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With Race Together, Starbucks Is Using Worst Of Evangelical Practices

In 2004, a pilot asked Christian passengers to spend their flight conversing with non-Christians. Starbucks copied that for its Race Together campaign.


Yesterday I was walking with my mother, visiting from out of town, through the streets of Alexandria, Virginia. I desperately needed coffee. There was a Starbucks right there in front of me. But I couldn’t bring myself to go in. A few blocks later, I passed another Starbucks. I still couldn’t go in. I ended up walking a few more blocks until I found a coffee shop that was not Starbucks. I like coffee a lot but I’m not a coffee snob. Sure Starbucks coffee is a tad bitter and can taste burnt, but I’m willing to drink it and have done so frequently. So why wouldn’t I go in yesterday?

Well, this:

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is on a mission to encourage Starbucks customers and employees to discuss race, under the firm belief that it’s a critical first step toward confronting — and solving — racial issues as a nation. It is scheduled to be a key topic at the java giant’s annual meeting on Wednesday.

So Starbucks baristas are now “engaging customers in conversations about race.” The public relations campaign, which is being done in conjunction with USA Today, is called Race Together.

I have introverted tendencies and I try to be polite. I find conversations to be immensely worthwhile, but also exhausting. And I guess I exude a vibe that makes some people want to share with me. I mean, sometimes within minutes of meeting people, they tell me about their sex lives, the abortion they regret, their views on politics, you name it. And that’s really cool. I like talking to people and I’m glad they feel like they can tell me such personal stuff. While I’m more than willing to get the energy up for important conversations, I’m not willing to do that when I’m paying someone a lot of money for flavored water.

A friend of mine, whose family is interracial, mocked on Facebook a printed questionnaire she got from Starbucks headlined “Your Race Relations Reality Check: Where Do You Stand? Use These Conversation Starters With Your Family And Friends.” You were supposed to sort of fill in blanks about how many friends of another race your kids have and then use the answers to talk to your neighbors. Here’s what it looks like:

The whole campaign reminded me so much of this story from 2004, when an American Airlines pilot got on the loudspeaker and asked passengers who were Christian to raise their hands. Then he suggested to the ones who raised their hands that they spend the remainder of the flight trying to convert those who hadn’t. The passengers were so confused by the request that they wondered if the pilot was a terrorist.

Listen, I love few things more than sharing the good news that Jesus has triumphed over sin, death and Satan with others and I hate racism. But there’s a reason why the American Airlines pilot and the Starbucks approaches freak people out! Yes, part of it is that there’s a time and place to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ and discuss difficult social problems. But also, these things are highly ineffective when done outside of a personal relationship.

Both of these approaches also exhibit extreme vocational confusion. Lutherans such as myself are taught that we serve God by serving our neighbor in all your stations in life. Whether you are a daughter/son, mother/father, brother/sister, manager, employee, citizen, volunteer, pilot or barista, these relationships with others are the means by which God takes care of His people.

Simply flying a plane to the best of your ability and bringing hundreds of passengers safely from one point to another is a great way to serve your neighbor. You don’t need to hand out cross pins or get on the loudspeaker and introduce people to Jesus to make it a good work.

Likewise, making a latte to the best of your ability and cheerfully interacting with customers is a great way to serve your neighbor. You don’t need to write “race together” on the cup and begin a conversation about how many Asian friends you have to make it a good work.

Speaking as a Christian, I believe everyone should know about Jesus and everyone should work to stop racism and other sins. This does not mean that everyone must talk about these things with strangers on the street or customers who simply wanted to fly home or get a chai tea.