Parable of the empty store

Here is a parable:

Every evening I walk by a wine and spirits store near my apartment.

Every evening it is empty.

Despite a good location on a busy avenue, attractive exterior and well-displayed inventory, the owner stands at the counter and stares at empty aisles.

Thirty years ago, a successful liquor store in Manhattan just opened the door, and thirsty people came in. Something changed. Just opening the door isn’t enough.

Whatever changed, other liquor stores in this area adapted to it and now follow the principles of “multichannel.” They sponsor wine tastings. They personalize the exterior with friendly messages. Some send out regular e-letters naming featured items and specials.

I’m no expert on selling wine, but I do understand that any enterprise, new or old, needs to gain visibility, promote a brand, build a base of regular customers, and work every possible angle to seek new customers.

It is a constant process of listening to the marketplace and learning from competitors, adapting to changing needs and testing new responses.

Risk isn’t up for debate. Change isn’t up for debate. You risk and change, or you go out of business.

Booze is a commodity. Food is a commodity. And whether we like it or not, religion is a commodity, in that many congregations offer it, brand loyalty has almost vanished, and changing “vendors,” if you will, is easy and painless.

No church wants to think of itself as a commodity, but in a nation with more than 1,500 Christian faith groups, congregations must work at standing out and connecting with people. They can’t just open their doors on Sunday morning.

What else can church leaders learn from the Parable of the Empty Store?

First, people haven’t stopped buying the product. Some churches are full. The wise owner takes a field trip and learns what is working.

Second, with few exceptions, marketing is a level playing field. Thanks to technology, the techniques and tools used by growing churches are affordable for everyone. All it takes is imagination and time.

Third, go where the people are. For churches, this means going into neighborhoods, into workplaces, into coffee shops and so-called “Third Places.” It means getting your message into e-mail inboxes.

Fourth, give today’s constituents incentives to “evangelize” new prospects. Imagine your 200 people telling their 10,000 Facebook friends about something your church is doing right.

Fifth, run “specials.” It takes some imagination for a church. But you can offer giveaways, contests, free food and prizes in exchange for e-mail addresses. The point is to break through the invisibility that plagues most churches.

Sixth, establish a positive brand. A congregational brand, maybe a personal brand, some message or image that separates you from everyone else. Don’t assume that a century of existence has given you a brand.

People need to grasp quickly who you are today and what you can do for them today.

None of this is particularly complicated. But it does require the owner to stand in an empty store, faced with empty aisles and mounting expenses, and to say, “This isn’t good enough. I need to do more.”