flying off the shelves

Here in Greensboro, we are talking a lot about a certain grocery store (Trader Joe’s) building a store in the center of town.  The big issue is whether a residential area will be re-designated to permit the new shopping center.  The neighborhood folks want to see this block preserved as residential and have to rally because, presumably, the grocery store chain has enough popular support to insist on that site and that site only.

Now, first let me say that I do not wish to offer an opinion on whether or not Trader Joe’s is a good thing for Greensboro.  I am simply fascinated by the number of folks who, despite having plenty of grocery options already, hope to someday throw money at yet another.  All of this started, many months ago, with the buzz of rumors as people began to think that we might blessed by the presence of a fabled & quirky grocery store, our lives made better by an abundance of chevre and cheap wine. Pretty good marketing success, if you ask me.

The reason I bring this up is to ask this:  if the church is doing great things in its community, why don’t we ever generate that kind of excitement?  If the Episcopal Church (or any church for that matter) seeks to be a meaningful presence in a community or a neighborhood, how come nobody’s asking us to set up shop in the center of town?

I would like to think that we offer something that communities would want.  What if the same kind of excited oohs and aahs that sparked this whole grocery thing (“Did you hear we might be getting a Traders Joe’s?”) were uttered when a church plant began in a neighborhood or in a town that until then had no Episcopal church?  Imagine if, in a small town on the edge of a county, the excited rumor began:  “Did you hear that they are thinking of putting an Episcopal (or Lutheran or Presbyterian) church here? Imagine how good that’s going to be for the town! Imagine what that’s going to do for public conversation about faith and politics? Imagine what that’s going to do for poverty rates?”

Can we imagine that? Probably not, because put that way it sounds kind of absurd. But why should it be?  If we are really contributing to the public good, then why shouldn’t people go a little out of their way to see churches more present in their community?

If we can’t imagine it, it’s because for too long most churches have not had the kind of public impact that matches their mission. I don’t have an answer for why that is; I only know that churches seem to be less visible in their communities then they’d like to be.  Perhaps the way to start reversing this is by imagining the absurd, and start creating a little buzz of our own.

I know we don’t just exist to do good things.  But asking these questions may help to point out where our images of ourselves don’t match how our neighborhoods see us.  To some extent this also surfaces just about how much our church cultures are more about the tribes we belong to than about the ways that faith can change us and change our communities.

Many churches have survived for decades on the guaranteed membership that has come of generation after generation being in the same church. Like it or not, that doesn’t happen anymore nearly to the extent that it once did.  Perhaps there is a great opportunity here, not to ask how we might keep the folks we already have but rather to ask how we might be so present in our neighborhood that other communities will see us and say,

“Wow!  How do we get one of those churches here?”

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About bernardowens

I'm an Episcopal priest in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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6 Responses to flying off the shelves

  1. Robert Black says:

    Great post! One of my complaints against American Christianity is that we’ve lost sight of our “product.” Most of us no longer feel that the threat of eternal damnation to hell is a good enough reason to come to Church, and the Church really hasn’t said “this is what we’re about” and done it. I would guess the the Episcopal Church and its parishes have spent a ton of money developing mission statements and advertising, but I’m not sure it’s working. We don’t have brand recognition (either TEC or the Church in general) or a clear slogan, and no one knows what we’re selling. They think we sell judgement, holier than thou righteousness, and guilt- but we need to start doing more Kingdom of God, love your neighbor, blessed are the poor (and the poor in spirit), and humility production.

  2. bernardowens says:

    Thanks, Robert. Aren’t you in Jerusalem right now? Thanks for taking a minute to comment.

  3. Anne Wilkinson says:

    Is it about doing something to attract attention or looking to see what might be needed by those in our neighborhood? Should we invite them to events? Find out what their concerns are? I am not sure we can compare ourselves to a grocery store, after all we aren’t selling anything and we don’t really seem to be about entertainment on Sunday morning. Maybe doing something FOR the neighborhood is a step we should take.

  4. Joe Hensley says:

    Well we already have the free samples of wine part down. Maybe we just need to start offering some chèvre at coffee hour.
    But seriously, thanks for this posting, BJ. I think another piece of the situation is not just that people outside the church are not buzzing about the church. It’s also that people inside the church are not buzzing, not talking, not sharing. We have to learn to talk to each other about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. At our recent vestry retreat we wondered about how to connect with the “strangers at the Starbucks,” how to “go to Galilee,” “but then someone said, “what about the people (a sizable percentage) in our own church who are on the rolls, who even contribute money, who want this place to be there for them when they have a crisis or a major life event (or death event) but who rarely come to church and do not participate in ministry?” If we can’t get our own people excited, how can we expect to get others excited? Of course, we (the royal “we”) try to do both at the same time.

  5. Jo Owens says:

    Amen, Joe!

  6. apm says:

    Before you can excite others, you must excite yourselves. Be meaningful in all you do.

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