Clicks and Mortar: Churches of the Future?

March 22, 2022

Recently when I was in Austin, Texas, visiting my son, he asked me, “Dad, have you ever been to an Amazon store?”

I responded by saying, “I admit often to buying things from the Dark Lord.”

“No, Dad,” my son responded. “I know you have an Amazon Prime account, and you shop online. But have you ever been inside an Amazon brick-and-mortar store?

“You mean a physical Amazon store with four walls, a roof, and a literal cash register? .. Well, errr, no. Do such things exist in the material world?” I asked.

“Indeed they do, would you like to see one? Amazon has opened a brick-and-mortar store in Austin,” my son replied.

“We’ll lead on,” I chimed.

And ‘lead on’ he did. The actual physical store that we visited was incredible. Every square inch of the store was so well thought out. Amazon must have used every speck of data to design and run such an excellent store. I went to the spiritual/religious books and items section – the design of this area was like feng shui plus.

Meanwhile, my little daughter, Therese, was in toy land heaven. What she experienced was lightyears beyond the typical brick-and-mortar toy store. Children and grownups alike were being encouraged to play and participate. Say what you want about the Dark Lord, but this Amazon physical store was a delight.

Then we arrived at checkout. The cashier had more information on you than the CIA and FBI combined. As the gentleman ahead of me was checking out, the cashier encouraged him to sign up for Amazon’s Audible recorded books. “Audible has all of the books written by Lisa Jewell online. You could listen to them as you drive to Memphis and get stuck in a traffic jam on the bridge over the Mississippi River.”

“How did you know that Lisa Jewell is one of my favorite writers, and I commute over that bridge into Memphis every workday?” the man asked. He eagerly took the information about Audible.

Since I am already an Audible customer, I did not think I’d be “upsold” for audiobooks. The cashier – whom I have never seen before – looked at me and said, “Hi, Reverend. You should go to our clothing department. Your congregation deserves to see you in a new suit.”

I left Amazon’s brick-and-mortar store, and I was amazed. But I kept asking myself: Why would Amazon do this? Yes, it was incredible. But with all Amazon has going for itself online, why would they get involved in a brick-and-mortar operation?

I decided to really research the matter and was astonished to discover how many leading online retailers are building brick-and-mortar stores. Okay, I thought. But there is an excess of store capacity happening across the US. You see empty shopping malls with stores closed down everywhere. However, some experts believe what is causing the empty shopping malls is mostly “weak brands.” The Sears of the world are ‘not selling what people want in a way that people don’t desire,’ resulting in empty retail space. If you provide people with a shopping experience that engages and delights them, you have built a field where people will come (to borrow a line from that great movie Field of Dreams).

Online corporations like Amazon are banking millions of dollars on the ‘weak brands’ hypothesis, and they know they are ‘strong brands.’ I researched and discovered that many online giants believe most customers want and need to try out the product before buying, and they want a physical store for customer service. The data indicate that when Amazon builds a physical store in a community, it does not decrease its online sales and profits – it actually increases the company’s sales and profits in that community!

Why do I bring this up? Because I believe it has a direct application to churches, synagogues, etc. This may not be easy for some of us, but try picturing many churches as ‘weak brands.’ When I lived in Northern Virginia, outside of Washington D.C., the parking lots of many traditional churches were sparsely populated on Sundays. But you could not find an empty space at several ashrams, and even a few Pentecostal churches in Northern Virginia. The parking lot at my then-home church, Unity of Fairfax, was often full.

Jim Collins, the business school guru from the University of Michigan, talks about all types of organizations that have gone from “good to great.” I would like to see Unity, and all New Thought spiritual centers, go from “good to great,” delighting spiritual seekers with their message and experience. But I think those churches, spiritual centers, and more that can do this will have to be like the online retailers who are not just on the internet. Churches will have to go from “good to great,” both in-person and online. The future successful churches will follow the “clicks and mortar” model.

What does this mean for Unity of Roanoke Valley? I think it means having strong face-to-face services and having great online experiences. Almost every Sunday, I meet somebody in the URV sanctuary who says, “Rev. Rick, I have been watching your YouTube services every week, and this is the first time I have come to a live service at Unity of Roanoke Valley.” Often we will first meet the spiritual but not religious online before we meet them face-to-face in the sanctuary.

Our online services, online classes, and online fellowships should not be second-class citizens compared to our more traditional in-person activities. Online activities should not be seen as temporary things that will soon pass away once we are entirely out of the COVID-19 pandemic. I would love to get your ideas about what going from “good to great” in terms of “clicks and mortar” (meaning in-person and online offerings) would look like for you. Please send me an email at or text or call me at 571-215-9481. Or speak with me in person. I look forward to your ideas! Remember: “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).

For me, a true story that drives home all of the above is about a hospital chaplain, Adam Ruiz, who lives in Louisville, Kentucky. Adam works in one of the leading hospitals in Louisville. When COVID-19 struck, the hospital chaplains were banned from going into most patients’ rooms. This was especially the case in the COVID-19 ward. Adam was told he could communicate with patients via Zoom or FaceTime. But when a patient is on a ventilator, these online communication systems are cold and heartless. The online stuff just didn’t work, Adam believed.

So Adam got a group of chaplains together to develop “safe” procedures that let the chaplains minister even in the COVID-19 rooms. Adam said they looked like astronauts ready for a walk in deep space. His heart broke when he tried to serve a person who was about to make their transition, and they were on a ventilator. The powers-that-be considered and approved most of what Adam’s team was proposing. Adam was happy to go back into patients’ rooms and minister in person.

But this is not the end of the story. People around the country involved in hospitals started hearing about the hospital in Louisville, where things changed for the better. Eventually, Adam established a web page, regular Zoom meetings, and email exchanges. Adam said the internet and things like FaceTime and Zoom got his message out there much sooner than it would have by a writing campaign. Adam was also able to connect patients with great online resources. Adam says that “clicks and mortar” saved the day, and ministries need to be very good with online and in-person services.

I, of course, agree with Adam. We need to go from “good to great” in both online and face-to-face activities. And I believe URV can do it!

Many blessings,

Rev. Rick

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