Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Starbucks Church



I recently read a blog entry by Rami Shapiro, a rabbi who now has a teaching and writing ministry, in which he states, “If I were to get back into the religious community business I would open a coffee house rather than a synagogue.” This brought to mind remarks by Rex Miller in The Millennium Matrix. In discussing new congregational models, Miller says,

In the future many emerging congregations will begin to look like extended spiritual families. This kind of ethos will extend into neighborhoods, with Christians favoring the common bond of proximity over church affiliation as a basis for home groups. In some ways we are moving to a modernized parish model. (p. 204)

I think that both observers are pointing to a potentially powerful church model that would speak to both young adults and many empty-nester older adults. This decentralized approach or “modernized parish model” would benefit from some of the ethos of a coffee shop as well as the characteristics of the first Christian communities in Jerusalem.

First, there is the paradox of consistency and creativity. Starbucks brags about consistency in product—when you order a specific drink, it will be the same no matter where you order it in the Starbucks chain. Now, we know this is not entirely true. Some baristas are more competent than others. The point I am making here is that Starbucks offers an overall consistency in approach and quality, but there is room for the customer to be creative as well. He or she may customize the drink to fit individual taste. What does this mean for the faith community? A local body of believers, no matter what its size, must be consistent in its basic “product” or theology. The simplest statement of this would be “Jesus Christ is Lord.” We might go on to declare a commitment to a Trinitarian expression of God, a belief in the church as the ongoing expression of Christ in the world, etc. After the basics, some things are negotiable—how one practices prayer, expresses concern for the world, shares the faith, and so forth. There is a combination of consistency and creativity.

Second, there is the paradox of individualism and community. A great deal is said about the need for a “third place” where “everyone knows your name.” It may be a bar, a club, a sports team, a coffee shop, or the church. This is a place where one is not seen as a producer of services (as in the workplace) or as a nurturer (as in the home) but in a different role entirely. At the same time, within this community there is individualism. While some come to the coffee shop to network, others come simply to relax or (sometimes) log on the Internet and work. There is freedom within community. The best expressions of the church offer the same thing. Some come to learn, while others come to serve or be healed. There will be different needs at different points in one’s life.

Third, there is the paradox of familiarity and uniqueness. When you go to the coffee house, you pretty much know what to expect in décor and amenities, but each one is a bit different. My favorite Starbucks doesn’t play the music as loud as most! Even Starbucks has a company policy of adapting to the mores and needs of the specific community in which it is located (especially when it comes to setting up stores overseas). A decentralized church will combine the familiarity of the Christian tradition in order to encourage those who are rooted in it while at the same time finding ways to identify with the neighborhood—offering services to particular groups, arranging Bible study and worship experiences that mesh with the lifestyles of folks in the area, and becoming an essential part of the neighborhood.

Of course, there are practical considerations as well (better use of space, accessibility of services, etc.) that the church can learn from the coffee houses. I think that both Rami and Rex are on to something.

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