Twice in the last year I’ve listened to respected business leaders share insights from the corporate world with church leaders. Clearly, we are not their typical audience but their presentations were well made. Both identified characteristics of ‘high performing’ companies and prodded us to explore the implications for the local church. Given we pastors lead the outposts of an institution that fuddles along in varying states of irrelevance, we need prodding. And we have much to learn from those outside our own walls.
That said, both presenters began with reference to Bunnings. Clearly, its a retail story of extraordinary success. As well as becoming the nation’s premier retailer of hardware, Bunnings has worked its way into our psyche. In a relatively short period of time, these sprawling house-and-garden megastores have mushroomed across the nation. On weekends we pour through their doors en mass to stock up on garden compost, tap-ware for the bathroom reno, a DIY demonstration, and a sausage on the way out. No doubt, we love shopping there and, from all reports, employees love working there. They’re doing something right!
If I’m honest, though, this whole Bunnings-and-the-church thing is fraught. While I’m happy to discuss how the church can become a more welcoming proposition for our neighbours and a more rewarding place for those who are part of its ministry, the model of Bunnings for a ‘high performing’ church is shot through with awkward.
Our local Bunnings is in Port Melbourne. Since its arrival, almost every other hardware store has closed. The multiple family-owned businesses that used to dot the landscape around South and Port Melbourne — the ones where owners knew their customers’ names and lived in the same neighbourhood — have all but disappeared. It’s the same elsewhere. In a recent issue of The Monthly, journalist Malcolm Knox traced the demise of hardware stores around Sydney’s northern beaches: ‘There was Hurstwaites at Balgowlah; Harders at Harbord, McIlwraiths in Manly … There was Fairlight Hardware, Seaforth Hardware, North Balgowlah Hardware, two in Brookvale, Collaroy Hardware, Narrabeen Hardware, Wheeler Heights had one, and there was Hayman and Ellis in North Manly.’ What was an ‘ecosystem’ of 15 stores, he concluded, is now down to three Bunnings and one Hardware and General.
In the course of his research, Knox talked to one of the store owners who fell victim to this process. He had a business employing 25 staff and strong relationships with the local community: ‘When Bunnings came, it signed exclusive agreements that stopped suppliers from selling to [competitors]. … The suppliers were sinking everything into Bunnings, which is what they wanted at first, but then Bunnings screwed them down so far they couldn’t make a buck, and they couldn’t make it competitive by selling to anyone else either.’
Bunnings is not alone in this. It is widely considered best practice among the so-called ‘big-box retailers’ to saturate the market through a strategic process of clustering and cannibalising. The longer term goal is to have the playing field to themselves. Consider the ‘duopoly’ of major retailers that cover just about everything we buy in the Australian retail market — Wesfarmers/Coles and Woolworths. According to Knox, ‘we can’t go to a shopping centre without being hauled in by the duoploy — apples from Woolies, cereal from Coles, beer from Liquorland, wine from Dan Murphy’s, a hammer from Bunnings, shoes from Kmart, ink from Officeworks, a toy from Target, a pillow from Big W, petrol from Coles Express.’
Of course, none of this is especially surprising. Corporations exist to make profit for their shareholders not wellbeing for communities. According to professor of law Joel Bakan, ’the corporation’s legally defined mandate is to pursue, relentlessly and without exception, its own self interest, regardless of the often harmful consequences it might cause to others.’ For people of faith, these changes in our retail landscape raise issues worth considering, but the idea that we emulate a successful retailer like Bunnings in the way we do church leaves more questions than it does pointers for church growth.
For small-church pastors like me, this argument leads too easily to cheap shots being made across the bow at the so called ‘mega-churches’ that surround us. While appropriate critiques should be made of all church models, that is not my point. Rather, I would hope that in reaching for inspiration in the pursuit of successful ministry, we would do so with more theological nous than this. For me, there are at least two elements in the church’s DNA that run counter to the Bunnings model of success. They are two elements I cannot bypass.
First, the church is local. It is the body of Christ enfleshed in a particular neighbourhood. There is nothing ‘big-box’ or generic about it. It lives, breathes and responds to the particular challenges of its locality. When it comes to the church, one size does not fit all. Second, the church is an embedded community. It rises and falls with the neighbourhood around it. The local church cannot be a world unto itself, providing a one-stop shop for successful living cut off from the ebb and flow of life around it. Rather, it’s a household of faith within a neighbourhood of life. The church is not about pulling people out of that neighbourhood for its own ends, but enabling its people to live more fully in it.
So, while Bunnings might be my only choice for light bulbs, I’ll need to go elsewhere for guidance in nurturing the church.