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Commerce in church: faith-based enterprise or unholy invasion?

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People weary from the holiday shopping blitz and longing for refuge in a noncommercial zone had better not count on finding it in church. These days, along with the usual sermons, places of worship are quenching more literal forms of thirst, too.

Those who crave Starbucks can step over to a kiosk at Grace Capital Church in Pembroke, N.H. At True Bethel Baptist Church in Buffalo, N.Y., the spot where the choir once sang now sells Subway sandwiches. And in more than a few picturesque meeting houses, hymns and prayers ascend through a steeple that doubles as a leased-out cellphone tower.

For a growing number of churches, the boundary between sacred space and marketplace is coming down, as congregations cautiously warm to the notion of sharing their holy dominion with for-profit business. Purists who perceive an insidious desecration find themselves waging an uphill battle with those who regard the new arrangements as a welcome boost to their core missions.

"Starbucks has done what churches should have done a long time ago, and that's to become more people-friendly," says the Rev. Peter Bonanno, senior pastor of Grace Capital Church. "It's not so much the coffee as the environment the coffee and the coffee bar create - a relaxed, relational, and fun place. We hope to create an environment that we believe is more biblical than [conventionally] religious."

Parishioners seem satisfied. The kiosk opened in July, and visitors say the building that houses it "feels more like a Starbucks ... than a church," says Mr. Bonanno. Since July, average Sunday attendance has doubled to 550.

But short-term convenience and growth may come at the expense of church ideals, says Barry Harvey, professor of contemporary theology at Baylor University in Houston. In his view, spirituality has been "commodified" in the past quarter-century, in part due to "church shopping" and a hot market for religious merchandise. From there, he says, "It's just one more step to say, 'What's the big deal about bringing in a McDonald's?' "


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