By Kent Fillinger
Eight of the 10 biggest shopping days of the year occur in December. The other two take place in November. Sales spike in December at retail stores, online stores, and even grocery stores. Based on my research, church attendance also spikes during December due to special events and Christmas Eve services that attract more people than any other time but Easter.
Despite a strong economy and low unemployment, the retail industry is undergoing a major repositioning as legacy stores and brands that were once customer favorites fall victim to shifting consumer demands. Stores like Nine West, Toys R Us, Claire’s, Macy’s, Aerosoles, Payless, and countless others have either filed for bankruptcy, closed hundreds of stores, or simply pulled the plug on their whole operation.
A primary contributor to the shift in consumer behavior is the rise of online shopping, but there’s more to the story. Brand loyalty is also changing as younger customers care less about once-trendy logos and popular brand names.
Shifting consumer tastes and new shopping trends are impacting more than retail stores. The spillover also affects churches, contributing to declining attendance. Church leaders are left to figure out how best to serve and engage today’s cultural Christians and nonreligious consumers.
Church shopping and consumer Christianity have been popular for the last several decades. The entrepreneurial, innovative church leaders who seized on this trend created church models that appealed to “church shoppers.” These models were sometimes called “seeker-driven” or “seeker-sensitive,” and they gave birth to the attractional church model that is still popular. Many of the more successful attractional churches experienced exponential growth over the last quarter century.
A Pew Research Center report called “The Religious Typology” (August 29) indicated that only 17 percent of Americans qualify as “Sunday Stalwarts.” Pew defines this group as “highly religious” because they hold traditional beliefs, are engaged in their faith, and show up to religious services. An additional 23 percent of Americans also qualify as “highly religious,” but for these “God-and-Country Believers” and “Diversely Devout,” their “beliefs” don’t translate into regular church attendance or engagement in traditional beliefs and practices.
Lessons from a Bookstore—Adapt or Die
Let’s examine a once-popular brick-and-mortar store to see what we can learn about shifting consumer patterns, and then apply some lessons we learn to the church today. How does a store go from being a positive disruptor in the marketplace to a dinosaur that might be nearing the end? Barnes & Noble bookstores provide a prime example.
When Barnes & Noble burst onto the scene with their big-box stores with Starbucks coffee shops inside, they brought about the demise of many independent booksellers. Now, according to the Wall Street Journal (September 7), the big-box chain is considered a dinosaur, struggling to survive in a rapidly changing retail environment.
Barbara Kahn, marketing professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and the author of The Shopping Revolution, said, “The problem is they’re not the best at anything” (see “Can Barnes & Noble Survive?” http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu). Ray Whitmer, retail practice professor at Syracuse University, added, “The problem with Barnes & Noble is that with consumers changing their shopping habits, it hasn’t found a strategy that can connect with those customers.”
Some might conclude the success of Amazon.com is to blame for Barnes & Noble’s struggles, but Peter Fader, professor of marketing at the Wharton School, isn’t convinced. “I don’t think that’s true,” Fader said. “I think it’s Barnes & Noble that will drive itself out of business by not adapting to the times and moving with its customers.”
Over the past several years, I’ve heard many small-church leaders blame their lack of growth or numerical decline on a nearby megachurch. But I’d echo Fader’s words by saying that for most churches that haven’t grown, it’s because they’ve not adapted to the times and, therefore, they’re not relevant in today’s culture.
“At Southeast Christian Church,” I heard Bob Russell say years ago, “we don’t steal sheep, but we do water the grass.” When was the last time your church watered its grass, applied some fertilizer, and pulled the weeds so that it was positioned for growth?
Reaching Younger Generations—Think ‘Boutique,’ Not Big Box
Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia University Graduate School of Business, said:
There is a tremendous resurgence of local bookstores that’s underway, but these have relevance because they’re coming up out of the ground as green shoots in the communities in which they are appearing and they’re not trying to be all things to all people as Barnes & Noble has tried to be. They’re either picking on a genre or trying to curate an assortment of books that appeals to a local, devoted customer. Barnes & Noble increasingly looks like the dinosaur who hangs from the ceiling of the Natural History Museum (my emphasis).
Americans today are still interested in spiritual pursuits. They’re just less likely than ever to seek out those experiences in a local church. Therefore, churches today need to stop believing that “one size fits all” and instead focus on a niche or specific tribe, much like how a boutique store zeroes in on a specific product line or one particular tribe of customers. The big-box model of trying to offer everything under one roof is going by the wayside, especially for younger generations (think millennials and gen Z, those who are younger than age 40).
Wharton marketing professor Thomas Robertson said an important factor Barnes & Noble or any other retailer could consider is this: “You have to find ways to reach out to the millennial generation, and it is about being omni-channel—it has to be a seamless experience. Also, if you’re going to reach gen Z or gen X, it is all about mobile.”
Barbara Kahn said, “If you don’t have a seamless shopping experience that goes across physical stores, mobile and online, gen Z is just going to go somewhere else.”
How would you describe your church’s online presence? Does your church have a functional, mobile-friendly website? Is your church leveraging social media to communicate your message and ministries on multiple channels? How well does your church’s onsite experience match your online experience for a potential guest or spiritual seeker?
Learning from Barneys—Experiment with New Methods
Retailers are asking, “What will get people out of their house and into a physical store?” Likewise, evangelism-focused church leaders should ask, “What will get people out of their house and into a physical church location?”
Twenty years ago, customers had very little choice. They had to shop local. Today, customers can shop anywhere in the world with ease. Likewise, 20 years ago, people who wanted to find a spiritual community had to find it locally. Today, they can listen to podcasts, watch live streaming worship services, and access spiritual content from any source online in an instant and connect with like-minded tribesmen from all over the world.
Because of these shifting realities, brick-and-mortar retailers are experimenting with different models such as pop-up stores and creating stores-within-a-store.
“Retailers with physical stores need to think about touch, feel, sight and sound,” Kahn said. “It’s got to be something about experience.”
The same is true for churches. Leaders need to experiment and try new approaches while considering all the senses in the overall spiritual experience. Church members also need to extend grace to their leaders as they try new models; give church leaders the freedom to fail as they seek to engage today’s younger, unchurched generations. Here is a great maxim to keep in mind: “Methods are many, principles are few. Methods should always change, but principles never do.” Be sure not to confuse ministry methods for spiritual principles!
A great example of this experimentation mind-set in the retail industry comes from luxury brand Barneys New York.
Last fall, Barneys’ Madison Avenue store created a two-day event called “the Drop,” which included tattoo artists and piercers, custom sneaker and T-shirt bars, and street brands that catered to younger shoppers. The event drew 12,000 shoppers into the store, 55 percent of whom were there for the first time. Revenues were up 30 percent from those same two days a year earlier.
Daniella Vitale, Barneys’ chief executive, said she realized their old model didn’t work anymore. She told the Wall Street Journal,
We’re not really in the retail business anymore. We’re in the entertainment business. We’re in the personalization business. We’re in the services business. We’re in the food business. We also know the customer does want that social connection, and it takes place in actual environments and physical spaces. . . . The challenge is in serving the younger consumer without alienating our existing customers.
Aren’t you glad that we, as leaders, don’t face this same challenge when it comes to making changes in the church to reach the unreached, younger generations? I’m grateful for mature believers (existing customers) who are willing to flex and bend to support new ministry methods to reach more people for Christ!
_ _ _
4 Questions to Help Your Church’s Leadership Team Explore Changing Trends and Apply Them in Your Context
Who is our mission field? If you’re trying to reach everyone, you’ll end up reaching no one. Define your target audience and then figure out how best to reach them with the gospel. A great example of this focus is the Love Thy Nerd (LTN) ministry (www.lovethynerd.com).
Here’s LTN’s defined mission field:
Whether you are a gamer, a Trekkie, a comic nerd, a Whovian, an otaku, a brony, a roleplayer, a LARPer, or any other flavor of nerd, we think you are valuable and wonderful. Unfortunately, Christians haven’t always done a great job of loving their nerdy neighbors. We want to change that. LTN wants to speak redemption, hope, truth, and love into the parts of nerd culture that have often been alienated, demonized, dismissed, or simply ignored by Christians.
I’ll admit, I don’t even know what most of those words mean or who they refer to, but this is a prime example of defining a targeted niche audience and meeting people where they are to share the gospel.
Where do we need to stop digging? The fastest way to get out of a hole is to put down the shovel. Identify which of your church’s ministries aren’t reaching new, unchurched people. In many cases, these need to end so you can focus your energies and time on reaching new “customers” instead of just placating existing ones. When you say no to one thing, it enables you to say yes to something new. What changes must be made now for your church to fulfill your vision?
How can we become a destination point and a launching pad? What about your church makes someone want to get out of bed and come to it . . . and to drive by dozens of other churches in the process? In the retail industry, this is called your “unique selling point.” What is it about your church that differentiates it from other churches? Once you determine your unique vision, you’re more likely to become a destination point for people. But remember, the real goal is to draw people in so you can train them up and launch them back out to be “brand evangelists” who tell others about the God who changed them.
What equipment do our team members need? People need more tools and support to accomplish the task. List the pieces of equipment you currently provide your church members to help them live out the mission of the church. Create another list of what you should be providing to them but currently aren’t. Try to personalize the training and equipment needs to match each of your volunteer leaders and key influencers to get the best results.
Kent E. Fillinger serves as president of 3:STRANDS Consulting, Indianapolis, Indiana.