Missional Community and Starbucks

Excerpted from “Barefoot Church: Serving the Least in a Consumer Culture

A couple years ago, my wife Jen and I took a cruise from Seattle to Alaska for our anniversary. It was awesome. We had never been to Seattle, so we decided to fly in a few days early to take in the city. We did all the usual stops. We stood on the observation deck of the space needle, Jen caught a fish at Pikes Place Market, and since we’re both huge coffee lovers, we figured we’d better check out the original Starbucks while we were there.

I was pretty pumped about the Starbucks thing. The line was out the door. The storefront was just like the pictures. And they were funneling people through as efficiently as possible, everyone leaving with their coffee and an additional t-shirt, mug, or other logo-laden paraphernalia. It was a whirlwind of action. I grabbed my black coffee and went to find a place to sit down while waiting for Jen and her eight-syllable drink when it hit me… there are no chairs in this room.

Surely not, this is Starbucks, home of community and wi-fi. The place we hang out for business meetings and stale pastries. Honestly, it set me back a moment. But they had removed every chair in the building to make room for in-and-out traffic. Tables too. What once was a place built on the idea of community had now become a business so efficient that no one in the room even noticed they were being herded around like cattle.

And we didn’t care. They were giving us exactly what we wanted, coffee, a t-shirt, and a picture in front of the building to prove we had been there. No one was there to hang out, read a book, or sip on a latte. They had a tourist schedule and needed to move on.

This is church without missional community. Something built on relationships and unified effort, now a place to consume with a revolving door, a weekly tourist stop for the self-righteous. A place to get our fix and say we were there.

Every time I hear someone teach on the Acts 2 church I wonder what first century faith community really looked like.  I can’t help but think there was something special about it that we’ve missed. It’s hard to imagine a day where people would pool what they had to make sure no one was without. While things certainly look different in our time, it just seems like we’ve lost a little something.  Something tells me community didn’t just fill a need in their lives to connect, it gave them purpose.

Robert Bellah, American sociologist and Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley wrote that, “We find ourselves not independently of other people and institutions but through them. We never get to the bottom of our selves on our own. We discover who we are side by side with others in work, love, and learning. All of our activity goes on in relationships, groups, associations, and communities ordered by institutional structures and interpreted by cultural patterns of meaning.”[i]

In other words, we need each other. We were created that way. And whether we choose to be or not, we are shaped by our relationships. We will be influenced and find our significance as believers in community.  “Jesus said that he had come to give life, and life to the full.[ii] Paul was clear in Ephesians that we were to “lead a life worthy of the calling” and to “make every effort” to live in unity.[iii] It’s through doing life together that we learn to do so. “The church is God’s people gathered as a unit, as a people, gathered to do business in His name, to find what it means here and now to put into practice this different quality of life which is God’s promise to them and to the world and their promise to God and service to the world.”[iv]

In learning to become a community that is “not about us,” we more intuitively lean into the leading of the Spirit as we seek to participate in God’s mission in the world. When we do so, it becomes a reminder of God’s redemption, a preview of what that redemption is like, and offers a strategy to carry redemption’s hope into every context.[v]

In essence, missional community may serve as one of the best ways we can embody the incarnation of Christ. Putting on flesh and being Jesus to our world.  When we live this out, the focus of the church shifts to hearing and responding to the Spirit.  When this is translated collectively, congregations as a whole tend to take more seriously the how and when to engage communities where they live.[vi]

[i] Robert Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life  (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 84.

[ii] John 10:10.

[iii] Ephesians 4:1-2.

[iv] John Howard Yoker, The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism (Scottdale, Penn.: Herald, 1977), 30-31.

[v] Leslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), NEED PAGE NUMBER(S)

[vi] Craig Van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 19.