Unglued Church

What the Church Can Learn from a Trip to the Mall

Churches are facing the same challenges as bricks and mortar retailers.

by Susan Rothenberg

So, I was scheduled to do a presentation at a large, out-of-town conference and I was a little nervous. The day before I left, I realized a new pair of gray wool slacks would greatly boost my confidence.

Malls make me break out in hives, but the time limitations being what they were, I decided to venture out to my local Macy’s. When I arrived at the store, I wandered around for a while until I found a nice pair of slacks at an extremely reasonable price.  And miracles of miracles, I tried them on and they fit! Perfectly!

“Victory is mine!” I thought to myself as I managed to find a check-out counter with nobody in line. I handed the slacks over to a very bored looking sales clerk and pulled out my wallet, already thinking about the toppings I’d put on the frozen yogurt with which I planned to treat myself after my big shopping trip.

The sales clerk looked at the slacks, looked at me, and said, “I am pretty sure these will be on sale tomorrow. Do you want me to hold them for you until then?”

I’d be on a plane tomorrow morning, so I said, “Thank you, but I’d like to buy them now.”

She looked at me again. “Wait a minute,” she said and began rummaging beneath the counter. She pulled out a big binder and began leafing through it.

“These pants will be 40% off tomorrow. Why don’t you let me hold them for you?”

Again, I thanked her, but insisted I would be happy to pay a few extra dollars as the pants were pretty inexpensive anyway.

She looked at me and I looked at her. We seemed to be at an impasse but, finally and with an audible sigh, she rang up the sale. I handed her my credit card and she said, “Do you have a Plenti card? You’ll get 5% off. And if you open up a new Macy’s account, you’ll get another 10% off.”

I probably don’t need to tell you I didn’t have and still do not have a Plenti card. A simple transaction for a pair of $30 gray pants took 20 minutes and left a bad taste in my mouth that no amount of frozen yogurt could fix.

So I wasn’t even a little surprised a few days ago when I read that particular Macy’s location is closing. In fact, quite a few Macy’s stores are closing, along with a number of other “bricks and mortar” retail store locations like Sears and JC Penney. And when I Googled “Plenti card” a couple minutes ago to find the correct spelling, I discovered that program is about to be discontinued as well.

The retail world has significantly changed in the past few decades.  Most of the stores I shopped in as a child are long gone, or soon will be. When I was a kid, we went to Montgomery Wards and Sears for back-to-school clothes. Here in Pittsburgh, talk to anyone over the age of 40 or so and they will tell you how much they miss Horne’s, Kaufmanns, and Gimbels, the department stores that ruled downtown Pittsburgh back in the day.

We all wax nostalgic about the good old days but there’s no denying that shopping habits have changed. The closing of department stores hasn’t happened because people no longer need to buy pants. The changes in the retail world reflect changes in how we live our lives, coupled with the evolution of technology.

Today, we buy more of what we need from the comfort of our homes instead of in a big downtown department store. We shop from specialty retailers that carry very specific merchandise. The last pair of shoes I bought didn’t come from a shoe store, but from a specialty on-line that only makes one kind of shoe from recycled material. Retailers like Macy’s can come up with all the discount programs and gimmicks in the world but such efforts have been neither profitable nor effective.

We all wax nostalgic about the good old days in church, but our religious habits have changed, driven by changes in our lives, coupled with the evolution of technology. The decline in church attendance is, however, not a decline in people’s need to know about Jesus, create authentic community, and grow spiritually. And churches can come up with all sorts of programs and gimmicks to get people back in the pews, but like Macy’s, we’re finding such technical solutions have not been effective.

Very few congregations will survive as a “one stop shop” for religious services. Much of the work we do in The Unglued Church is help congregations figure out their “why” – their specific, focused mission that is meaningful to the people God has called them to reach. Once a congregation has that focused mission in mind, it opens up space for experimentation and innovation in ministry.

Hebrews 13:8 reassures all of us that Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever. For the sake of the Gospel, however, Christ’s Church must adapt to this and every age.

Is your congregation still trying to be Macy’s? Are you still stuck in bricks and mortar ministry, trying to be all things to all people? Are you offering gimmicks when, in fact, what people need most is the grace and love of Jesus?

Simon Sinek gave a Ted Talk a few years ago that I often share with churches in the Unglued Church Project. A short version of “Start with Why,” is available on YouTube.  I invite you to view it as you consider your congregation’s “Why?” https://youtu.be/IPYeCltXpxw

Susan Rothenberg is a leader in the Unglued Church Project and an at-large member of Pittsburgh Presbytery. She has served as pastor to a small church in Pittsburgh, and currently co-moderates the presbytery’s Commission on Ministry and serves on the Anti-Racism Transformation Team. She also serves as a consultant with PneuMatrix. Prior to entering ordained ministry, she worked in marketing, advertising and public relations. She has one husband, two children, and two crazy cats.