10/27/2014 04:46 pm ET Updated Dec 27, 2014

What the Church Can Learn From Our Grocery Store

It has been a long time my husband Ken and I have "looked" for a church. As American Baptist ministers we have been called to serve churches. Ken has served churches in Wisconsin, Illinois and New York. I have served in Indiana, New York and Ohio. Then we decided to retire to Ken's home state of North Carolina, or we decided to "redesign life" as we aren't sure where this journey will take us. This is our story about some things we have learned so far about looking for a church community.

Our story began the day after we arrived at our new home in Durham, North Carolina, and went to our local Kroger Grocery Store.

We had just entered the produce department and were heading toward the deli when "Jack," the prepared foods manager, came to us and introduced himself. He wanted us to know that they had just changed the store around and to share with us a brand new item in the store -- the $6 meal! We laughed and told him that we had just moved from the home of the $6 meal -Rochester, New York, the home of Wegman's Grocery Store.

Jack was excited about his department and curious about us. As we talked, he asked questions and, of course, we bought two meals. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship with Jack and the store.

Wander around and employees will come up and ask if you are finding everything you need. Ask where artichokes are and you will be escorted to the spot, not just the aisle. One day we were invited to the front of the store where they were giving away free Starbucks coffee to say "thanks for shopping here."

We're told that this store used to be run-of-the-mill, but was then remodeled. Alongside the store "reset" came a culture of neighborliness. Remarkably, the employees caught the vision. It is now a bit like walking into the "Cheers" bar.

When we see Jack, he asks how our kitchen project is going. It isn't uncommon at all to be in the meat department where Jack will find us because he saw us walk by. He has met one of our grandchildren and we know about his family and their plumbing problems. One day we saw him follow a woman to the front of the store to ask how her mother was doing. And he isn't the only one there who is interested. Cashiers care. And they hire people who are bit challenged in life. We love shopping at our Kroger.

If congregations are serious about wanting to reach out to others, they might want to explore the power of the "reset." The methods of welcome in a congregation can be perfunctory, habitual, and lacking energy. Our experience with local congregations is that some members are appointed as "greeters," while others hold back, reluctant to engage those they do not know. In a societal culture that now looks upon churches with suspicion, congregations might get one chance to make a good impression. The key, as we have learned from Kroger, is energetic authenticity. And people know the difference between perfunctory greeting and energetic authenticity.

There is no magic formula to fix the problems facing the church today, but churches can decide to "reset" themselves. It takes courage and creativity, but if you think about our experience with Kroger or your own experiences, it can be done.

There's no question that just about everyone in American society is overwhelmed by the pace and complexity of life. The grind of life wears on the soul. But, the soul is the church's business. There is an old axiom in business that says, "Remember what business you're in!" The business of church is the soul, the essence of human beings and all humanity. There is no magic formula to fix the problems facing the Church, but, with joyous courage and creativity the "Kroger formula" can be applied.

We've discovered four essential points:

• Folks who visit in churches are not only looking for faith, they are looking for authentic community. They want to be known, not just greeted. They want to be greeted by more than the "greeters." Being friendly isn't enough.

• A new relationship becomes a bonded relationship because of a thousand small gestures, beginning with a spirit of gladness at the first meeting.

• Such a deep welcome needs to come from the "buy in" of the whole congregation, not just the ebullient personalities of a few talented members.

What can the church learn from our Kroger?
1. We want to be known, not just greeted by the assigned greeters. As Jack is curious about our kitchen project, be curious about people who come into your midst. Talk to people sitting near you in church. Invite the visitor to sit with you in the worship service, accompany them to Coffee Hour or Sunday School, and follow up the visit with deep thanksgiving and another invitation -- to an upcoming church event, mission project, or eventually to your own home for a welcoming meal.
2. We want to be invited into the community. As Kroger employees never walk by us without asking if we are finding everything we need and how we are doing, don't walk by us without eye contact and a smile. Don't assume that if we read about an event in the bulletin we will attend. That is not necessarily true. It takes courage to walk into a group of strangers wondering if anyone will talk to you. Help us out here. Walk in with us. If we walk into an event and no one talks us to us, we aren't coming back.
3. Don't make us do all the work to become part of your church. Our Kroger wants to make our shopping experience positive. They want us to buy more than we came into buy. The longer we stay in the store, the more we buy. If we are constantly looking for the items we came to buy, we will go elsewhere....and they know it. If it is too much work to become part of your church, we will either go elsewhere or stay home. When your church says anything as a community (i.e. The Lord's Prayer), print the words in the bulletin. Please don't assume we know what you know. Help us out. Give us a reason to return.

When we speak of "reset" we are talking about more than the operation of greeting. We are talking about the attitude of the congregation to pure and authentic welcome. We love the church more than you can imagine, and it is for that reason that we hold the Church to a higher standard than Kroger.

The Rev'd Peg Williams and the Rev'd Dr. Ken Williams are recently "retired" from their pastoral roles. Most recently Peg served as the intentional interim minister at the First Baptist Church of Penfield, NY. Ken ended a 13 year pastorate at the First Baptist Church of Rochester, NY. They relocated to a new home in Durham, NC.