Target has failed in Canada. And I can’t say that I’m surprised. But it’s not because I know much about retail. My notable retail experience includes three years working at Smart Set in Southcentre Mall during high school. I was excellent at folding t-shirts for the 2 for $25 table. Oh, and I worked the music department at Chapters back in the days of music departments with old-fashioned items like CDs. Bless.

Nope, a retail giant analyst I am not, but what I do have I offer to you: regular old church experience.

Most of my childhood and teenage years as a neo-charismatic Christian in western Canada can be characterized by an almost identical exercise: a big American name comes to Canada to Reach Canada for Christ™, plant a church, and then in rather short order, heads back over the border, usually while blaming us for the failure.

That sounds a bit bald and harsh, but I don’t mean to be. It’s simply been my experience. So first, let me say this: I’ve seen church plants succeed in Canada. Many of them, in fact. Some of them followed the Church Planter Handbook that must exist somewhere (i.e. don’t even TRY unless you have $100K in the bank and a rockin’ worship team) and others have been messy organic and unlikely. All of them bring me great joy. I love to hear of new churches opening around us – we are a people of abundance, not scarcity! Also worth noting is that in the midst of these imperfect scenarios, there were lives changed, people saved and set free.

And yet this has been my experience and so I admit, I’m a bit wary now of outsiders coming into Canada as self-appointed missionaries to Reach Canada For Christ™. I’m not quite at the “get off my lawn” stage yet though. So when news broke today about Target’s abject and utter failure to expand into Canada, I began to think this morning about how church planters to Canada (or even within Canada) can learn from the Target failure.

So off the top of my head, here’s a few connections I made between Target and outsider-church-planting in Canada:

1. Target tried to open American stores in Canada. That sounds a bit silly when I write it out but here’s what I mean: Americans often tried to start American churches in Canada. They wanted churches that looked like American churches and they wanted people who thought like Americans. And then there would be frustration because we weren’t, well, American. We didn’t worship like Americans, we didn’t have the same values at times, we thought differently or had different context. It felt like we spoke different languages. For instance, I’ve seen American preachers get so frustrated because we listen to sermons instead of hollering back. Or would import a lot of American teaching or values cloaked in Jesus-y language, conflating the two. Instead of adjusting for that difference, the leadership often just tried harder to make us fit their version of Christian. It felt more like they were trying to colonize us into American Christians than make disciples. The kicker? when they quit and left, it was always with the parting shot that it was our fault. We didn’t play by their rules.

2. Target was out of stock of the essentials. When people went to Target, they simply never found what they actually went there to get. It’s hard to miss this metaphor for the church in Canada. Often what we have to offer as a church isn’t what people actually want. Canada isn’t the United States and we aren’t Europe either. Each community has its own religious history and even that changes drastically from neighbourhood to home. For instance, I grew up in a post-Christian pocket of western Canada where I didn’t have a single Christian friend or teacher to my knowledge. Meanwhile, folks my age here in Abbotsford mostly grew up either Mennonite or Sikh. (And yes, I’ve learned to appreciate both Indian food and Ukranian food.)

3. Target went too fast. In less than a year, the retail giant created 133 stores and a few distribution centres. From a church perspective, I saw many church planters fail because they also went too fast. They landed and set up shop quickly. They weren’t part of the community, they had no friends, they didn’t take the time to live among us and with us. They had no base and they often kept a strong line between “them” and “us.” Instead of becoming part of our lives, instead of developing a theology of place, they simply parachuted into our lives and then, when it didn’t go well, they left us. And just as the retail workers at Target are left in the lurch, our small congregations were often left to scatter in the aftermath, trying to find healing as best they could. At times, it was devastating. There are many friends of mine from that season of life who have simply given up on church because of these flash-in-the-pan experiences. We felt expendable: useful when they had their big big plans for their big big ministry launch but when things got tough, we were left behind. They didn’t love us and it became obvious. We were a project, not people.

4. Target refused to allow people in Canada to lead. Like most retail giants, leadership isn’t valued as much as management. We often saw the church planters come with Their Vision and Their People and Their Six Month Plan: we were there simply to execute their plan. Our input was not required. The planter was The Man of God, we were the dumb yet adorable sheep here to be led, not to co-lead or contribute. There wasn’t a teachable spirit to the leadership which is interesting to me now, twenty-odd years later, because I remember the folks there and there were some incredible leaders among them. It seems like a dehumanizing waste to turn them into pew fodder or cogs for the machine. There are bigger questions here about discipleship, leadership, and the purpose of the church, of course, but I’ll leave it there.

5. Target didn’t connect to the communities where they set up shop. The leaders often didn’t consult the area churches, leaders, or believers. They simply showed up and started without a thought for other believers already labouring in that field. They didn’t take the time to become part of the team – maybe because they thought they were above the team? who knows. Our church communities might be small but they are strong. I often joke that here in western Canada, if you’re a Christian, we either know you or we know someone who knows you. Our world is small and there isn’t anywhere to hide. Burning bridges is harder when you have a small community of believers. That small community is one of our great assets – we cheer each other on, work together on projects, and avoid competitiveness with each other (speaking generally, of course). I love how churches in our area work together so well, so often particularly when it comes to major events or causes. But by not connecting to their community, these leaders often missed opportunities to learn and to be part of something amazing.

I’ll miss Target in theory. I feel incredibly sad for their employees today.

But the truth is that I didn’t shop there either. 

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