I still remember my first cup of Starbucks, how rich and smooth it was, beyond any cup of coffee I had ever had before. Compared to my previous attempts to soldier through black coffee, my impression at the time was, “The coffee itself actually tastes good — it’s like it’s got cream and sugar built in!” Now that first cup of Starbucks didn’t turn me into an addict; on the contrary, since then, I have remained at most an occasional (quarterly?) customer. My point is that, while I am aware that the question of whether the phenomenon of Starbucks is good or bad for coffee has fanatic advocates on both sides, I don’t have a dog in that fight; I am not part of the backlash, nor was I part of the original lash. But my argument below rests on the axiom that Starbucks makes a good cup of black coffee.
Returning to my provocative title, let me put forward the thesis that the “gospel of Starbucks,” is coffee. How did Starbucks become so successful in spreading their gospel (Filling the earth as the waters cover the grind)? And what can the church learn from that?
The world that Starbucks entered was mostly used to coffee-flavored hot water. Remember when “International” used to be considered fancy? Or the old trick of swapping instant for 4-star restaurant coffee? To my mind, that says more about the pre-Starbucks state of brewed coffee and customer discernment, than it does about the inherent quality of Folger’s Crystals.
Therefore, when Starbucks looked at the market, and looked at their gospel, did they decide, “Look, man, they’re just not ready. We gotta water it down so we can at least get them in the door; then we can work on discipling them on the real stuff”? No, they said “Coffee is coffee, and that’s what we’re going to sell.” People came, and they learned new flavors. (They also learned a new, technical vocabulary so they could discuss fine distinctions of this gospel of Starbucks.)
And how did Starbucks spread the word? Because how can they love it unless they’ve tasted it? And how can they taste it unless they come in? And how can they come in unless they’ve heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? Starbucks must have spent a brazillion dollars on clever marketing, carpet-bombing advertisements in all possible media outlets: TV, radio, print, billboards, bus stops, … wait a minute! Stop and think — when’s the last time you saw an advertisement for Starbucks? When have you ever seen an advertisement for Starbucks? I’ve never seen one. The amazing fact that spurred me to write this blog post is that Starbucks spends (relatively speaking) nothing on marketing. I rest my case with Exhibit A:
Starbucks spread their gospel simply by remaining true to their gospel. And this worked because their gospel was a substantive thing; a thing of excellence. Like Spurgeon’s lion, it thrived: “who ever heard of defending a lion? Just turn it loose; it will defend itself.” And who did the preaching? Well, since it wasn’t hired guns, it must have been word-of-mouth — the gospel was spread by the members of the cult of Starbucks themselves.
To contrast, what is the gospel of McDonald’s? Because it’s certainly not food! Nobody has ever walked out of a McDonald’s, thinking, “So that’s what burgers are supposed to taste like!” As evident from the chart above, the gospel of McDonald’s is the experience in, around and under the food — and that experience is wholly a creation of their marketing budget. But man cannot live on experience alone (no more than he can live on McDonald’s alone). It grows old, and fades away. Kids love Happy Meals, but to grown-ups, McDonald’s is an occasional and unfortunate necessity of convenience.
So my message to the church from all of this is then: don’t be a McDonald’s, be a Starbucks. Don’t water the gospel down into what the people want, just so you can have more customers. Don’t be in the business of hooking the ignorant with Happy Meals (only for as long as they find them amusing). Let the Holy Spirit do his job as Marketing guru. Your only job is to offer a stiff, rich, robust cup of gospel. No cream or sugar.