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Viral Churches
Helping church planters become movement makers
Ed Stetzer and Warren Bird
Jossey Bass, 2010

How Starbucks fought for its life without losing its soul
Howard Schultz with Joanne Gordon
John Wiley and Sons, 2011

I was on my way to one of the recent church planting networking conferences, and being a bit early I stopped off for a coffee. A very particular coffee. Because one of these two books was in my bag.

At the conference, I recommended it to someone. And browsing the book-table at the conference, I saw the other book for sale and recommended that to someone, too. Savvy church planters have both books on their desks.

Ed Stetzer is a shrewd man. To my mind he's the best writer on church planting at the moment, and I would take anything he gives. His website is a fascinating resource. But this book is slightly different, and when I first came across it I became very excited, because he has written just the book we've started to need.

Recently in both London and Birmingham, church planters have begun to spend time with each other, talking, praying and seeing how they might work together. Under God, it looks as though a movement is starting to happen. And that's what Stetzer and Bird have observed in the US as well, and what some people in the UK have started to join in with, at Acts 29 and Exponential.

This book is not just a repository of current research and wisdom about planting (though there is masses of that). It is also about how movements happen, and how we might amplify the courageous impact of church plants. If you are meeting with up a bunch of other church leaders to discuss these kind of issues, this would be a great book to chew over together.

The single aspect of British evangelical culture that most hinders gospel work, in my view, is our pretence of amateurism. It shows itself in our childish dismissal of someone who has done serious research, or who knows what they are talking about. Even with each other, we put on a mask of, 'Don't ask me, I'm just making it up'. Which means we can't learn from each other, and the next generation can't learn from us.

We need to kill that idea, and taking a deep breath and deciding to learn from this book would be an excellent and bracing start.

Of course, the book is open to the usual criticism that it's about over 'there' not over 'here', and that is obviously true. Up to a point. But I was struck that when Stetzer and Bird demolish many of the myths about the lifecycle of church plants, how similar the patterns are in both contexts.

The modest church plant I am a member of maps exactly onto the numerical graph for the US context. That doesn't mean we are heading for a mega-church, and Stetzer and Bird are keen to encourage and value smaller (i.e. average-sized) churches. But they argue that the level of sustainability, and therefore the size at which we should plant again, is much lower than we might like to think. And if the figures do work over here as well as there, then we should take that challenge seriously.

Howard Schultz is also a shrewd man. He got to be the CEO of Starbucks. Twice.

Here is a man, not a Christian as far as this book reveals, who is blazingly passionate about the company he created, rescued and now leads. He is not passionate about the coffee, primarily, but about the encounter between the customer and the multi-sensory embrace of a Starbucks store.

Their mission is to 'do an extraordinary job of building emotional connections'. He means that. Of a staff conference, Schultz says, 'It had to be visceral. Interactive. Genuine. Emotional. Intelligent'.

Three observations.

One, this is a very good secular book about leadership, and if you are interested in that field then you will enjoy it. There is an extraordinary statement on the cover from Warren Bennis, which calls it, 'the single most important book on leadership and change for our time and for every generation of leaders.' Bennis is no fool in this area and I normally listen carefully to what he says. In this case I think he has overstated his case, but that if you want to see a really good case study of what the very best writers (say Jim Collins and John Kotter) do talk about, then this book comes into its own.

Collins' latest book, 'How the Mighty Fall' (Random House, 2009) would be an especially good companion read. Schultz is a smart, honest, ambitious and reflective CEO, and not many men like that write books.

Second, this is a book about idolatry, or misplaced worship. Repeatedly, Starbucks is described in openly religious terms. 'I was promising revival', the staff 'believe' and in an extraordinary sequence about the rebuilding of New Orleans, they 'BELIEVE'. When Schultz had to close 600 stores to keep the company afloat, there was international news coverage about the way customers wanted to keep them open. Daniel Henninger wrote in the following terms in The Wall Street Journal:

'A friend said that the Starbucks stores' bitter-enders reminded her of the protests against the closing of the neighborhood Catholic churches. True. The stores are like secular chapels. No sign on the wall says you must be quiet, polite or contemplative, but people are. Ritual abounds. So too with the refusal to walk two blocks to a nearby Starbucks. Back in the glory days, when cities had a church every 10 blocks, no one would go to a church blocks away with the same service. They wanted their church. But they'd drop into a Catholic or a Presbyterian church anywhere in America, knowing the feeling would always be the same... I don't go to Starbucks that much. I don't go to the Baptist church either. But I'm glad we've got one just about everywhere.'

I don't want to tut disapprovingly at that. I even want to lose my cynicism. I confess I found some of the stories here deeply moving, because people are looking for deep human meaning and relationships, and they find even the small scraps of it in a coffee shop so markedly different from their otherwise lonely lives, that they think they've found God there.

Schultz writes of a photo exhibition, 'Each photo and its caption was a reminder that every Starbucks location is a rare place where people who increasingly live their lives in front of screens and behind steering wheels can physically interact with others. The pictures reinforced how much a barista's job matters given that he or she quite possibly might serve up the only human connection in a customer's day.'

So, third, I wanted to say, time after time, 'But that's our job!' Not that we should be serving nice coffee, or mistaking friendship for something even more profound, but that because Christians are genuinely related to the living God, and therefore to his people, then we should find that all these trace elements of common grace and God's image are shiningly true of our churches, and all those needs for significance and relationship are ones that the Lord Jesus has arranged to be met in Christian fellowship.

There's a tragic story at the heart of Starbuck's development of their instant coffee. The man who had the passion and dream for this product (codenamed Stardust) died within months of its being launched, and Schultz went to see him frequently before he died.

'Behind closed doors, with Don lying covered with a blanket on a couch and me sitting nearby on a big chair, we would talk for well over an hour about so much more than coffee. The last time I saw Don was in the hospital on a Tuesday in early December. Standing at his bedside, I leaned in close. "Don, we are going to roll out Stardust," I whispered. I wanted Don to know that his vision one of so many that he had brought to fruition during his lifetime was also becoming reality. Four days later, on December 8, 2007, Don Valencia passed away.'

Isn't that a most tragic death bed scene? These men have imbued coffee and the way they sell it with such altruism and value that Schultz cannot imagine there could be anything more valuable to talk about on the brink of eternity.

So, planters, here's the task. We have not just to match the passion, ambition and hard work of Schultz, but to surpass it on the gospel plane. We have to take his ultimates of justice, conscience, meaning, and sustainability, and show how much more ultimate they are than he has imagined, when aligned with the God of the gospel.

We need to commit to relationships so that the people making our espressos envy us. Starbucks employees are called partners, but we can show we are God's fellow-workers, and fellow-workers with each other too.

This summer, Howard Schultz is due to speak at the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit. Let's pray that Bill Hybels points him to Jesus.
chris green  
Chris Green is Vice Principal of Oak Hill College.  
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