Kevin Wright: Amazon, Whole Foods and the future of the brick-and-mortar church

Amazon store

Bigstock/Jonathan Weiss

Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods illustrates that innovation isn’t always about starting over but about understanding where and how a community gathers, writes the minister of education at The Riverside Church.

Amazon was founded in 1994 as a better way to buy books. Now, as the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon is a leader in pioneering innovative technologies that continue to revolutionize how consumers purchase everything from laundry soap to expensive fine art.

So why did this innovative company that leverages the benefits of not maintaining a traditional retail footprint recently seek to aquire Whole Foods Market for $13.7 billion? Isn’t Amazon aware of the challenges that a brick-and-mortar existence poses to entities ranging from shopping malls to churches?

Perhaps Amazon knows something that churches don’t.

American brick-and-mortar churches have not fared so well over the past decade. A decline in attendance and membership has driven churches and denominations to pour money into pursuing “innovative” ideas aimed at reversing the trend of fewer people in the pews. But in this rush to innovate, we risk dismissing elements of our churches’ current brick-and-mortar existence that might actually be vital to our way forward. When we are tempted to wipe the board clean and start over, a company like Amazon suggests that we take another look to see whether the foundation for innovation has not already been laid.

Bruno Aziza, a big data entrepreneur, explained recently on Forbes.com the genius behind Amazon’s acquisition: “Amazon’s move is a pretty clever one if you think about the luxury it will give the online company to reinvent and reengineer the process of buying, moving and selling goods.” Amazon seems to think that the secret to winning at retail doesn’t involve erasing traditional brick-and-mortar stores but rather capitalizing on their rich trove of localized data to better understand and align with consumers’ needs and life situations.

Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods is not the company’s first foray into brick-and-mortar retail. I recently visited the newest Amazon-branded bookstore in midtown Manhattan and quickly saw how it differentiated itself from other bookstores.

Small displays mounted beneath each book allowed customers to read reviews and obtain suggestions for other titles they might like. The store’s inventory was significantly smaller than a bookstore of comparable size (by roughly 5,000 titles, I later discovered) because each book was oriented with its cover facing outward, to attract the attention of customers. Although there was a checkout line, customers were able to complete their purchases with their smartphones and verify that the price they were paying in-store was the same as that online.

Every aspect of the store seemed engineered to welcome people into a love of reading while making the experience as intuitive and inviting as possible. In short, Amazon wanted to show that the brick-and-mortar bookstore, as a centuries-old institution, wasn’t dead yet.

I have never met anyone who wants to lead a dying church, but what does it take to lead a vital, living one? My instinct tells me that cultivating a vibrant church is becoming increasingly dependent upon a leader’s ability to be innovative and adaptive when encountering forces like cultural shifts, diminishing financial resources and changes in demographics. The question, then, for those of us who desire to be church innovators, is one posited by my friend the Rev. Dr. Theresa Thames: “How we do not drown in all the tradition and not be overwhelmed by innovation?”

Amazon helps us answer this question with its assertion that the need for bookstores and grocery stores has not just suddenly disappeared. Rather, the need for bookstores and grocery stores that can adapt to consumers’ changing preferences and habits has just become more apparent.

At my church, we’re exploring what it means to be a place that is accessible and adaptable to our community’s changing needs and habits while maintaining our core identity as the body of Christ. Guiding us in this work is a series of questions:

  1. Where do people in our community gather? What types of spaces foster laughter, story sharing, contemplation and inspiration? What do those spaces look like, and why do they evoke these human responses?
  2. How do people in our community gather? When are they in large groups? When are they in smaller, more intimate clusters? Are people gathering online in a Facebook comment thread or in a Twitter feed?
  3. What do people in our community do when they gather? Are they buying things? Are they eating? What part of their gathering gives them support, encouragement or love?

My congregation has launched a number of experiments based on the data and reflections we’ve collected from wrestling with these questions.

We’ve changed the location and design of our fellowship coffee hour after studying cafes around the city and investing time in analyzing how our old space actually fostered isolation rather than personal interaction. We’ve also invested resources in developing strategies to help our digital church community interact with the programs that occur in our physical church space.

The results of these experiments are still unfolding. We’ve seen positive effects from our coffee hour revamp (doubled attendance and increased young adult presence), and we’re still exploring how podcasts and Instagram Stories can share narratives from and raise support for ministries like our food pantry and children’s summer enrichment program.

The call to innovate is not an appeal to sell every building or to scrap every organ. Rather, it is an invitation to delve deeper into exploring what has made our communities distinctively Christian throughout the ages and then imagine how those attributes might be reframed or reinterpreted for our changing world.

Amazon has wagered that brick-and-mortar bookstores and grocery stores still have a place in this world. I’m willing to wager that the same is true for brick-and-mortar churches as well.