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Trader Joe’s Presbyterian

People have a lot to say about their favorite grocery stores. And why not? It’s the place that everyone goes once a week (or far more than that) to find food for their family. My favorite is Trader Joe’s, a quirky, small-by-design chain of grocery stores that is clearly not trying to be any of its competitors. And I have thought to myself on numerous occasions, “Church could learn a lot from Trader Joe’s. And if there were a Trader Joe’s Presbyterian, I think I would go there.”

Good at small. Trader Joe’s is fine with being small. That gives them in-roads into many locations were big stores couldn’t fit. They don’t sell everything, so if you are out of Diet Coke or jumbo packs of paper towels, you are out of luck there. But what you do find is very good. And there, you will never have to go to aisle 14 or choose from sixteen different types of peanut butter, because they don’t have them. They can do small and inexpensive because they stock their own brands. And they share enough samples (sometimes a visit to Trader Joe’s can even count as having dinner) that you try new things and find delight by tasting for goodness rather than by relying on name recognition or price as the primary drivers of a purchase. They don’t have PA systems, but use bells to communicate.

There are places where Presbyterian Churches can fit where megachurches do not. Small churches can be weak and vacant, or they can be a source of meaningful connection and community that is the primary hunger of our generation. I think the Presbyterian brand of theology is hard to find elsewhere. We are trying to be a church where there is substance, context, spiritual food that can feed someone for a lifetime, neither “intelligence on ice nor ignorance on fire.” There is nuance and scholarship. There are people leaving, but there are people coming as well. And we sure love our bells.

Innovative. Trader Joe’s is always switching things up. They are seasonal. You won’t find Pumpkin Spice Scones in March. Some items that I loved in the past are gone and are not coming back. And if a customer tries to demand that it be brought back, the staff person in a whimsical Hawaiian shirts says, “Yes, I loved that too! But I have learned to enjoy what it is when it’s here and know that the next thing will be just as good.”

We would do better as a church if we leaned into our seasonality. Weddings, funerals, baptisms, Christmas, Easter. Those are our wide-open doors when the world comes in. We should be ready and have samples to offer the curious and hungry gathered ones. I have found that sometimes those tiring seasons require extra intentionality: Do we have toilet paper in the bathrooms? Do we remember to say ‘Welcome’ in the flurry of announcements? Also, for resurrection to happen, something has to pass away. When the energy for a program has dwindled and folks are only involved out of a sense of duty, it is time to let it pass away and see what new life comes as a result.

Fearless Flyer. Trader Joe’s doesn’t do coupons or sales. They have boundless energy for their own newsletter called the “Fearless Flyer.” What I would ordinarily pass over because, “It’s their newsletter?” I stop for a moment and examine because they are so excited about it. “It’s here!” they say. It’s also short and to the point. “Here is why you’ll like cherry juice!”

I would love for church newsletters to read with the same whimsy and fearless fun of the Flyer. I, however, am often guilty of writing up the things that need energy rather than feed the energy of the congregation. It’s good to invite volunteers to participate, but we should also tell about what we just accomplished together and let that excitement fuel the next thing. That’s our good news to share. And some of the joys of church are niche, like cherry juice, and require some reintroduction. Imagine: “Here’s why we eat so many pancakes!” (Cue Lent history blurb.) “Why are we waving these sticks?” (Cue Palm Sunday niche tradition that many visitors find odd.) Plus, I love thinking that the word “fearless” might be attached to any of our communications.

Rock the robe. So, the Hawaiian shirts at Trader Joe’s speak of their history of sourcing foods from all over the globe, especially the tropics. They were also the sartorial preference of the original Trader Joe. They communicate vacation and relaxation.

If pastors in your church wear albs, stoles, Hawaiian shirts, hipster plaid, or Genevan gowns, why? Why does the choir wear their white triangle stoles? I know that my unflattering black gown conveys higher education and the function I am serving in the church service, but many people don’t know that. They might think I have a dark and bleak sense of fashion, or a desire to hide pajamas with a hoity toity pastor uniform. What should people wear at church? Dress codes for most every area of life have changed dramatically over the years. If soccer outfits or jeans are just as acceptable as suits and ties, we should say that and why. If “Sunday best” means suits and dresses, we might give visitors a heads up and a rationale so that we are not being exclusive unintentionally.

Not about shopping. I write this not to suggest more consumerism, church-shopping or copying the culture around us. But I am suggesting that we become fearless in our faithfulness, and like Jesus, we should employ the images of our everyday lives in teaching. He talked about fishing to fishermen, farming to gardeners, stonework to builders. He was at the well. And, if he were ministering today, I bet he’d have shown up at Trader Joe’s.

But more than anything, we have to know the bread of life, the cup of salvation, that graceful table that welcomes people from North and South and East and West. It is what my hungry soul longs for more, far more, than pumpkin scones.


Becca MessmanBecca Messman is the associate pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Herndon, Virginia.  She leads “Lunch for the Soul” – a ministry with Hispanic day laborers.  Her other passions are preaching and offering pastoral prayers, leading retreats, energizing church leaders to serve the community around them, youth and young adult ministry, and cultivating the “fear and trembling” holy journey of parenting.  She lives in Arlington, Virginia with her husband Dave, her two young children, and her dog Luna.