Next August, the ministry I work for has invited Dr. Leonard Sweet to speak at our luncheon during our church’s General Assembly. In looking forward to this, it occurred to me that it would be nice if I brush up on his work. The most recent manifestation of that work in book form is The Gospel According to Starbucks, and it turned out to be more than just nice.
Leonard Sweet is one of the most forward-thinking people in Evangelical Christianity today, and this book is yet another manifestation of that kind of thinking. His basic idea is that Christianity, as currently practiced in the West, is too focused on being doctrinally correct and not focused enough on facilitating a) a real experience with God and b) community and connection, both with other Christians and with those in the world around them. His model is Starbucks, not only for the properties of the coffee it sells (which he sets forth in loving detail,) but also for the atmosphere it creates for its clients that makes it easy for them to fulfil more than their need for coffee.
Sweet organises his book around the acronym EPIC, which goes as follows:
He interleaves the Starbucks corporate procedure and the environment that results with examples (positive and negative) from both the corporate and the church world. Without adopting a fawning stance towards either the company or the coffee, Sweet shows that Starbucks’ success is the result of the EPIC nature of the company and the fact that it draws its customers into an experience rather than simply sell them a product. His analogy for the church is that, in order to thrive in the modern/post-modern world, it needs to incorporate all of these into its life.
In making this assertion, Sweet puts his finger on Christianity’s central dilemma in the West today. Christian civilisation from the Renaissance forward has, in the face of advancing science and technology, emphasised the truth content of its message to the expense of the experiential nature of its worship and life. Unfortunately the advent of modernity, with its own emphasis on self-actualisation and fantasy, has moved the goalposts once again, forcing Christianity to once again alter its game plan to keep up with a society more in touch with what it feels than with that it knows. The advent of Pentecostal Christianity, with its experiential worship, has gone a long way to answer that problem, especially in the Global South, but Sweet’s critique is a salutary reminder even to Pentecostals that the pull of a Christian establishment rooted in respectability and "correct" doctrine will in the long run make the church’s outreach to the world around it progressively more ineffective.
Sweet is a multifaceted author, who breezes from one pithy phrase and profound observation to another. His "sidebars" are so thought provoking by themselves that, by the end of the book, one wonders why he included Edward Hammett’s questions for study. Although he sticks to a decidedly "non-establishment" view of Christianity, at points one wonders which way he is going. For example, it’s common practice to lampoon church people’s use of "Christianese" (as Steve Taylor did in the title track of "I Want To Be a Clone,") but Sweet’s not afraid to admit to the power of lingo, as he himself found out in a verbal wrestling match with an Ohio Starbucks barista over what to call the drink he was trying to order.
Sweet draws from a number of sources. He’s not afraid, for example, to cite the atheist Philip Pullman, whose work The Golden Compass has generated so much controversy, both in print and film. He also draws from a number of Roman Catholic authors, especially St. Thomas Aquinas. This last is still risky with many Evangelicals, but in doing this Sweet underscores his point that, in transitioning to the modern world, Christianity has lost much of the experiential and connective nature that it had in the ancient and medieval worlds. (It would be very interesting to see what Sweet would do with a Jewish author like Moses Maimonides.)
One of the thing that Christianity needs very badly is an intellectual life that does more than either pompously assert doctrine or analyse minutia. In her introduction to the French translation of Origen’s Commentary on John, Cecile Blanc notes that Origen has "an elan that seduces." Unlike the verbose Egyptian, Sweet cannot claim to be "the greatest teacher since the Apostles," but he gets to his point a lot more quickly, and has a profundity that is easy to grasp. Leonard Sweet has a seductive elan of his own, and although The Gospel According to Starbucks isn’t the ultimate bridge between knowledge and experience, it can certainly serve as one of the girders.
And I dare him to give his Kopi Luwak message at our meeting!
Update, 29 January 2008: obviously one church takes Dr. Sweet very seriously!