The American church is in trouble. Look at any typical national measurement: membership, attendance, baptisms, giving, new church construction, public influence. The numbers point downward. Concurrently, Christian retail has experienced similar downward pressure. Are the church and retail handcuffed together in this spiral? Some common factors do exist. And some similar remedies are available to brighten the prospects for the future.

Thom Schultz

ACCEPT REALITY WITH HOPE

The national numbers for the church and for Christian retail are real. It is naïve and dangerous to attempt to fool ourselves otherwise. Doing so will only delay and diminish the positive changes we need to make for improvement.

Some national writers and speakers have attempted to downplay this decline. They’ve tried to obscure the numbers, saying the decline is affecting only mainline churches. That is false. The problem stretches across the board. One denominational spokesman dismissed any numerical decline as “purifying bloodletting,” purging the pews of people who were never really Christians to begin with. I suppose these attitudes are intended to shore up discouraged church leaders who don’t want to believe what they see happening around them in their own churches. The message gets interpreted as “Don’t worry. The sky isn’t falling. Just stay the course.”

The trouble is, just staying the course will result only in blaming someone or something outside our control, which leads to continuing decline. It’s healthier and more hopeful to acknowledge the realities of the American church and Christian retail, take proper responsibility for them, and take action.

In The Jesus-Centered Life, Rick Lawrence describes the “Stockdale paradox,” referring to Vice Admiral James Stockdale who survived nearly eight years of torture in a Vietnamese prison camp. He prevailed while others perished. He cites how he accepted the brutal reality of his situation, while other prisoners fantasized about an imminent and unrealistic resolution. But Stockdale remained ultimately hopeful. “I never lost faith that I would prevail in the end,” he said.

That is a healthy outlook for the church and for Christian retail. It encourages us not to grovel in blaming others for our plight, but instead to ask how we might change and adapt to create a better future.

EXHIBIT RADICAL HOSPITALITY

Millions have fled the church because they felt unwelcomed. They crave a place where they sense they belong. Pollster George Gallup, Jr., once said of the church, “Belonging comes before believing.” Many who’ve left the church say they felt like merely a statistic, valued only for their attendance or their offerings. They recoiled at churches referring to their families as “giving units.”

In our book Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore, we describe an antidote for these perceptions called “radical hospitality.” It’s something that works not only for churches, but for Christian retail as well.

People today want to know and be known. The emphasis, for the church and the store, needs to feel less transactional and more relational. This has several simple implications:

Hire nice people. Really. You don’t need to choose or retain people who may be able to accomplish a work task but are cold, sour, and surly. It’s possible (and necessary) to employ people who possess vocational skills and a pleasant, welcoming persona.

Be accessible. Answer the phone. Return messages within 24 hours. Callers—prospective customers or parishioners—may not give you a second chance.

Learn and use people’s names. Don’t underestimate the power of this simple act. This alone keeps many people coming back. This human interaction is so much more powerful than Amazon’s faceless, computer-generated greeting.

Small is the new big. Smallness enables intimacy and radical hospitality.

The church—and Christian retail—are struggling through a time of transition. Overall trends are likely to continue. But those who pay attention to the surrounding realities, who pray for wisdom, and who proactively make positive and bold changes will prevail.