November 10, 2015

Starbucks, Christmas, and Christians

by Nathan Busenitz

Red_Coffee_CupFacebook has been abuzz lately about angry reactions (particularly from a self-proclaimed evangelical named Joshua Feuerstein) to the new Starbucks holiday cup design. In case you’ve missed the controversy, in years past, Starbucks’ festive cups have featured vibrant images of reindeer, snowflakes, Christmas trees, and the like. But this year, the cup is just plain red.

Some concerned folks, particularly in Christian circles, have insisted the lack of Christmas-themed doodles represents a war on Christmas. So is Starbucks playing Scrooge? Or are the naysayers overreacting?

Yesterday, I was asked to give my opinion on the issue. While I generally try to steer clear of seemingly trivial issues (like the design of a disposable coffee cup), I think the hubbub created over this current controversy warrants a response.

Here are three thoughts in response to hullaballoo over the red Starbucks holiday coffee cup.

1. The true meaning of Christmas is not found in pictures of reindeer, snowflakes, Christmas trees, etc. Consequently, to remove those kinds of pictures does not constitute a war on Christmas.

To accuse Starbucks of starting a war on Christmas implies that, in years past, their cups have actually promoted the true meaning of Christmas. But such is hardly the case. A Google Images search of previous cups reveals doodles of snowmen, ice skaters, toy nutcrackers, and the like.

Some former designs featured words like “wish” and “gifts,” and even ambiguous references to “hope” and “love”. But there was nothing that pointed to the true, biblical meaning of Christmas—namely, that God the Son became a man so that He might save the world from sin. Hence, it seems inconsistent for Christians to be outraged about the design this year, when they had no qualms about this issue before.

For those who are upset about the word “Christmas” not being on a Starbucks cup, the reality is that most of the previous designs did not include that word either. Moreover, Starbucks still sells their “Christmas Blend”—which prominently displays the word Christmas on its packaging. And even if it did not, why should evangelicals be offended when a Roman Catholic term gets dropped in the product packaging of a secular coffee company?

But I digress…

The point (which I will phrase in the form of a question) is this: How can the removal of winter-themed doodles constitute a war on Christmas, when none of those doodles represented the true meaning of Christmas in the first place? For my part, I don’t think it does, especially when the company provides an explanation for its motivation that seems entirely believable.

It is also important to add that Starbucks is not a Christian company. Whether or not believers want to boycott Starbucks or any other business is a matter of their own Christian liberty. But it seems unreasonable to expect Starbucks (or any other secular business) to promote a consistently Christian worldview in the secular marketplace.

2. This supposed “war on Christmas” should not be classified as persecution against Christians.

I am not blind to the fact that American society, in the name of tolerance, is growing increasingly hostile to biblical Christianity. The Lord Jesus promised that His followers would be hated by the world, and so it should not surprise us when society seeks to silence or harass those who desire to honor Him.

But thinking the design of a Starbucks holiday cup constitutes persecution against Christians is simply unreasonable. When we consider what believers have suffered in the name of Christ, both throughout church history and in certain parts of the world today, it would be inappropriate to think that this situation approximates true suffering for the sake of the gospel.

Real persecution may soon be coming to the American church. But this is not that. And when Christians create a firestorm of controversy over something like this, they unnecessarily escalate feelings of antagonism and ill will in the eyes of the watching world. Rather than defending Christmas, these kinds of sensational outbursts do more to harm than help the church’s testimony to the Lord Jesus Christ.

3. A Christian response to the unbelieving world at Christmastime should focus on the gospel, not on a Starbucks cup design.

The true meaning of Christmas, as noted above, is the reality of the Incarnation—that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:18). As the most famous verse in the Bible rightly declares, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Born in a manger in Bethlehem, the Lord Jesus lived a sinless life and died on the cross as the perfect sacrifice for sin, so that those who embrace Him in saving faith might be forgiven and reconciled to God. That is the true message of Christmas: that God became man so that as a perfect man He might reconcile sinful men and women to God.

When believers allow themselves to get distracted by silly controversies about cup designs, they can easily lose sight of what this holiday season is actually all about. To reiterate our point from earlier: it is not about snowflakes, reindeer, and evergreen trees. Rather, it is about the reality that sinners can be saved eternally by believing in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

It should be our joy to share that message with the unbelieving world around us. Needless to say, if we are faithful to that end, the design on our coffee cup doesn’t really matter.

(Today’s post was also published concurrently on Preachers & Preaching.)

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • Adrienne Dennison

    Thank you, Nathan for this very reasonable and thought out response.

  • Christina

    Thank you for stating so clearly in bullet points exactly what I was thinking. Snowflakes are a far cry from the birth of Jesus.

  • Jane Hildebrand


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  • fundamentals

    Good points!

  • Joyce Burrows

    It’s not what is on the outside of the cup that defiles or honors ~ many rightly adorned/adorning miss Christmas while others portray the seasonal Christ in all seasons, as a shot heard around the world, in simplicity and sincerity. Thanks for the lovely post to take to heart, Nathan!

  • You should publish more for us to read, brother.

  • Matthew

    I read the article on the anger over the red cups at Starbucks on fox news website, and the only thing that came to mind was that I wish I had the last two minutes of my life back. People (Christians included) are just looking for something to be offended by these days.

  • Mr. Mike

    Get a life. Them, not you, Nathan.

  • tovlogos

    True, but the reduction of Christianity to mere form goes far and wide. The overall slide of Christianity off the face of the earth is felt on all levels.

  • Jeff Schlottmann

    Great response to this. It’s just a cup. And there are other coffee sources if someone just can’t handle what Starbucks does. Those little coffee stands need business too.

    I hope you have another article ready for in a couple weeks when the nativity scene battle starts up again.

  • I think that the guy who started the hubbub about the red Starbucks cup just wanted more people to read his blog! The cup didn’t bother me as I don’t buy Starbucks coffee! Christians are supposed to be in the world but not of the
    world. In Tokyo at Christmas there
    are many Christmas decorations but of course it is all about shopping. Now it is becoming the same here. It is all in God’s plan. God wants us
    to spend time with Him in prayer. We have no where else to go.
    When the school Christmas concert is all about snowflakes we can start a
    prayer group to pray for the school and especially the music. They are losing out on some beautiful
    music by not using the traditional songs. We can try to identify the Christian
    teachers and give them Christmas cards with the emphasis on freedom of
    religion. We can pray for the
    salvation of those in power. God holds their hearts in His hand and He can
    change them as well as ours. We need to be filled with God’s love for those who
    are lost. God is working in their lives as well as ours. It’s all about perseverance for God’s people! And yes, it is all about spreading the gospel and making disciples. Does a protest about the cup do that? I don’t think so.

  • Jason

    Writing an article this devoid of sarcasm about the topic at hand takes more fortitude than I have. Well done.

    My wife told me about this Facebook trend last night and I responded with your first point. If anything, they’ve only remove winter and Santa from their Christmas decorations. What’s next, people exchanging gifts in the fall and claiming it comes from a skinny guy? Where does it stop?!

    Times like these remind me how lucky I am that I haven’t been on my facebook account for years…

  • John Byde

    A reasonable and measured response! Starbuck’s far more serious crime is that their coffee is overpriced and tastes awful!

    • Ken Beech

      7-11 or McDonalds has much cheaper and better tasting coffee. Starbucks tastes like it was filtered with mud.

  • 4Commencefiring4

    If they would cut their ridiculous prices in half, they could even put Hillary’s picture on their cups and I might even buy it. Might.

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