Religion and Starbucks

I’ve never really liked Starbucks. In fact, during sophomore year of college, I did a project where I basically discussed how Starbucks coffee wasn’t even that great (according to blind taste tests, McDonald’s often came out on top) and how their business plan was utterly flawed. The idea of a “Starbucks on every corner” was laughable to me; how does one plan to gain market share by competing against itself?

While my logic was good, my overall thesis was misguided. Obviously Starbucks’ business plan isn’t flawed; otherwise they would be out of business by now. But the reason that they are still in business is the thing that annoyed me the most about them.

“I think restaurants have become too important.” In the list of great quotes from When Harry Met Sally, this one is probably pretty low, if it even makes the list at all. And while I agree that it’s no “I’ll have what she’s having,” I still love when Jess says this. I think it’s a great analysis of our society. “Restaurants are to people in the ’80’s what theater was to people in the 60’s.” This was true in the ’80’s and it’s still true today.

Starbucks is successful because it makes us feel important. It simultaneously allows us to feel like an individual and part of a group. You can go into Starbucks and get your drink. I’m a tall pumpkin spice latte, low fat, no foam, no whip (seriously, that’s my order…yes as much as it pains me to say, I’ve joined the cult that is Starbucks…but only in autumn, so that makes it ok…right?). You may be a tall chai frap. Or a double chocolate chip with extra foam. Maybe you’re a venti, iced caramel macchiato, upside down, light on the ice, with extra caramel. Whatever you order, it’s you. “A piece of iconography used to express individual identity” (from another favorite movie of mine, The Devil Wears Prada).

You’re also a Starbucks customer. You’re part of the demographic that frequents this multi-billion dollar coffee shop. You understand the lingo; you are well-versed in the ordering and receiving patterns; you may even be familiar with the other regulars that frequent and/or work at your local Starbucks. You’re all in this together. It’s where the businessman and the hipster meet eye-to-eye. It’s where the nineteen year-old and the ninety-two year-old realize that an iced green tea lemonade tastes great at any age. No matter your background, social status, or yearly income, you’re all united as Starbucks customers.

I’m relatively new to Starbucks. As I stated earlier, I’ve never really been a fan of the place. That, plus the fact that I don’t really drink coffee, has resulted in my never stepping foot inside a Starbucks. This all changed about three months ago, when I went on an audit with a colleague and we met at Starbucks. I went first and ordered a tall pumpkin spice latte, merely because I love pumpkin anything and that’s the smallest size coffee they offer (sidenote: since when is “tall” a small size? It’s this kind of logic that makes me question my decision to enter this place). My colleague went next and her order astounded me. I don’t remember the exact drink she got, but I remember she said things like “no foam” and “two pumps,” and I realized that I had made a grave mistake. I had shown my rookie status by not including all these other words that, to a novice, had nothing to do with coffee. I immediately felt like an outsider; I was illiterate in Starbucks. Not having grown up frequenting the place, I felt like I didn’t belong. It’s the same way I always felt at church.

I consider myself a Christian, but I still take issue with what that even means. I believe in God and I think Jesus was an awesome guy. I guess I believe he was the son of God, but I’m not so set on it that I would speak out against someone who believed otherwise. My overall opinion about religion is that we’re all worshiping the same God, just going about it in different ways. And that the specifics of what you believe aren’t nearly as important as the way that you use your religion. As long as you use it to make the world a better place and to do good to others, then I think you’re in the clear to go to heaven.

I have a lot of quandaries with organized religion. My parents never attended church, so I didn’t grow up in the system. My grandmother is a devout Lutheran and I sometimes attended with her, but honestly, that hurt more than it helped. My parents sometimes mentioned God in our house and we celebrated religious holidays and gave praise to Jesus and what-not, so I always grew up believing I was a Christian. I just didn’t know any of the academics of it. I was unfamiliar with the stories of Job and Delilah and Ruth. If it wasn’t Moses or Mary and Joseph, I didn’t know it existed.

Despite that, though, I still felt that I was a Christian. Yet any time I did attend church, whether with my grandmother or with various friends, I constantly felt like an outsider; like I was not, in fact, a Christian. I remember my cousins reprimanding me for taking communion even though I hadn’t been baptized. I remember standing alongside peers during worship and trying to hide the fact that, unlike them, I didn’t know these songs by heart. Sometimes I would close my eyes and pretend that I was so into the worshiping that I didn’t have enough energy to sing the words, as a way to stealthily hide the fact that I had never heard this apparently popular tune. I always felt like everyone there knew that I wasn’t a part of their world. And it always made me question whether or not I was really a Christian.

For a brief time in college, I did attend church regularly. I was dating an avid church-goer and he brought me into his world. And after a few months, I did start to feel somewhat a part of it. And I reveled in the fact that I could now sing the songs with the rest of them and that I understood the patterns and that I was part of the group. It cemented in my mind that I really was a Christian, and yet, I still wasn’t sure that I truly belonged.

I think this is where I am in my current relationship with Starbucks. I’m familiar enough with the lingo now that I don’t feel like an outsider, but I still sometimes feel like I don’t exactly belong. Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I belong, just like I never felt like I belonged in church. The great thing about organized religion (and Starbucks) is that it creates a feeling of community. If you’ve grown up going to church, knowing the vocabulary, understanding the patterns, gaining the knowledge, creating the relationships, well, then you really feel like you belong. It’s kind of how I feel about coming from a small town. But the problem with this type of inclusive group is that, if you’re an outsider, you’re ALWAYS an outsider. Again, living in a small town, I can attest to this. Even if your family moved there when you were four years old, if you weren’t born there, you were never truly from there.

I guess my point in this long rant is this: there are benefits to belonging to a specific community. Whether that’s a coffee shop chain, sect of religion, or physical location, if you’ve grown up with it, then you and others like you feel a sense of unity. However, the drawback of this is that, while the inside members feel united, the outsiders always feel excluded. And I think therein lies the danger with organized religion: it separates us. My husband’s family are Lutherans, more specifically Missouri Synod Lutherans. And when they meet other Lutherans, that’s one of the their first questions: “What synod do you belong to?” I don’t understand the need for all these Protestant religions in the first place (and I especially don’t understand the need to break them down even further by synod). Aren’t they all Christians? They could all be united under one religion, but instead we choose to create divisions, even within the same shared religion. Why do we do this?

We do this for the same reason that Starbucks is successful. We do this because it makes us feel like part of a group, yet we still feel like individuals, because within that group we have our own portion that is just ours. In the same way that someone is a grande salted caramel mocha with a shot of espresso, they are also a Free Will Baptist. Something about humankind makes us yearn to be united yet simultaneously our own.

I guess I admire our need for community. Still, though, I’m sick of feeling like an outsider. I’m sick of focusing on our differences and finding excuses to keep us separate.

Community only benefits those it includes, and the exiled masses only become further excluded.

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2 thoughts on “Religion and Starbucks

  1. I believe that it’s merely human nature that we seek out the feeling of a community. The communities you mentioned — religion, Starbucks, location — certainly aren’t the only ones that exist, and not every community is readily accepted by society (see: The Manson Family). However, all we really want as people is to feel wanted.

    • I agree, and that’s why there are benefits to community. I just see that as one side of the coin, though. On the other side, we’re simultaneously creating a system where those that aren’t part of the community are never able to truly become a part of it and share in that unity. In other words, the desire for some people to feel united causes others to feel extradited.

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