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Liturgy and Starbucks

By February 15, 2003 No Comments

Recent reports have some in the post-baby-boomer generations returning to traditional expressions of Christianity, including Eastern Orthodoxy. At the same time, there abound “pundits” who have all but written off the so-called “Generation X” from the church, contending that they are too “lost” for any outreach. Meanwhile, both denominational officials and ecclesiastical entrepreneurs are hatching strategies to do what they can to get young adults back inside the church.

My impression of the upshot of all this is that many think that the church is just not “user friendly” (some would say “seeker sensitive”). The music is too old; nor do the lyrics “speak” to young people. And for any liturgy still left, the language is too foreign for any but the elect. On our church staff we have the occasional conversation about whether Sunday morning services are “user friendly” enough. Frankly, I’m not convinced that we need to be as nearly “user friendly” with liturgy and lyrics as many experts recommend. Starbucks has challenged my thinking.

I did not inherit my parent’s commitment to coffee. Rather, “I found it” in my late 30’s. Initially, I liked the idea of drinking coffee more than the actual flavor. Thus I acquired a taste for steamed milk in my java (if the milk wasn’t steamed, the whole thing turned into a lukewarm light-brown soup). By and by I discovered the difference between a caffè latte and café au lait. A latte (Italian for milk–it has less foam than a cappuccino) is espresso with steamed milk, while café au lait is drip coffee with steamed milk. By the time I found my way to Starbucks a few years ago, I was fluent in café au lait. I quickly discovered that French isn’t spoken at Starbucks. They don’t speak English either. At Starbucks a café au lait is called a caffè misto (because it is a “mix” of equal parts steamed milk and drip coffee). At Starbucks the language of coffee commerce is Italian–with a few exceptions (e.g., a size “Tall” is the smallest on the menu). So I have learned Italian. And so have you, if you frequent Starbucks. If you are part of the minority who never have, it is worth dropping in just to listen to the liturgy.

At busy times an orderly (if slow) processional of the faithful crowd toward the counter. An order may be something like “I’d like a grande, non-fat, triple shot, 2 pump peppermint latte with extra whip cream.” The money changer loudly relays the request. And one should not worry if the strangeness of the terms causes a stumble. The temple assistant mediates these early morning “sighs that are too deep for words” by translating them into flawless coffee Italian. The Barista (it even sounds a little like “priest”) who feverishly prepares coffee drinks behind the espresso bar repeats the petition verbatim, as if by uttering the words s/he speaks them into being. At the more relational franchises, the customer’s name will be attached to the order. When the brew is ready, complete in all of its uniqueness, the Barista chants the request once again, just to indicate that the unction is complete.

By the way, there are no printed liturgies–no Italian-English “cheat sheets.” At Starbucks, ordering coffee is baptism by immersion. It’s sink or swim. Oh, sure–there are one or two people per million who walk out without ordering because they can’t take the awkwardness of a menu that isn’t “user friendly.” For the most part no one leaves.

Starbucks is probably smarter than the church when it comes to marketing. For one, once past the initial awkwardness of not knowing how to order, Starbucks is one very hip place to hang out. And it’s not just coffee that Starbucks sells. It offers community, or at least post-Christendom’s approximation of it. And we feel virtuous drinking coffee. By consuming a nearly five-dollar coffee (made from free trade beans), we make the world a better place by reducing third-world poverty. There’s even a brochure pushing a “Starbucks Mission Trip.” Well, actually, it’s an ecological service jaunt sponsored by a coffee shop. After 9/11, donations at Starbucks probably exceeded the receipts of some of America’s smaller Christian denominations.

The point is that the church might learn about corporate worship language from the language of coffee. Starbucks realizes, it seems, that a distinctive menu that people need to learn is not a bad thing. All of this suggests that if Americans (who largely eschew foreign languages) are willing to learn Italian to get good coffee, they might well learn the Lord’s Prayer (in English) in order to get God. And we won’t even have to put it in the bulletin every Sunday.

Quinn Fox is Minister of Adult Education at the First Presbyterian Church of Colorado Springs, Colorado.