This Morning at $ General

George dollar

OK, I’ll admit it: I was tired. It’s performance week for The Music Man, and rehearsals have been getting us home late. That, on top of our regular schedule, means that it’s been a little tough to get to the grocery store (our local Wal-Mart closes at 11pm, if you can believe that). So, when we ran out of milk, Captain Dad slithered out of bed and bravely soldiered forth first thing this morning to pick up a couple of gallons from the General store down the road.

Of course, the first challenge was finding a parking space. Not because it was so crowded but because Mrs. Stratton’s Salads’s delivery truck was parked sideways across the front of the store, taking up four or more spaces. Never mind, I told myself, the sooner they get their product unloaded, the better.

I walked to the dairy section, got my 2 gallons of milk and headed for the register. Which was closed. Oh! There was a sign: “Please go to register 3.” I looked to my right, and there, amongst rolling racks of product and large cardboard boxes, I thought I could detect a bobbing head. Ah! An employee! I hadn’t seen any up to this point, which isn’t all that out of the ordinary (more on that later).

After I had stood at the register for what probably felt much longer than it really was, the employee made her way to over to me. I must have interrupted some terribly important work because she seemed to resent my presence. She sighed, gave me a sour expression, scanned my milk, and slipped them into two yellow plastic bags behind the counter. Looking down at the milk, she spoke the final price. When I had paid with my debit card, she snatched the receipt out of the machine and shoved it towards me. “Have a good day,” she snarled at me. Actually, I’m not sure it was at me; I was too busy reaching behind the counter for my milk. She actually seemed to be scowling over my shoulder at the next customer. “You too,” I chirped pleasantly. (Why didn’t I invite her to church?)

Let’s cut her some slack

Now, I don’t think I’m exaggerating anything here. I was tired, but I do remember thinking how rudely I had been treated and how utterly inhospitable the whole shopping experience had been. Still, I can understand a few things.

I’ve been a jerk before, too. As a teenager, I was a cashier at a grocery store, so I know what it is to stand in the same place for hours on end, the monotony broken only when someone purchased something as interesting as little bottles of bacteria for lactose-intolerance or a head of Cos lettuce. Things happen to your brain. You start daydreaming, or you long for someone to send you on an errand. And for some reason, the most inconvenient thing that can happen is for a customer to show up and require you to take their money. You know, that stuff that the store is in business to get more of? That stuff that they give you at the end of the week? That stuff they give you for standing there and taking it from the customer? I’m not saying it makes any sense to resent the customer, who is the very reason for your employment. I’m just saying I’ve been there.

And maybe she wasn’t being a jerk. Maybe she didn’t resent me at all. Maybe she was just as tired as I was. Maybe she’d been chewed out by her boss the night before. Maybe her lawnmower broke down, her dog died, her car was 6000 miles overdue for an oil change, and her best friend had just called and said she wouldn’t be coming to visit after all. I really don’t know, so I won’t judge her.

I won’t judge the store either. Even though I don’t quite think of it as the paragon of exceptional customer service, I do keep shopping there. I do because it’s convenient, because it’s close to home. And I live in a place where the hiring pool is pretty shallow. Finding someone who can work, wants to work, and isn’t already working, on disability, or retired seems to be a tall order around here. Businesses have to take whomever they can get. They can’t all be like that Chick-fil-A in Pensacola that only hires the best of the best. (The owner is a personal hero of mine, by the way.)

And I suppose if you’re operating within a tight margin, especially at a discount store, you’ll tend to hire fewer employees. And that means that each employee has a lot more to do, probably for not much more money. This explains why I have trouble finding an employee, why there are boxes everywhere and carts waiting to be unloaded rolled halfway down the aisles. Each employee seems to have to do the role of cashier, stock person, and janitor all at the same time. Maybe that’s why she was so unhappy. Really, there’s a lot going on that I can’t see but only imagine. So, I’m not mad at the store.

In fact, I’m not mad at anyone. I just think it’s ironic for a store to be so preoccupied with running a store and keeping employees that it neglects its own customers. And in that respect, it’s a warning for the church.

Why are we here anyway?

I won’t speak of any particular church because we’re all in danger here. The danger is that the church becomes so inwardly focused that it forgets why God has put it here. Oh, we’re not here to collect money (though some people still think so), but neither are we here to keep the buildings maintained, the saints comfortable, and the children entertained. So why are we here?

The simple answer is something our church adopted earlier this year. Our purpose statement reads: “Central Baptist Church exists to glorify God in making disciples of Jesus Christ from all peoples, by declaring His Gospel, demonstrating His love, devoting ourselves to His Word, and dedicating all things to His praise.” This is a collation of the Bible’s teaching on the purpose of the church, but we could sum it up by saying that we’re here to bring glory to God and serve others.

This corrects two misunderstandings that we run the risk of assuming. First, we forget about the “customers.” In our context, the customers are those that we are to serve. We don’t want their money – that’s not it. (A curse upon those who do.) We are to serve them, and they come in three different categories.

The first person we serve is God. We’re here to bring him glory. It’s not that he somehow is missing glory or needs more, it is that we are designed to acknowledge his glory, delight in his glory, and reflect his glory so that others may see it and delight in it, as well. We are to make much of him. If a person can’t see God better through our church, then we have missed something crucial.

The second person we serve is the person outside of the church who does not know Jesus Christ. We are to introduce him or her to the Savior. Nothing is more basic to the church than, “Make disciples of all nations,” as the Lord said.

The third person we serve is another Christian within our church. We help them along toward the Lord in the areas that they need us. We encourage them, weep with them, rejoice with them. We take of what God has given us, and we share it with them.

We’re here to serve these three “customers.” If they’re not being served, we’ve missed the point! We can have the most enjoyable services around, the nicest facilities, the most money, and the biggest and happiest crowd. But that’s kind of like working at Apple and not selling any iPads.

The other mistake we can make is to start thinking of ourselves as the customer. In an extremely short, though profound, book

, Thom Rainer addresses this customer mentality and eviscerates it. Now, I’ll admit to the world (it’s a blog, after all), that I can get ugly when it comes to customer service. Most of the time, no one but Jesus knows, and the rest of the time, I think (I hope) only my wife knows. But, when a cashier talks over my head to the fellow employee at the other register (not this morning, of course), or a waiter treats me like a stale breadstick, there’s a little voice inside me that’s screaming “You are here for ME!!! Don’t you understand? I worked hard for this money that I’ll ultimately be giving you; show some respect!” See? I told you it was ugly.

In the church, it can be just as ugly, especially when money is involved. After all, when that collection plate comes around, how can we not at least be tempted to think that we’re paying for something? (That’s why we pass the plate before the sermon. Just kidding. But it is a good reason why the congregation probably ought to see the pastor put something in there, too.) And before we know it, we start thinking that the church exists to serve us, specifically the pastor. And the secretary. And the janitor. And the youth pastor, etc. True, we make a mistake when we forget about the “customers,” but if we start thinking of ourselves as the customers, then we start believing that the facilities, the music, the way the money is spent, the pastor’s time and sermons really ought to conform to what meets our needs best. What conforms to our demands. I hope that sounds as ugly to you as it does to me.

So, if you’re in a church, should you expect others to serve you? Yes, you should be able to. But if we’re busy serving in the way that pleases God, just how much time will we have to worry about how well we’re being served? Or maybe we should ask it like this, If everyone else is serving the Savior, sinners, and saints to the degree you are, just how reasonable is your expectation?

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