Monday, April 13, 2015

What's Up With Starbucks?

Now that our big first Easter service is over (Easter @ the Stadium), and a week of reflection time has passed, not to mention recovery time, I am asking myself a perplexing question:

What's Up With Starbucks?

So, in an effort to get the word out about our Mission Street Easter service, I personally visited about 150 stores in the Camarillo area.  These visits are great opportunities for me, as a new pastor in town, to get to know more about the local economy, meet people, get the word out about our new church, and hang banners in the windows of stores.  Most of these encounters go something like this: "Hi, we are having an Easter celebration at the stadium, can I hang a banner in the window about it?"  "Sure, what is it for?"  "Mission Street Church, a brand new church starting, we are in our 25th week, and our main theme is No Perfect People Allowed."  (After scanning the banner and seeing that it is attractive enough to hang) "Sure, sounds good, hang it over there."  For about 148 of these establishment visits, the encounter was very easy, kind and engaging.  Ironically one of the unfriendly places I visited was a Christian potpourri and teddy bear store.  A vast majority of these stores were kind, and welcoming.  I even got a warm reception in several cigarette and liquor stores.

However, when I visited Starbucks, the epicenter of culture and conversation, I received a different answer.  "I'm sorry, we have just received a corporate memo that no religious banners can be hung in our stores."  Noticing that every other type of banner (lost kittens, Relay for Life, a taxidermy advertisement) was hung on the clip-board next to the waning CD collection and peppermint gum, I asked, "Why?"  "Don't know," said the manager.  "I guess it's an attempt at being more religion neutral I guess."  "But this isn't really a religious banner, it's more of a holiday celebration recognizing the divine power of life in the world through a God who loves us," I attempted.  "Sorry," said the embarrassed manager, "No churches!"  And so, I left with my banner and a burning question in the back of my mind:

What's Up With Starbucks?

Several years ago, I attended the video site of Willow Creek's Global Leadership Summit.  The CEO and founder of Starbucks Coffee, Howard Schultz, was slated to speak.  We were all excited about hearing about Schultz's radical and captivating vision about transforming America and the world into a community of coffee shops.  Right before he was to speak, Schultz issued a public and declarative statement that he would, in fact, not be speaking at the Summit because of Willow Creek's position regarding same sex marriage and relationships.  Remember, The Summit is the same place that Bono, Condi Rice, Bill Clinton and David Gergen had spoken.  And the thing was that Willow didn't really have a public position on same sex relationships.  Though the church demurely and quite mutedly is conservative on the issue, they have never made a big deal about it or even spoken much about the topic in any pubic forum.  It was clear that Schultz and his team were looking for a venue to make a widespread public declaration about religion and society.  And everyone left the conference with a burning question:

What's Up With Starbucks?

It is clear that Starbucks has become a culture forming bastion of new American culture.  The tell tale green and white insignia signs can be seen in cities, and every street corner literally around the world.  Starbuck's management style, efficiency, pensions benefits, and even interior design (most architects and interior designers immediately know what a person is talking about when they say they want a "Starbucks feel").  Starbucks has, of course, become something so much more than just coffee.  The question is what is that thing?

Are they furtively forming a cultural community that is totally separate from faith and belief systems?  Is it a neutral coffee house where any conversation is acceptable except conversations around questions of religion and God?  Is Starbucks attempting to create a kind of utopian notion of society and culture that is totally separated from any notion of God, but rather bases itself on a different kind of holy Trinity all together: Grande Late, Bran Muffin, and Coffee Mug?  As a faith leader, who is generally open to conversations with people of any religious perspective or opinion, I am forced to ask a basic question?

What's Up With Starbucks?

How can any institution, who seeks to re-form a culture, neglect the central role of religion and religious expression in that conversation?  The great 19th century social philosopher, Alexis De Tocqueville, a man who studied and understood American culture perhaps better than any other once observed; "Americans combine the notions of religion and liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive of one without the other."  In less than 100 years after this basic notion was observed, has American culture really changed so profoundly, or is it obliquely and obtusely being transformed away from religion and faith issues by corporations like Starbucks?

Don't get me wrong.  I will still regularly visit Starbucks and order my weekly fix of a - Grande Cafe Americano with Soy, and a Sausage Breakfast Sandwich (I have my priorities:-).  But I will do so with a growing sense of unease about an institution that seeks to guide and form a new way of life for an entire generation of young Americans.  A Venti Machiatto without whip or God...

All For Now,

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