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Robert Simoneau and his wife, Anna, attend Grace Capital Church in Pembroke, N.H., which houses a Starbucks kiosk.
Robert Simoneau and his wife, Anna, attend Grace Capital Church in Pembroke, N.H., which houses a Starbucks kiosk. (Globe Photo / Tim Boyd)

Brewing a robust blend of church, commerce

PEMBROKE, N.H. -- The line of parishioners outside the Grace Capital Church chapel last Sunday morning stretched past the stained glass windows, beyond a pile of church bulletins. They had come for spiritual invigoration, but first the men and women waited turns to pay $1.25 a cup for Starbucks's Shade Grown Mexico.

In a startling mix of religion and chain-store culture, Starbucks has become a prime attraction at the Pentecostal church a few miles from New Hampshire's capital city. Reflecting a philosophy that emphasizes a wide range of enticements to get Christians to come to church, Grace Capital leaders have installed a kiosk in the atrium to sell the premium coffee cafe-style.

The church is one of a growing number of places of worship that have allowed commercial enterprises to operate within their walls, a departure from traditional Judeo-Christian notions of separation of church and trade that Grace Capital officials say has helped build membership.

''People love it," said Pastor Peter Bonanno, who includes Starbucks-printed coupons for free coffee in packets the church gives to prospective members. ''We have had a lot of people come to church just because we do it."

Bonanno notes that proceeds from the Starbucks coffee sales at the kiosk, which church leaders have dubbed the ''Common Ground Cafe," go to charities. This month the money will be donated to the Pembroke Christmas Fund.

The model, dubbed ''sectarian entrepreneurship" by some religion specialists, is thriving around the country, along with the growing ranks of evangelical churches. The True Bethel Baptist Church in Buffalo, N.Y., recently opened a Subway sandwich shop. The Brentwood Baptist Church in Houston has a McDonald's.

The intertwining of commerce and church, religion specialists note, is not in itself revolutionary: Monasteries sold beer in the Middle Ages, and gift shops have long been church staples. What is new is that the religious institutions are inviting outside commercial outlets in -- a move that makes sense, some say, in an age of mass-marketing and national chains.

''What these churches are saying is life is about markets and their market is Jesus or eternal life," said James Wellman, a professor of American religion at the University of Washington. ''If you need to get people in the doors with McDonald's you do it because once people get in the doors, they realize that what they really want is not Big Mac but eternal life."

The introduction of chain stores in churches is part of a broader attempt to make the church-going experience more like the outside world, said Mark Silk, the director of the Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford.

The churches ''see their job as creating a whole world for their parishioners," Silk said. ''The idea of the church is to be multi-service."

It is not clear that businesses can make money in church. The Brentwood Baptist Church in Houston has temporarily closed its McDonald's while it analyzes poor sales.

But Grace Capital's Bonanno said his church is not worried about the bottom line.

''This is not about making money," he said. ''This is about being a blessing to others."

A Starbucks spokesman said it is company policy not to disclose the number of accounts with houses of worship, but he described it as a ''large number."

The movement to make churches less formal began on the West Coast in the 1970s and has since spread elsewhere. The style has been embraced by evangelical and often non-denominational churches in the South and Midwest, some called ''mega-churches" because their congregations number in the thousands. The idea for selling Starbucks coffee at Grace Capital Church came from one such place of worship, the Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago.

Grace Capital Church signals the expansion of the trend into New England. It is affiliated with International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, a Pentecostal denomination based in Los Angeles. It is one of an estimated 300 evangelical churches in the state, a number that has doubled over the past decade, according to the New Hampshire Council of Churches.

Worship services at Grace Capital feature a multipiece band with electric guitar, drums, and flute backing the choir. Video screens anchored to the ceiling flash the words to prayers. Dress is casual and seating is in unanchored chairs arranged in a semi-circle around the low-rise altar.

''We didn't want a churchy feeling," said Bonanno.

Starbucks, church leaders say, is a natural addition to the environment.

''People drinking coffee, relating to one another, loving each other," Jerry Cook, a pastor visiting last Sunday from a Foursquare Gospel church in Seattle, where Starbucks is also sold. ''That's the essence of Christianity."

Grace Capital Church has grown quickly. It started in a living room eight years ago, later relocated to a school, and last July moved into a new building overlooking the Suncook River. The beige-walled sanctuary holds 600 and is regularly near capacity. About half its congregants are former Catholics, according to church officials.

''Growing up Catholic, the whole thing about church was about not being allowed to do much of anything -- having to stand, kneel," said Jon Berger, 34, a corporate driver, as he entered the sanctuary with a tall Starbucks in hand. ''Here you can have a cup of coffee and be relaxed."

Still, Berger and others noted that the allure of the church runs deeper than Starbucks.

''Christians like coffee," said Rick Bagley, 39, a general contractor. ''But what draws us here is Jesus Christ."

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at 

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