As we drive down the streets of our cities and communities and see churches struggling to keep the doors open and the lights on, this can often be a go-to argument. It's definitely been mine now and again.
The "body of Christ" argument of course comes immediately to the surface. We're all the church, so why don't we come together, consolidate, share resources, and create greater influence that way? Again, honorable and genuine logic, and not entirely without a place in the conversation. But I think we're missing something by just stopping here.
Recently I watched a TED Talk given by Steven Johnson, "Where good ideas come from." In the talk, Johnson guides viewers through a history of how the coffee house, which began in England, led to an incredible era of knowledge and innovation and creativity. The subtle but natural connectivity of people and ideas housed by a coffee house is still critical today in bringing the two together for massive impact.
It led me to think about the Starbucks we see dotting our streets today. It seems like you can't walk a few blocks anywhere now without seeing a Starbucks on the corner. I've often thought, how do these places stay open? Yet every hour of the day between 4am and 8pm you'll find each and every one packed and buzzing. The argument that the Christian community makes about churches doesn't seem to apply to Starbucks.
What gives? It doesn't seem like a community can be too saturated by Starbucks, and I'm starting to think that the same could be true of churches if we did it right. Because it's not really about Starbucks, it's about what Starbucks represents and provides. In the same way, I believe the future of the church isn't in its consolidation or planting strategy, but in the basic DNA of the church that will decide whether it can be sustainable or not.
Let me explain: here are three things that I think a church could learn from its local Starbucks.
Third Place: The idea of a third place is common in urban planning and design, but I'm not sure we've thought too hard about the value of our churches as third places. The technical definition of a third place is a space outside of the work or home environment that people go to to enjoy other people, new ideas, or just get away from the real world for a bit. Some examples include places like bookstores and, yes, coffee shops. In this article written in 2008, Starbucks has really taken hold of their purpose as a Third Place. Their goal is to provide you as the customer with a place to review your email, read your books, kick up your feet, meet with friends, and, oh yeah: coffee. When our church doors are open one or two days a week, are we really facilitating a Third Place, a space where people hang out as a piece of their lifestyle in community? Not just to do church on the weekends; that planned event should come secondary and last to the togetherness that comes from the church being a hangout spot in the community. But opening the church doors alone is not enough.
An Idea Space: Starbucks continues the legacy of the first coffee shops in that they are a place where people and ideas come together. At the end of the day, people can only take so much of other people before they want to see things come out of relationship. That's not greedy or manipulative, that's a desire to do something useful and make a difference. As your church doors are open, are you encouraging people with ideas to come and hang out at your church? Are you presenting your church as a place where faith-ideas can be incubated and cultured? Are people coming to your church after work or on weekends to create solutions and learn and ideate and brainstorm together? Starbucks makes its living on attracting people who are passionate about the future. Whether it's a good 'ol conversation about politics, the student on his laptop studying to be a doctor, the blogger who needs quiet time away, or the manager convening her team outside the office, Starbucks is a place to look forward. Does your church offer a space to look forward in?
Together-ness: Take a look around you the next time you're in a Starbucks. You'll see the older and the younger hanging out in the same place. They're not worried about which generation has money to buy their coffee and who doesn't. So often our churches segregate generations thinking that there needs to be splashier things for the young kids and more serious things for the older crowd. I don't think that's true. Starbucks has figured out how to tap into the needs and desires that aren't generational, but cross different generations in their core products and services. How does your church engage the generations by providing for the needs that every one of us have instead of splitting everyone off because of the differences we think we carry?
Much has been made lately of the church as an action or a state of being together, not a building. While this is true in many ways, certainly Biblically, I have a new-found appreciation for the church as a physical location, and its potential to be a revitalizing Third Place in its community. I think we need it, and we need it to be better. And I believe what will come with this rethinking of the church is a revitalized purpose and a heightened engagement that will put the church right back in the center of community and creativity again.
We don't need less churches doing what we've always done, we need more churches doing things in ways we haven't before! Is your church like Starbucks? If you're a part of an innovative faith community and you're seeing some of these things take place in your church, comment in the comment section below, I'd love to hear about it and hear from you!