The Season to Discount

Following up the previous blog post, the New
York Times reports discounting by retailers has begun. The impact of higher gas
prices is cited.
Revised 10/07/2005

I noticed a Christmas display when I went through a discount store recently and I thought to myself that we’ve not yet gotten to Halloween and Thanksgiving.

Sad, isn’t it, that we mark the seasonal cycles through retailing rather than natural changes? Never the less, the New York Times reports this morning that Wal-Mart and Target have already begun deep discounting to encourage traffic in the run up to Christmas.

This follows the points made by studies done earlier this summer which are cited in the previous post on this blog. These points are that higher gas prices are having an effect on family budgets and $3 dollars a gallon at the pump seems to be the point at which budgets become strained.

An earnings report this morning by Dollar General shows same store sales up in September. The company says it’s too early to assess the impact of Katrina and Rita, which affected several hundred stores along the Gulf coast. However, what’s interesting is this same store increase reinforces the observation by the Buntin Group in an energy report I reviewed in this blog a couple of days ago. Buntin says Dollar General is better positioned geographically with local stores in small towns and city neighborhoods than Wal-Mart with its wider service area. This means local stores gain an advantage when gasoline costs break the $3 a gallon level because it takes less gas to get to them than to drive to a distant Wal-Mart.

All of this, in my opinion relates to the church in some very specific ways. I’ll write about these in the future. And I’d like to hear from readers of this blog about this subject as well. It seems to me especially important because new church growth is most often targetted toward suburbs and exurbs where more affluent populations reside. This has a direct effect on the missional emphasis of the church because it means poor, rural and urban core populations are not viewed by church growth advocates as people for whom church plantings are suitable. If the church neglects these people what makes that any different from neglect by the government or any other service entity?

As The United Methodist Church has evolved it has transitioned into a middle- and upper-middle class denomination. Perhaps this is a natural part of the upward mobility of people in the church. However, the Wesleyan movement is rooted in a working class and poor population. In many parts of the United States, especially rural areas, it retained this identity until the era of rapid church growth in the late 1950’s and early ’60’s. As we moved away from central cities into the suburbs we also moved away from the poor and our commitment to maintaining congregations serving low-income people. Today those ministries are viewed primarily as social service functions, very important and not to be denigrated, but we are not successful at worship and study groups with these folks and we don’t seem to know how to offer these expressions of the church’s life to them.

In the wake of Katrina in New Orleans, this neglect is more visible and its tragic consequences more apparent. The church was, of course, present in urban New Orleans. But, now that the opportunity arises to rebuild that city I believe the voice of urban pastors and their congregations needs to be strong and persistent.

Humane values must be interjected into re-building as surely as consideration is given to effectively reconstructing tourism and business in the flooded area. The church must be a part of the support structure for those voices that will otherwise be left out once again. This is why I’m spending so much time thinking and writing about these economic issues. They are fundamentally theological issues, are they not?

And let’s not assume this is only about urban cores. On an NPR segment recently I heard a story about a community in rural Mississippi that was overlooked in the rescue effort and the people went for four days without food. The focus on suburban churches contributes to a de-valuing of small, rural communities and their faith communities. I hear this kind of talk often in church circles. Somehow, while it makes economic sense to focus on areas where growth and self-sufficiency are more likely, but it doesn’t square with what Jesus called disciples to do, to be with the people at the margins, the forgotten, the overlooked, the despised and those who are invisible to the rest of the society. What makes economic sense, in this instance, doesn’t make theological sense. I can’t square Jesus’ teaching with an exclusive emphasis on growth in affluent areas.

And, lest I be misread let me be clear, I think the church must engage in ministry with people at all stations of life. This isn’t about being anti-suburban. It’s about being inclusive in our embrace of all peoples no matter where they live nor what their income. We need to get over this idea that being for inclusiveness means being against people in the majority. It doesn’t. It means being concerned about and in ministry with all people.

What concerns me is the hardship these prices inflict not only on middle-income families, but the heavier burden they place on low-income workers and the working poor.

In general, these folks need transportation to get to jobs and the cars they drive are not necessarily fuel efficient. Higher prices affect them disproportionately by taking a bigger chunk of budgets already stretched. We’ve seen the statistics already. The number of poor children has increased over the past four years. Food banks report a growing demand for emergency food requests.

The early season discounting is merely the tip of an iceberg that has not gotten the attention it deserves, the neglect of the poor and working poor. Beneath the surface are social policies that relate to adequate funding for job training, public education, public transportation and accessible health care, all of which have been given short-shrift in the past several years by politicians who don’t shop at Wal-Mart or Dollar General.

Their discounting of the poor isn’t seasonal. It’s a year-round reality and the hardship this brings to people is now beginning to show above the surface. And if the church ignores them, we are no less guilty.

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