by Aaron Wilson
NASHVILLE (BP) — Five years ago around this time of year, I was on my phone scrolling through social media when a few posts written by Christian friends grabbed my attention.
— “So tired of this corporate greed. The holidays are about faith and family. #StayHomeDontShop”
— “Take back Thanksgiving for Christ. #BoycottBlackFriday”
— “Camping out at home to avoid the wackos trampling each other over half-priced TVs.”
As I read these posts and watched online petitions get circulated by other Christians pledging not to shop on and around Thanksgiving, I felt vilified in my role at the time as a manager over six retail stores.
This time of year often brings out a propensity for Christians to confuse the mission of saving people created in the image of God with the call to save holiday values propagated more by Hallmark than Scripture.
The marketplace is a mission field
The apostle Paul loved to use the marketplace as a location to witness for Jesus — so much so that his companion Luke wrote in Acts 17:17 that Paul reasoned in the marketplace every day while in Athens.
Paul’s missionary practice stands in stark contrast to modern-day believers who boast about avoiding crowds in the marketplace. Paul, like Jesus, didn’t see large crowds of people as something to dodge; he saw them as a chance to gather around lost people who needed saving.
Here are some practical ways your church, small group or members can treat the marketplace as a mission field this holiday season:
As a former store manager who worked in retail for 16 years, I can testify Black Friday is a gratifying but exhausting day for retail employees. I gave up turkey and dressing for many years to scarf down a PB&J sandwich while putting together displays for my customers.
I didn’t do this because I hated Thanksgiving and family. I did it because it was my job and I wanted to love my customers by serving them like Jesus by creating the best shopping experience possible.
The manager at your local big box store is most likely just a family man or woman trying to do his or her job with excellence — someone who could use encouragement during their most demanding time of the year.
Want to really bless folks in your local community this season? Call up a store this week and ask the manager if you can bring their employees cookies or snacks to put in their break room on Black Friday or on other high-traffic selling days of the Christmas season.
Sponsor a store this Christmas by writing cards to the employees, thanking them for their service to the community. If you have the means to do so, have your church provide small gifts — church mugs filled with candy or $5 gift cards — for the employees of smaller stores. Let them know you’re praying for them and actually set aside time to do so.
When employees who live and breathe the mantra “the customer is always right” see strangers going out of their way to remember them during this busy season, it makes a memorable impression that could very well pave the way for a gospel conversation or a future visit to your church.
Partner with stores
Another idea is to work with stores to provide additional services to bless their customers. For example, see if a store would be OK with your church setting up a free gift-wrapping station in their parking lot manned by church members.
Or consider partnering with a church located near a shopping center to offer free curbside gift-wrapping on Black Friday and on Saturdays in December. Spread the word to local businesses that you’re offering this service by handing out fliers ahead of time.
Not only does this provide opportunities for churches to get to know members of their community in the marketplace like Paul did, it also helps destroy the perception that Christians view businesses and their employees as the archenemies of traditional holiday values.
Boycott the boycotts
If a person knew nothing about the Bible other than what they could observe through Christians’ social media posts, they might come to think the Great Commission involves going to war over the design of Christmas coffee cups or what hour a retailer should open on or after Thanksgiving.
These should be non-issues for Christians, but such topics now attract regular boycotts and hashtags to such a degree that The New York Times describes the five-week period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day as a time marked by “an annual culture war over the role of religion and liberalism.”
In John 13:35, Jesus says that “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” This verse should challenge us to consider if our holiday comments about the marketplace are communicating that we really love people.
When Christians encourage the boycotting of businesses in an effort to preserve holiday values, they’re not sticking it to the man; they’re hurting people who actually have the least effect on change within their company — the single mom working a second job at Starbucks or the college kid paying his tuition by pulling the late shift at the local Target.
Don’t look down on those who make a living selling things during the holidays and criticize them, their employers or their customers; look for ways to support, encourage and thank those who serve on the frontlines of the marketplace.
Thanksgiving and Christmas are wonderful times of the year to sit back and reflect on the blessings God has given, but these holidays are also ripe with opportunities to minister to your community in the public square of the modern marketplace.
Instead of simply hunkering down at home and throwing a scornful eye at the hustle and bustle of businesses clamoring to drive customer traffic, consider ways you can be Jesus to those who are serving and shopping at local retailers this holiday season.
Reprinted from Baptist Press (www.baptistpress.com), news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.