Faith in St. Arbucks

As he drives to church, the Rev. Greg Asimakoupoulos always notices the Sunday crowd gathered at one of his favorite sanctuaries.

There are a dozen religious congregations on Mercer Island, even though the island east of Seattle in Lake Washington is only six miles long and three miles wide. It's easy to spot the signs for the major brands, including the Presbyterians, Mormons, Orthodox Jews, Episcopalians, Christian Scientists and others.

But Asimakoupoulos pays special attention to the flock at the cozy haven with the simple green-and-white sign. Even though he leads the Mercer Island Covenant Church, the evangelical pastor and poet knows this other "church" well, since he visits it faithfully.

Asimakoupoulos calls it "St. Arbucks." There are six on the island.

"We like to say that our church is a genuine community of faith, the kind of place people can feel at home," he said. "Still, you may have to go down the block to get to see that become a reality for lots of people. We need to be honest and admit that people are lining up to get into Starbucks, but they aren't lining up to get into many of our churches. Why?"

There is more to this, he stressed, than pricey consumerism pushed by an omnipresent global empire. For many of its customers, St. Arbucks represents more than the individualistic era that a wealthy character played by Tom Hanks mocked in the movie "You've Got Mail."

"The whole purpose of places like Starbucks," quipped Manhattan tycoon Joe Fox, "is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee -- short, tall, light, dark, caf, de-caf, low-fat, non-fat, etc. So people who don't know what the hell they are doing or who on earth they are can, for only $2.95, get not just a cup of coffee, but an absolutely defining sense of self. Tall! De-caf! Cappuccino!"

It's true that local Starbucks offer their flocks a wide variety of choices, noted Asimakoupoulos. Meanwhile, the trend in many modern American churches is to embrace growth strategies that focus on music and programs that meet the needs of one type of person -- all the time.

At his own church, the pastor has even decided that it might be good to let people open the old-fashioned books in the pew racks and sing a few hymns, along with those pop-style praise choruses. Churches seem afraid of variety these days.

But the key to the success of St. Arbucks, he said, is that these establishments have become what researchers refer to as "third places" for people to gather or hide -- a safe zone between home and office. For generations, bars, diners, barbershops and a host of other locations have played similar roles.

This kind of hospitality has become rare in this rushed world.

Regulars at St. Arbucks are greeted by name and the baristas may have their favorite drink -- Asimakoupoulos is a grande-drip purist -- ready when they reach the counter. Many modern churches have grown so large that people cannot know the names of many people with whom they are praying.

It's also crucial that these coffee sanctuaries are open to all kinds of people. At the Starbucks a short walk from his church, the pastor -- people watching over the top of his laptop screen -- has even seen believers reading their Bibles.

Writing in Leadership Journal, Asimakoupoulos noted: "At St. Arbucks, I've seen a rabbi mentoring a Torah student. A youth pastor disciplining a new convert. High school girls working on a group assignment. A book club sipping mochas while discussing a fiction author's plot." Could churches try to be more open to outsiders?

However, the pastor has watched one ominous Starbucks trend. When he was a college student in Seattle, this local institution was about excellent coffee beans -- period.

These days, the place that many call "four bucks" offers CDs, gifts, pastries and super-sweet drinks of all kinds, hot and cold. Hardly anyone goes there for pure coffee.

"Maybe we can let that be a warning," said Asimakoupoulos. "It's important for our churches to think about what people want, but we can't lose sight of what people need. We have to keep offering basic faith, the faith of the ages. The extras are nice, but people also need the classics."