Postmodernity, Starbucks, and Understanding Culture

8:40 pm | Emergent Church

In the post-modern world, Starbucks seems to be the quintessential success story. In a very short time, the little coffee shop grew into a huge business and an image that to many consumers stood for premium quality against the status quo more than for brewing coffee. Starbuck’s has become the very icon of post-modernity, symbolizing the pleasures of sophisticated young adults and college students.

What better recipe for success could there be than to open a Starbucks Coffee smack in the middle of a rapidly growing student housing center of a University campus? Indeed, that is exactly what was done recently at the University of Texas at Dallas. This past September, the shiny new Starbuck’s, located right off UTD’s Drive A in the center of student housing, opened its doors for the first time.

Then something strange and unexpected happened: The Starbucks lost money. Of course, it isn’t unusual for a location to lose money in the first few months of its existence. It takes time for customers to find the store and make the location part of a daily routine. Three or four months of losses could be expected before the location began to turn a profit. But as the months ticked by, revenues never increased.

That which was unthinkable became reality: The Starbucks perfectly located within student housing closed its doors on May 13th, less than a year after the store had opened, unable to turn a profit. Today a sign hangs on the window, “Starbucks CLOSED Indefinitely.” In an article about the closing, the UTD Mercury quoted Luca Finocchiaro saying “I think Starbucks has been great, but I think they’ve been surprised … It’s not as cookie cutter as we may think. It’s a different environment, different weather, different climate.”

This failure reminds me of a common mistake that Evangelical Christians - and particularly those who identify with the emerging church - can easily make. That is the mistake of making false assumptions about a culture and what its contextualization needs are without truly exploring it or understanding it. Instead of trying to understand the culture and habits of the student body at UT-Dallas, and get a sense of how desirable a Starbucks was and how much of the student body would take advantage of it, the assumption was, to use a cliché, if you build they will come. However, the students did not come, and thus the Starbucks on campus became a waste. Something true of college culture in Seattle Washington was a failure in the different cultural context of North Dallas.

Evangelical Christians have repeatedly made the mistake of seeing post-modernism as a single unified whole, as if post-modernism means an artsy, carefree way of life. But any attempt to define post-modernism along these lines is doomed to fail precisely because post-modernism cannot be simply defined. If anything, the one defining aspect of post-modernity is cultural fragmentation. The single unified cultural consensus of modernism has been lost, hence ‘post-’ recognizes a lack of cultural agreement. Rather than post-modernism being a single unified culture, it is a pastiche of conflicting and competing cultures, of which the pseudo counter culture of the Starbucks-drinking elite is only part. There are may subcultures, each with its own symbols and meanings. If Evangelicals are going to address culture contextually, cultural fragmentation must be taken seriously, rather than merely assuming post-modernism to be a monolithic whole. Each different culture must be understood on its own terms; subcultures must be exegeted rather than eisegeted.

Meanwhile, many churches have embraced the idea that they must have a coffee bar or an artsy coffee shop to better evangelize. While this may be effective to some degree, we cannot simply cast our hopes that someone will be willing to drive past one of the three local Starbucks in order to visit the coffee shop in the church. We cannot even assume that they are looking to order coffee. Authenticity is not something that comes from simply serving coffee.



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Comment on May 24, 2006 @ 11:52 am

I know of the UTD campus and so the illustration is close to home. I wonder, since I don’t know you personally, if you buy into any of postmodernism for the church. I can tell that you don’t think it is a unity and that is a great point. Do you think churches should try to look postmodern? I would guess not, but what do you think? Dallas has some of its postmodern influences in churches for sure, what does everybody else out there think about adapting postmodern video clips, sound, style, etc?

Evangelical Resources » Authenticity and Truth

Pingback on July 3, 2006 @ 1:32 pm

[…] Authenticity is not as simple as a haircut, clothing style, or even drinking the right cup of coffee. It comes from Living the Truth even when the rest of the culture is (in Václav Havel’s words) living within the lie. Authenticity is achieved at the moment when people stop playing by the rules of the cultural game, thereby exposing it as a game, and choose instead Live the Truth regardless of the dictates of culture. […]

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