Posted October 3rd, 2008 by E. Goodman
I’m often critical of the attractional, consumeristic, and pragmatic approach of the American megachurch. From a missiological perspective, I believe the movement does far more damage than good to the universal church. But anyone can criticize. Fellow missionary blogger Guy Muse recently reminded me of my commitment to balance criticism with positive alternative ideas. Lest I be lumped in with the wacko fundies who are also critical of, well, everything, I’d like to propose a way of understanding church that might be more sustainable (over the long run), indigenous (to local cultures and subcultures), and biblical (as in the Bible) than what I’m seeing out there today.
To illustrate, let’s start with the coffee shop. Coffee shops are social “third places” for people around the world. In Europe, the humble café has been the center of neighborhood activity for generations. Coffee remained a breakfast-and-truck-stop affair in the U.S. until the sixties, when beatniks and hipsters (inspired by Europeans) started drinking espresso and hanging out in coffee shops. This was the age of the Mom-and-Pop Coffee Shop.
For the most part, these cafes were independently owned and operated, maybe with a little part-time help from local college students. Coffee was a low-overhead business to run, but returns on a cup of coffee weren’t all that great, either. But it didn’t matter to shop owners- they weren’t in it for the money so much as for the community. Not unlike the pubs of Britain, the coffee shop became a scene; they were the hubs of a neighborhood’s social activity. Regular customers helped maintain the establishments- everything from the business of buying coffee to renovation to cleaning up at the end of the day. Coffee shops became home to fringe subcultures that read poetry and smoked hand-rolled cigarettes. Shops were located in basements and back rooms of low-rent neighborhoods- hidden away where only insiders would find them.
And then came Starbucks.
The brand started out as a coffee bean roaster in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. An edgy, alternative, hippie vibe made their first couple of stores an attractive place to sit down, read a book, and sip a specialty coffee drink. The stores did well, marked by their commitment to quality coffee, personalized service, and a comfortable environment. They set up bright, cheery shops with overstuffed sofas and quaint round tables in strip malls and shopping centers everywhere. So the formula was established, and Starbucks’ world domination began.
At first, Starbucks wasn’t taken seriously. Coffee aficionados scoffed at they way they watered down the coffee experience by pandering to the soccer moms with their frilly drink combinations. The Mom-and-Pop coffee shops were caught off guard by its blond wood furniture (theirs was an eclectic mix of garage-sale finds and donated odd and ends), have-it-your-way service (Mom-and-Pop baristas were often coffee snobs with no patience for the uninitiated), and corporate art (arguably more inviting than political propaganda and art-school paintings).
The familiar green mermaid signs sprang up everywhere. The masses were introduced to specialty coffee drinks through easy-to-understand-signage and limitless options for customization. People stopped going to the Mom-and-Pop shops. Americans happily paid four dollars a cup for coffee, foamy milk, and the Starbucks experience.
Small shops tried to compete. Some by imitation- they mimicked the quasi-Italian menu wording (“Venti?” What happened to “small,” “medium,” and “large”?), the pseudo-Scandinavian decor. Other shops went the other way, playing up their anti-corporate roots. These were the holdouts who rejected the fast-food take on coffee. To the tunes of local independent rock bands, they went light on the flavored syrup and raged against the Starbucks machine. One by one, Mom-and-Pops went out of business.
But something happened. Starbucks became a victim of its own success. Its monopoly on all things coffee inspired the corporate giant to expand and an unsustainable rate. Soon, there was a Starbucks on every corner, and people grew tired of paying too much for that predictable Starbucks experience they once found so desirable. People wanted local. They started caring about fair trade. They longed for a third space that belonged to their community and reflected its unique personality.
Starbucks tried to start talking that talk. Corporate leadership talked about fair trade, development of the local community, and environmental issues, but it somehow seemed hollow coming from the organization that had become the face of hostile globalization. Soon it became a moral issue- people felt it was wrong to support Starbucks. All of the new coffee lovers that Starbucks had converted or raised have started to look for something different. Of course millions of people still buy coffee (and music and coffee machines and travel mugs…) from Starbucks every day. But the trend is moving away from global, corporate, institutional, and safe.
To be continued…
Coming up next: Megachurches are Starbucks
Filed under:Church, Missiology