I grew up in a small Saskatchewan town with four grocery stores and three churches. One store was owned by a cousin and another by an old friend of the family. Another was owned by a Catholic family and the fourth was the local Co-op.
The three churches were the United Church of Canada, the Roman Catholic and the Anglican. The United Church was the largest and the Anglican the smallest. My family was Anglican. Sixty years ago there were enough mouths to feed in the town and the surrounding farms to support all four stores. Cut-throat competition was unheard of.
As the years went by things began to change. Gravel highways were paved, and travel to the city became more common. Young people went to the cities to further their education and stayed to work. Small farmers sold out to their neighbours and moved to the cities. Families had fewer children. As the population of the town and the surrounding countryside slowly shrank, the owners of the grocery stores began to feel pressure on their profit margins.
One day a fire started at one store. The bell on the town hall was rung, the town’s fire engine and water wagon rushed to the scene, and in true small town neighbourliness every able bodied man and youth converged on the scene to fight the fire. In their zeal to help, they got the fire hoses tangled up. By the time they got them straightened out and were able to pour water on the fire the store was past saving. It was not rebuilt.
The other stores could breathe easier for a time, but the trend toward a shrinking local market continued. One day a lady came to my cousin’s store to ask him to buy an ad in a Catholic periodical. He was not interested. She told him that if he did not buy an ad the Catholic people would be told to stop buying at his store. He didn’t take it very seriously, but one by one his Catholic customers stopped coming into his store. Some of them were among his best friends, and they remained friends, but the priest had told them they should support the business owned by a Catholic and they felt pressed to do so.
The United Church and the Co-op were both products of the social gospel movement, resulting in a similar commitment from the United Church people to support the Co-op. That left my cousin with the Anglicans and the people who were of other religious persuasions, or none at all. He began to reduce the shelf space devoted to groceries and to stock clothing and dry goods, items where he had no competition from the Catholic or social gospel people. This provided a livelihood for a number of years. I believe the town is now down to two churches and one store, the Co-op.
Thinking over this little bit of history has raised a question in my mind. When I go into business, should I feel that my brethren are obligated to do business with me? Should I expect the deacons to drop a few gentle hints that brethren should support my business rather than a “worldly” competitor?
Having a captive market may sound like a sure road to success in business. But does it work that way in real life? I think I know myself well enough to admit that the quality of service to my customers would tend to go downhill if I could take it for granted that most of them would deal with me even if I made no special effort to see that their needs were being met. A captive market begets mediocrity.
We operate a business to earn a livelihood for our family. In most cases, we could not make a living by serving only the members of our own church community. This is a good thing. Our neighbours are predisposed to see us as closed, inward-looking people. Operating a business in the community can give people a better picture of what we are like. Our business is not a mission, but the way we run it shows what is important to us. When we are open, honest, friendly and fair to all, that is a witness of what our faith is. When we and our employees work together harmoniously, when there is no foul language, and no racy pictures on the walls, that is a witness. When we patiently and kindly attempt to meet the needs of customers who are old, frail and a little confused, and customers who are angry and demanding, that is a witness. When we show no evidence of prejudice or favouritism, that is a witness. Honesty in our dealings with governments is also a witness.
The purpose of a business is to serve our customers and support our families, not to bring salvation to our neighbours. Yet we should remember that as these neighbours observe us, they will form impressions about the church to which we belong, the faith we profess and the God we serve.