Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul by Howard Schultz with Joanne Gordon    

During our stewardship campaigns at Western Church, one of our thirty-something elders always brings up Starbucks as she speaks to the congregation in worship. “Many of us think nothing of spending $5 at Starbucks every work day. Why then do we hesitate at giving the same $25 weekly to support the work of the church?” Good question. An equally good question that might be asked is “Why has Starbucks been successful at growing its business while many congregations can’t grow?” In his book, Onward , Howard Schultz, the leader behind Starbucks’s success, would answer, “Because you are not focused on excellence and giving people an experience they deem valuable.”   

  Prior to buying ten Starbucks coffee bars in 1987, Shultz wrote a memo to capture his vision of what he wanted to do with a coffee bar company. “(We) will strive to be the best coffee bar company on earth
. . . we will build into each coffee bar a level of quality, performance, and value that will earn the respect and loyalty of our customers.” Fifteen years later, Starbucks had 2600 stores in 13 countries with revenue of just under $2 billion. Today, it has over 17,000 stores in 50 countries. Such explosive growth reminds us of the first century church!

Onward is Schultz’ reflection on the keys to Starbucks’ success. The story is told with special attention to his return as CEO in 2008. During the eight years he was away from the CEO position, Starbucks expanded exponentially and yet came very close to losing its distinctive competitive advantage in an increasingly cut-throat coffee bar marketplace. Stock value dropped over 40%. While Schultz’s version of the crisis is, no doubt, somewhat self-serving and ignores many criticisms that have been raised regarding Starbucks, it nonetheless has a lot to offer to anyone running a business, including those of us who are leading and managing religious congregations. Refocusing his company on excellence and the “Starbucks experience” in the three year period from 2008 to the present (one of the most economically challenging periods in world history), Schultz has managed to almost triple Starbucks’s stock value.   

As leaders and managers of the congregations we serve, the Starbucks story raises a number of questions for us:   

Are we focused on excellence in the lives of our congregations? Do we demand of ourselves and others nothing but the best we can do both individually and as congregations?   

What is the spiritual “experience” we offer our members and visitors that equates to the coffee bar experience Schultz so carefully created and maintains for anyone who enters the doors of a Starbucks?   

Are we focused on giving our “customers” the absolute best spiritual experience we can offer them?   

Do the members of our congregations feel as though they are invested partners in our ministry as every full or 20-hour employee of Starbucks is, in fact, an equity-holding partner of Starbucks?   

In 2007, a Consumer Reports test rated Starbucks coffee behind the new coffee introduced at McDonalds. It was a moment of truth. Schultz writes, “Without great coffee, Starbucks had no reason to exist.” Upon resuming the CEO position, he immediately had his talented staff create a new blend of coffee named Pike Place Roast. It has been a critical building block for the company’s renewed success. With a great coffee, Starbucks regained its reason for being.   

In a religious congregation, how would we fill in the blank: “Without __________, our congregation has no reason to exist”? Congregations might fill in “theological beliefs,” “inspiring worship,” “expansive mission to the poor and oppressed,” or “education of ourselves and our youth.” However, too many congregations can’t or won’t fill in the blank. They have no idea what their core purpose is. Without the blank filled, a congregation will lack focus, floating from one attempt at ministry to the next. Drifting from its brand is exactly what happened to Starbucks during Schultz’s absence. Among other distractions, they began selling books, records, and sandwiches. Meanwhile, the quality of their coffee and, as important, the “Starbucks experience” declined.   

Schultz has a fascinating discussion of the power of iconic brands. He says the following:   

“Icons make sense of the tension of the times, offering hope and even mending a culture in turmoil, much as the Beatles did for my generation in the 1960s.”   

“Icons assert a ‘cultural authority,’ helping to frame the way people view the times they live in.”   

“Icons don’t confuse history with heritage, and always protect and project their values.”   

“Icons disrupt themselves before others disrupt them.”   

Enduring icons are willing to sacrifice near-term popularity for longer-term relevance.”     

I leave it to the reader to unpack the profound implications for congregations that are contained in Schultz’s list. But I will say a few words about the fourth characteristic regarding disrupting or being disrupted.    

Congregations are notoriously unwilling to disrupt their own lives. As a result, the world in which we live does it for us. Not seizing control of where we are going and what we want to be, our journey through history is directed by other forces. It doesn’t have to be that way.     

What we learn from great leaders such as Schultz is that every congregation needs to understand who it is and what it is called to do. If we focus on our core reason for being and core competencies, all the moaning and groaning about declining attendance will end. We will be too busy working on our core purpose to complain.     

Onward is a story of a talented leader bringing a floundering company back to its original purpose. For any congregational leader who seeks to do the same in her/his work, it is filled with analogies to congregational life that are too obvious to miss. Don’t let the self-congratulatory nature of some parts of the book bother you. Instead, focus on Schultz’s core message. It will get the reader to thinking in creative and productive ways.       


—John W. Wimberly, Jr. is pastor of Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC.    

Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways by Olivier Roy

We made the pilgrimage at dusk. Our small car twisted through narrow mountain roads. The kids slept. I watched out for deer. Then as we made a turn in the road we saw it in the distance: Mt. Rushmore. 

More vehicles joined our processional as we came closer. Cars and trucks and RVs chugged up the road. “Welcome to Mt. Rushmore,” said a cheerful greeter. We walked from the parking lot through majestic buildings, a forum for souvenirs and ice cream. An arcade flanked by columns and flags brought us to the top of an amphitheater. Looking down we saw the spectacle of thousands gathered at night before shrouded faces of our former presidents. 

A hush fell over the crowd when a park ranger stepped out. She spoke of liberty as an enduring value of our country. The testimony ended with a video montage on the four great presidents, stories of how they stood for liberty at moments of peril. The images on screen changed to the present, the music soared, we rose to our feet, and sang out with pride, “Oh, say, can you see?” 

Our words poured down before the presidents and then their faces lit up. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt: they seemed to smile down on our offering of praise. The ranger returned, now to call forth all of the veterans in the audience. Men and women of all ages responded to the call. “These and many who did not return made sacrifices for our liberty,” the ranger reminded us. Behind her the screen showed a flag waving; we knew how to respond: “I pledge allegiance.”  

I was moved but also struck by the way the patriotism of the night was filled with religious ethos. Not so much Christian as pagan; from the neo-Roman architecture to the imperial cult-like invocation of the presidents to the gathering of the legionaries. We were one sacrificial goat short of full-fledged paganism. 

Olivier Roy’s Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways offers many insights into the contemporary state of world religions. His work draws on his rich perspective as a scholar of Islam. Roy, while never addressing American patriotism, gives one the tools to see in new ways how the spirituality of patriotism varies greatly from Christian spirituality.  

For all its grandeur, patriotism is rooted in a particular place: a territory, Roy would say. Any of the transcendent or spiritual claims of patriotism always refer back to the geography of a specific area. In contrast, Christianity operates without regard to territory, making universal claims. Universality increasingly characterizes every religious movement. Throughout the modern era, national religions reformatted themselves into global religions. 

Roy values the local—specific practices embedded in particular geographical settings—and regards the universal as unnaturally rootless. Faith can tend toward either end of this spectrum: imagine an old urban congregation where the names on the stain-glass windows testify to its roots in the historical fabric of a community contrasted to a suburban mega-church that could be anywhere in the country, or indeed, the world. In our globalized world, religious movements reformat themselves to de-emphasize territoriality.  

Roy’s focus on territoriality may reflect his own French identity, where the agricultural origin of foods matter because of a sense that the land itself imparts a certain je ne sais quoi to the wine or cheese. One senses in this book a Frenchman longing for his favorite Cotes du Rhone when all that can be found is a Gallo, bottled in California out of grapes grown in Chile.  

A second dichotomy concerns “religious markers” and “cultural markers.” The relationship between these two markers continually shifts, buffeted by historical situations. Thus, as Roy explains, at certain times in Scottish history identity as a Scot was determined by language (a cultural marker). When English replaced the indigenous language, Scottish identity was recast around Presbyterianism (a religious marker).  

Often these two markers overlap in seemingly inseparable ways; how does one tease out cultural markers and religious markers in much of Jewish history? Yet in the modern era, these markers separate; as Roy notes, one can make aliyah—immigrate to Israel—regardless of religious markers (atheists and Orthodox welcome alike) so long as one is culturally Jewish.  

These markers play out in the difference between the neo-paganism of American patriotism and Christianity. Patriotism’s transcendent claims—such as the great value of giving one’s life for the state, the eternal quality of values like liberty—unabashedly embrace American culture in every kitschy souvenir. But modern religions, Roy notes, strive to divorce religious markers and cultural markers. Many Christians across the political spectrum worry about the “comprise with culture” in their churches, whether it is equated with LGBT acceptance or American militarism. Roy writes extensively about the movement of people to create pure religions, stripped of cultural markers. It seems there is a John Howard Yoder or a Stanley Hauerwas in every world religion. 

These two continuums—universality vs. territoriality and religious markers vs. cultural markers—shape Roy’s understanding of the affects of globalization. Religious movements today de-emphasize their territoriality and shed their cultural markers. In a Christian context we might call the result the “church of the strip mall” phenomenon. Roy longs for something else; to borrow from the Saturday farmer’s market, he seeks “heirloom Christianity.”  

Holy ignorance results when religions lose a sense of place and culture. The phrase captures both his critique—holy people ignorant of culture—and his disgust—ignorance! Throughout his book Roy makes his case for the market-place’s transformation of religion with examples drawn from around the world. 

One affecting story concerned a scandal caused by a video showing a Moroccan man dancing dressed as a woman surrounded by other men. Many in Morocco thought it depicted an Islamic same-sex wedding. The video itself probably captured the local veneration of an Islamic saint invoked through dance in order to exorcise demons. As Roy explains,  

Suddenly, something that was both marginal and accepted becomes the subject of scandal and is no longer understood as the expression of a popular culture on the margins (margins in every sense of the word: social, as it is associated with bad boys and the socially relegated; psychiatric, as it is linked to healing; and lastly religious as it is connected to the “worship of a saint” which the dominant Salafism condemns). 

A religious movement divorced from its cultural markers and territoriality cannot appreciate its own cultural celebrations: holy but ignorant. 

Yet more happened in that moment than a religious movement forgetting its own past practices. The protesters, upset by the video of a purported same-sex marriage, adopted a western model of human sexuality, moving from a more traditional Moroccan view of homosexuality as a sexual act to a western idea of homosexuality as a sexual nature. A local Islamic practice of cross-dressing exorcism condemned by an Islam built on universalized western norms. The protesters rallied against an intrusion of western values but did so on the basis of how the west defined homosexuality (nature instead of act).  

Further, the protesters assumed western culture inherently accepted LGBT people. One often hears this in developing world critiques of the west, but, historically, LGBT acceptance in America and Europe dates only to the 1960s and even then acceptance remains contested. The protesters not only acted out of a misinformed conception of their own culture (that is, failing to recognize a traditional Moroccan exorcism) but were equally misinformed about western culture.  

Cases such as the Moroccan video lead Roy to suggest an alternative to Samuel Huntington’s famous clash of civilizations thesis. Huntington asserted culture created fundamental human divisions which, with the end of the cold war, would become locked into conflict: Western vs. Islamic vs. Hindu. Instead of a clash of civilization, Roy sees a clash within civilizations as global religious movements turn against local cultural manifestations, much in the way that Moroccan protesters denounced a traditional, if marginal, practice in their culture. (Such a thesis does better than Huntington’s to explain the modern problem of Islamic terrorism, which kills far more Muslims than westerners). The effort to establish a purified religion leads to conflict and even violence within a civilization. 

At times the pressure to drop cultural markers in favor of religious ones comes from the state. European countries discuss their “Muslim minorities,” amalgamating many distinct cultural groups. Much is lost: what of Bengali Muslims with Hindu names, or Arab-speaking Christians, or simply the cultural differences between a Yemini Sunni and an Indonesian Sunni?  

Statecraft demands drive the process as well. Over the last half-century the heterodox Alawite community in Syria increasingly dropped its unique cultural markers in favor of a more normative Shiite identity. The al-Assad dynasty, Alawite religiously, pushes this change to strengthen ties with Shiites in Iran and Lebanon.  

More typically, the motivation for religions to reformat themselves by dropping territoriality and cultural markers comes from our globalized market place; religions compete for customers. Roy summarizes the religion marketplace: “this concept of a market, borrowed from the economy, postulates that first of all there is a demand for religion (invoking a human nature that, in any case, has a religious ‘need’) which seeks out what is available on the market.” If people shop for church then are disciples reduced to consumers? 

Modern forms of Hinduism provide an example: traditional Hinduism centered on the Ganges (territoriality) and the caste system (cultural marker). First Sris, master teachers, and later migrating populations brought Hinduism to new locales by de-emphasizing the Ganges and caste. Only a reformatted Hinduism could effectively compete for customers. 

As in other industries, religions operate in a deregulated market—fewer and fewer state protected monopolies, an internet and media leveling of access—that allows them to reach greater audiences. But like all products shipped afar, the product must be simplified. One can easily ship Rick Warren’s sermons from California to Uganda, but it’s harder to ship Catholic sacramental elements from an American parish overseas. Bringing religion to market involves reformatting to what can ship most easily in our global marketplace.  

The market place of religion favors forms of faith most ready to be “shipped.” Roy suggests Pentecostalism does better than Catholicism because the Holy Spirit is more mobile than the Virgin Mary: the spirit blows where it will but Mary is always of some place, Częstochowa or Guadalupe. The Salafist insistence on Shari travels far better than the Shiite devotion to shrines. 

Now the religious products compete head to head, increasing competition between religious groups but also forcing them to adapt their products so the consumers can reasonably compare them. Thus, Roy describes, “The Arya Samaj movement, which was founded in 1875 by Swami Dayanand Saraswati, who rejected the caste system, promoted monotheism and placed great importance on the Vedas, or sacred texts. Universalism, monotheism, revealed book: this is clearly a theological and ‘ecclesiological’ formatting process based on the Christian template.” The pressure works both ways of course; one hears silent prayer sold as Christian mediation, complete with scriptural mantras. 

There is a bit of a counter-trend in terms of cultural markers. Some cultural emblems serve as helpful branding in the market place—a saffron robe, a Celtic cross, a sprinkling of foreign words: teasers for the imagination which simultaneously testify to the authenticity of the spiritual product. At times these cultural remnants can become decisive signifiers of identity. “Visibility is characteristic of contemporary religion,” Roy notes. One hears in that comment years of French debate about the headscarves of young Muslim women. But it resonates in the public but shallow expressions of Christianity in America. Sometimes the most visible markers are not clothing, but issues worn on the sleeve: anti-abortion positions among evangelicals, Shari among Salafists, both apparent non-negotiables with little historical depth in either tradition. Visible culture issues to define a brand identity. 

The genius of Roy’s book lies beyond its trenchant analysis of the global markets effect on religion. The book infects the mind. One begins to wonder about those continuums of territoriality versus universality and religious markers versus cultural markers. Is mainline Protestantism declining because it’s still so connected to historic, ethnic, cultural markers? Have decades of critiques of Constantinian Christianity led us into a market-driven faith? Can religious shoppers ever become faithful disciples? Have we lost an essential terroir in our drive to universalize our religions? Did our congregations shed something important when we moved away from the cultural sentimentality of Mt. Rushmore? Holy Ignorance makes one wonder how much our faith and our institutions are shaped for the worse by globalization.

—Andrew B. Warner


Born This Way by Lady Gaga

If there was a soundtrack to Summer 2011 in my car, it was Lady Gaga’s new album, Born this Way. My daughter and her friends are Gaga-devotees, known in Gaga-world as a “Little Monsters.” Lady Gaga calls herself “Mother Monster.” I broke down and bought the CD for my daughter. It was played incessantly all summer. I began to really like the album, fell in love with the beat and mix of music. My daughter and I crank up the music in the car sometimes and sing along at the top of our lungs. There is pure fun in this album, something we all need. It was then I realized that I was becoming a “little monster” too.  

Some of the lyrics in the album can be raw and offensive. Yet there is a theological undergirding to the album. Sprinkled throughout are questions about our relationship to God and specifically to Jesus. After the release of the album this spring, some religious leaders panned it—offended in part by the lyrics of the song “Judas”. As I listened to “Judas” I heard something else, an age-old theological discussion set to a new tune about good vs. evil. Gaga sings:  

I’m in love with Judas/When he calls me I am ready/Even after three times he betrays me/Oh baby it’s so cruel but/I’m still in love with Judas baby/In the most biblical sense I am beyond repentance/I wanna love you/But something’s pulling me away from you/Jesus is my virtue/And Judas is the demon I cling to/I cling to—I’m a holy fool

Hidden in the controversial lyrics of the song are nuggets of truth. We want to be good; we want Jesus or God as our virtue in life. Yet, we cling to the demons or the Judas’ in our lives. We are human. 

On a Sunday in mid-July this summer I put a quote from “Judas”: Jesus is my virtue, and Judas is the demon I cling to in our Sunday bulletin. I wondered how my congregation, demographically representative of most mainline congregations, would react. In my sermon I drew attention to the quote and Gaga, using them to weave a sermon about the issues of good vs. evil that we all grapple with in life. The theological conversation in worship received positive reactions. The youth and children paid attention. Even our music search committee talked about Gaga with candidates they were interviewing later that afternoon! Using Gaga as the hook to hang a sermon and discussion about a difficult theological concept seemed to work just right. 

Other serious theological issues find their home in the album. Gaga struggles throughout in an open and honest way with her own fears and insecurities that mirror the ones so many of her “Little Monsters” have. No song deals with these issues more overtly than the title song “Born this Way”. In the memorable litany of this song Gaga lists “categories” that cause harsh judgment of people, when in fact they were born this way.  

Mi amore vole fe yah (love needs faith)/Subway kids, rejoice your truth/In the religion of the insecure/I must be myself, respect by youth/Don’t be a drag, just be a queen/Whether you’re broke or evergreen/You’re black, white, beige, chola decent/You’re Lebanese, your orient/Whether life’s disabilities/Left you outcast, bullied or teased/Rejoice and love yourself today/Cause baby, you were born this way  

For congregational use, I intend to pair this song with an episode of the hit TV show Glee. In it the music teacher at the fictitious McKinley High School is horrified by a conversation he overhears between his students. One young girl has broken her nose and is being pressured by her doctor to use it as an opportunity to “fix” her nose which the doctor deems “ugly.” Confused and upset, the young girl solicits advice from friends, leading into a conversation around the insecurities all the students have. Self-hate is evident in all the youth. The teacher attempts to dissuade the students from the negative self images they have admitted to: “The thing you’d most like to change about yourself is the most interesting part of you…” He’s quickly put in his place by one of the students: “Maybe [you are right], but at this school the thing that makes you different is the thing that people use to crush your spirit.”  

There it is. The answer we know to be true for the youth in our congregations and communities. As leaders in congregations we have words of faith to help and heal. But we need new language to help the communication.  

The teacher in Glee does just this. He uses Gaga’s “Born this Way”. The episode ends with the youth (and adults) singing and dancing to “Born this Way”. They open up their cardigan sweaters to reveal t-shirts imprinted with their “vices” as a way of embracing who they are as individuals and a group.  

A possible use for a congregation could be the pairing of Gaga’s song and the Glee episode for a theological conversation around what it means to be made in the image of God. The Glee episode says nothing of faith, but Gaga does. 

I’m beautiful in my own way because God makes no mistakes.  

How might using the album in this way open up new and innovative conversations in your congregation?  

For some, a music artist such as Gaga is the last resource that would come to mind for congregational life. Maybe we should think of her in another way. She has over 13 million Twitter followers and over 43 million Facebook friends. I’d hazard a guess that quite a few “little monsters” are not part of the life of our congregations. I’m convinced they are still hungry for a word from us, eager for acceptance and a way to figure out how to relate to God. Like those already in our congregations, they too have a deep longing for their questions about life and faith, even when the questions feel “unmentionable” in polite conversation, to be answered. It might just be that using someone as non-traditional and maybe even a little profane like the Mother Monster could be the tool that we seek in these times. 

—Shannan R. Vance-Ocampo is Pastor of the Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church in North Plainfield, NJ.