The Gospel of Starbucks

churchbucks 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:

churchbucks_graphStarbucks 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.

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31 Responses to The Gospel of Starbucks

  1. Paul says:

    R,

    Good post.

    “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.”

    I’m missing me some In and Out here in GR.

    They stay true to their gospel. A good burger. Not watered down. No kids play center. No fancy Happy Meals toys. Even the workers hats are circa 1950. I wonder how high their marketing costs are (granted, they’re a West Coast thing).

  2. RubeRad says:

    Mmmm, Double-Double. Living here on the Left Coast, it seems to me that In-N-Out has a fanatic word-of-mouth network akin to Starbucks, and I can’t recall ever seeing an advertisement. The closest I can see to marketing is bumper stickers (which they beg people not to edit into “In-N-Out URGE” — a passe double-entendre around here) and T-shirts, which the customers pay for anyways.

    You probably also know that In-N-Out also has a reputation of being “Christian”, because of their founders, and because they hide scripture references under the soda cups. But that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fry grease!

  3. RubeRad says:

    Returning to my provocative title

    Rereading, it strikes me that “Gospel of Starbucks” may not be that provocative. But in my original concept, the title of this post was going to be “The Church Needs to be More Like Starbucks,” which is certainly a provocative concept in these parts, given how we sneer at churches that have coffee bars onsite. But that was kind of a mouthful, so I switched to “Gospel of Starbucks”. I hope it makes sense anyways.

  4. sean says:

    Rube,

    Really good post. I’m with you. Now if I can get my pastor on board………………………..

  5. Paul says:

    Some emergent and ati-chruch types want to model the church on Starbucks. There’s even a book out to that effect, with the same title as your post (and which I originaly thought would be a critique of the book). So, anti-church-as-we-know-it have also said “The Church Needs to be More Like Starbucks.”

  6. Paul says:

    Advertisement: “In and out, in and out, that’s what a hamburger’s all about.”

  7. Bruce S. says:

    Paul,

    What church in GR are you going to/a member of?

    bs

  8. RubeRad says:

    Good point, I have heard that — is that a radio jingle?

  9. RubeRad says:

    Maybe if you take him out to Starbucks for a coffee and a chat?

  10. Paul says:

    Hey Bruce,

    I became a meber of Harvest OPC middle of last month.

  11. RubeRad says:

    Yes, and what they want to capture is not the Starbucks content-driven success I’m talking about, but the experience-driven self-parody that Starbucks has become — the cause for above-mentioned backlash. So if you look really closely into what Starbucks is really all about the analogy with the gospel falls apart (this is true of any human institution).

    All I’m sayin is, if you think Starbucks must have done something right, and the church might be able to learn from whatever that is, being true to coffee is it. Publishing CDs and creating a hipster cult of half-cat nonfat skinny wi-fi with soft lighting and comfy seating is not it.

  12. RubeRad says:

    Ewww, “half-cat”! That would be even worse than half-caf!

  13. Paul says:

    Yeah, though I may have heard it on T.V. too. Can’t be sure, though. At any rate, that I can’t remember tells how infrequent they advertise. They mainly rely on word of mouth…and the smell as you walk by. BTW, speaking of double-doubles, did you know you can get any n x n there? A friend and I once got an 8 x 8. Okay, sorry for the side-track.

  14. Bruce S. says:

    Paul,

    No kidding. We worshiped there when we came out for the OPC GA in May/June. I wonder if you were there and we missed you?

    And our buddy Paul Johnson (and Rachel) from EOPC is now the year-long intern there, having just graduated from WSCAL.

  15. RubeRad says:

    No, I never heard about NxN; I’m still getting up to speed on animal-style, protein-style, …

  16. Rick says:

    Good post.

    Now what do we make of all the mega-churches with the Starbucks kiosks?

    Everytime I visit SoCal (going on 4 years now without visiting) I make a couple of trips to In-and-Out. We need one here.

  17. Paul says:

    Bruce, perhaps so. You’ll have to let me know if you’re out this way again. I have talked to Paul a couple of times. Told him I knew some people from EOPC, name dropped, and then I think he thought I was weird, or something 🙂

  18. the forester says:

    Five Guys is the new Starbucks. Incredible burgers.

  19. RubeRad says:

    I assume you mean the new In-N-Out? Looks like an East Coast/West Coast rivalry is already brewing

  20. RubeRad says:

    Well, if the gospel of the Church also happened to be coffee, then a Starbucks kiosk in the narthex might be a good thing. Until then…

    See also comments above wrt emergent

  21. joe brancaleone says:

    But the story of Starbucks IS the story of compromise, marketing, manufactured subculture and catchy lingo, all over substance and quality. They have not remained consistent over time and expansion. And yeah I’d say they are masters at marketing but not by the usual way of ads.

  22. Greg says:

    Great post and an excellent analogy.

  23. Rick says:

    Check out This Video.

    It’s slow and dry and the acting is uninspired – but the point is taken.

    Oh, and I think it’s emergent or something

  24. RubeRad says:

    Heh Heh, Javalujah…

    Reminds me of a movie I saw once with a spoof of Starbucks. The coffee shop had a similar logo, and it was called No Choice Cafe. This place decided to set up shop across the street from an abortion clinic, and make money off all of the abortion protesters.

  25. RubeRad says:

    I knew somebody from the backlash would show up, and I’m surprised it took this long! When you say “compromise”, are you saying Starbucks coffee (a) is not as good as it used to be, or (b) never was that good to begin with? And I’m talking straight black coffee, not overpriced buzzword-drinks.

    See also comment above about “emergent”. My point is not to laud what Starbucks has become, but what allowed it to become what it became.

    But bottom line, my objective in this post was not to pick a fight about Starbucks. Your job as reader is merely to submit to my axiom, and nod along with everybody else here (and while you’re at it, why don’t you pop over to Starbicity and get me a venti Sumatra?)

  26. Joe Brancaleone says:

    They were decent, I remember back in the mid 90s or so. I suppose good by comparison to something like Folgers crystals. But their taste, the coffee itself not all the froofy drinks, has noticeably changed and not for the better. The express growth strategy by necessity had to compromise on quality control. It is especially noticeable with espresso, since baristas started to not even draw the espressos (just some button pushing last I saw) to keep the lines going. And apparently they figured that burning the roast is the taste that would appeal the most to most people. Okay, but that’s not what coffee is supposed to taste like.

    I wouldn’t call it a backlash, its just the nature of their business model. They had to become the McDonald’s of coffee to fulfill their grand designs of express growth. A lot of people like the taste of McDonald’s burgers too, but that’s not really what a burger is supposed to taste like.

    Point being, I am not sure the consistency claim holds in looking at the history of Starbucks market domination.

  27. Joe Brancaleone says:

    Another interesting story is to look the history of coffee in America up to the market domination of Starbucks. It seems mainline coffee was never really enjoyed on its own terms but always as the by product of demand and necessity in the military and political turns of American history. Pragmatic necessity, rather than quality appreciation, maybe like the social gospel of mainline liberalism.

  28. RubeRad says:

    Interesting. Well, since I don’t drink espresso, I’m obviously not as much of a coffee expert as you. When I get black coffee from Starbucks (which is rarely), it seems fine to me. Maybe not as eye-opening as that first try, but hey, you get used to things!

    But I think my point stands; Starbucks raised the bar. I’m sure the very best coffee available was just as good before before Starbucks as after, and Starbucks coffee isn’t the very best available. But before Starbucks, 99% of coffee drinkers drank coffee that was maybe 3-4 on a 1-10 scale, and 1% patronized exclusive coffee houses and drank 10 coffee. In a post-Starbucks world, 90% of coffee drinkers demand coffee at at least the 7-8 level. (And still probably the same 1% are the only ones that care about the difference between Starbucks and 10)

  29. Rana says:

    good post!

    i met another mom at my daughter’s school this week and we started talking about church, where do you go blah, blah, blah she said she visited the closest church to her house, a mega church, but hadn’t been going anywhere since they moved to the area 1 yr ago. she complained a bit about mega churches and i invited her to the URC we attend, since she said she was looking for substance and doctrine not wishy washy what do you think this means kind of stuff.

    now if only the church we attend, URC, was more visitor friendly, book table with information, some friendly faces to welcome people and tell them about the church.

    nothing too radical.

    sometimes i think some Reformed churches make no effort to keep visitors visiting and eventually becoming members.

  30. RubeRad says:

    C’mon now, you know that “seeker sensitive” is of the Devil! We TULIP-farmers know full well that election and monergism mean that no one seeks after God, so why shouldn’t we treat “seekers” with suspicion and contempt?

  31. Rana says:

    seriously that is hilarious because that is exactly how some people are.

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