What I learned about the church from working at Starbucks…

For the past year and a half, I have been working part time as a youth minister and part time as Starbuck’s barista. I left Starbucks because the church called me to serve full-time as a Pastoral Fellow for the next three years. As I sit here in my new office at the church I have come to love, I feel moved to reflect on my year and a half spent as a morning barista. Yes, it was about making lattes and serving pastries but more than that it taught me a lot about myself, about the culture in which we live, and about what people are really seeking when they come for their coffee each morning.

1. People are desperate for authentic relationships.

As baristas we were asked to inquire about each customer’s name at the register and write it on the outside of the cup along with the markings of the drink. Not only does this serve to differentiate customer’s drinks as we set them out for pick up, but it also creates a sort of intimacy with each individual that might not be there if we didn’t know their name. Not surprisingly, if you can remember their name, more than likely you will remember their drink. This created a superficial sense that we actually knew these people… “Hey Joe, want your 2 pump, skinny, vanilla latte today?” Inevitably, Joe would smile, because in that moment, we had created an environment where he felt as if he was among friends. Even though I knew nothing else about these customers who came in every single morning, besides their name and their drink, I believe they felt as if they had a community who was invested in their lives, where they were known and their arrival was anticipated.

2. People need to express their individuality and have it affirmed.

Starbuck’s takes great pride in being a customer-oriented corporation. The customer is the highest priority and his or her needs are to come first. Policy ensures their drink will be made perfectly no matter how outrageous their requests might be. Every so often, there would be a customer who challenged this idea. For instance, one gentleman always ordered a grande, non-fat, latte with ten raw sugars in the bottom. I suspect that this man not only wanted to create shock factor amongst the employees, but he also wanted us to remember him by his unique and grossly, unhealthy drink. He almost always commented on the amount of sugar in his cup, even if we didn’t. He would say things like, “Isn’t it CRAAAZZZZYYYY that I need that much sugar in my coffee?”

This man is just one example of some of the wild and extravagant drink modifiers customers would request. These people were not only declaring they were different but they were also seeking affirmation from outsiders as way to claim their individuality.

3. People want to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

People who weren’t familiar with Starbucks would often stand at the register, look up at the menu and say, “I know what I want but I don’t know how to say it in Starbuck’s terms.” As a corporation, Starbuck’s has been very successful in creating insider language by naming their cup sizes not small, medium, and large but tall, grande, and venti. They’re also successful in calling nonfat, sugar free drinks “skinny” and by trade marking the term Frappuccino, which has by now become a global house-hold term meaning a frozen, blended dessert style, coffee beverage. Starbuck’s has created products that individuals cannot get anywhere else, in turn, they are able to maintain a loyal customer base who buys into their brand because it makes them feel as if they are part of a larger community, who has a common understanding and language to describe their shared experience.

As a barista, I was constantly making observations concerning people’s behavior, desires, and attitudes. No matter if we are in a coffee shop, a church, or sitting behind our desks at work human beings need to feel loved, acknowledged, and connected. Who better than the church to understand the broken, human condition? As Christians, we claim a God who wanted to be so intimately known that the Word became flesh. But do we need to take a closer look at how we are portraying this message?

The old models of church no longer speak to our changing culture, and unfortunately, people appear to be turning towards corporate brand names to feel welcomed and intimately known. The church has such potential to offer genuine relationships where a person is recognized beyond their drink order. Maybe it still starts with a cup of coffee and a smile but as we re-imagine ways of having church how can we fulfill the needs of a culture desperate for community and purpose?

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2 responses to “What I learned about the church from working at Starbucks…

  1. I enjoyed reading this. I worked as a barista at Starbucks throughout most of college and I grew up in a church since I was 9 years old. I was very active at my church, serving as a youth leader for many years. When I was 21 I was diagnosed with bone cancer and one of my “regulars” at starbucks did more for me and my family during the year that I was sick than anyone from my church. She and I didn’t know each other prior to my diagnosis except for the fact that I knew her name and her drink. She came to love my family and she brought my mom and I a homemade pizza every Monday without fail for a year.

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