Lessons from St. Arbucks
The purveyor of overpriced coffee has a lot to teach the church about community.

Once an article is published in Leadership one never knows the ripple effect it will have. Greg Asimakoupoulos, pastor of Mercer Island Covenant Church, wrote for Leadership about the community-forming power of Starbucks in his neighborhood. He confesses, "We like to say that our church is a genuine community of faith, the kind of place people can feel at home. Still, you may have to go down the block to get to see that become a reality for lots of people. We need to be honest and admit that people are lining up to get into Starbucks, but they aren't lining up to get into many of our churches."

For this reason Asimakoupoulos refers to the coffee shop as St. Arbucks.

This week, Terry Mattingly drew heavily from Asimakoupoulos' Leadership article for his column which appears in over 100 local newspapers and at GetReligion.com. Mattingly recognizes the draw of Starbucks as a "third place" - "a safe zone between home and office. For generations, bars, diners, barbershops and a host of other locations have played similar roles." And he notes, "This kind of hospitality has become rare in this rushed world."

Diversity is another strength Starbucks exudes more than most local congregations. Mattingly continues:

Writing in Leadership Journal, Asimakoupoulos noted: "At St. Arbucks, I've seen a rabbi mentoring a Torah student. A youth pastor disciplining a new convert. High school girls working on a group assignment. A book club sipping mochas while discussing a fiction author's plot." Could churches try to be more open to outsiders?

However, before you throw out your ministry books and don a green apron Asimakoupoulos cautions us to be leery of some elements of Starbucks' strategy.

When [Asimakoupoulos] was a college student in Seattle, this local institution was about excellent coffee beans – period. These days, the place that many call "four bucks" offers CDs, gifts, pastries and super-sweet drinks of all kinds, hot and cold. Hardly anyone goes there for pure coffee.
"Maybe we can let that be a warning," said Asimakoupoulos. "It's important for our churches to think about what people want, but we can't lose sight of what people need. We have to keep offering basic faith, the faith of the ages. The extras are nice, but people also need the classics."

Read Terry Mattingly's entire column here, or at www.tmatt.net.

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities.

August 16, 2007

Displaying 1–10 of 22 comments


September 05, 2007  10:43am

I've got a confession to make. Are you ready? I've never once been inside a Starbucks. I truly hate coffee. I can't believe I just shared that. Now you all think I'm the world's biggest weirdo. But, I am interested in Starbucks for one reason... building relationships with people outside the church. That is something I place a high value on. I might even force myself to drink a big cup of $4 mud to build some relationships. Here's my question. How exactly does the Starbucks "community" work? Is it the norm for people to walk around and strike up conversations with strangers at other tables? Is it like a bar where you won't be looked at like you're a lunatic barging in if you ask somebody if you can join them at their table? Or is it normal for people to invite strangers who walk in to come and join them at their own table? As the uninitiated, I just need some specific pointers about how to utilize this sacred space.

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August 31, 2007  11:10am

We need to remember what the purpose of the church is, which is for Christians to be trained and discipled to go into the world, not a place for the world to enter.... The church itself might be a place for those seeking, but it is not a place for great evangelism. WE are to GO INTO the world as lights for Christ. In order to know how to do that, we should be getting equipped in church. If we expect our churches to draw in crowds because of some feature, or product, or entertainment, we have failed. The best we have to offer is Jesus. And He is truly the BEST! We don't need some gimmick. We don't need to cheapen what is already a free gift for those willing to accept His salvation. What we need is to show the world that what they want and need is Jesus. We need to do that daily in our lives in the world. Not just while we are in our "church" buildings, or just on Sunday.

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Greg Asimakoupoulos

August 28, 2007  6:05pm

St. Arbucks IS a sacred palce. It's communion... of another kind where caffeine seekers can unwind to drink in the sweet ambiance that St. Arbucks provides. As congregants both young and old, we're seated close and thus are bold to talk of life (latte in hand) and taste the mystery. We lift the cup and share our lives in honest words that aren't contrived. And if inclined, we all confess our failures and our dreams. St. Arbucks is a sacred place where those who run the human's race can sip the nectar of the gods awake to what is good. It is quite sanctuary-like where mothers and their little tykes can find a refuge from routines while seated near the fire. There are no stained glass windows there but those behind the "pulpit" care about the thirst we long to quench and "preach" through what they pour. What Cheers was thirty years ago is now St. Arbucks. Don't you know? A church where we are known by name and feel like family.

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August 28, 2007  1:55pm

Several years ago I found, as a Christian pastor, I had no non-Christian friends. I intentionally began going to a local coffee house. There I met the staff, several who eventually came to the church. One evening I was sitting, alone, reading the Bible and a young man came over and asked if I wanted to play chess. I'm no chess player but said I would. We played one game. His girlfriend tried to get him to leave, but he stayed. I don't remember much of the conversation. I was more amazed by the experience–a completely unknown teenager walks up to a mid-50s guy to play chess. I won that game and he went back to work. A while later I was called to the mission field. Now I am returning to the States and looking forward to more of those experiences. We need to go and "live" amongst the people of the world.

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August 26, 2007  4:24pm

Good post. J.W. commented that some Christians seem like fish out of water when trying to connect with non-Christians at events and places, even Starbucks, beacause they had so stereotyped non-Christians. I wonder how this effects not only our relationship with non-Christians, but also our relationships with each other believers. I'm a twenty-something, self-concious...I'm terrible. I sometimes feel as if it's easier to be a "good Christian" away from church, away from Bible Study...away from all the "God bless you's", the "Praise the Lord's"... Without even meaning to, I find myself playing the Christian game with the best of them...I think most Christians I know would be shocked if they knew I've picked up hitch-hikers, eaten with homeless, been to a Mormon church, a Jewish synagogue, a Muslim worship center...

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August 24, 2007  1:55pm

The message, the Gospel, I believe is timeless, but I think the problem is that the Church (in general) has not kept up with the times in terms of presenting the timeless message in a way that our postmodern culture connects with. That's why I think we do have to learn from secular institutions that have "kept up with the times" or have come into existence and done well more recently – e.g., Starbucks. We do have to guard against a watered down version of the Gospel that compromises the truth just to be more attractive to people – but that has been a struggle for all generations, hasn't it? Didn't Paul mention people preaching different forms of the Gospel? (We might also have to re-examine what the essence of our message really is before we presume to tell others??) I think our "theological task" remains to present a timeless message in a way that is timely (contemporary). Do I make sense?

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August 22, 2007  8:04am

I agree with Margaret. As someone in the communications field, I have been exposed to a lot of advertising and public relations methods and campaigns. I currently work at a direct mail company. I have often thought that the church has the greatest product available - and it is free! But, oh no! We can't use advertising or marketing to promote the gospel ... that would be secularizing the church. So tell me this... if we can't use media to promote the gospel, if we don't go out into the highways and byways - how are the lost going to be reached? We have failed as a church because too often we have a country club mentality. We are happy with who we are. We are comfortable with the people who are already in our churches. We may welcome new people, but they don't feel welcome because it seems superficial. We expect the world to come to us and face it, in today's society that just isn't realistic. You can bring them in with promise of entertainment, with half-truths from the gospel but they will never know the reality of what it takes to prepare themselves for eternity. We need to promote the full gospel! Yes, God is a God of love and forgiveness but He also expects repentance. We are offered the free gift of salvation through His Son - but like any gift, we have to accept it and receive Christ into our hearts and lives as Lord and Master. God is also a jealous God and a God of wrath. He doesn't want to condemn us or chasten us, but as a loving parent would, He has to discipline us. He loves us and wants none of us to perish, but we can't just acknowledge His presence and continue in sin. These are the truths the world needs. Why are we so ashamed of it? Why do we find it so hard to preach the entire truth - that there is a heaven to gain and a hell to shun, and we need God's help to avoid one and get into the other? We need to realize the Word never changes, but our methods of delivery can. Preach in a coffeehouse? Maybe... but we need to make sure the right message is being received.

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August 21, 2007  3:19pm

Isn't it ironic that we, Christians, possess the greatest product that there is–the Creator Himself; yet we fall way short of knowing how/when/where and worst yet why to market Him to those that don't know Him (myself included). Satan is the great deceiver and will have us spending so much time looking for the answer elsewhere–Starbucks, Hip Hop, Nike, etc. because they've done such a great job of creating counterfeit products and happiness that won't last. (Remember the lie that the serpent put before Eve or the lies that satan tried to tempt Jesus with in the wilderness; both situations represented what appeared to be truth) We have to be mindful that our instructions and example is in Christ's life and in the Book that so adequately tells His story not in the latest marketing strategy–the latter will change, He won't!

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Gerry Purcell

August 21, 2007  11:01am

Coffee pretty good. Great blueberry scones. Atmosphere is pretty good. Interesting people, very diverse...great place to witness...etc. They fill a need. It is a consumerism need, though, not a spiritual need. But definitely one of the GO INTO ALL...places. But, it remains subculture. The church is called to be counter culture. Most of the regular customers - like anywhere else are without a true north compasss - conversations tend to be on the surface. Pastors, we don't transform the world with the gospel of Christ by becomming like the subculture. It okay to adopt best practices, but our power is not in the "double macchiato." It is in the dunamas of the the Holy Spirit. He should be our aim. Let Starbucks be Starbucks –- Let the church be the church, again!

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August 20, 2007  9:28am

My motivation for spending 4-5 mornings a week at Starbucks is to engage with people who may be far from God. In the last year of hanging out at Starbucks I have met countless people who are spiritually interested by think that institutional church is not for them. It's a chance for me, a church Pastor, to connect with people I normally wouldn't connect with. It's a chance for me to engage in a sub-culture that seems to be relevant to much of the world. If I want to be relevant in reaching this secular world, I've got to do more than just read about it, I must engage with it. It's also an opportunity for me to show care, love, and acts of kindness to the staff and others. It's a great opportunity for conversational, relational evangelism. It's a place where I can try to demonstrate that Christians can be normal and focused on others.

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