Upsizing spiritual product

Starbucks_jesus_1The Christian Science Monitor reports today on the important and sometimes troubling intersection of church and commerce, but correspondent G. Jeffrey MacDonald’s compact article sometimes omits important points.

In a context-setting paragraph, for instance, he draws an overly easy link between three rather different situations:

Those who crave Starbucks can step over to a kiosk at Grace Capital Church in Pembroke, N.H. At True Bethel Baptist Church in Buffalo, N.Y., the spot where the choir once sang now sells Subway sandwiches. And in more than a few picturesque meeting houses, hymns and prayers ascend through a steeple that doubles as a leased-out cellphone tower.

Yes, there’s a squirm factor when any church opens a Starbucks franchise under the same roof as its baptismal font or Communion rail (my thanks to Tom Sorrell for permission to reprint his graphic, which originally appeared on Ubersite). But in fairness to True Bethel Baptist Church/Subway, there’s still a choir singing behind the pastor, and the sandwich shop is on the other side of a wall. More important, True Bethel — which is located in an impoverished section of the city, uses the shop to train and employ neighborhood residents (the CBS Evening News reported on True Bethel’s efforts on its Dec. 2 broadcast).

MacDonald’s summary of the differences between Catholic and Protestant thought is overly tidy: “In Protestant theology, the church building holds less sanctity than it does in Catholicism, since Protestants don’t regard it as a necessity in the transmission of God’s grace. Nevertheless, just as some Protestants cheer the practical value of sharing their space with business, others resist, citing equally pragmatic concerns.”

Still, MacDonald does find the topic’s ethical heart:

But short-term convenience and growth may come at the expense of church ideals, says Barry Harvey, professor of contemporary theology at Baylor University in Houston. In his view, spirituality has been “commodified” in the past quarter-century, in part due to “church shopping” and a hot market for religious merchandise. From there, he says, “It’s just one more step to say, ‘What’s the big deal about bringing in a McDonald’s?’”

As churches “come to resemble malls,” says Dr. Harvey, “they no longer become communities that try to live differently from the rest of the world and model how life is supposed to be lived . . . We should meet [others] in a marketplace, but then welcome them into a community that says there are deeper ways of relating.”

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  • William

    I was visting some friends out in Seattle a few years back, and they had fresh Dunkin’ Doughnuts in the “basement overflow” of the church. They also had, of course Starbucks.

    The same church just spent a lot of time, planning, money, and effort into relocating down off 15th Ave, one block east of the Ballard bridge. They are a great Church that is really growing and reaching out into the Seattle community.

    The Church is not your typical Church. I think that it feels more like a College than church. The congregation openly asks questions of the minister during his sermon, and it has quite a lot of “College Kids”, attending. If you are ever out in beautiful Seattle, I would recommend you attending one of their services. Or you can check them out online at

  • sharon

    Catholics “regard [the church building] as a necessity in the transmission of God’s grace”???

  • Saint Dumb Ox

    The “Buddy Jesus” is finding new life. Hehehe.

    I have yet to figure this one out. How to be in the world and not be of the world? I don’t think there are any evil motives at work, but if it looks like a mall and smells like a mall then my mind usually makes the assumption that it’s a mall. I do want Jesus to become so much a part of me that people won’t be able to tell the difference, but how that happens is still beyond me. Not that I am not for trying new things, but I am a big fan of thinking them through and making a good choice. Some decistions must be made very fast others can take a really long time and putting in a Starucks perhaps should be thought about a bit more.

  • Trent Williams

    Since when is Baylor in Houston?

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    Thanks for the additional catch, Trent. I was so focused on the story’s other problems that I failed to add a [sic] or a [Waco] to that blockquote for the sake of clarity.

    Sharon, I too was perplexed at the article’s claim that Catholics believe a building itself is necessary for transmitting God’s grace. I hope my use of “overly tidy” did not leave the impression that I thought the author was on the right track with that sentence.

  • Sherry

    Is a church building only allowed to house worship services? What is acceptable and what is not? Is it the commercial nature of the entity that is questionable? What about churches that have bookstores? Or schools? Can churches sell books and classes but not coffee and doughnuts? Didn’t medieval monasteries serve as inns, hospitals, and other service -oriented businesses? Of course, monasteries aren’t exactly churches. I have a dream of a community education center that would house classes for homeschoolers, a library, a computer center or cyber-cafe, sports, arts classes, and probably a church on Sundays. But I wouldn’t want it to “feel like a mall.” I’d rather it came to be a “community that says there deeper ways of relating.”