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I remember when it was considered a good idea for churches to look and feel like shopping malls, a place where 1990s people felt comfortable and familiar. Then came churches like coffee houses – cozy and curated. 

I wonder today if churches should feel like Aldi supermarkets. 

For those who don’t know, Aldi is an international grocery chain, headquartered in Germany, known for its no-frills, discount approach. Although, as you will see, low prices are somewhat incidental to my liking the store.

Learning curve

After my first visit to an Aldi I declared, “I never need to go there again!” 

Aldi takes some getting used to. Critics might call it messy or dirty. I’d counter that it isn’t slick and in-your-face. Originally, I was confused. I have to pay a quarter to get a shopping cart? I have to bring my own bags as well as bag my own groceries? There are almost none of the familiar brand names I was used to.

There’s a good lesson for the church. Feeling unfamiliar, involving some new routines, having a learning curve aren’t necessarily bad things. Some of my favorite things are acquired tastes – bleu cheese, oysters, espresso, brussel sprouts. You may not like them at first, but then. . . Similarly, It isn’t easy to explain the dropped-third-strike or offside rules to a new sports fan. So it’s okay if some of the church’s practices take some explaining and getting used to.

Aldi’s unfamiliar ways originally feel odd, but you come to see they are really innovative and efficient. Checkout lines move quickly. Carts are returned to the store. Efficiency isn’t really a church value – at least, not for me. Still, I wonder what it might mean for the church to be innovative – creative, clever, spare – without becoming faddish and gimmicky. 

Just right

Aldi stores aren’t huge. The aisles aren’t as long as a football field. Their footprint isn’t several acres. That means you can be in-and-out in a relatively short time. It also means that you probably won’t find everything you’re looking for, and will have to pick up a few items at a different store. ( At the risk of forcing parallels with everything-Aldi, maybe the store’s somewhat limited inventory reminds us that you’ll never find everything you’re looking for at any single church.)

I want a church that is medium-sized. I don’t want a sanctuary that holds thousands and a parking lot so vast you need guides to point you to the door. Or even more important, where you might not see the same faces for weeks at a time. Neither do I want a small church, where fear for survival hangs in the air, where you have to pull hard on every project, and every group is made up of the same five people. Not too big. Not too small. Just right.

Euro church

Aldi’s European roots are easy to sense. Lots of good cheeses, deli meats, wines, German Christmas goodies. I’m partial to almost all things European. Aldi pulls it off without the often-accompanying snobbery. 

I think of the gift that Taize and the Iona Community – two groups from Europe –  have been to the church in North America. And other things European? Perhaps, the Camino de Santiago and other pilgrimages. Compline. Celtic spirituality. Too many wonderful theologians to list. What else? 

My sense is that the European church has come to grips with and sometimes responded ingeniously to the end of Christendom – that it can be an emancipation. No one is saying the European church is flourishing, just that it seems to show signs of imagination and hope. And if you don’t care about European things, you can get corn flakes at Aldi.

What’s new?

There’s one aisle at Aldi that is always changing. At the risk of sounding like a rube, I’m always eager to check it out. Some special deals. Some things that will only appear for a week or so. Some short-lived seasonal needs – water shoes, bike lights, doormats. 

As much as I like rhythms and liturgy at church, some variety and freshness is a good counterbalance. For me, the seasons of the church year often function like this. They aren’t the gospel, the main thing, the center, but they bless and nudge us in different directions. They’re an opportunity to mix things up a bit. Consistency with some variety is what I’m looking for.

¿Qué pasa?

Sometimes at our Aldi, I whisper to my wife, “I think we’re the only ones here speaking English.” Spanish is predominant. But there are also African, Middle-Eastern and Asian languages spoken. Maybe it’s the location of this particular Aldi. Even the Whites have a salt-of-the-earth quality. Perhaps it is a function of Aldi’s low prices. I’m not going to pretend I have profound conversations with my fellow shoppers. Meaningful fellowship it isn’t. But it does get me out of my White, middle class, over-educated bubble.

A truly diverse, multicultural church has proven difficult to achieve. There’s many reasons for this. I don’t think I have much wisdom about how to make it happen. But perhaps we could ask Aldi about how it’s done.

In the interest of full disclosure, I received no remuneration or reward from Aldi for this blog.
Although, Aldi, if you’re listening, I would gladly accept a nice, little gift.

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Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Alicia Mannes says:

    I love this!

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Once, some years ago we shopped at Aldi’s, and the tunafish we’d bought was so awful we never went back. This too is similar to some peoples’ church experience. Unfair to Aldi’s? No doubt. But just seeing that sign brings back the memory of tasting that awful tunafish. Maybe I need you to take me there.

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Don’t know what to tell you about the tuna. Of course, discount stores are often thought to sell sub-standard stuff. The only subpar item I’ve found is Aldi’s knock-off Cheerios. Buy the real thing. Come to Des Moines and we’ll gladly give you a tour!

      • George Monsma, Jr. says:

        I eat Aldi’s Cheerios knock-off regularly, and find it better than some other house brands. Of course I add cinnamon, walnuts, and fruit to whatever version I eat, original or house brand.

  • Mike Stair says:

    …hoping you meant to intend this illumination…
    Analogizing church to retail reveals the very sinful apostasy the culture has led us to…
    Twenty-first attenders of Christ’s ekklesia are now consumers.
    Going to church is seen as similar to going to Aldi, or Walmart.
    You go when and if you need something…
    Cheese? / Assuagement of guilt?
    Seafood? / prayer request for health problem?
    Coffee ? / superstitious ritual so nothing bad will happen to you this week?

    We now habitually forget that we should go – not for the “what” , but for the “Who” – our sisters and brothers are there, The Body of … Christ is there … “and when two or more are gathered” …

    • Marlene Vandenbos says:

      You’re attending several times a week, we’ll work on the Who.

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Of course, there’s a little bit of my tongue in my cheek. I was never a fan of shopping mall churches. But I don’t think anything I say here is endorsing consumerism. True, shopping and worship are not the same. At the same time, we can’t act like the church resides in some tightly-sealed tupperware, closed off from the evil world. There are influences, some good, some bad that will inevitably be part of the church’s life. The church, with some wisdom, can gain from the world around it.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Waiting for all the Michigander parallel (maybe sideways) comments re Meijer’s . . . I took am still on my journey to become an Aldi convert, prodded by my spouse.
    Of greater concern to me is the growing prevalence of self-checkout stations, even at some Aldi’s. The term suggests reflection, but the process requires a skill and responsibility that I didn’t ask for or bring in with me, much like the need to bring my own bags, which I still struggle with to remember at Aldi’s. Full-participation could be the answer, but I don’t get invited behind the counter into the butcher shop . . .

  • Doug says:

    I loved this – partly because I love going to Aldi – but I did worry a bit about comparing the church to retail. Reminds of a long-ago Eugene Peterson warning about pastors turning into shop keepers. Still, an A for creativity!

  • June says:

    The last time we were in an Aldi we met a (warm and white) woman in an aisle who greeted us: “What a beautiful couple you are!” We looked at each other and stumbled out a response: “Well, thank you! Noone’s ever said that to us!” And we continued our shopping with clasped hands. Thus my sweet Aldi memory.
    And I loved your offering today!

  • Lynne swets says:

    Your comparison is exactly what I’ve thought about aldis..and religion. After my first visit years ago, I was wary. Now I value, and complement people in their native clothing, find myself curious and pleased to hear languages I don’t know, including Russian and Ukrainian and I’m thankful for the opportunity to be reminded of what America and our world of worship needs to exist. Respect, opportunity and diversity. Thank you

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Glad to hear. I’ll listen for Russian and Ukrainian. They’re probably there. I just wasn’t listening closely enough.

  • Barbara Schaap says:

    Oh Steve, what a joy to read. We love our Sioux City Aldi’s. And your comparisons to Christianity is right on.

  • Elly says:

    This piece touched me deeply this morning, as it relates to something that happened to me. I was at my local Aldi’s a few days ago, and the cashier, a black young man, greeted me with a big smile, saying, “where have you been? I haven’t seen you in awhile!” I told him I’d been busy with family. We had a lovely chat while he rung up my groceries, and wished me well when we were done. It’s wonderful to be so greeted and feel a part of this intimate and international community, as I recognize others who come to this store…just like at my church.

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      I’ve heard, but don’t know for certain, that Aldi is a relatively good employer, at least paying higher wages than most grocery stores.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Amen, Steve. Communion is what we find at Aldi’s.

    By the way, uh, I know of many a church that’s retail.

  • Susan B G says:

    I am a big fan of Aldi and liked your comparisons to churches. A quarter for a shopping cart reminds me to not leave it in the parking lot. And provides many opportunities to “pay it forward” with a smile. A connection.
    Bring your own bags or buy them. Great for the environment. You don’t go home with a trunk full of plastic bags with one item per bag. Bag your own. We can learn that skill. Again – be a steward.
    The prices are great and the selection usually enough.
    A diversity of shoppers who are ready to smile as we all enjoy the experience.
    I prefer the check out by the store employee. I don’t work for Aldi.
    Thanks for this interesting article

  • Trudy says:

    AND Aldi was my salvation when we were a poor young couple with several children and little money. The Aldi in Oak Lawn, IL was a no frills, down to basic, low price store that fit in with our budget. My choice in a church is similar, down to basics: prayer, Scripture, and song with friends and neighbors! I thank God for both!

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