“Grande Passion”: Thoughts on Starbucks and Evangelical Culture

Charity R. Carney

I always order a Venti passion myself. But Leonard Sweet’s The Gospel According to Starbucks: Living with a Grande Passion isn’t about frappuccinos or fancy Tazo-something lemonades with just one pump of sugar (not two—that’s crazy talk). In his book (2007, WaterBrook Press), Sweet talks about churches adopting the advertising model of Starbucks in order to reach more people. One thing that Starbucks does best, he contends, is provide powerful images and symbols that strike a chord with consumers and pull them into the store and coffee-shop culture. His suggestion is that if churches did this, too, (and many megachurches sure as heck try) we’d have a stronger evangelical base.

It’s not surprising that Sweet chose Starbucks as the subject of his book. Starbucks has drawn both the ire and awe of evangelicals in the United States. It is a significant part of Christian consumer culture, which is why it may cause more consternation than other corporations for evangelicals who do not approve of its official stances on certain issues.

Many sectors despise Starbucks for the company’s support of gay marriage—that’s become a hot topic recently after the DOMA decision. The Huffington Post covered David Barton’s protests in June, when he proclaimed: "If you know that when you buy a cup of Starbucks, 5, 10, 15 cents is going to be used to defeat marriage, can you do that? The answer is 'no.'" Groups have organized to boycott the brand over the issue and Baylor University recently asked the Starbucks on campus to remove cups that had “anti-God” or pro-gay marriage messages on them. (Note, however, that they didn’t ask Starbucks to move the store and it’s fancy caffeinated concoctions off campus.)

At the same time that many evangelicals and members of the Religious Right oppose Starbucks, there is a definite fascination with the corporation (as evinced by Sweet) as well as a larger cultural connection that has surfaced. A quick anecdote: Earlier this year, I saw Joyce Meyer at Lakewood in Houston. She was the guest pastor at Osteen’s church and the place was packed. After the bass-heavy praise music intro, Meyer gave a sermon on not complaining. She had complained about a lot of things lately, she realized, from getting her foot caught in her panties one morning and spraining her toe to not being able to find a Starbucks close enough to her swanky hotel. She had to settle for McDonalds. During the course of her sermon, she mentioned Starbucks five times (I kept a tally) and it struck me that the company that a lot of evangelicals despise is also one that many evangelicals also can’t live without. Megachurches try to replicate the coffee shop model within their walls with their own “Higher Ground” and “Son Bucks” versions, but there is an addiction to the Starbucks brand and branding that has crept its way into the larger megachurch culture. Starbucks is the site of a lot of small group activities, too. LifeWay sells books on how to create and run small groups at a coffee shop. Paul Copan’s When God Goes to Starbucks: A Guide to Everyday Apologetics explains how a Christian can witness to other Starbucks-goers. In other words, today’s evangelicals talk about the coffee chain… a lot.

Starbucks (and Starbucks-themed coffee shops) has become so connected to megachurch culture, that parodies of church services often include cameos of their coffee cups. Look for the signature Starbucks logo near the end of the clip. (And thanks to Kelly Baker for passing this one along.)

So what’s the deal with this Starbucks obsession? What gives the coffee corporation such a magnetic pull for many megachurch-goers and leaders? We can point to the prosperity and pop culture emphases of many megachurches, to be sure. The focus on comfortable and relevant Christianity aligns perfectly with Starbucks’ image of cozy couches and $5 lattes. Starbucks is an ultimate signifier of middle class comfort and disposable income.  Ultimately, however, there’s a love/hate relationship that has developed between Starbucks and evangelicals as many believers also resent the rift between their values and those of the company. It’s interesting to note that back in 2011, Starbucks’ CEO cancelled a talk at Willow Creek Church because of differing views on gay marriage and rights. So the feeling may be mutual. The irony of this particular controversy is pretty perfect: Willow Creek helped start the seeker-sensitive movement that would draw Starbucks culture into megachurches in the first place. I’m looking forward to exploring this messy relationship in the larger megachurch study and am sure that Kate Bowler, Darren Grem, Phil Sinitiere, et al, have some insights on the subject. For now, I think I’ll go brew a pot of coffee, catch up on that research, and save about 5 bucks. 


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