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Entire books have been written on how the church should be more like Starbucks. Some churches house Starbucks. I imagine most Christians in this country have been to a Starbucks in the last month, or last day for that matter. Christians love coffee. So it was with curiosity that I read Kari Barbic’s review of Byrant Simon’s new book Everything But the Coffee: Learning About America from Starbucks.

The premise of the book (and the article) is that Starbucks sells more than coffee. Sure, you go there for the double tall venti creme espresso whatever (I don’t drink coffee so I don’t know what I’m talking about), but Starbucks promises you more than a cup of joe. It promises you community and a better planet.

The problem, says Simon, is that these promises are unfulfilled. Barbic explains:

Although Starbucks provides a clean, comfortable location for people to be, the idea that Starbucks is actually promoting “community” through its stores is debatable. Simon cites hours spent in a variety of Starbucks in different cities where he interviews patrons and employees to examine this promise. What he discovers is not surprising to anyone who has spent any substantial time in a Starbucks: stores with many people in one place, but not true “community.” Simon gives examples of empty community bulletin boards and a persistent lack of real conversation with strangers or meeting of “neighbors.”

I like visiting Starbucks, Panera, Barnes and Noble and other “third places.” It’s great to meet with friends, enjoy a book, or work quietly at your computer. But I suspect Simon is right: few people meet new friends at Starbucks and little of the fresh neighborly interaction can ever be classified as real community.

Similarly, the Starbucks promise that you are making a difference in the world just by purchasing their coffee is way overblown. Can expensive self-treating actually be a form of altruistic compassion? Starbucks would like us to think so.  Here’s what it says on the back of the cup in front of me:

Everything we do, you do. You stop by for a coffee. And just by doing that, you let Starbucks but more coffee from farmers who are good to their workers, community and planet. Starbucks bought 65% of our coffee this way last year–228 million pounds–and we’re working with farmers to make it 100%. It’s using our size for good, and you make it all possible. Way to go, you” (emphasis original).

Toward the bottom of the cup are the words: “Starbucks Shared Planet. You and Starbucks. It’s bigger than coffee.” No doubt about it, Starbucks is not just selling coffee. They are offering us the chance to salve our consciences and make the world a better place, one $5 dollar drink at a time.

And yet, according to Simon, Starbucks is not that different from most companies. They produce a lot of waste, and 10 cents off for using your own mug isn’t much of incentive to put our carbon-free footprint forward.  True, they buy a lot fair trade coffee. But the impact on peasant farmers is not always clear. Plus, if fair trade is the way to go, why doesn’t Starbucks get 100% of their coffee this way?

The bottom line is that Starbucks still cares about the bottom line. The company may still benefit Colombian farmer through the genius of capitalism, but it’s not like Starbucks is World Vision with a little coffee on the side. “From the evidence presented by Simon,” the review explains, “it is clear that Starbucks, through its marketing, appeals to the sympathies of the consumer while placing the profit of the company before the good of the world.” This doesn’t make Starbucks evil. Quite the contrary. It makes them a business. And there’s no inherent sin in a business pursuing profits. The “Grande Illusion” is not that Starbucks is a sinister company pretending to be good. The illusion is that your Starbucks habit is a terrific way to help heal the planet. Barbic concludes: “If you want to make the world  a better place, look for a reliable charitable organization to donate to rather than buying a bottle of Ethos water.”

So what’s the point? Why rag on Star bucks for 600 words? Well, here’s a few concluding thoughts.

1. The church has almost nothing to learn from Starbucks. If you are retooling your church to fit the Starbucks model, try reading Ephesians instead. Surely we can do better than faux community and the illusion of social superiority.

2. Enjoy your Starbucks coffee, but don’t imagine you are the “global Good Samaritan” for doing so. You may have noticed from books like Stuff White People Like and Hipster Christianity that there is something of a backlash afoot against pretentious coolness. Please here me (and see point 3): there’s nothing bad, and probably lots good, about listening to emo bands, drinking fair trade coffee, and reading Wendell Barry at Panera Bread. Just don’t wear it all as a badge of spiritual honor.

3. Those who like McDonalds more than Starbucks and Bell’s Pizza more than Magdalena’s Tea House need to be extra careful that in an effort to defend the “uncool” they don’t end up demonizing the “cool.” Some people like the things that “hipsters” like. No problem. They need Jesus too. We all need Jesus. The battle is between God and the devil, between good and evil, between sin and righteousness, not between bourgeois and bohemian.

Forget hip and unhip. Don’t try to be cool. Don’t revel in being uncool. Just be who you are and love your neighbor as yourself.

And go head and enjoy the Starbucks. Just don’t mistake pricey coffee for the in-breaking of the kingdom.

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39 thoughts on “On Loving Your Coffee and Your Neighbor”

  1. J. Claire M. says:

    Nice! : ) You mean I can’t really get an extra shot of holiness when I buy my latte? Bummer!

    Thank you for this post. You are correct, the Church needs to reflect Christ and the Bible, not the coffee house.

  2. I’m pretty sure not drinking coffee was declared heresy by the early Church fathers.

    Just kidding!

    As some one who makes his local coffee house his second home, I can see why so many churches want to use coffee houses as an example of how the church should be. For me, the coffee house is a place to reflect, escape the world (even for a few minutes), and have meaningful conversations with friends. So in those aspects I think the Church can learn a lot from coffee houses.

    However, as you said earlier, there’s a danger in thinking that drinking fair trade coffee while reading Wendell Barry (which I do all the time, by the way) some how makes you more holier than your brother. And I can’t claim innocence on that one, because I often unconsciously think that being an emerging hipster some how makes me a better Christian. The Bible tells us to be like-minded towards one another.

    So yeah, very interesting post. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to drink some fair-trade cappuccino, listen to Derek Webb, and read Leo Tolstoy.

  3. Aaron says:

    Hi Kevin, I’m an InterVarsity staff worker in Wisconsin and I’m becoming a big fan of reading your blog. I definitely appreciate your insight and writing ability. I’m also looking forward to the completion of your “social justice” series so I can potentially use it with my students – since we want to pursue that in the context of having a legit gospel-centric worldview. Keep it up man!


  4. ryan says:

    “(I don’t drink coffee so I don’t know what I’m talking about)”

    As a regular reader of your blog this comment blew me away – I’m not even sure what you wrote after you dropped this particular bomb…

    Actually – another great, insightful post. Thanks.

    (but you really should start drinking coffee, it’s sanctifying)

  5. Dan says:

    Aw Kevin, you hurt me! You didn’t just say Bell’s Pizza, did you?! I didn’t know I missed East Lansing until now! 4 years on the NE side of MSU circa 1980.

  6. Bill Burns says:

    Warning! Off-topic comment (sorta). The following sentence could use what is the great lacuna on almost every blog: an editor.

    “Please here me (and see point 3): there’s nothing bad, and probably lots good, about listening to emo bands, drinking fair trade coffee, and reading Wendell Barry at Panera Bread. Just don’t wear it all as a badge of spiritual honor.”

    ‘Here’ is one example. And secondly, being an author in your own write (sic), Kevin, you can likely appreciate that it’s Wendell Berry, thank you Barry much. ;0)

    Other than that, a hearty amen to you, sir!

    /end knee-jerk/troll mode

  7. Andy says:

    Because I like coffee, I haven’t been to Starbucks in a long time. If I wanted burnt coffee, I could make it at home for 1/8th the price.

    It’s the same reason that, because I like books, I haven’t been to a book burning in, well, ever.

  8. David Axberg says:

    Right on Kevin,

    I believe it was the 80’s thing to be a church like the sitcom “Cheers” Where everyone knows your name. It is the same old same old. The church following after Mammon.
    Society has changed from a propeller driven DC-3 to a rocketship there are similarities but completely different. Church may need to hop on Board with this analogy only in the sense that we often hate change because of the speed, capacity, cost, complexity and noise. ;-) God Bless Now!

  9. Mark Kakkuri says:

    Excellent post, Kevin. Thanks! Unfortunately I can only offer another off-topic comment… :-)

    Travis said: “I’m pretty sure not drinking coffee was declared heresy by the early Church fathers.”

    According to The Roasterie’s Coffee History page, “Europe was introduced to coffee in the late 1500s by Venetian travelers. Priests tried to get coffee banned for Catholics by Pope Clement VIII because it was so popular in the Muslim world. They thought that since Muslims did not drink wine (a holy sacrament), the devil must have given them this devilish brew. For Christians to drink it was to risk the devil’s trap. Curious, the good Pope wanted to examine this “devil’s brew” and had some brought to him. At first he just smelled it, but then to the horror of the priests, he drank some. The priests thought he might die or turn into the devil. Instead he declared it delicious and baptized it, thus snatching it away from the devil’s grasp and opening up the coffee trade to Europe.” []

    Deal alert: Every now and then Costco offers Roasterie coffee, sometimes at $4.98 for a two-pound bag of beans. It’s very good coffee. Enjoy!

  10. Rob says:

    I am a part time barista at Starbucks and am a Teaching Pastor in a local church.

    Recently I have been saying much the same thing about the company (and have told them so).

    Starbucks boasts about sticking to their values as a company and commitment to their employees, but at the same it is incredibly obvious that they are more concerned about staying in the black than they are keeping their values. If it were all about quality coffee and community it wouldn’t be pounded into my head to suggest the new Dark Cherry Mocha or breakfast sandwiches. So it is obviously NOT all about the coffee, but about being profitable. And I’m fine with the company seeking to be profitable. Just be honest about your intentions.

    I do feel that if Starbucks said something to the effect of “Your patronage allows us to be generous to those in need, and we hope you’ll follow our example by being generous as well” then it would be a different story. But you are right. They make people feel as if their personal indulgence is actually others-centric generosity.

    And as someone who has spent more time than I care to working on the inside of a Starbucks for over a year now, I do frequently see customers engage with each other. However, this rarely happens randomly. But I have often witnessed a barista engage a customer in conversation and have other customers join in. So you COULD say that if the barista is doing his/her job (engaging customers is certainly encouraged), community is POSSIBLE.

  11. I thought I was the only one that didn’t get the “Starbucks experience” and assumed it was probably because I don’t drink coffee nor do I like paying an inflated price for a cup of tea. That being said, I’ll admit that Starbucks didn’t get to be the most popular coffee shop chain on the planet by doing everything wrong. I sat at the Starbucks across the street from our Christian bookstore last year with a business consultant to try to better understand what draws people to that environment and how we could apply that attraction to our bookstore. Frankly, the coffee shop in our 12K s.f. bookstore was every bit as nice and well-appointed as the Starbucks. What they had that we didn’t was a very successful marketing plan.

    Thank you for pointing out that the “Starbucks experience” is actually rather superficial and that we, as the Body of Christ, have so much more to offer than just taking a “me,too” approach to our ministry.

  12. Curtis Sheidler says:

    thanks a latte for the post, kevin! (*snicker!*)

  13. Sorry for the lack of imagination in my response, but this is a fantastic post!

  14. Thea LeBlanc says:

    Hi Kevin, you know that I work at Starbucks, so I gotta chime in here! I’ve worked for this corporation for nearly 11 years, 7 of them full time as a supervisor and lately, part time as a “friendly neighborhood barista” at a store that serves mostly commuters coming off of I-96. I know the names and drinks of 75% of our customers, and many of them have become casual friends of mine. Some of my customers (mostly from Colorado and Georgia when I worked there) and I exchange Christmas cards. But I wouldn’t call my store a community. For it to be that for me, it has meet an even higher standard than even Barbic’s or Simon’s.

    It’s a friendly place, though. I multi-task a lot and in between, chat with co-workers and customers. I love getting to know people. I just got home right now and I’m not just physically spent, but also a little hoarse from talking all the time with everyone!

    I agree with you pretty much with everything you say here, and I’m not a fan of Christians who want church to be a Starbucks or your neighborhood bar or grocery store or Chuck E. Cheese. I don’t think that is what Christ died for. As much as I love my customers and job, it isn’t far from my mind that I work for a business and I have certain responsiblities to make my store profitable and efficient. It includes suggesting Dark Cherry Mochas and breakfast sandwiches, and I do it in such a way that the customer and I have fun as I do it. Today, I had my very tired and moody manager giggling as I sold my sixth Dark Cherry Mocha in a row just by being enthusiastic about it (and I can’t even drink them because I’m diabetic!).

    As for the social consciousness type of stuff, this is liberal Seattle culture. I used to live there before Dennis and I married, so most of this pretty much bounces right off of me. Most customers don’t read the cup and really don’t care in other places, but in Seattle, most do.

    However, in comparison to other coffee companies, Starbucks tries a lot harder to be responsible with how the coffee is grown and how farmers and their workers are treated. But Starbucks doesn’t buy most of the coffee that is produced, only a small portion of the market. The majority of coffee grown and purchased is by the giant coffee companies, like Folgers and Maxwell. Also, Starbucks tends to build relationships with smaller coffee estates who meet C.A.F.E. practice standards– (“Starbucks initiated C.A.F.E. (Coffee and Farmer Equity) Practices to evaluate, recognize, and reward producers of high-quality sustainably grown coffee. C.A.F.E. Practices is a green coffee sourcing guideline developed in collaboration with Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), a third-party evaluation and certification firm. C.A.F.E. Practices seeks to ensure that Starbucks sources sustainably grown and processed coffee by evaluating the economic, social and environmental aspects of coffee production against a defined set of criteria, as detailed in the C.A.F.E. Practices Guidelines. Starbucks defines sustainability as an economically viable model that addresses the social and environmental needs of all the participants in the supply chain from farmer to consumer”– Scientific Certification Systems).

    A good resource that I’ve read and keep going back to is “Uncommon Grounds–The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World” by Mark Pendergrast.

    I like coffee, just plain coffee with cream, and I drink only three ounces a day. Most of the time, I drink tea. I’m not a caffiene addict so that isn’t why I work for Starbucks. There is a famous story about how Howard Schultz was overwhelmed with all the demands of the company and so to get away to think, he sat on the floor of one his stores after it closed. After awhile of thinking about all the pressures, he had a startling revelation.
    “It’s only coffee.” which put it all in perspective. I think that some Christians would be well served to keep that in mind as well before they think that church should be Starbucks, or what they imagine Starbucks to be or buy into the image that Starbucks projects.

  15. Kyle says:

    I wonder what would happen if Starbucks started marketing like the church?

    Watch the video at the end. You might enjoy this!

  16. joe says:

    Most Christians have been to a Starbucks in the past month?

    You are out of touchwith reality if you really believe that one.

  17. Kirstin says:

    The church that I attend is building a larger auditorium with a bookstore and coffee house on the campus. A local Christian bookstore recently went out of business. Surely it was due to the recession and competition from, etc., but there are also more and more churches with bookstores around. I fully expect that our bookstore will be full of Christian wall plaques, jewelry, and trinkets, as well as books. I just wonder if churches should seek to keep believers on campus rather than have them go out to encounter nonbelievers in the world.

  18. Lisa Tjapkes says:

    Thanks, Kevin — especially for that last paragraph: “Forget hip and unhip. Don’t try to be cool. Don’t revel in being uncool. Just be who you are and love your neighbor as yourself.”

    The world may not know Jesus, but they know when you’re trying to be something you aren’t.

  19. Kevin says:

    “This doesn’t make Starbucks evil. Quite the contrary. It makes them a business. And there’s no inherent sin in a business pursuing profits.”

    Great point Kevin. I’m no great defender of corporate America, but I get real tired of listening to folks bash McDonalds, Starbucks, Walmart, and other successful companies as if business success is a character flaw. Whine away folks, but you probably shop there.

    Oh, and Starbucks doesn’t serve “burnt” coffee as one comment implied. They serve strong, dark roast coffee — something many Americans have no appreciation for. Many folks like tea-colored coffee that lets you see the bottom of the cup, and then laden it with cream and sugar… NO THANKS!

    I for one don’t buy much Starbucks though — it’s not in the budget and I’m more the Biggby type!

  20. Paul Bruggink says:

    Re ” I imagine most Christians in this country have been to a Starbucks in the last month, or last day for that matter.”

    You might want to keep in mind that not all Christians live in urban or suburban America. A lot of us live in rural areas with no Starbucks in sight and no need for one.

  21. Great article, but I have experienced the exact community that you are saying doesn’t exist almost every time I go to the starbucks in University Plaza here in Fort Worth. I just witnessed multiple times on multiple days people running into friends or meeting new people, and having conversations ranging from New Testament studies to parenthood to the differences Jazz music has taken throughout the last century. There is so much community there that I’ve often gone there alone and wound up sitting with old or new friends.

    But this is only the third Starbucks I’ve ever witnessed this in. And I’ve worked at around ten stores and visited so many more. But this one brings Christians, non-Christians, students, parents, friends, and strangers together in a way that I’ve never seen… even at churches. And I know because I’ve worked at a few.

    So if you’re ever in town, spend a few hours at FW’s most communal Starbucks and enjoy free wi-fi. And instead of interviewing people, meet some new friends and just ask about their experiences there. It’s definitely no substitute for a church family, but it’s a great way to meet and keep in touch with both church friends and non-believing friends and to maybe even introduce them to church, the Gospel, and hopefully Jesus.

  22. Rudy Stevens says:

    I doubt I can add anything beyond the previous comments except to speak from another perspective based on the following three experiences: I am now an Army chaplain in Afghanistan, I frequent a Starbucks back home, and I managed a Panera Bread for some time.
    I had never heard of Panera until I began working there. From day one, I loved it for several reasons.
    The franchise owners were wonderful. They bought my wife’s engagement ring when I said would delay seminary and work for them an additional year if they loaned the money for the ring.
    Along with the owners, I enjoyed training workers. Young, high school kids worked their first jobs there. I was able to train them on good work practices and encourage many to work less at that age.
    In addition to the workers, I loved the customers, and they loved me. They bought wedding gifts. They followed me around to the five locations that I managed at various times. Even when I returned several years later to Panera for a few months after completing seminary, some of the same, loyal customers were there.
    Those customers came from all walks. On Sundays, when I worked, I called them the fellowship of the unchurched. The same people would appear only on Sundays. I cannot count how many Bible studies were conducted at Panera. I cannot count how many people had their devotional times in Panera, or the number of seminary and colleges students who met there to study. Some spouses and some families would meet there on a regular basis on their way to and from work or off to ballgames or meetings. Two professors-one from Duke and one from NCSU-kept their marriage strong by meeting at Panera in midst of their obligations. I could keep going about the customers.
    Yet they did not go to Panera for just themselves, they went for the product. Something as simple as bread made them return again and again. Something beyond the simple idea of baking bread fresh every day kept customers going: all leftover bread was donated to organizations each day. One such organization was a child care center for single moms. There is a biblical principle at play there…something about gleaning?
    Giving is not limited to Panera. Starbucks gives. Now there is something about giving to get, but it works. At home I regularly frequent a Starbucks where the amount of money spent pales in comparison to amount of coffee that is donated to me here in Afghanistan for soldiers.
    As a chaplain, I host a place called Old Bills, which provides (donated) coffee and goods to soldiers. In this small B-hut, there is conversation, conviction, and community. There are Bible studies. There is counseling.
    Those third places make this place a home away from home….thanks to Starbucks, thanks to Panera Bread, and a deep thank you to those customers who frequent those establishments and send us stuff to keep us going here. (To become a fan, see Facebook page, Lighthorse Inn.)
    In his book “Money, Greed, and God,” J. Richards speaks of the need to defend capitalism. While your extremely well written post is not exactly attacking them, I am in the department of defense:
    Third places have capitalized on what they provide. Their profit is not our loss. We have gained much, even freedom.

  23. Sandra Davis says:

    Enjoyed reading your blog on Starbucks, Kevin, and agree completely with your points! I love good coffee too but seldom will pay the high price for coffee outside my home, unless of course, I am traveling a long distance and need a “pick me up”. I can help the world better by giving more to charity. I think it is a good idea for churches to have tea or coffee available in their lobbies for people to stand around and visit with each other, but I take offense at them setting up a coffee store in the church and selling it, thus making the churches a place of business and profit. If it is a matter of expense, surely those who use the service would add a little extra to their tithes and offerings, and leave the “money exchanging” out of the church buildings. Sign me Sandymae

  24. Thea LeBlanc says:

    I also have to add that farmers in many coffee producing countries (arabica coffee is only grown between the tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn at high altitudes or mountainous regions) are under pressure to either grow a legal commodity or illegal ones–and illegal ones, like coca leaves are( more profitable. Fair Trade prices are crucial for coffee farmers in places like Colombia, for instance.

    In the next two years, Starbucks’ goal for their Fair Trade coffee is to be 100% of all coffee that they buy. Even though Starbucks is a small buyer in the coffee market, Starbucks buys more Fair Trade than any coffee company. The hope is that other coffee companies would follow Starbucks’ example, so there is a legitimate use for Starbucks’ influence. Although of late, I admit the corporation has been kind of arrogant about it, as the latest coffee cup blurb is exhibit A. I asked around yesterday while at work, no one has read the cup and when they did, didn’t seem to care.

    As for “burnt” tasting coffee, Starbucks offers a range of intensities for everyone from mild to extra bold. But it is roasted to bring out certain qualities of different beans, not all coffee produced is the same. Some beans taste better at an Italian Roast, some are better at a lighter roast but every coffee is of high quality. I spend the better part of my shift making coffee every eight minutes–grinding each batch fresh right before brewing it…so that your cup of joe is perfect no matter when you buy it.

    Um. I gotta quit right here or else I’ll be writing a book.

  25. Joe Cassada says:

    Great post. I, too, sicken at the hipsterization of Christianity. That being said, I love Starbucks and any other place that makes a decent cup of coffee. People who complain about the “burnt” taste are too used to the brown water served at McD’s and other places.

    Admittedly, I don’t buy their $5.00 froo-froo drinks. (I’m too cheap.) But their regular house brew is outstanding and only a coupla dimes more expensive than the schlock 7-eleven calls coffee.

    Tall coffee, black. Hold the drama.

  26. Kristin says:

    Great post. Also, Kari Barbic goes to CHBC. I’m sure she’ll enjoy reading this post!

  27. coffee maker says:

    I have some videos that say “includes third party content” and others that say “blocked in some countries” (due to copyright).. Is it still possible for me to become a partner (considering I have all of the other requirements filled).

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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