Where Has All the Shopping Gone?

By Joe Boyd

Traditional retail is struggling. What might this mean to local churches in the United States? 

A giant of the American economy is slowly dying. You may not notice it yet because giants die at such a sluggish pace.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Traditional American department stores are struggling. Over the last year Macy’s has closed nearly 100 stores and laid off 10,000 employees. Sears is also closing more than 100 stores after a 2016 holiday shopping season that dropped more than 12 percent from 2015. Kohl’s closed 18 stores and laid off more than 1,500 people in 2016.

This isn’t Forbes or the The Wall Street Journal, so I won’t continue to throw numbers at you, but the picture isn’t any prettier for J.C. Penney or Dillard’s.

Economists seem to agree that the bulk of the problem these large companies are facing is directly related to major cultural shifts over the last decade. It seems right to conclude that the church could have quite a bit to learn from this new economic reality. Let’s look more closely at why these big department store chains are suffering.

The Rise of Online Shopping

According to Giselle Abramovich of CMO.com, more than two-thirds of Americans who are 50 and older now shop online. This isn’t just a generational thing. The way we buy stuff is dramatically shifting. Walmart, the goliath of “big box” stores, now says that more than 25 percent of its revenue comes through online sales.

Here’s the simple, difficult truth that the retail sector is facing in 2017: The days when Americans would go into a local department store to buy what they need are fading into history.

What does this have to do with the church? A lot. We cannot afford to be Montgomery Ward, which shuttered its stores in 2001. We cannot assume that people will continue to be in the habit of waking up every Sunday morning and driving to a building to be the church. Church is happening online all the time. People are sharing, praying, learning, and loving across this tool called the World Wide Web. We must embrace it.

I think this goes way beyond posting our church services online and having a Twitter feed. To survive in the future, we need to go well beyond just showing the church service or advertising the church online, we must be the church online—as well as offline.

The Rise of Small and Local Shopping

Ready for the ironic juxtaposition? Another threat to big department stores is the rising popularity of smaller, niche stores that cater to specific consumer interests. People are generally less interested in going to one place that has everything, but they are more interested in going someplace that does one or two things really well. If people are going to go shopping offline in the “real world,” they want to go somewhere unique and interesting.

For a few decades now the general strategy in our churches has been to try to appeal to as many people as possible through various ministries, musical styles, etc. One could make a convincing argument that in the emerging culture we need more churches willing to think small and local.

My prediction is that over the next 20 years we will see a greater desire for neighborhood churches, especially in more urban areas. This doesn’t mean there won’t be a place for regional megachurches. I think there always will be. It just means that as we continue to follow Paul’s example in becoming all things to all people, we may find ourselves at times thinking smaller and not bigger.

The Rise of Urbanization and Suburban Flight

A third reason for this economic shift is related to where the traditional customers of stores, such as Dillard’s or Sears, are now choosing to live. The suburbs are still alive in America, but more and more young adults and empty nesters are opting for an urban lifestyle. This all but removes the traditional shopping mall and its anchor stores from a top-of-mind activity.

The world is moving to cities. This has been clear for more than a century now. This reality should prompt the church and her leaders to seriously consider how they will address the growing urban populations in their nearest city. I believe the future of church planting is urban. The larger and more influential suburban churches must be willing to look to their downtown as a mission field. Thankfully, this is already happening in many of our churches.

One thing we know for sure. Culture always shifts. The gospel does not.

Joe Boyd is founder and president of Rebel Pilgrim Productions, Cincinnati, Ohio.

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