This past week, I went with my family on a little vacation. We drove to the North Georgia mountains and then on to North Carolina. We were in search of mountain trails, beautiful vistas, and majestic waterfalls. Our first stop was in Helen, Georgia for the afternoon and evening before we picked out our two oldest sons on a youth trip in the mountains. Helen is a German-style touristy town with a lot of neat shops and attractions. As we were walking down the street, we saw a toy store and mentioned to our 12 year old son that we should go in.
“I don’t want to go in a toy store. That’s boring.”
This is a kid with a great imagination who loves toys. But, this sinking feeling came over me and I thought, “Oh no. He’s too old to care about toy stores anymore.” You know the age, when they all of a sudden grow out of their toys and they start to enter the dreaded years of “adolescence.” I’ve been through it with my 3 older kids and my 12 year old was the youngest, but I’d hoped we’d get a bit more time with him being a kid. Instead, the wonder seemed to be sucked out of him.
My wife and I told him we were going in anyway. He balked, but we drug him along. We entered Jolly’s Toys and met a lady who surprised us all. We were the only people in the store and Jolly (her actual name), smiled and right off the bat started talking to us. The store was pretty unique with all kinds of toys and games and trinkets crammed everywhere in the small 3 room toy store. I mentioned a card game that I saw to my wife and Jolly asked us if we wanted to play a game with her. “Sure,” I said, a bit taken aback and somewhat reluctantly. I wasn’t used to store owners asking me to play a game.
So, we played the game and it was really … fun. We laughed and then my son (who didn’t want to go in), found an air gun that shot these little balls, He picked it up and shot one at me. My first response was to tell him to “be careful,” but Jolly, the owner, said, “It’s alright. He can shoot the guns. That’s what they’re here for. He can play with anything he wants.” He took the invitation and shot another ball. I found a similar air gun and shot a ball at him, but my ball lit up. Suddenly, we were having fun together. My wife was looking at toys and asking about them and before you knew it, Jolly had us playing another game with her, my son was shooting a toy bow and arrow, we played with all kinds of stuff, we saw Jolly’s workshop where she made her own wooden toys, and we heard about her shop and had a great time. We also bought the card game and the bow and arrow set. By the time we left, my 12 year old son was a kid again and so were we. The experience was … transformative, and was some of the most fun we had on our vacation.
The next day, we found another independent toy store in Brevard, North Carolina where they also let you play with stuff and the clerks joined in. By this time, we had picked up our two oldest sons and they were all playing also with the clerks. I had to drag my 12 year old out and he was begging to go back.
I asked him why he didn’t like toy stores before this and you know what he said? He said that he thought they were boring and everything was in boxes and it was a waste of time. He didn’t like toy stores because all he could do was walk around and observe instead of actually do anything. He was talking about Toys ‘R Us and Wal-Mart and the big box stores. They sell a lot of toys, but they make kids, like my son, lose their imagination and loathe going in them. They are just big warehouses with toys and there is no Jolly to introduce you to anything or help you see another world of possibility. Those big box stores have no guides and the people who work there come across like they don’t care that they are working in a TOY STORE.
We were having our great toy store experiences the same week that I heard Toys ‘R Us was shutting down. An article at CNN explains why:
The company’s biggest problem: It was saddled with billions of dollars in debt. That debt stopped it from making the necessary investment in stores. And that meant an unpleasant shopping experience that doomed the chain. The company told employees Wednesday that it would close or sell its US stores after 70 years in business.
“If you’re going to have that breadth of inventory, you need someone in the store to help you find it, help you experience it,” said Greg Portell, lead partner at retail consultant A.T. Kearney. “It’s hard to sell toys in a cold, warehouse environment.”
Even Toys “R” Us CEO David Brandon conceded in an SEC filing last fall that the company had fallen behind competitors “on various fronts, including with regard to general upkeep and the condition of our stores.”
Toys ‘R Us forgot they were a toy store. They didn’t have anyone in the store to help kids “experience” the very thing they were selling. Those running the stores forgot who they were and why they were there and who they were there for. The debt stopped Toys ‘R Us from making the proper investment in the stores. The mystery was gone. It was like entering a cold warehouse with boxes of unapproachable toys piled high. Even kids didn’t want to go in there.
Contrast that with Jolly’s where you had a wise, experienced Toy Maker who knew all about every toy in the place, what made kids (and parents) tick, who invited us in to an experience, who let us explore, and who called us to participate. Joy was renewed as we were invited to play and suggestions were made about ways to play and about things we might like. Jolly had a little shooting range set up with wooden ducks on the wall and she challenged my son to shoot one off with his bow and arrow. He tried over and over and over again until he finally got one and he cheered. She applauded him and then moved on to instructing us in something else. It wasn’t just a store. It was an experiential lab in childhood, mystery, fun, and participative experience. We all left LOVING that toy store and wanted to return.
Contrasting Toys ‘R Us going out of business with Jolly’s Toys welcoming families into the joy of toys, even when the 12 year old doesn’t want to go in, is illustrative of the difference a guide who cares and a place that is accessible and participative can make. And, of course, I walked away thinking about the church.
Lots of churches are set up like Toys ‘R Us. Everything is organized and efficient with services where people come and sit, listen, and observe. This can be good, but if there is very little participation, people feel disconnected and … bored. Those leading the services and working/serving with the church often act like they don’t care too much if people actually do anything. They want them to come, sure, but after that, there isn’t much “there” there. Instead of introducing people to wonder, mystery, participation, and transformative experiences, there is a presentation and a sales pitch with whatever is being sold crammed in a box and sealed up. “Take our word for it. It is great!” But, it doesn’t often seem like those making the presentation or leading the service are often that interested in what they are presenting, or even if you partake of it.
If you’ve read this far, you can see the analogy I’m trying to make. We talk a lot about evangelism, declining baptisms, worship attendance, and membership numbers. We talk about losing generations and the culture wars and all that is wrong. But, when people do come to us, we often have no one to take them by the hand, really show them what is available in Christ, call them to participate with others, lead them to a target range for them to practice, and reveal the mystery of what is available in a life with God. We make discipleship and worship about transferring information and it often leaves people cold and detached. We need joy and to be invited in to the mystery of Christ with others.
Perhaps, instead of trying to have more Toys ‘R Us type churches with lots of stuff that is in boxes and hard to get to, maybe we need more little Jolly’s Toys type churches with a seasoned guide to welcome people to a mystery and joy that they didn’t realize they needed … or wanted. Maybe we need more places that have ways to participate, practice, make a mess, and be introduced to things in God we didn’t even know existed.
My 12 year old son went from hating the big box Toys ‘R Us type toy stores to sheer joy and excitement and not being able to wait to go back to another independent toy store where someone was there to introduce him to new toys – handmade toys that he didn’t even know he liked – and to call him to play and imagine. We need that.
Disclaimer: Before I get yelled at, this isn’t a post advocating we make church all “fun” or entertaining or like a toy store. I am saying that we need to call people into something beautiful, a mystery, a real transformation, and that there should be people showing newcomers the way and there should be real participation from everyone. I made a partial analogy that obviously breaks down if pressed into every facet of salvation, the Christian life, or what church should be. I came back to write this when I thought about people getting worked up claiming that I’m saying church should be a toy store, as though that is something trivial and shallow. I’m making an analogy and comparison. Go with that.