church beyond starbucks

{When I was 22, I started writing a book.  Today when I plugged in my old external hard drive to look for a file with some Greek translations, I found the folder with all the work I had done on the book.  I was gratified to find that re-reading it, after almost ten years, wasn't too embarrassing.  Do you want to read the first chapter? I know.... no one reads posts this long on the internet.  But, because it makes me happy to listen to my younger, more sincere and serious heart, here it is.)

Church Beyond Starbucks: Searching for the Soul of the American Church (OR – Recovering authentic love and radical holiness in the American church)

By Amy Lepine

Chapter One: Introduction

When I was thirteen, my best friend Bekah drifted away from the church. Despite the fact that our youth group brought in rock bands and professional skaters and half-pipes to be relevant, she remained unconvinced. “I feel like it’s so much emotional manipulation,” she told me. The church was just another group trying to control us, to buy us; it was just another social game to master.

When I was sixteen, Leigh and Jeremiah had had enough of the social game. Most adults would tell them they were in an adolescent phase and just needed to mature, and so the only older Christians they would even talk to about religion were the few who would take them seriously. In the church, they found no place to admit doubt. They were considered in need of salvation if they had doubts – not to mention tattoos or bare feet. They liked music and literature and film and philosophy, and the church wasn’t speaking those languages. Instead, the church had practically banned those languages.

When I was eighteen, my friends and I dropped out of the college class at church, where we felt looked down upon for not becoming more and more involved in the certain “approved” venues of growth and leadership. We were less spiritual because we played lacrosse or joined sororities rather than leading the college class Bible studies.

When I was twenty, I spoke with European and American college and highschool students in Taize, a Catholic monastic retreat center in France. They had not been shepherded in their faith by their churches; to them, Christianity seemed like hollow tradition, a business or a set of rules. But in the simplicity of the communal life at Taize, in the silence and the prayers, they sensed something genuine. They were desperately seeking, but, as one said, “The Christians I know hate each other – and every Buddhist monk I’ve met seems to genuinely care for the people around him.”

When I was twenty-one, my friend Shawna left the church. She was a three-year old Christian, and I had known her for almost all of those three years. Initially she was so excited with her newfound faith, and her life changed instantly – she effortlessly gave up her old habits, and she loved learning about Jesus. The more involved in the church she became, though, the more disillusioned she became. First, she dropped out of the college class, and worked with the youth group like I did. Then she quit working with the youth group, under the pretense of being too busy job-hunting with only three months left till graduation. And finally she quit coming to church all together. She would still come to lunch once a week for prayer with Caroline and me, but that was the extent of her involvement with Christians.

“At the beginning, everything looked so good,” she said. “The deeper I got though, I found that no one was willing to really be intimate with me. They wanted to keep their lives together and looking good and under control, and they didn’t have room for me in that. They just wanted me to climb the same ladder they were climbing…but there was nothing genuine underneath their happy smiles and controlled lives.”

This week (I’m now a whopping 22 years old), I celebrated Thanksgiving with a group of fellow English teachers in southeast Asia. During a car ride, our conversation turned to church. We discussed the forms our worship and community had taken in the different cities where we taught, and how that differed from our practices in the States. Becky’s parents had offered to send her sermon tapes weekly from their church, but she didn’t want them – “How applicable would that be to me here? –‘And remember, folks, share your Mercedes this week’ – right.”

She told me a story about her home church in the Chicago area. Last year, living in Chicago and working two jobs, she was regularly attending church as well as a weekly women’s Bible study. But she kept getting pressure from a woman in the Bible study to join a second study. “I didn’t have time for another study, and honestly, I didn’t need it. I was growing a lot,” Becky said, “but she was making me feel guilty for not being involved enough. She said she had time for a different Bible study every night of the week.”

Sally had a question along the same lines. “You know how books often recommend prayer journaling? I’ve really been trying to keep a prayer journal this year, but I just can’t do it. I’m not a journaling kind of person, and I keep failing at this. But I’ve read some books that say that if you don’t keep a prayer journal, you won’t see God work at all…they practically suggest that if you don’t keep a prayer journal, you might not be a Christian. I know that’s not true, but I’m feeling really guilty…”

And this year I also met M. – a twenty-year-old southeast Asian student, and a new Christian. Her faith is unhindered by legalism. She is open about her sin, her failures and her repentance. She’s not trying to be successful according to some “Christian” ladder of success. Her joy in the Lord in evident, and she’s trying hard to love those around her in a sacrificial way. Her friends can see the difference in her life.

Why don’t these things that characterize her spiritual life characterize the lives of so many church members I know in America? Why is Christianity so appealing and full of life for her, but so full of hypocrisy, legalistic ambition, and apathy for so many of my friends in the American church?

I’m twenty-two years old, and I love the church. I love the American church in all of its failures and inconsistencies, its off-key voices, its silly and grand traditions, its Sunday schools, its coffee and donuts, its youth retreats and acoustic guitars. But the church is losing my friends, and a huge chunk of my generation, for many reasons that boil down to one: praxis. Not one of my friends has left the church after doubting the propositional truth of the Bible. Not one has had a philosophical problem with the gospel. But friend after friend has turned away from the church because they don’t see people living out their faith. Put simply, they don’t see genuine love. They may find superficiality, legalism, hypocrisy, materialism, or commercialization, but they don’t see love.

In many cases, the church in America has yet to realize the fact that my postmodern generation is not going to be convinced by arguments against evolution, by historical proofs of the resurrection, or by the number of authentic ancient manuscripts that we have of the book of Isaiah. My postmodern friends want to hear the Story, and they want to see the Story coming true in specific lives and in communities living and loving authentically. They will believe in the Resurrection when they see lives characterized by spiritual Resurrection.

Rather than living out authentic love and radical holiness, the church has tried to reach my generation by being relevant. In some ways, it wasn’t a bad idea. It began when someone said, “If we could get a Starbucks-like café in our church, I bet we could really draw in the coffee shop crowd. We could have an event on Saturday nights, with live music and coffee, and maybe people who aren’t usually comfortable at church would come and learn to be comfortable at church. We could have the café open on Sunday mornings in between services too.” It was a good idea, and it met my friends where they were, putting the gospel into words that were familiar to them.

But at some point people began to get church and Starbucks confused. What, exactly, is the difference between a sermon and a decaf latte? What, exactly, is the difference between watching a talented band of musicians and singing praises to God? Does being conformed into the image of Christ mean wearing Abercrombie vintage t’s and a sterling silver cross ring? Does having a quiet time require owning a real leather journal?

Suddenly, what had been a creative way to reach a group of people was doing just the opposite - turning them off. My friends already had a Starbucks - they didn’t need another one. They didn’t need or want a church that conducted market research and surveys in order to offer a list of spiritual services and goods according to the felt needs of their target audience. They needed a church; they needed intimate relationships with set-apart people who love God. They needed a challenge to radical holiness. But all they found when they went to church was a watered down version of the culture they already had, another marketed product desperately claiming to be what will make you happy. This church was popular, and so some of them went, but it didn‘t mean much. And those who went didn’t usually stay long – after a while, the hypocrisy and superficiality became too much, and they left, still looking for something real.

The American church has often done a fabulous job of contextualizing - framing the gospel in meaningful and relevant terms and forms for American Christians. The problem is that now sometimes “Christianity” has become more associated with its contextualized trappings than with the actual gospel; Christianity has become a popular coffee shop, fitting too neatly into American life, rather than a message of authentic love that turns the world (and the believers themselves) upside down (Acts 17:6). American Christianity has pursued relevance at the expense of meaning; it has become a set of habits, values, and practices that aren’t necessarily essential to Biblical faith and that can obscure the gospel. Christianity has become comfortable; the church, seeking acceptance and marketability, has watered down the powerful gospel.

What I want to do in this book is ask what would happen if we took the “American” off of “American church”. If we stripped off the contextualized trappings of our faith, what would we have? Would we find the roots of an ancient and life-changing faith? Would we find something real for my generation to cling to? Drawing upon my experiences and those of my friends in the American church, and comparing and contrasting that with my experiences in the church in Europe and Asia, I want to look at the negative ways in which our church has become a culture - that is, ways in which the church has become a marketed product or an ingrained habit instead of a dynamic group of people working out their salvation with fear and trembling. And then I want to look at some positive ways we can recover authentic love and radical holiness in our spiritual communities.

My hope for this book is that my own reflections will spark conversations among my peers and among those who are discipling my generation. What should our church look like? What trappings need to be peeled away? There is nothing wrong with seeking to be culturally relevant, but we must guard against letting that become our most important goal. How can we build a church that is characterized by authentic, biblical love put into action? Ultimately, I want to see the church in America characterized by authentic love and radical holiness, not by a set of popular marketed catchphrases and products.

I have seen this kind of love and holiness, in both individuals and communities.


Though authentic love and radical holiness manifest themselves in every aspect of the life of the Body, in this book I will only look at a few aspects. Specifically, I will look at those aspects in which I see that the church has taken on America’s values instead of embracing counter-cultural biblical values. First, we’ll survey the landscape of the church in my generation, looking briefly at the history of evangelicalism in this century and where it has left us. Before delving into specific aspects of Body life, I’ll begin with a general look at syncretism (the blending of several religions) in the church, showing broadly how Christianity in America has blended sycretistically with American values.

Then, more specifically, we’ll study what I see as the key obstacles that need to be transformed in the American church in order for us to move toward authentic love and radical holiness: materialism, commercialism and commodification, superficial community, and the balance of truth and praxis. Finally, we’ll take a look at the first church in Acts in order to establish some principles to guide the church in the 21st century.

In this book, I may say some offensive things about the church. I may make some generalizations that aren’t true in every case. And I will certainly call the church to a high standard that I myself fail to reach. As I examine my church, I must necessarily examine myself as well, and often we both need serious adjustments. May God grant us wisdom to