“Trading Up”

From the Washington Post article, "Five Guys, Taking a Bigger Bite":

"You could get a cup of coffee your whole life from home or from 7-11, but now you're not happy unless you go to Starbucks," said Dan Rowe, chief executive of Fransmart, a Virginia consulting firm that helped launch the Five Guys franchises. "You could get a sandwich at a million places, including Subway, but people go to Panera Bread instead."

Rowe is hinting at a phenomenon called "trading up," which is typically thought to include purchases of high-priced goods. But there is trading up at the other end of the price chain, including fast food. "The tide raises all boats," he said. "If you have an environment where people are trading up, it affects everything from cars to clothes and even to food. Think about what a simple indulgence it is to trade going from McDonald's to Five Guys."

As I read this article the other day in the Washington Post, I couldn't help but wonder if the same mindset that applies to coffee and hamburgers doesn't have it's effects on the mindset of people searching for a new church home. In fact, I don't see how it couldn't.

First, in the interest of full disclosure, I am not writing from a perspective of "those people out there". I fully confess that I am a "trade upper" (when possible, that is). I like Starbucks (I'm in one now, as a matter of fact) over Folger's. I like Red Robin (can't afford it often, but I still prefer it…try the bacon guacamole one, you won't be sorry) better than Wendy's (which is a trade up itself from McDonald's & Burger King). I switched from Windows to Mac OSX (Bill, don't even start, you know in your heart of hearts it's a trade UP). Get the picture?

Now, back to churches. I see in the "church world" the same trend that is happening at Five Guy's and Starbucks. People want something better. Is that wrong? Well, no, not in and of itself. Shouldn't we want better? I guess the question comes down to what we look for that determines what "better" really is. And that's where I will, for a moment, put the magnifying glass to those of us involved in church leadership.

We know people are searching. We know that Christians desire something better. How do you intend to help them "trade up"? It is so easy, isn't it, to run to the bookstore and buy the latest flash-bang book full of answers on how to "grow a church lickety split"? Yet, for all the books you've read, for all the seminars you've attended, for all trendiness you've tried to cram into you're current church's model…what's it gotten you? You've tried, essentially, to "trade up" from within. Maybe you've bought better lighting, or installed Powerpoint, or juiced up the music…whatever. Maybe you've started 15 new programs designed to draw in new members or families, or to extol the value of your childrens programs….great. What are you really giving them in terms of "better"? Maybe you're even larger than before, numbers swelling quickly. But what have you given them that's better?

If I had come into the Starbucks this morning and instead of the really good blend (I gotta go back to the board and remember what this is, it's good) they'd given me the same old ground sawdust you get at the store, would I have considered that a real trade up? I mean, they've got great seats, nice lighting, the place smells like coffee heaven. But if they'd given me sawdust, it would have been lipstick on a pig.

Are the things you're doing to try to grow and get people to come to your congregation lipstick on a pig?

Ok, leaders…settle on that a bit and then we'll get back to the more general desire to trade up.

So I'm looking at my own satisfaction, or the lack thereof depending your case, and I'm thinking that church should be more….what? I hear that Church X has wonderful music, great teaching and expansive classes for every possible genre. They've got a coffee shop, a bookstore, marble tile in the bathrooms (been there, it's not a joke), and trams from the parking lot to the door. Is that "better"? I hear that Church Y is exploring a deep simplicity, stripping away all the "traditions of man" and all the pretense and all the lights, cameras, and action. Is that "better"? Yet another is embracing the use of the arts and drama, etc. Is that "better"?

I'd thought about writing about the answer to that, but I've changed my mind as I've let this subject live with me a week or so. I'm not going to answer it.

Instead, I don't really think the answer will be found by examining the churches' approaches to our desire to "trade up". That's something they have to examine for themselves. No, what we need to dive into is this: What do we really seek?

I love the ambience of Starbucks. It's not because it's trendy, I'm hardly a "trendy" sort of guy. I never have been. Rather, it's the content of the cup that draws me, and the community. I sometimes come just for the possibility of community. The ambience is, to me anyway, a very nice bonus. If all I sought was the ambience or decor, I could hang out at Pier One.

You caught that, right? It's the content of the cup and community. Content. Community.

Those two things are the real secrets to "trading up" in the realm of Christianity. It's not lights, it's not candles or Powerpoint, or a building at all. Those things can actually be good tools, or good distractions. It's the content of our message–the love of God, the hope of Christ, the joy of the Holy Spirit, and the community of the Kingdom. Sometimes, we mistake the other things (good music, nice buildings, etc.) for being that for which we seek. That's why finding those things can bring enjoyment in the immediate, but emptiness in the long term. We mistook the ambience for the content, and our community was locked into a place, not a relationship that supersedes time and place.

We need to examine how we're feeding our appetite to "trade up". In truth, searching for/becoming a church that has "ambience" isn't going to nourish us. We should be searching for/becoming a church that serves a cup full of greater content–the full message of the Living Word in all its glory; and providing a real community–one based on our participation in the still unravelling story of God and man. Our community is not based on the building in which we meet on Sundays, or the age group of our Sunday School class or any of that "least common denominator" stuff. It is based on the fact we are all sharing a journey from death to life. Our story is not the stuff you read in trendy church brochures or on their websites. It's story of our hunger to "trade up" from drowning in the waves of our own sins, mistakes, and challenges to a life of hope, peace, and nourishment in Christ Jesus.

When we get that, the ambience will come. You know why Starbucks smells so nice? It's not because they use Yankee Candles or Glade or some other form of olfactory chemical warfare. No, it's because they make really good coffee. You looking to "trade up" churches? Look for the things that will last. Ignore the music. Ignore the lighting. Seek the best cup of faith. Seek a community of Christ-centered fellowship. Looking to be a trade up church? Put down the books, fads, and dvds. Teach the message of hope in Christ. Live the Kingdom life. Good lighting can really only do so much.

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8 Responses to “Trading Up”

  1. MommyHAM says:

    Wow…happened upon your blog just by chance…clicked on one of the “recently updated” links. I really enjoyed this post. I too go to a church of Christ, in Colorado though.

    I gotta ask though…do you get a lot of comments about your last name? I saw it at the top and then when your post started waxing Christian, I thought perhaps you were one of those porn-church people that are around. Started to get riled but saw that it’s legit per your church’s website. Did kids ridicule you growing up? Yikes!

  2. James says:

    Ha! There’s a comment on the post I didn’t expect. No, not as much teasing as one might expect. Of course, I was too good for my age at sarcasm in jr. high, so no one every made such a remark twice.

    It probably didn’t hurt that the disciplinary principle at the school had the same name, and didn’t take making fun of it lightly (he was of no relation, but I didn’t bother to clear that up for people; it worked to my advantage).

    It also wasn’t as unusual in West Texas where there’s a county by that name and it’s a more common surname.

    I take comfort knowing I’ve met plenty of good people who must have had it even worse with theirs.

  3. James, I cannot agree with you anymore! Amen!!!

    It was so painful for me a few months ago. I was teaching my sister the gospel and trying to get her to meet with the church. I contacted them for her, got the address, phone number, everything. In the end, she didn’t like it. Why? Because there was no music (I tried explaining that there is music, just no instruments), no screens, and not exciting enough. I can be more critical but it hurts too much because it’s too close to home.

    It’s so wonderful that the New Testiment church, problems and all, were not focused on innovations. They were about the message of Christ, proclaiming His teaching, and testifying to the cross and the empty tomb.

    To be honest, in my humble opinion, when we church shop for the most innovative church around, filled with basketball courts, free coffee, lights, screens, instruments, the most modern music, something is wrong with our search.

  4. Bill says:

    I see that you “put the magnifying glass to those of us involved in church leadership.

    I wouldn’t be so exclusive. I agree with your commment that implies that “Trading Up” in our churches is “It’s the content of our message–the love of God, the hope of Christ, the joy of the Holy Spirit, and the community of the Kingdom.”
    -I think all Christians need to demonstrate these qualities, to be a shining light.
    -When we see people at worship or studies we need to LISTEN to them.

    My daughter just came downstairs to show me what she had picked out to wear this Sunday for Easter. She is still young enough that she doesn’t know that I have no taste outside my mouth. But I listened, I interacted because she is my daughter, a true gift to me from God, I love her.

    Shouldn’t we listen and interact with the people we meet with at our churches? Not because we necessarily are really interested or have knowledge about the things they are discussing. We need to listen because they are a gift to us from God, because they also need to now that they are part of the community, the family, of God.

    Another thing, I thought the calling of elders was to shepard us, to guide us in right paths. I didn’t know that their job was to entertain us? I thought the job of an evangelist was to bring us God’s word and help us understand it.

    I thought it was the job of all Christians to be servants to God’s will. I thought Christians were supposed to spend time reading and studying God’s word so that we could better understand how to be His servants.
    I was taught that we can’t upgrade the Church, but we can improve/upgrade the experience we have by being better servants.

    p.s. For the record, I never said that Mac OS wasn’t better than Win OS. I made other observations about it.
    p.p.s. I like Five Guys, whenever I can afford it. 🙂

  5. James says:


    I’d never heard of Five Guys until the article. Now I see on their site there’s one in Mohawk Commons. Next time I feel like driving 35 minutes each way for a hamburger I might give ’em a try. Are they that good?

  6. Bill says:

    FIRST! Let me say that I never intended to imply anything other than that I agree with what I perceive is the intent of James’ article: Namely that glitz, glamor, and entertainment can’t be a substitute for quality content.
    – My point is that the congregation needs to be comprised of Christians who endeavor, every day, to know God’s will and strive to follow closely in the walk that Jesus showed us.


    p.s. There is another option to driving 35 minutes each way for a burger. You could come visit me and I could drive you 5 minutes for an awesome burger at Five Guys…. 🙂

  7. MommyHAM says:

    Ok James, that’s way cool re: the name. Up here, there’s not a teen who could resist, lol.

    I’m not a minister or anything (unless you count parenthood as the supreme youth ministry that I do), but I’ve got a bunch of faith-related things on my blog:

    A couple other posts that are grumblings…think David in his “Where are you God?” Psalms

    So for what it’s worth…maybe you have some thoughts for me as I ponder these things in my walk with the Lord?

  8. YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! Great thoughts James! Something that really needed to be said.

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