What the Slow Death of Retail Can Tell Us About the Future Church


death of retailIt doesn’t take keen observation to notice that malls are not what they used to be.

Retail as we’ve known it is slowly dying before our eyes.

As some major news outlets (themselves in transition) have outlined, malls are closing, formerly dominant chains are in decline, and flagship stores are changing.

All of this has implications for how we accomplish our mission as a church.  While the dust hasn’t settled by any means, only leaders with their heads in the sand would ignore what’s happening in front of our eyes.

Wise church leaders change their approach to not just preserve the mission of the church, but to advance it

My recent frustration

I recently wanted to pick up a garment bag for travel purposes. I thought that rather than wait for shipping, I’d drop support my local mall, which at this point I only visit a handful of times a year.

The mall I chose is the premiere mall in our region. The mall has over half a million square feet of retail space.

You’d think I would have had a good experience and walked out with a garment bag.

Only three stores carried luggage. And among those 3 stores, there were quite literally 3 garment bags.

Think about that. Half a million square feet. 3 options, which took 60 minutes to find as I walked from one end of the mall to the other and store to store.

In two out of those three stores, the staff were nowhere to be found (I was told by one person I chased down that it was not her department).

They kicked me out of one store 5 minutes before closing. The staff was clearly more interested in getting home than making a sale.

Guess what I did?

Ordered one from Amazon instead—after really wanting to support local retail.

And people wonder why retail is dying.

The point is not to vent my frustration, but to think through the implications for the church of the massive cultural shift from physical retail to online retail that our culture is experiencing.

Please know I’m not saying we should just adopt a complete consumer mindset. I am saying that the very people we’re trying to reach have a shifting mindset, and to ignore it is simply unwise.

Here are 5 things the church can learn from the slow death of retail as we know it.

1. Inconvenience has to be overcome by reward

The inconvenience of retail has to be overcome by the reward of the experience.

Think about it, to attend anything physically you need to:

Budget anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours of time

Drive there

Ensure you have enough fuel to get there and back (how many times do you end up filling up your car?)

Find a parking space

Initiate your own personal search for the object you want

Manually sort out pricing, brands and options

Track down salespeople to help you

Pay for your purchase

Haul it home

When I got home, I literally did 10 minutes of searching on Amazon without leaving my couch and bought my bag. It’s being delivered to my door.

Bottom line

If retail is going to survive, inconvenience has to be overcome by reward.

Implication for church leaders

The reward of attending your church has to overcome the inconvenience of attending it.

If you make people battle traffic and busy schedules to attend a sub-par, impersonal experience at your church, people won’t bother.

2. Online options are real options

I realize until current generations die off, people will say things like

I will never give my credit card to anyone online

I prefer the retail experience

Nothing online is real anyway

But those views are increasingly a minority. Among Millennials, online shopping is widely accepted, normal and growing annually. I’m not even close to being a Millennial, and I buy most of what I purchase online.

Bottom line

If you have a frustrating, uncertain and expensive option for getting what you want (retail), why would you choose it over something that’s simple, convenient and actually less expensive (online)?

Implication for church leaders

Today, people have a sea of online options for sermons. Anyone who attends your local church can listen to Steven Furtick, Perry Noble, Craig Groeschel, Louie Giglio, Joyce Meyers, Joel Oosten or Andy Stanley any time they want for free.  And many do.

Not only can they listen to other pastors preach, but they can be ‘involved’ in their congregation through church online.

You can argue all day long about whether this is good or bad. Here’s the reality: it’s happening.

I outlined the pros and cons of online church in this post, but the reality is this: online is here to stay. The internet is not going away any time soon.

When someone offers a better option than you provide, people will choose it.

3. Your people are your search engine

Everyone who shops at a mall is looking for something.

The difference between physical retail and online shopping is that in a mall, your people are your search engine—not some algorithm.

The challenge for retail is that their sales force is a dwindling number of people who are paid minimum wage to do a job most don’t care about.

When you show up at the mall (or even car dealership) to buy something, it’s not unusual to meet salespeople who

know less about the product than you do AND

care less about the product than you do.

This is a major problem.

Online options become better options because an algorithm actually produces better answers than “I don’t know” or “we sell a lot of those” or “if we have any they’re over there somewhere.”

A caring associate who is genuinely interested in helping a customer achieve his or her goals will almost always beat an algorithm.

Bottom line

A passionless workforce will always lose out to a well designed online retail experience.

When your sales force stops caring, your customers will always find an alternate source.

Implication for church leaders

Every person who walks for your door is looking for something (ultimately, Jesus). Your people are your search engine.

If all you do in your church is replicate the deadened customer service experience most retail places provide, you will kill someone’s search for meaning and faith.

Get your most engaged, thoughtful and intuitive people on guest services.

Find people who can help people take their first step or their next step. Recruit people who realize what’s at stake when anyone walks in the door and who can custom tailor an experience that helps them find what they’re looking for in a style and at a pace that suits them.

This isn’t easy…but it’s so important.

If retail is going to survive, it has to get rid of its I-don’t-care workforce.

If the church is going to thrive, we’re going to put some of best people on the door and in the halls.

A first impression is the last impression some people will ever get.

4. The importance of user reviews

One of the things that really jumps out at me in physical sales experiences is the absence of user reviews.

In the online world, you have full access to user reviews from people who actually bought the product.

When I wrote Lasting Impact, I was careful to craft the message around it. I even got well-known people I knew to endorse it.

But the real test, of course, is the user reviews Amazon encourages. As an author, have zero control over those reviews. If you really want to know what a book, or product is like, read the reviews.

In a physical retail space, all you have is what the product says about itself and what the sale person says about it, both of which are inherently biased—unless, of course, you get an exceptional sales person (and exceptions means they tell you the truth, even if it might cost them the sale).

Bottom line

In the emerging culture, people trust what others say about you more than they trust what you say about you.

Implication for church leaders

Facebook provides a tremendous opportunity for church people to post user reviews of their experience at your church.

You can stand up on a Sunday and encourage people to do it.

The other option you have is with your guest services team. Encourage them to speak personally to guests about their experience at your church.

Obviously, there’s a bias, but every guest realizes that unlike the pastor and church staff, your volunteers are not getting a paycheck.

As a result, people will tend to trust their opinion even a little more than the staff’s opinion.

So let your people talk openly and honestly about their experience. If you’re worried because it’s a bad experience, then get to work as a leader and change the experience for everyone.

5. The middle is disappearing

If you look at many malls today, the middle is disappearing.

One of the stores where I used to buy my shirts is now a calendar store.

And that’s on trend. Stores are either becoming more high end or more low end.

The low end will be driven by price.

The high-end stores will be driven by experience, excellent service and unique products.

Bottom line

As the middle disappears, opportunities open on either end of the spectrum.

Implication for church leaders

The implications for church leaders are a little more difficult to see in this instance, but they’re there.

No, we’re not selling a product. And no, we don’t cater to the rich.

The stores that are driven by price make something accessible to people who can’t otherwise afford something.

Our message is free, and our experience should always be open to everyone.

But there’s no reason in the world we can’t take the best of a high-end experience (relationship, personal attention, perks) and make them available to everyone.

Our guest services team at Connexus Church brings umbrellas into the parking lot and escorts people from their cars on rainy days.

On snowy days, sometimes they’ll clean people’s windshields of snow before church lets out.

Those are touches you’d be surprised to see at high-end retail, but we offer them to everyone.

We also have special parking for first-time guests and single moms.  And our guest services team is trained to escort people to their environments rather than point.

We offer a concierge-type service called the “Next Steps Kiosk” where we help people figure out what their personal next step might be: baptism, getting into a small group, taking Starting Point, serving or whatever it is. That team is trained to listen, and try to come up with a solution that best fits where that person is at.

The point?

It’s personal.

It’s caring.

It’s relational.

Great conversations get struck when you offer this kind of personal attention to people. And, we think, it reflects the way God relates to his people.

When you treat people personally, they’ll be more likely to engage relationally.

Get Ahead of the Curve

I’ve developed several online, on-demand courses that can help you navigate the complexities of culture and leadership.

The Church Growth Masterclass is everything I wish I knew about church growth when I got into ministry more than 20 years ago. I can’t make a church grow. You can’t make a church grow. Only God can do that. But I believe you can position your church to grow.

The Art of Better Preaching walks you through 12 ways to anchor and improve your preaching content, writing and even delivery.

The High Impact Leader will help you beat overwhelm and get time, energy and priorities working in your favour.

Every course is on-demand and gives you instant, lifetime access. Do them on your own time on any connected device.

What Do You See?

Those are some learnings for church leaders I see as we watch retail slowly die.

If you want more, I wrote a free 5 part series about the future church you can access beginning with this post10 Reasons Even Committed Church Attenders Are Attending Less Often.

In the meantime, what are you seeing? Scroll down and leave a comment!

What the Slow Death of Retail Can Tell Us About the Future Church


  1. Scott McBride on January 16, 2019 at 11:39 pm

    Carey, I believe you meant Joel Osteen, not “Oosten”.

  2. Chet Bergeron on January 16, 2019 at 10:42 am

    Awesome content! I really like to follow your podcasts and read your blogs. I find them encouraging and thought-provoking. Keep up the work brother!

  3. Dotty Manney on January 16, 2019 at 8:30 am

    Good Morning, Carey! This blog made my day. We are involved in a small church plant just outside Philadelphia, PA. It is a congested area that is highly Catholic and Jewish. People fight traffic all week … and don’t want the hassle of finding a parking place for church. I couldn’t agree more with your article. It confirms what my husband and I have been witnessing in our culture. I am a church secretary of a large 1,000+ church and my husband is a service writer in a small vehicle transmission shop, however, we drive almost an hour every Sunday to help this church plant. Thanks so much for your helpful insights and godly wisdom! I am 65 and my husband is 68. We know that the life of the church will be in the hands of Millennials and Gen Z’ers before we know it. If we don’t change our church culture now, we are not going to be relevant in our society or have the ability to reach our Jerusalem! That doesn’t mean we sacrifice doctrine … but rather meet the culture where its at just like Paul at Mars Hill!!! Thank you, thank you, thank you! God bless you, Carey!

  4. Tony on August 24, 2018 at 2:43 pm

    Thanks for this insight but, I believe that ministerial relevance is more of following the Holy Spirit leading than any intellectual strategy. And I also believe that it is not about physical comfort and satisfaction but being spiritually fulfilled. For me, it’s about the crown and not the crowd.

    • bill8 on January 16, 2019 at 12:23 pm

      Hi Tony,
      Good comment. Jesus didn’t seem to bifurcate the crowd from the crown, so maybe we shouldn’t either. Literally thousands followed him from town to town. The bigger point I see Carey making here is this: How would you treat Jesus if you knew he was coming this Sunday morning? Would you do things differently than you do now? I hope so!
      The truth is, he is. He will show up this Sunday. He is coming, and our lack of attention to serving others (Matt 25.40) the way he served us may belie a deeper spiritual issue in our own lives/leadership/church.
      Lead well brother.

  5. Joel on August 20, 2018 at 10:22 am


    Good post. Lots to think about. I’m curious as to your thoughts on this issue, that arises based upon the notion that the middle is disappearing and that retailers are either focusing on – and by extension marketing to – higher end clients looking for the experience, or other clients looking for low prices.

    I think that God has offered grace and salvation to all who would accept it. So, I don’t think there is room to exclude people from the church based on demographics. So the question is this: do you think that it is appropriate, or even wise, for a church to be focused in marketing for a certain demographic? For example, if a congregation wants to be known as “the place” for families with young children, offering programing for those kids to learn about God and explore a relationship with him, along with activities for young adults to either deepen their relationship with God or to re-discover a lost relationship – or start from scratch – would that be OK and/or wise to be communicating that message through marketing efforts, online presence, invitations, etc.?

    Seems to me that in the business world (where I am), we know who our target clients are, and develop marketing messages to reach them. We don’t necessarily exclude others, but focus on what we call the avatar client. I don’t really see that much in the church space and am curious about your thoughts.


  6. Christy Burton on August 20, 2018 at 2:50 am

    Thanks for this thoughtful blog. We’re trying to turn around a community center and start up a church in it, and your points are very helpful in terms of getting off on the right foot.

  7. Ogidan obafem on August 20, 2018 at 2:19 am

    Thanks for write up the church today need to wake up church members want nothing but the best or else they move to where they can get it a church that is not ready for growth can not sustain such growth when it come l believe the entire church need to be periodically overhaul at regular intervals than before now thanks for calling our attention this observation

  8. Jon Emmitt on August 19, 2018 at 5:01 pm

    Hey Carey, I realise that using Amazon instead of the mall is an illustration, however it’s not a neutral decision. As far as I can tell Amazon is a terrible company. They’re very good at avoiding taxes and enriching Jeff Bezos while not looking after their employees. It may be more convenient, but what’s the social cost? If we are called to be good stewards of our resources, does this include careful consideration of the companies we support? (And yeah, there’s lot’s of other terrible companies) Are we acting justly and loving mercy when we spend our money with companies who exploit workers and systems in the pursuit of profit?
    This is just a side note as I agree with your conclusions about implications for the church. Cheers

  9. Deb Toth on August 19, 2018 at 1:51 pm

    I get fired up about the first line in the story here. The reason the mall had less options… only 3 garment bags? The guy admits….”I didnt want to wait for shipping”, the “potential mall customer” wants the mall to serve him on his 5 visits a year, not really because he wants to “support” his local mall, he just wants what he wants when he wants it, and the shop owners are expected pay up front and stock for people who are not one tiny bit loyal and are delivered a black eye for it?
    Implication for the church? If you have had to narrow your focus (less options) dont receive the potential black eye for it, deliver grace everytime with excellent communication helping those who would like the “garment bag with all the bells and whistles to understand the mission and vison of your church, and the reason you are offering what you do. This makes me think…if its options and packaging thats being stripped away, good news!
    …a bit of a rant, sorry!

  10. K6pence on December 26, 2015 at 10:59 pm

    A topic very near to my heart. Spent countless hours discussing this with friends and colleagues. I cannot see how the model of people gathering for 70 minutes on a Sunday morning to mindlessly sing a few choruses and hymns, then listen to an old white guy flap his gums about Ephesians 2 with a thesaurus in one hand, has any future.
    Regarding your first point, I have to wonder what that “reward” is that overcomes the inconvenience. I feel that in order for the church to really engage with its community, we have to look for, and act on, more opportunities to serve, and become the hands of Jesus in our world. When our communities see that they are served by the church, and can find a place to serve others, that will open up a whole new world of evangelism. Sitting behind our closed doors waiting for the world to come to us is simply not working.
    People want a sense of belonging and importance, and that becomes the “reward.”

  11. […] that contribute to the overall theme of this blog on BEING THE BEST CHURCH FOR YOUR COMMUNITY.  Cary Nieuwhof is one such blogger whose insights help me greatly in work with Bridgebuilders Ministries.  Since […]

  12. Lawrence W. Wilson on December 22, 2015 at 9:30 am

    Carey, these are all on point, but it’s #5 that’s been gnawing at me for some time. Having pastored “middle” churches for nearly 20 years, I can tell you for sure the middle is a tough gig. Clearly, the “high end” is growing. But, to use your retail analogy, whose serving the “discount” clients in the church world? I see lots of churches being created for the people who shop at Nortstrom. Whose creating congregations for the people who shop at the Dollar Store? Regardless of generation, that seems to be the fastest growing demographic in our culture–the working poor.

  13. Jason Fitch on December 22, 2015 at 6:04 am

    Thanks again Carey! Your blogs are consistently great reads, but this one is like you jumped into my head and ironed out several issues I (and our team) are wrestling with now. Thank you!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 22, 2015 at 6:06 am

      Thanks Jason. Been thinking about it for a while and I think something fundamental is shifting. Fascinating times we live in.

  14. wdavidrice on December 21, 2015 at 3:33 pm

    Sometimes when you write about things Carey, I feel like my mind is exploding mid-blog post. All of this makes perfect sense to me and actually affirms what I’m telling the good folks in my aging, traditional church (although, you say it MUCH more clearly). The challenge for me is how to care well for those folks who feel threatened by these sorts of changes, rather than energized by them. As a young leader, I’m up for the challenge. But many of my “church veterans” don’t want to entertain the trends you name, simply because it costs them too much to admit that things are not working with our current system. How does a Lead Pastor love people well who don’t want to admit that things are changing culturally, and therefore, our church expression needs to change, or die?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 22, 2015 at 5:49 am

      Hey David,

      Thanks for asking. Not trying to plug my book Lasting Impact, but there’s a whole chapter in it on exactly your question designed to be read with those veterans to help them see the light.

      The short approach? Bring them back to the vision again and again and help them see how their current approach is outdated and not working.

      Best wishes with it!

  15. Marc Ulrich on December 21, 2015 at 10:20 am

    great insights….wonder what we could learn from the cable companies as well.
    Netflix and Hulu have allowed and binge watching. Do you think people are binge watching sermon series online and considering that “going to church”?

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