Starbucks, Vocation, and The Meaning of the Mundane

The other day I came across an excerpt from the new book by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul. I don’t know if he’s a believer or not, but right at the start he does a fantastic job of articulating, in shadow form, a core concept of the biblical doctrine of vocation. Here’s what he says:

Only weeks earlier, I’d sat in my Seattle office holding back-to-back meetings about how to quickly fix myriad problems that were beginning to surface inside the company. One team had to figure out how we could, in short order, retrain 135,000 baristas to pour the perfect shot of espresso.

Pouring espresso is an art, one that requires the barista to care about the quality of the beverage. If the barista only goes through the motions, if he or she does not care and produces an inferior espresso that is too weak or too bitter, then Starbucks has lost the essence of what we set out to do 40 years ago: inspire the human spirit.

I realize this is a lofty mission for a cup of coffee, but this is what merchants do. We take the ordinary—a shoe, a knife—and give it new life, believing that what we create has the potential to touch others’ lives because it touched ours.

Here’s the point: the ordinary is not ordinary. Rather, it is in the ordinary that we are able to build people up and, yes, inspire the human spirit.

When you clean house for your family, or pour a cup of coffee, or take your car to the wash, you aren’t just doing small, mundane things. You are building building people up. You are making things better, and making a statement that people matter. Or, that’s how you ought to see it.

And the doctrine of vocation takes us further than this. For it means that, when we serve others in the everyday, it is actually God himself who is serving people through us. God is hidden in the everyday. This is true if we are believers; and God is also working through unbelievers, even if they don’t know it (Gene Veith makes this point very well in God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life
when he discusses why we pray in the Lord’s Prayer “give us this day our daily bread” when we actually get it from the grocery store, who got it from the bread company, who got the ingredients from various other spots, and so forth).

In fact, the doctrine of vocation even takes us one more step. When we, as followers of Christ, serve others for his sake, we aren’t just serving them. We are actually serving the Lord himself. “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:23-24; see also Ephesians 6:7-8).

  • Laurie Reyes

    Who knew Starbucks could inspire being a wife, mother, homemaker?! (beyond providing the blessing of caffeine!). Thank you for the info.

  • Stan Ewert

    I am about 2/3 through Schultz’s book and have been struck by a number of other elements in his book that have immediate application to living our lives to glorify God. I must say, I have been pleasantly surprised by the book. I join Laurie – who would have expected Starbucks to teach spiritual lessons?

    Thanks for the post.

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  • doug

    As a church planter who has worked for Starbucks for 5+ years, your post caught my eye. You articulate a very popular position nowadays when you say, “when we serve others in the everyday, it is actually God himself who is serving people through us.” But is there a biblical reference to back this assertion up? I know you quoted Colossians but is it really in handing someone a latte that I am serving God (in other words, am I to act as if the person is representing God when I hand him a drink), or is it in my working consistently in a way that brings glory to God so that others might turn their eyes upon Him that is serving God (in other words I am serving God by emulating Him in the manner in which I work which provides me with a platform to bring glory to Him).

    I just find it a stretch to try and find inherent “kingdom” value in the simple act of making someone’s day go a bit better by offering them caffeine so they can work off the previous nights drinking binge.

    It sure would make my job a bit more rewarding if you were able to produce a verse that teaches something to this effect, but I’m not aware of it.

    And it is one thing to contend that God is working through the town baker to provide me with food in answer to my prayer(true as far as it goes, but certainly not the focus of Jesus’ concern in the prayer), but it is another to say that God is serving the baker (lets assume he is an unbelieving baker) when I give him a cup of coffee. If I offer him the Gospel message while handing him the cup, okay I’ll accept that- but it is not in the serving a cup of coffee that is God serving him, but in the free offer of the Gospel. (Even so, I don’t even see how even that can be seen as God “serving” him unless God brings him to repentance- anymore than Moses’ demand to the Pharoah to “let my people go” was serving Pharoah).

    As I think about it, I’m curious why Paul didn’t make much of the fact that his making tents was a way that God served the people he sold them to. Maybe its because he didn’t depend on tent making to give him a sense of self worth and was, thus, searching for a way to “redeem” it. I worked for years in the food industry before entering the ministry and never confused the simple act of serving a meal with the act of offering hope. I didn’t feel the need to justify my occupation- it was a way of making money to meet my family’s needs, but it was in the conversations that I had with my coworkers that true ministry happened.

    And maybe that is the rub. We are too ashamed of the Gospel to share it with those we work with or provide goods to in the workplace, and so, in order to feel better about ourselves, we must redefine the mundane as actually being ministry.

  • Rusty Beals

    Thank you Doug!

  • General Wretch

    yes Thank you Doug! and AMEN

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  • Matt


    Thanks for your comments. Glad to have the fruitful discussion. A few thoughts.

    First, you might benefit from reading Veith’s book, if you haven’t already, as it is a much fuller treatment of the the subject.

    Second, yes, when you serve a cup of coffee to someone else, God is indeed serving that person through you. Of course it is even better if they also hear the gospel from you, but meeting physical needs is indeed real service. This follows from looking at people holistically–we have physical needs and social needs as well as spiritual needs. God himself created us this way and cares about _all_ of our needs–not just the spiritual, but also the physical. He created us as whole people, with physical and spiritual needs, and in his love he works to meet both. God is not a dualist.

    Third, this is also follows from the doctrine of common grace–the fact that God is at work in the “non-saving” aspects of life (food, clothing, a just social order, etc.), for unbelievers as well as believers, in addition to calling everyone to faith and repentance. For example, Jesus says that God causes the sun to rise and rain to fall on the evil and the good, and even implies that this is an expression of God’s love (Matthew 5:45). Jesus is talking about real physical needs here, and says God meets them for people–even those who do not believe. Is God serving unbelievers when sends rain so that crops will grow? Yes. He is meeting their needs, and doing it out of a genuine love for them. That is the definition of service. Likewise, when you–or anyone–provides a cup of coffee to anyone, it is also an act of service and, yes, God himself is serving them through you because the cup of coffee is just as providentially ordained as the sunrise. Which leads to the next point.

    Fourth, this also follows from the doctrine of providence. God governs and ordains all things. When someone receives a cup of coffee, it is because God decided they would receive that cup of coffee. Now, is God seeking to do good to the person in giving that cup? Yes–that’s his general love for all people. He cares for his creation. God has a special love for his elect, of course, but also has a general love for all people, and this is expressed in all the ways he meets people’s needs, even if they don’t acknowledge him and aren’t grateful (Matthew 5:43-48). Related to this, note how Paul also says in Acts 17:25 that God “gives to all mankind life and breath _and everything_).

    Fifth, when you provide a cup of coffee to someone, are you really serving Christ himself? Yes–that’s exactly what Paul says in Colossians 3:23-24. Now, I’m not saying that the individual being served represents Christ. Not at all. Rather, the act of serving the coffee is ultimately not an act of obedience to your manager or the customer, but to Christ himself, because the ultimate reason you seek to serve your manager and the customer is because Christ commands us to do so. That’s why it’s an act of service to Christ–not because the individual represents Christ, but because you are doing so in obedience to Christ.

    Sixth, I’d encourage you to have a larger view of work. When you were in the food industry, for example, serving a meal is truly a way to do good to others. It’s not just a way to make some money–that’s a reductionist, unbiblical view of work. The Bible does not look at work as merely a way to make money, but as a way of loving our neighbor and serving them. Service is not simply sharing the gospel or what happens in the conversations you have with co-workers, as important as that is. Serving is also in the act of doing the work itself.

    Your last point on how this notion stems from being ashamed of the gospel is something I would very much disagree with–and so would Veith and Luther (whose doctrine of vocation Veith is expounding in _God at Work_, mentioned in the post). I would argue that the real issue is that you seem to have a restricted view of the notion of service as something that only concerns the spiritual. Service is broader than that–it includes the physical as well as the spiritual, because God created us as both physical and spiritual beings.

    For more on this, you might also find helpful Tim Keller’s book _Ministries of Mercy_.


  • Stan Ewert


    Thanks so much for your latest post in this thread. I certainly appreciate it. I found myself headed in the same direction, but your treatment is much more thorough.
    There is an interesting quote later in the book. At the end of Chapter 23, Page 191, Schultz recounts this statement from a Police Officer, “I have a tough job. I see things on a daily basis that no one should see and experience. But the one good thing I can count on every single day is how the people in that store make me feel.”
    Wouldn’t it be wonderful is each of us as Christians approached our jobs such that the people we come in contact with could say that they “can count on every single day” that their contact with us would have such a positive effect on their lives? It is encounters such as this that the Holy Spirit uses to provide opportunities to articulate the gospel.
    Thanks, again, Matt for your insights and for sharing them.

  • doug

    Its been awhile since this post first appeared, I’d nearly forgotten about it until I came across this quote which I think sums up some of the concerns I still hold with your position.

    It comes from “The Christian Curmudgeon” blog:

    “Christians have come to believe that they worship God as much in their weekday jobs as they do on the Lord’s Day gathered with the congregation to pray, sing, read, and preach. In fact, Monday can be more important than Sunday. Sunday’s gathering is justified not by offering God acceptable worship and dispensing the means of grace, but only if it has some good effect on one’s work and leisure Monday through Saturday.

    Ministers who lead in worship, preach the Word, and administer the sacraments are doing nothing more important than the politician or housewife (or husband) or professor of physics or laborer. In fact he may be doing something less important as he provides only the spiritual inspiration for those who really advance the kingdom. The Christian school is as important as the Church, perhaps more important if we want to prepare our young people to conquer the world for Christ.

    The whole thing has led to a denigration of the traditional mission of the church. Churches are embarrassed to say that they have no more to offer than the ordinary means of grace. Ministers feel they must apologize if they do no more than preach the Word, administer the sacraments, show lost sheep the way to the fold, and help make sure the gathered sheep have the provision and protection they need as they make their way to the heavenly sheepfold. The world, it is contended, will rightly condemn the church if it does not see the “practical effects” of its existence (hence the church must distribute voters’ guides to promote Christian political agendas, create faith-based ministries to provide cradle to grave welfare, put on get seminars so everybody can communicate and have good sex, and offer concert seasons and art shows to provide the congregants and community with cultural experiences).”

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