Red Cup Controversy
The start of the 2015 Christmas season was heralded not by songs of heavenly angels, but rather by a social media-fueled furor over the design of Starbucks’ red holiday cups. A rant posted on Facebook by Joshua Feuerstein, a self described “American evangelist, internet and social media personality,” on November 5th, complaining that Starbucks had removed any allusions to Christmas from its holiday cups, quickly went viral. This rant spawned a passionate debate over not only the design of the cups, but also the complicated relationship between capitalism, culture, Christianity, and the church. Even celebrities, from presidential candidate Donald Trump to late-night personality Stephen Colbert weighed in on the matter.
For its part, Starbucks issued a statement saying, “Creating a culture of belonging, inclusion and diversity is one of the core values of Starbucks… Starbucks will continue to embrace and welcome customers from all backgrounds and religions in our stores around the world.”
They could have also added, “Gee, thanks for all the free advertising.”
The Church of St. Arbuck’s
This yuletide outrage—a veritable tempest in a coffee cup—actually belies the important, and, in some cases vital, role Starbucks and other local gathering places play in the work of many ministry leaders, their congregations, and their youth.
Over the last several years, clergy have increasingly utilized coffeehouses for off-site office hours, sermon writing, or intentional gatherings for conversation, leading some to refer to the ubiquitous coffee chain as St. Arbuck’s. Today clergy are not only getting inspiration from the Scripture commentaries, but also their local barista. As Lutheran pastor Bill Petersen once shared in a Facebook post, “Sermonating @ Starbucks Deming Street, stop on by. My favorite barista gave me grief for not being here for a while . . . she said I must be in need of some good sermon illustrations using the staff (let’s hope so).”
While this beatification of Starbucks is done in jest, it points to the ways these places can function as a kind of sacred space through conversation, theological reflection, and Bible study. In these and many other ways, it offers a heightened awareness of God’s presence in everyday life beyond the church building.
Fill My Cup
Haley Vay Beaman, the pastor for children, youth, and family ministry at Zion Lutheran Church in York, Pennsylvania, hosts a regular coffee shop Bible study for teenagers called Fill My Cup. Fill My Cup meets once a month at a Starbucks near the church. She says that the move to Starbucks was spurred by the sense that the teenagers in her church were ready for a different venue than the church’s senior high youth room. When they gather, they spend the first part of a two-hour session sharing their highs and lows, followed by Bible study, and then they close with prayer. (Notably, Beaman helps make it affordable for the youth. She asks each person for a $2 offering and the church covers the remainder of the cost of the drinks.) She says that this change in venue has generated new energy among her youth and created new connection with people beyond the congregation. She says,
It’s not a big coffee shop, so we sort of take over. We have to gather chairs from the entire place to fit our group. We’re on the couches in the corner and we’re right by the front door, so people pass by. We’re doing Bible study so they see our Bibles on the tables. They see us pray together. They overhear our conversations.
Beaman reports that the connection with the staff has also been a remarkable part of the Fill My Cup experience.
The relationships that have been forged in that time have been really incredible. The baristas have been open to our group participating in the life of their store. There are other times when I just come in when I have a day off and they’re just, “Hey, Haley, what’s up?” They know that the relationship there is real and they can be themselves, to the point where they know we’re coming and they prep the place for us and they’re like, “We’re so glad you’re here,” and they know the kids by names. And they started to do special things, like if someone got a latte—you know how they can make the foam look like a heart—they were making it look like crosses. There’s something about the comfort level that has been formed there that’s really amazing. It’s almost like I have become their pastor too. Even if they don’t believe in organized religion, they are able to participate in a new way.
This kind of genuine hospitality is a far cry from all the rhetoric over the color and design of those cups.
Youth Ministry in Third Places
Rather than creating the expectation that one needs to go somewhere different to find God, third place ministries invite youth to discover God in the places they already hang out. In these gatherings, we realize that we don’t need to go somewhere far away to find God. We can find God in the midst of our everyday lives.
Fill My Cup and other ministries like it happen in what sociologist Ray Oldenburg has called the “third places” in American culture, which he defines as “the great variety of public places that host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.” These include pubs, coffeehouses, as well as shops, bookstores, and barber shops, among others. While home, the “first place,” and work (we might also say school), “the second place,” usually have prescribed roles and responsibilities, third places are more flexible and open. They have a unique character and function in the community. They are local, conversational, welcoming, rooted in the neighborhood, and valued as much for the community they cultivate as the cuisine they serve. Unlike some of other local places, these relational, networked, and incarnational hubs are not only places of encounter but also places of deepening engagement through conversation. Places where people can take the time to linger over a coffee, beer, or meal, and get to know one another. They are vital places of conversation and community, relationality, and repose.
Finding God in Everyday Places
Youth ministry already tends to be one of the most mobile parts our congregations, with mission trips and social outings, but these third space gatherings represent something different. Rather than a focus on doing, the focus here is on being and conversation, sometimes around a particular topic, Bible study, or whatever happens to be on their minds and hearts.
Rather than creating the expectation that one needs to go somewhere different to find God, third place ministries invite youth to discover God in the places they already hang out. In these gatherings, we realize that we don’t need to go somewhere far away to find God. We can find God in the midst of our everyday lives. Here, such places become holy ground, regardless of the color of the cups.
Portions of this post first appeared in Keith’s books, The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World, and Click2Save: The Digital Ministry Bible.
Keith Anderson serves as pastor at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church in Ambler, Pennsylvania. He is the author of a new book on ministry leadership in a digital age, The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World, and co-author, with Elizabeth Drescher, of Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible. Connect with Keith at pastorkeithanderson.net and on Twitter @prkanderson.