One morning during my freshman year of college, I layered on thick sweaters and prepared to trudge to Sunday morning church through Indiana’s winter wonderland. Just before leaving my dorm, I noticed my roommate still lay unmoved in her warm bed.

Diligent Christian that I am, I didn’t waste a moment before waking my unfortunate roommate with a rigorous shaking. I prefer to think this action came from a place of love and healthy respect for her relationship with God, rather than the more probable jealousy I had for her serene slumber. After informing her that she’d overslept and needed to prepare for church, my roommate said, “I’m sleeping more. I’ll stream an online sermon later.”

Here lies the difficulty facing churches and Christian retail outlets today: People just aren’t showing up like they used to.

The Gallup Research Organization has shown that 40 percent of Americans claim to attend church regularly; however, the Hartford Institute for Religion Research conducted studies in 2010 showing that only 20.4 percent actually do. Could the people who represent this gap be the members of the “Big C” church, receiving ministry from sources other than traditional church?

The challenge for those streaming online sermons versus jumping out of bed on a Sunday morning—ranging from practicing Christ followers to apathetic believers who may or may not attend the brick-and-mortar church—is that members of the church crave connection, whether they know it or not. This could create opportunities for Christian retail stores, whose mission is already firmly rooted in coming alongside the church, to meet the need for community.

During this year’s International Christian Retail Show in Orlando, FL, Bob Lenz (Life Promotions, Inc.), Nick Vujicic (Life Without Limbs), Kevin Ferguson (Willamete Valley Christian Supply), and Josh McDowell (best-selling author and speaker) addressed this very issue.

Meet a Need

Lenz, known for his inspirational speaking style and faith-based youth programs, asked: “Why did the prodigal son come home?”

He explained that the prodigal son came home, not because he was eager to serve his father, but because he was hungry. “They’ll come to you if you’re meeting a need. Find a need. Find … what you’re uniquely made to do, and where those intersect, that’ll be your target.”

Lenz recommended that stores analyze their community statistics to find core areas to serve. “Look at a city and ask ‘OK, what’s the dropout rate? What’s the teen pregnancy rate? What’s the poverty level? What’s the suicide level? What’s the cutting level?’ Look at the issues around.”

After people are drawn into a store, what they see is crucial.

“How much is a cup of coffee at McDonald’s? How much is a cup of coffee at Starbucks? What’s the difference? Not always the coffee; it’s the experience,” Lenz said.

“What’s the experience you want people to have when they walk into your store?”

If Lenz owned a store, he says he would exercise Rich Melheim’s idea of the “Faith 5.” He would ask customers to share their emotional highs and lows of the day and offer to pray for them, because “if you don’t know somebody’s high and you don’t know somebody’s low, you don’t know them.” He added that the Word of God is most important to remember: “Our good actions are not going to save someone but the Word of God can.”

McDowell, a colorful and uninhibited apologist, supplemented Lenz’s comments. “I think that’s the key to reaching the Big C or anything. It’s identification of where they are, which means a lot of listening.”

Use Every Tool to It’s Fullest

McDowell also stressed the impact of technology. “We use every means of technology there is. You cannot go to the Big C church without technology.” On his website, www. Josh.org, McDowell offers many free videos addressing different subjects including almost 300 on truth.

“As people watch these, they’re glued to them.” Well-made media makes people want to see more, buy the book, meet the author, or simply connect on a deeper level. “Where do they go? A bookstore.”

To give customers a great in-store experience, McDowell recommends stores have bright lighting, room to sit, decorations, products that are relevant to the culture, store events and performances, and uplifting contemporary music.

In-store events are of the utmost importance because they turn retail centers into destinations for connections. McDowell says stores should think about hosting blood drives, performances, workshops, exhibits, and more. McDowell, who collects Egyptian artifacts, stated, “I wish bookstores would call me up … and say ‘why don’t we feature some of these things in our store?’”

He mentioned he has never turned these invitations down when at all possible for him. Stores should realize that “we have nothing to lose; we have everything to gain.”

Pursue Transformation

Vujicic, an author and motivational speaker who has overcome adversity by living life to the fullest without arms or legs, called for a transformation of Christian retail.

“If I had a bookstore, it’d be twice as big in area, with half books and then half community,” he said. “I really feel that it needs to be a revolution. All distribution is being affected because of online [shopping], but we could get ahead of the curve by readapting everything that we are and who we are and really start communicating and providing a service of love and help and support.” Vujicic calls Christian retailers evangelists who might draw people in their doors by providing tutoring services, developing resumes, having church elders pray over customers, and hosting movie screenings, live simulcasts, and performances by local unsigned artists.

The Christian retail store needs to be “revamped” and made more “modern” and “family oriented [so] that [it] becomes an extension of the home.” Vujicic says retailers should give opportunity to little-known artists with talent and passion to share their stories.

“It’s all about building up other flowers that God has on display for His splendor and His glory that really the world hasn’t smelled yet—the fragrance of joy and love through their story… until they’re actually shared and shown to the world,” he said.

Show Love

Ferguson, the enthusiastic owner of Willamette Valley Christian Supply, values sincerity and love in his store.

“The Christian bookstore has the opportunity to once again communicate the Word of God—truth—in a generation that’s seeking outside of truth,” he said.

He shared that though financial profit is key to good business, a good relationship with customers should be assigned higher value. “When we build a relationship, we build trust so when somebody comes in and they want an item, they know that we’re not trying to just sell them the items. We’re connecting them. Trust is critical. That’s a strategy that we believe—every person is a guest. We believe that that helps out the financial piece.”

Ferguson also shared why ministry is so vital in a retail store. He said by listening deeply to customers, “we get to know the challenges that they’re facing and we get an opportunity to partner with them and pray with them. This is us—life on life—every day making disciples who make disciples.”

He adds, “Our role is about joining God’s mission, and our role is to partner with the church and to get the word of God into as many hands as we can and to equip them and equip the saints to make a difference. I see our store as an extension of the great commission in our community.”

Christian stores are the Big C church for some. In the words of Vujicic, “The church needs your bookstore and the bookstore needs the church.” Retailers are evangelists. When a person steps foot in your store, how will you minister to their needs?

– Andrea Riskey