Tuesday, April 17, 2007

"Deli Church" vs the "Supermarket"

Jack Haberer (the Editor of Presbyterian Outlook) wrote an article called “Deli Church in a Supermarket World.” Yesterday I looked at his idea that smaller churches don’t expect much of pastors because they don’t want the pastor to expect too much of them. Today I want to look closer at the idea of the “deli” vs. the “supermarket.”

Back in the dark ages I was a student at Washington State University. WSU is located in the town of Pullman, just a few miles from the Idaho border. Pullman is a small town surrounded by wheat fields. Spokane, the closest town of any size, is an hour drive away. Moscow, Idaho, is about eight miles from Pullman and is home of the much smaller University of Idaho. Developers wanted to build a mall on the outskirts of Pullman. The city council, at the urging of downtown businesses refused to grant the necessary zoning changes and building permits. The developers went to Moscow and before you could blink an eye the mall was built. Following the mall were LOTS of other national chain stores. Moscow became the economic hub of the region because the businessmen of Pullman refused to allow their town to change.

Shopping malls have been blamed for the downfall of many downtown business areas. It is true that malls draw people away from downtown mom-and-pop stores, just as huge supermarkets draw people away from the neighborhood deli. It is easy to blame the “big-box” stores for the closing of the locally owned smaller stores—and sometimes they are to blame. Another cause of the failure of the smaller store is the store’s refusal to recognize the need to change to meet customer needs and expectations. Additionally, there are stores that offer products and services that do not resonate with the surrounding community.

The church I serve is in an area of transition. Thousands of people are moving in a few miles to the north of the church (inside the urban growth boundary). A few subdivisions are still being built outside the “growth area” because they had been “platted” prior to urban growth. Change is happening all around us. New schools cannot be built fast enough to handle the growth. New churches are also sprouting up—renting space in almost every school. Most of the pre-existing churches are not experiencing growth that reflects the growth in our community. Should those churches “blame” the new churches for their lack of growth? Should we blame the “big-box” churches that are eight miles to the north of us?

“This is one place where the modern consumerist mentality is screaming wise counsel to the church. Do you want us to join your congregation? Then give us an education! Provide us a university atmosphere where we can learn the Bible, cultivate excellent practices, study classical thinkers, wrangle newfangled ideas, and in the process become thoughtful disciples of Jesus Christ.” (Jack Haberer)

I do not believe that people are driving by our churches saying, “…give us an education!” They don’t even see our churches as they drive by—they don’t believe that the church is relevant to their lives. Do they need a place to learn about the Bible? Yes! Do they need to study classical thinkers? Yes! Do they need to wrestle with new ideas and notions? Yes. But here’s the catch—they do not recognize that they have that need.

People tend to respond to their most pressing need (or want). The person sinking to the bottom of a lake is thinking about their next breath of air. The parent with a child hooked on drugs is thinking about keeping their child alive through that day. The family that is being crushed by consumer debt is worried about keeping the electricity from being disconnected (today our church is helping a single mom keep her water from being disconnected). For the most part the church does not seem relevant.

Most church members are out of touch with the needs of those who do not attend church. The big-box store draws in people because it responds to the needs of potential customers. Too many church PCUSA church members either do not care about the needs of the unchurched or they do not want to change some of the things they do so they can help meet those needs. I am not talking about changing our foundational biblical, theological beliefs! I am talking about how we implement those beliefs.

It is time to stop blaming the “big-box” churches for our lack of growth. A few years ago I was serving on our Presbytery’s Church Redevelopment Committee. There was a small church in an area of RAPID growth (I’m not talking about Evergreen). The church continued to shrink while the surrounding population exploded. A “Baptist” church approached the Presbyterian Church to inquire about renting the church building on Sunday nights (this was a rural area with few buildings available to rent and land was very expensive). The PCUSA church saw this as an opportunity to gain some added income and quickly agreed to the arrangement. Within a few months there were over 100 people in attendance at the Baptist church on Sunday nights (most of them were young families). The pastor of the Presbyterian Church said that that Baptist church was “stealing” their people. These were not the Presbyterian Church’s people—these people had not been attending any church in the area!! The PCUSA pastor dearly loved the Lord Jesus and wanted the church to grow. The PCUSA pastor was retired and serving the church on a part time basis. Additionally, the PCUSA pastor was one of the most boring speakers I have ever heard. The Baptists were not the reason that the Presbyterian Church was not growing—the Presbyterian Church and its pastor were the reason the church was not growing!

All churches need to spend a lot of time seeking God’s leading for their church. Our churches want to be “neat and tidy.” Our people hide their struggles—many of the same struggles of those in our surrounding communities. The people of our churches struggle with many things: addictions (drug, tobacco, alcohol, pornography), marriages are failing, kids are having trouble with school, grandparents are raising grandchildren, financial collapse, faith issues, etc.). Our churches need to deal with the needs of people—the people who attend and those who don’t attend. Then, and only then, will our churches become relevant.


At 11:09 AM , Anonymous tonyc said...

I remember that Pullman deal, because I was there at the time. Thought you and the readers might enjoy "the rest of the story," in Paul Harvey tradition. Normally the solution for this type of situation is to go just outside the city limits, into the county. In the case of Pullman, however, they were completely "landlocked" by an interesting (and I think most of us would agree, desirable) phenomenon. The farmers in Whitman County were the most successful in the state at banding together to put their land into long-term tax favorable "farm-only" use. They wouldn't budge, even when the prospective mall folks offered to pay the tax penalties. Much later, the city did expand, but they were unshakeable at the time.


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