I’m stirring my jar of almond butter this morning, settling in to day three of Round 2 of Whole 30. It’s “natural,” so there is stirring involved, a need to force the oil and almonds to mix and meld. I read the label. There is only one ingredient in this jar—almonds. No aded sugar, which apparently is the magic ingredient to huge sales. This brand will not ever become a mass market seller that brings in buckets of dollars for its corporation. It’s small—in name, sales, and even size.
I am grateful someone is okay with that.
My good health is dependent partly on the fact that someone somewhere accepted lower market share for the trade-off of giving people something good for them versus something they liked the sweet taste of.
Small Can Be Good
It occurs to me that this is a good metaphor for church. What happens when we remove the filler and the flash? What trade-offs are we making when we choose health over sales, or vice versa? Is there a place in the church marketing machine for the off-brand, the radical rebel that’s natural almond in a Jif world?
What happens when we become okay with remaining small?
It wasn’t only the almond butter that got me thinking this way lately. I felt the same uncomfortable rebelliousness sitting in a lunch this month, talking about church buildings and seeing the stunning shots of auditoriums, stages, and sweeping lobbies. No, they aren’t narthexes. I know that word is passé, and I’m not particularly suggesting we bring it back. I’d rather speak words most people understand and feel comfortable with.
But lobbies are a different animal than narthexes—a giant blue whale compared to a sleeping, cozy cat. And these were lobbies, displayed there on the slides meant to showcase the best of church architecture. It hit me then that I never want that kind of building for my church. I am okay with being the almond butter of the kingdom. I’m more than okay with it; I’m choosing it as a value for my church leadership. I can no longer get behind the spending or even the ideas symbolized by the blue whales of the kingdom. I understand that will come with some limitations, and I’m prepared to figure out how to navigate them.
Please don’t take this as criticism of any church beyond a certain size or with a certain style. I don’t find criticizing my brothers and sisters that worthwhile an endeavor, although dialogue over real issues of disagreement is necessary at times. Take it as the musings of someone looking down another path than what has been pretty universally accepted for the past few decades. A path that looks pretty appealing, especially in light of the values I see in upcoming generations.
Just as the boutique hotel and shopping experience are enjoying a renaissance largely thanks to the Millennial generation, we shouldn’t be surprised to find the boutique church not far behind. Smaller, more focused on one purpose, more able to adapt to individual needs, warmer. Your small shops on the corner are the ones gathering around a fundraiser for one family. They’re the ones offering a job to the neighborhood kid who needs a second chance. The boutiques are where your kids get handed a handmade lollipop and maybe your dog does, too.
There is value in that in the Kingdom world as well. Perhaps more value than I find in sweeping lobbies. That little store may certainly franchise to another neighborhood, but its offshoot will also be small, personable, welcoming to a new place and new faces.
It will seek the health of its neighborhood, and in doing so, will necessarily remain small but strong.
Small but Strong
What if we intentionally look for the people who want health and wellness, even if we know that this is going to make us too small to compete with the corporations? What if we “specialize” in strong, healthy bodies rather than well-appointed ones? Realistically, those are going to be smaller. (We already know what specializing in food with added sugar does to our bodies.)
I’m okay with opening the almond butter boutique. It will never be a national brand. But it will serve well those who come to it seeking to be well and strong.
And by the way, almond butter does, in fact, taste good. Especially spread on apples in the morning.
Jill Richardson is the pastor of Real Hope Community Church near Chicago. She is the author of six books and a national speaker, as well as a contributor to books from Dayspring, Lillenas, and Christianity Today. Jill’s doctorate in "Church Leadership in a Changing Context" is helping her with her passion—passing on a healthy, creative church and doing it with the next generation. She is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul), and Washington University. Her focus is on church leadership, creative preaching, immigration and refugees, women’s issues, and intergenerational leadership. She has an unnatural love for Middle-earth, chocolate marzipan, old musicals, fish tacos, oceans, cats, and Earl Grey. She believes in Jesus, grace, restoration, kindness, justice, and the Cubs. You can find her work at jillmrichardson.com.