Book Review: The Gospel According to Starbucks, by Leonard Sweet


It seems like trash-talking the church has even become a popular new literary genre among Christian writers. In book after book we’re told that, ever since the Enlightenment, the church has been missing the boat. Instead, to find out where to turn, we need to come meet some cool guy at a coffee shop on Sunday. He’ll be “authentic.”

Leonard Sweet adds to this genre in his latest book, The Gospel According to Starbucks: Living with Grande Passion. Apparently, the church has a lot to learn from Starbucks. Starbucks wants the best for you. Starbucks understands the need for a safe place to hang out, and the unhurried baristas want to “know your soul.” Starbucks doesn’t just sell coffee, it sell relationships. When you pull up to the drive-through and pay $3.75 for the venti mocha that cost the company a dime, you can know that the person leaning out the window is deeply committed to you becoming emotionally balanced, relationally nourished, and spiritually anchored.

Now, I’m really not a mean person (if anything I worry too much about what people think of me). So I looked and looked for things that I can commend about Leonard Sweet’s The Gospel According to Starbucks.

And I did find a few things. Sweet wants to see the church move beyond mediocrity. Amen! He desires that the church be attractive. (Doesn’t Paul teach that our lives should commend the gospel—Titus 2:11?) He has kept his finger on the pulse of trends and changes in the world. He affirms some historically orthodox Christian beliefs such as the atonement and Christ’s deity. And he’ll teach you a lot of business world trivia and coffee factoids—especially related to Starbucks.

The problem is, none of this is essential to the point of the book. The point of the book is that the church should learn from Starbucks. Starbucks is an E.P.I.C. entity: it is experiential, participatory, image-rich, and connecting (two chapters are devoted to each). And as with Starbucks, so the church should be all those things. That’s the point. That’s the wisdom for the ages. May the church be like Starbucks. There’s also an epilogue that provides a brief ecumenical summary of caffeine through the centuries. That’s nice.

I’m really not a mean person, but . . . the book is just over 200 pages. I’d say it felt about 200 pages too long.

It’s also not entirely clear who the book was written for. If written for believers, you would expect Sweet to draw on the writings the Bridegroom has given to his Bride instead of Fast Company, Turkish proverbs, and Mark Twain. If written for non-believers, why would Sweet set up a fundamentalist straw man and then invite someone to be a part of something so unattractive?

Maybe the audience is ambiguous so that Christians can impress their cool non-Christian friends. That feels like today’s grande temptation. But is the book cool? Maybe for a giggly fourth grade boy. Sweet spills a lot of ink over body fluids. For example, the larger part of one chapter concentrates on excrement. “Wine is pee-juice: grape Shih Tzu.” The illustration culminates with “Where was Jesus born? In a stable. What goes on in a stable? More Shih Tzu.” Another chapter goes into the vomit-motif of Rev 3:16, offering us a “theology of barf bags.”

Get rid of Sweet’s impressive fluency in the hottest Xbox games, box office flicks, coffee chain rhetoric, and rock star celebrity chatter, and I’m not sure how much substance is left. If good literature feeds the soul, this book tastes like Rice Krispies. The snap, crackle, and pops are striking, but chew a spoonful for a second and all you have is dust. It’s not that the book is filled with heresy, it’s just that with the rich spread of Gospel saturated literature out there, why not feast on something else?

Pastors, please don’t model your church after Starbucks, Disney, or Toyota. Teach your flock what God has to say to the church, not what the management gurus observes in successful franchises. Jesus is not trying to sell the world a product, and he doesn’t need to market his grace.

I really hope I’m not a mean person, but my bottom line has to be: don’t read the book. Do something better with your time. Do something experiential, like visiting the shut-ins in your church. Do something participatory, like joining the church and submitting your life and love to an actual body of people. Do something image-rich, like writing music about the different metaphors for the atonement. Do something to connect, like befriending all those people in your congregation who are not cool. Connect by drinking deeply together from the communion cup of our Savior, the one under whom all things are coming together—including our broken but redeemed lives.

The gospel is astounding, but it’s not according to Starbucks. It’s revealed, not intuitive. We learn about it from the book that God has given us, and we experience it in the family that he is creating.

Byron Straughn

Byron Straughn is a campus worker and writer from Pennsylvania.

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