Starbucks challenges and church life


I like chain stores.

I know that’s not really “cool.” But if I have a choice, a lot of times I’ll choose Target, On The Border, or Starbucks over the local, untested option. They’ve gotten big because they do what they do well. So small stores must not be doing something right … right?

Well, things may be changing. Take that last example – Starbucks. There’s been a lot of buzz recently about the memo their CEO Howard Schultz wrote about the changes the store has seen over the last few years because of expansion. He writes about how some of the stores’ uniqueness has been lost and what it will take to revive the Starbucks brand.

Last week, I walked into a store and saw what he was talking about. For the first time, I was noticeably underwhelmed with the “Starbucks experience.” The bathroom was dirty. There were boxes of supplies stacked along the wall. The store was crowded. There was a long line. The baristas didn’t care (or have time to care) about customer relationships so much as getting the product into the hands of the people. It felt like another fast food joint. Nothing special – no connection – it was just about a product.

A lot of smart people have written about what Starbucks should do next. If you’re interested, there are some great posts at the Idea Sandbox Blog and Brand Autopsy. There’s also a good ChangeThis pdf here.

It’s interesting stuff, but I guess my biggest thought from the whole thing is how it applies to church life. At a time when the church is saying “let’s expand our brand and get big,” some businesses are saying “we need to step back, see what makes us unique, and do it well.” Obviously, it’s not a direct comparison. I don’t know of any church with 13,000 locations. But maybe one consistent “brand” that looks exactly the same from city to city shouldn’t be the point.

Whether multi-site or this-is-our-one-and-only-site, a church should reflect, and be deeply embedded in, the community. Big or small, we cannot lose site of our core message in the midst of programming, buildings, and more programming. In everything we do, we must ask two things: How are the unconnected becoming connected (to God, to the community, to the world)? And how are the connected starting to live it out?

4 responses to “Starbucks challenges and church life”

  1. Did you ever see the Gospel of Starbucks by Leonard Sweet? It’s next on my read list. I do so love Len Sweet.

  2. Jeff,
    I’ve heard of it, but haven’t had a chance to take a look at it. I’ll be interested to hear what you think …

  3. Jon … thanks for the link love to some of the articles I have written on/about Starbucks. The biggest lesson I think any business (or church) can learn from Starbucks is the idea of BEING THE BEST, NOT THE BIGGEST. Starbucks used to be motivated by being the best coffee retailer. Now, it seems like they are more motivated by being the biggest coffee retailer. Bigness can be (and should be) a by-product of being the best. Dig?

  4. Thanks for the thoughts, John. I’m glad you stopped by. It’s great to get your perspective.

    The challenge, then, for churches is to determine what it is we’re supposed to do best. Is it the best Sunday service? The best hospitality? The best children’s ministry? The best as serving the community? The best at building community inside the church?

    The end result for Starbucks is clear: sell coffee and promote word of mouth. For church, the goal is really lives that are transformed because of what God is doing and has done. That’s more difficult to quantify – but that shouldn’t be an excuse for not seeking to do the parts well.

    Ideally, something like following the teachings of Christ isn’t a product, but in communicating this truth we’re in competition with every other “message” people are trying to share. So … maybe … that communication point is where best matters most.

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