On a recent trip, we visited the Mast General Store in Valle Crucis, North Carolina. It is a very busy, three-storefront general store. The first section is where the food, post office, cash registers, candy, and pot bellied stove are. A cooler has bottles (not cans) of soda. The middle section is all of the glassware, garden supplies, pet supplies, toys, clothing, and knickknacks. The third section is has the shoes. the store is crowded with people, even on a Tuesday. In the parking lot are plates from at least Tennessee, Florida, Illinois and NC. On the back porch, rocking chairs and men wait.
However, this store isn’t actually living in the past. The prices are what we would pay at home, at least. The store has a website. One of the cash registers was not working because of a computer problem and you can’t pay without it. There are far more choices on even these limited shelves than there would have been 80 years ago, or even 40 years ago.
What is the attraction? Why do people pay a premium for the experience of shopping in an old-fashioned store? After all, what exactly is the conceptual difference between Mast and Walmart?
Is it because people are looking for a taste of what they think must have been a better way to do things, a more comfortable past? Is it to honor our grandparents, perhaps, who clearly had a better life?
Ironically, of course, this store doesn’t represent anything of what my grandparents knew. The general stores in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin where both sides of my family lived never had these choices. And they never had these tourists. And they didn’t have shoppers with the deep pockets of today.
Am I bashing Mast? Far from it. I think they are doing a great job of creating an experience and making a living from it.
However, it makes me wonder about church.
Lots of people come to church looking for a nostalgic experience. They look for music they find comfortable. They look at the pews and the stained glass and think, “This is what church is supposed to look like” and then book their weddings here rather than at a church where the sanctuary doubles as a gymnasium. They pay their money or their time for an experience that takes them back to what they think was a better time and leave knowing that grandma would be happy with them (and maybe God, looking a lot like grandpa, will be happy too).
They forget that grandma thought her life was too busy, that she didn’t really like all of the other people in the church, that she thought some of the songs were just too newfangled, and that for a potluck you actually had to make something, you couldn’t stop at the store or KFC.
On the other hand, lots of people stay away from church because the experience has been too nostalgic, too irrelevant, too old, or too much of a structured experience. Maybe they resent the manipulation of an experience. Maybe they find what has been said to be too unwieldy for modern life. Maybe….well….maybe I’ll never know exactly why because they stay away and never say why.
I walked out of the store thinking that I don’t want church to be understood as an old-fashioned facade on a modern machine. I don’t want people to come to church looking for a taste of how things were 50 years ago. In truth, I don’t like the idea of coming to church being coming to a place.
What would be cool would be to understand the church not as the store or even as the clerks selling something. What would be cool would be understanding the church as the people you are talking with around the potbellied store or the table at Starbucks or the hospital waiting room or the soccer sidelines. What would be cool is acknowledging that some answers aren’t simple and faith isn’t obvious (or it wouldn’t be called faith).
Because the church isn’t the building or the experience or the event. It’s the people.
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