected to that concept, you say in your book that the Church has lost touch with the meaning of the Good News.  What do you mean by that?

Sweet: The worst thing we can do is create a post modern church. We ought to create an authentically Biblical church for whatever the culture is. That is where we went wrong. Modern Christianity is more modern than it is Christian. Most churches when they are fighting “worship wars”, they are not fighting to preserve biblical Christianity. They are fighting to preserve modern culture. It’s more about style over substance. I don’t want to create that. Let’s not let that happen. We can learn from that. Let’s not make that same mistake again. We probably will but we can at least minimize it.

Carpenter: Why do you think Christians have a lot to learn about faith as a “lived” experience?

Sweet: This has been so much about ideas. Christianity is not a set of ideas. It is not a set of propositions. Christianity is a relationship. It is a set of relationships and the ultimate one is a relationship with Jesus Christ.  He introduces us into a relationship with God. In the modern world we have made Christianity into this set of ideas. If you are living out of your ideas what do you have?

Carpenter: How do we fix that disconnect? 

Sweet: That is where we need to get the C in EPIC. It is all about the connections. It is all about the relationship. We need to understand that truth is a person for the Christian. It is not a principle. It is not a proposition. This country was founded on a set of principles and a proposition. Christianity is not another person. You see, Islam, Judaism, and other religions are very propositional.  It is life or death. Propositions are important but they come out of the relationship.  It is the relationship that comes first. Jesus didn’t die for a proposition. He died to restore us into a right relationship with God.

Carpenter: What is your ultimate goal for “The Gospel According to Starbucks”?

Sweet: I am hoping that churches will use it to look at their whole ministry and say ‘are we geared up to incarnate the Gospel in this culture?’ By using EPIC as a checklist, determine how we can make whatever we are doing more experiential? Whatever we are doing, can we make it more participatory? Whatever we are doing can we make it more image rich? Whatever we are doing can we make it more relational – more connected? If churches will do that a renaissance awaits them.

Carpenter: The problem is that many churches are often resistant. And with that said, you are now talking about a revolution or a fragmentation within your church. You are going to have a collection of people in your church who want change but yet the “church fathers”, the governing body of your church, are satisfied with the status quo. The end result is a difference in philosophy that could seriously divide and ultimately destroy a congregation. 

Sweet:  To settle for the status quo is death. It is suicide for a church. Any living organic body is changing. The medical definition of death is a body that does not change.  So, the question is how are you going to change? I am arguing that if you are going to change what you need to do to be a living body is to make an EPIC change. Change experientially, through participation, become more image rich, and be more relational in your outreach.

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