A while back I stood on a street corner in a major U.S. city and counted five Starbucks stores within my limited range of vision. I wondered what on earth they were thinking; weren't they concerned all these stores would cannibalize each other? Well, no, they weren't concerned at all, and their reasoning sheds light on the company's phenomenal success --- and what the church can learn from the Starbucks knack for engaging the culture and transforming it in the process. THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO STARBUCKS offers a delightful romp through the world of a company that changed the way we take our cup o' joe. And along the way, the book offers a wealth of insights that will help the church engage the culture --- and maybe, just maybe, help transform it, changing the way people relate to God and express their faith.
But first, to the author. If Leonard Sweet's contribution to the literature of the church was limited to his academic, theological works on postmodernism, that would be enough to earn our gratitude. The fact that he also remembers the masses makes his writing a doubly valuable asset. This is one of his books for the masses, and for reasons I can't quite pinpoint, it's one of his best of that kind. Maybe it's the fascinating tidbits about Starbucks's history and corporate culture that pepper the book; maybe it's the oh-so-familiar behavior of caffeine-addicted consumers like me; maybe it's the dots he connects between extreme sports and karaoke and reality TV and a chain of coffee houses. Whatever it is, he brews up a whole lot of fun and pours out his best blend of information, insights, wisdom and casual writing style.
To help us "get" the Starbucks culture, Sweet uses the acronym EPIC: experiential, participatory, image-rich and connective. If you've ever entered a Starbucks store (forgetting for a moment the kiosks in airports and other locations), you know what Sweet means. At Starbucks, you're not buying a cup of coffee; you're immersing yourself in a cultural Experience. You're not settling for the ordinary; you're "living with a grande passion," as the subtitle reveals. Unlike fast-food franchises, Starbucks encourages you to Participate by allowing you to create your own customized beverage from something like 55,000 potential combinations; you can truly "have it your way" there. (Just imagine asking for a medium-well burger at Burger King.) Every Starbucks store is rich in Images, much more like a medieval cathedral than the gymnasiums that are home to so many of our worship services.
Perhaps most importantly --- at least for me --- Starbucks offers a Connection with others. I love this quote from the book: "In a culture without a front porch, in a culture where we built up the backs of our houses with decks and walls, not the fronts of our houses where we might connect with a passing neighbor; in a world where we invested in privacy over hospitality, Starbucks spoke these words: 'We'll be your front porch. Hang out here.'" The message to the church, found in all four EPIC words, is obvious: we need to provide a deeper spiritual experience, greater opportunity for participation, powerful images that tell the story of God, and a welcoming atmosphere that encourages genuine connection with others. I suspect the aroma of freshly brewed coffee couldn't hurt.
As in nearly all of his books, Sweet reminds us that faith as an authentic lifestyle is often missed when "right-thinking" --- and overthinking --- crowns reason as the master over our lives. Granting that level of power to "reason" has robbed us of a "grande gospel, frappuccino faith, venti life of romance and passion," he writes. "Starbucks took an old, unexciting standby --- hot, dark liquid in a cup --- and made it an EPIC beverage that millions of people feel they can't live without. That, in a very few words, captures the contextual intelligence that Christians can gain from studying the Starbucks way of doing business."
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on January 16, 2007