After multiple church-growth classes and two shelves of church-renewal books I’ve decided churches need to take some lessons from the local grocery store. Whether we like it or not the mainstream church is not the popular place to be anymore. The question is what are we going to do about it? Perhaps simple lessons from the grocery store can apply.

Grocery stores are community minded. Grocery stores pay attention to the surrounding community and their customers. Good grocery stores understand and practice good hospitality. If the surrounding neighborhood changes, the grocery store makes changes.

For example, if the Hispanic population increases, the Mexican-food aisle expands. As the Asian culture grows, so does the Asian-food section. And just when shoppers know the store really well, they move the bread aisle to help us see what we are missing.

Grocery stores embrace change and help customers make the transitions.

Along with good awareness, grocery stores recognize the shopper’s needs. Before you enter the building they begin communicating with their customers.

They provide sale flyers in the mail to keep their customers informed and interested. When you pull into the parking lot you immediately see advertisements in the windows. If a person has a physical challenge, ramps and special parking are available for easy access. The entrance and exit doors are well marked. Each aisle has a sign showing which products are shelved there.

Grocery stores have paid such close attention to our needs that shopping carts can now be pushed to an outside stall rather than taking them back in the store. They are intentionally paying attention to the community they serve.

Do we as the church also pay attention to how culture has shifted our congregation and community lives? Have we taken good inventory of how our building looks? Is there adequate signage helping guests find their way in the building? Are there energetic happy people waiting at each door to greet folks as they arrive? Do guests or staff park by the front door? Is there awareness of who lives in the surrounding community? Is there a healthy system for change in place?

If your church is in the beginning stages of such awareness, this is what I suggest first. Put together a team of people that includes long-standing members, a couple of newer ones and a person or two who visits on a fairly regular basis.

This team will survey your church for “guest readiness.” Include questions related to church directional signs, church communication with the community and parking for guests. Ask if the church has outreach events and if members are encouraged to invite guests.

Second, the team should attend church as guests. Team members should note if they were greeted upon arrival. Record if greeters are available before worship or Bible study to host a guest. Divide team members and have them find restrooms, the sanctuary and childcare using only the directional signs inside the building.

Pay attention to the main entrance. Does it say, “Welcome!” or “I’m old and no one cares?” Can the physically challenged get in and around the building?

After the experience compare notes with your team. Communicate your findings with your congregation. Then take the action steps necessary to implement the changes.

Most changes need to start from the inside. This is true for the church. Church survival will require asking the hard questions, paying attention and making some tough changes.

Here is the great thing that happens when the grocery store gets it right: shoppers return, and they tell their friends to shop there, too.

Kathy Pickett, a 2003 graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, is associate pastor for youth and missions at Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo.

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