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  • Learning from Wal-Mart Churches

    Posted on July 29th, 2009 admin 1 comment

    Wal-Mart churches kill their competition. They move into towns and suck the life-blood out of established churches. They attract leaders and people with deep pockets. They conduct worship services in new schools or clean movie theaters. Their creativity and excellence generates a buzz that attracts swarms of worshippers. They grow exponentially overnight while other churches lose one family after another.

    When Wal-Mart church moves to town, the religious community changes. The home church loses key families and Sunday morning worship fizzles into a pastry party. The small church, led by a part-time pastor whose wife plays the out-of-tune piano, dies. The independent church, led by the same family for fifty years, fades into the annals of history. The large program-driven church scales back. The contemporary church who brought drums, electric guitars and drama into the worship service becomes a cheese factory. Established churches can’t keep up with the new kid on the block. They eventually face the inevitable and close shop. Embittered by their failure, they blame Wal-Mart church for stealing people and ending their season of success.

    The Wal-Mart Effect is spreading across the American church landscape like Sam’s Club semis scattering from Bentonville. Ten years ago certain towns were immune – deemed too sparsely populated and stagnant for sizable church growth. Church planters targeted densely populated areas such as Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas and Southern California. Dominant churches in smaller cities were safe; they could keep conducting business as usual without the threat of lethal competition. However, the church climate has changed; no town is immune.

    Rather than bad-mouthing the corporate growth model, some organizations adapt. They change. They recognize that what worked before Wal-Mart church won’t work anymore. Sure, there are loyal members who will keep populating the aisles with their children and grandchildren simply because grandma and grandpa attended that church years ago. That intrinsic growth may yield satisfactory board reports, but it fails to observe what is happening in the larger context: Business is booming down the street. More and more people are consuming grape juice and unleavened crackers for the first time ever. Many are beginning a new life in Jesus Christ, thanks to Wal-Mart church.

    Christians, let’s not point fingers at those who are successfully making new disciples. How easy it would be to pride ourselves on, “We teach the Bible! They dumb it down.” Let’s not say that because it’s probably not true. Maybe we speak Greek while they speak a language people understand. Maybe we read books about love while they do it. Let’s certainly not use pleasing old-timers as an excuse for maintaining status quo. That is lame.

    Wal-Mart churches do many things right. The result is growth, and not just numerical growth. People are growing spiritually. The lost are being found. Disciples are being made in Wal-Mart churches. Traditional churches can learn lessons that may save their fate while trying to stay afloat in a Wal-Mart world.

    1) Good Greeters. Wal-Mart churches always have that guy at the front door. He may not be the best-looking person, but he does his job and he does it well. He even says, “Have a good day” when you leave. He doesn’t beg you for your contact information. He knows his job does not involve getting you on the mailing list. The good greeter doesn’t make you sign up for anything. He simply greets you.

    Many churches lack good greeters. They error on one extreme. They either don’t have any greeters; you can slip in and out of the church without anyone saying a word to you; or, the greeters are too pushy; they want all your contact information and they act superficially friendly in a creepy sort-of-way.

    Get good greeters, regardless of the size of your church. Remember, their job is to welcome people into the front door. Don’t search for supermodels and people who represent your target market such as trendy young couples. Find someone who can smile and genuinely greet people, even if he or she is a little odd.

    2) Helpful Customer Service. Stepping foot into a new environment can be intimidating. Things like walking through big crowds and finding the auditorium can be difficult. More complex tasks like knowing where to take the kids can be near impossible. Wal-Mart churches have people who help. Sometimes they wear nametags so they can be spotted with ease. These helpful people ask one question, “May I help you?” They don’t ask tons of personal questions. They don’t try to sell the church’s doctrinal statement or the latest program. They serve by helping people where needed.

    When a visitor enters a church, he has already made the decision to check it out. He doesn’t need someone with expertise in all areas of church life. The visitor can do his own research by reading more on-line, acquiring informational brochures or scheduling a meeting with a ministry leader. The visitor only needs help with the simple things regular attendees know from experience.

    Have helpful people peruse the church halls. You can build a team of volunteers who are responsible for helping people, but a better approach is to build the helpful mentality into the church culture. While people are scurrying from one place to another, they should be attentive to people who may need help. Even though mom is rushing from the car to the kid’s area, if she sees another mom wandering aimlessly with child in tow she could easily offer, “Right this way!”

    3) Effective Internet Presence. Wal-Mart churches have great websites. These websites don’t just look good either. They are an effective resource for learning about the church and connecting with people. They communicate timely information such as service times, upcoming events and recent sermons. They help visitors learn more about the church through facility maps, doctrinal statements, the discipleship process and the organizational structure. They help equip people for spiritual growth by providing Bible study resources, podcasts, theological forums and frequently asked questions and answers. Effective websites also help people connect by publicizing small group information, facebook and twitter profile links,

    A few years ago church websites served as storefronts that both captured visitors’ attention and compelled them to visit the physical church or they caused curious people to keep surfing until they found something better. While church websites continue to serve that important first impression, they need to become much more. Effective websites are central to accomplishing the church’s mission. They are the hub of information exchange and a key tool for building the spiritual community leaders talk so much about.

    Engage your church with an effective Internet presence. Make your website the place to go for current information, social networking and Bible study resources. If people aren’t interacting with your website by visiting it on at least a weekly basis, it is not effective. Change that. Add content and keep it fresh. Encourage traffic to your website by constantly referring to it. Then, people will be able to stay engaged with their spiritual community regardless of where summer travel takes them.

    4) Creativity. Wal-Mart churches value creativity. They work hard to accomplish their mission in a new way that resonates with new people. Consider the meeting day for corporate worship. Why do worship services have to happen on Sunday mornings? Why not offer a Saturday night service? How about Tuesday night? Now that would be radical! Slight sarcasm aside, it doesn’t take much to be creative. God does all sorts of creative things with the clouds and people’s faces; we can do something simple with the way we package church.

    Keep in mind that there is a big difference between being creative and being cheesy. In other words, don’t try too hard. If you can’t act, don’t try. Drama doesn’t define creativity anymore; the eighties are gone. Creativity doesn’t have to be expensive either. Churches don’t have to buy the $5,000 lights and the smoke machine. Simple changes to existing house lights can create a new worship environment. Churches shouldn’t chase the wow factor either. If a teacher uses a live goldfish in the lesson this week, next week he’ll need a puppy. The week after that he’ll need a live sheep, then a camel. One month from now he’ll be out of options, or he’ll be racking his head so hard that he’ll forget why he was using the illustrations in the first place.

    When it comes to being creative, mix it up. Write worship lyrics in-house. Sing spiritual lyrics to secular songs. Change the order of service. Put announcements at the end of the service rather than after the third song and pastoral prayer. Deliver the announcements via video during the offering or at the beginning of the service. Change the stage set. Get rid of the fake, plastic plant that collects dust. Use different lighting. Make custom videos for sermon illustrations or download something from You Tube. Change the structure of sermons. Try a different font in the bulletin. Ditch the bulletin. Change the worship service location. Find a place where the entire church can worship on Easter Sunday rather than meeting in two different services. We serve a creative God, so don’t make church boring by getting into a stale routine. That would be like looking at nothing but circular clouds all the same size, perfectly proportioned with smooth edges all the time. Use the mind God gave you by being creative!

    5) Visible Location.
    Wal-Mart churches meet at highly visible places. They follow the three most important rules of real estate when acquiring land and buildings. Somehow they know the direction of suburban sprawl and they chose their location wisely. They make their presence an unavoidable reality in their geographical community.

    I recently passed a large grocery store that had closed. Less than two blocks away there was a Wal-Mart whose parking lot was full. The new Wal-Mart was located right on the main drag. Every car that drove by had to see that Wal-Mart. The old grocery store was hard to find, even though you only had to make one turn off the highway to find it.

    Move. That’s what your church should do if it is tucked two blocks off the highway where people can’t find it. Find a new, visible location. If you want your church to be an unavoidable reality in your community, one of the easiest things you can do is relocate. Even if you have to sell your facility and rent space somewhere else, do it. Set-up headquarters at a visible location.

    6) Efficient Facility. Wal-Mart churches have efficient facilities. Their facilities have the capacity to handle the people they aim to reach. They have plenty of seats for butts. Their aisles are wide enough to allow the flow of people. Their parking lots can accommodate lots of vehicles, or there is plenty of parking within walking distance. They build their facilities to accomplish their mission, which always has something to do with people. Since they want to minister to people, they have efficient facilities to handle people. They use durable surfaces on high-traffic areas and softer surfaces where physical comfort is important. They have simple designs that are very functional.

    One important element of an efficient facility is clear signage. When a visitor approaches a Wal-Mart church, he or she knows where to park, where to locate the main door and how to find the auditorium. If nature calls en route to worship, there is no reason to panic; clear signage points to the nearest restroom.

    Personally, I don’t like shopping at Wal-Mart because I don’t like spending fifteen minutes looking for mothballs. I know they are in there somewhere, but I don’t want to look for them. At least the signage helps me. I am smart enough to know that mothballs aren’t going to be in the sporting goods section. Eventually I may have to break down and ask a real person for help. When I do the helper is easily recognized due to the blue coat. Assuming all goes well, they can point me to the right sign in the right section so that I can find what I need.

    Is your facility efficient? Does it have the capacity to handle the flow of people you would like to reach? Forget about the number of people who currently attend. Look forward and evaluate the efficiency of your facility if your church would grow. Like those dress slacks from college days, some facilities are too small to handle any growth. They will bust at the seams, eventually leading to an embarrassing situation.

    There are also financial and environmental stewardship issues to consider when evaluating the efficiency of any facility. Old buildings are expensive to maintain. Foundations crack and cause walls to settle which damages roofs and creates water leaks that lead to mold and mold stinks. Old buildings require more energy to heat and cool. Buying more energy is expensive and consumes more non-renewable natural resources over which we should be good stewards.

    Use an efficient facility. If your current facility is inefficient, you could sell it and move, demolish it and rebuild, or update it. Before you go buying new fluorescent bulbs from a traveling salesman and tubes of caulk from the hardware store, get a professional, unbiased opinion from someone who understands facilities. Find an architectural engineer who can perform a cost-benefit analysis over a ten or twenty year period to compare your options. Even if you’ve sunk lots of cash into an old facility, you may find that building new is the better alternative in the long run. Find someone who has never visited your church and ask him or her to help you develop a signage plan. They will help you discover how finding the restroom or the nursery isn’t as easy as you think.

    7) Trustworthy Teamwork. Wal-Mart churches operate as teams. They have lots of people who work together in a trustworthy manner to accomplish a clear vision. The senior pastor casts vision and leads a team of leaders toward goal achievement. The metaphor of pastoring as a gentle, first century shepherd is replaced by the metaphor of pastoring as a CEO who leads an organization by casting vision and building a team of leaders. These leaders, or other pastors, are aligned in their understanding of the church’s mission. They work together as sports team to get the ball downfield and eventually into the end zone.

    I love watching trustworthy teamwork in action. Arrive well before the worship service and you’ll see the pastoral staff praying together, or you’ll at least see them come out of their prayer closet together. They will then worship together, singing praise to God just like everyone else. One pastor will sing songs about a certain topic, say the cross of Christ. Another will preach a sermon about it. Another will lead the closing prayer about it. They are unified in what they aim to accomplish that morning. They are together dependent upon the Spirit of God to teach people about the cross of Christ.

    Take time to develop trustworthy teamwork. That starts with you. You have to be secure in your position and honest in your dealings with others on your team. If you are insecure or paranoid, you won’t be able to trust others enough to build a team. If you are busy protecting your position of power or identity in anything other than Christ, then you will not be able to trust others. You may be the quarterback who wants to advance the ball, but your team is on the sidelines playing chess. Their lack of understanding won’t be their fault either. Develop trustworthy teamwork by opening yourself up to others on your team. Make sure you are all on the same page. Share your lives with each other. Team building is not rocket science. It starts with security and integrity – two things no leader can be without.

    8 ) Clear Mission. Wal-Mart churches have a clear mission. It isn’t low prices, but it is most likely something simple. It is much more than words. It is why they exist. It usually begins with the word “to” and it can be found everywhere: in the bulletin, on the website, on all print publications, on the pastor’s business card. Before Wal-Mart churches do anything, they evaluate it through the filter of that mission. Wal-Mart churches know what they are about and they stick to it. If Aunt Bee wants to start a church club for making dresses for Beanie Babies, Wal-Mart church leaders have the courage to tell her no because that has nothing to do with the mission of Wal-Mart church.

    Clarify your mission. Make sure it is easy enough to remember and to restate, then make sure your people hear it often. Don’t have a mission statement only for the sake of having a mission statement. Make it a part of your church’s DNA. Evaluate how you spend your time and cut those things that aren’t advancing your church’s mission. If you need help articulating a clear mission, spend time in the last chapter of Matthew and take note of Jesus’ command to his disciples.

    9) Excellent Execution. Wal-Mart churches do things with excellence. They don’t settle for poor quality in anything. They are up-to-date with their technology and they take their worship services seriously. If there are videos, they are done well. You can see the screen and you can hear the audio. If there are projection slides, the backgrounds are beautiful and the text can be read from the back of the room. The fonts are clean and easy to read. Worship services are planned. People involved know what is happening when. People who lead the singing can sing. You’d don’t feel embarrassed for them or cringe as they try to make a joyful noise.

    Expect excellent execution. If you are part of a church that does something poorly, step in and offer assistance. Unless it is the pastor’s preaching, if you approach a matter with a pure heart and seriously want to help the church move toward excellence, then God may use you in a special way. Keep in mind that people in places of service can be very territorial, so pray for God’s leading before approaching the grounds keeper with the best way to edge the sidewalks.

    10) Christ-Centered. The greatest thing about Wal-Mart churches is that they are Christ-centered. They worship Christ by singing songs about him and they preach the gospel – Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. If there is a religious organization in your area that is growing numerically but doesn’t focus on Christ, then don’t call that a church, even if the word “church” is in its name. Forget about it. Praise God for what he is doing through his church, rather than being concerned with what anyone else is doing through rock concerts and motivational speeches.

    Be Christ-centered. If you are in a position of spiritual leadership, make sure you are pointing people to Jesus Christ, not any other biblical character and certainly not yourself. Make sure people leave your worship services talking about our great God, not you. If you attend a church as laity, note if Christ is mentioned in your worship services. Do you sing worship songs about Christ? Does the pastor talk about Christ in his sermons? Can you read about Jesus Christ in the bulletin? Is Christ mentioned during committee meetings? Do you learn about Christ in your Bible studies and small groups? If the answer is no, leave that place. Find a Christ-centered church. The good news is that thanks in part to the Wal-Mart Effect, you probably don’t have to look very far.


    1 responses to “Learning from Wal-Mart Churches” RSS icon

    • Casey,

      Great article. You are right on in pointing out what many churches are doing wrong. I feel like we are doing some things well but need improvement in other areas. This article is a good start to improve in areas we are lacking. May God continue to bless your ministry.

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