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Dear Evangelical Business Owners

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While I was an Evangelical pastor for twenty-five years, I was bivocational for many of those years. That doesn’t mean I was a part-time pastor. As my partner of almost forty-six years will attest, I was a full-time pastor, while at the same time working forty hours a week for secular employers. In other words, I was a workaholic who was rarely home.

I worked all sorts of jobs, including management positions with four restaurant companies, a Christian bookstore, a direct medical equipment company, and the Village of Buckeye Lake, Ohio. My father was a small business owner, owning a hobby store in Findlay, Ohio, and a gun store in Sierra Vista, Arizona. As a teenager, working for my dad, I learned the ins and outs of running a business. While Dad and I didn’t have a relationship to speak of, I will always appreciate him teaching me the nuts and bolts of the business world.

One thing Dad taught me was this: The goal of any business is to make money. Such a novel thought, right? While people may start businesses because they are passionate about this or that — thinking that because they love to cook they can easily own and run a restaurant — the goal is always the same: to make as much money as possible.

The key to making money is attracting customers to your business. To grow a business, you need both regular and new customers. No company can survive without growing its customer base. I love watching shows such as Bar Rescue and Restaurant Impossible. These shows feature failing bars and restaurants, often operated by owners who have no real business experience. After all, how hard can it be to run a pub or a restaurant? As these ill-informed, uneducated owners learn, it is quite hard to run a successful business. In every instance, these businesses faced declining revenues because of reduced customer counts. Here’s the formula: fewer customers = less revenues. Granted, other factors play a part such as overhead costs, labor costs, food costs, etc, but generally, the more customers you have, the more you will make and the better off your business will be.

As a manager, I wanted to attract as many customers as possible. I didn’t care about their age, sex, gender, marital status, race, religion, political affiliation, or how they looked or dressed. All I wanted was their money. Capitalism 101, right? As a business owner or manager, my goal was to provide the best products and services possible for an affordable price. I went out of my way to make sure my stores were clean and provided customers with the best possible experience. Evidently, many Evangelical business owners think differently, using their businesses as tools to indoctrinate and evangelize their customers, choosing Jesus, the Bible, and religious dogma over making money.

I live in rural northwest Ohio — the land of God, Guns, and Trump. There are lots of Evangelical-owned businesses, everything from mom-and-pop stores to large manufacturing concerns. The owners of these businesses wrongly think that almost everyone who works for them or frequents their establishments is Christian. Sure, many locals claim membership at a local Christian church — even though they rarely, if ever, attend services — but a sizable percentage of residents are indifferent towards religion or are unbelievers. Thus, it is surprising to me — if making money is the goal — that Evangelical-owned businesses think everyone believes just like them; and likes what they like. How else do you explain business walls plastered with Jesus Junk®, ceiling speakers blaring Christian music, tract racks, and advertisements for the church the owner attends? As atheists, the last thing my partner and I want to be exposed to is Jesus, the Bible, or church advertisements. The other day, we ate at the China Dragon in Napoleon, Ohio. So-so food, but what annoyed the hell out of us was the music — WBCL, a local Evangelical radio station. Since when did contemporary Christian music (CCM) and Chinese stir fry go together? It was annoying, to say the least.

Evangelical business owners are free to do what they want, but they might want to pay attention to their service area’s demographics. If the goal is to make as much money as possible and attract new customers, then it stands to reason that aesthetics should be welcoming and neutral, and not advertisements for Christianity and the owner’s personal religious beliefs and practices. Take Samuel Mancino’s in Archbold, Ohio. We love eating at Mancino’s, but the Evangelical owner thinks Jesus and her church come before serving customers. Thus, the store is closed on Sundays (and Mondays) and closes early on Wednesdays so employees can go to church. The store is open four and a half days a week Evidently, locals don’t eat on Sundays, Mondays, after 2:30 pm on Wednesdays, or after 7:30 pm the rest of the week. Revenues lost, but, hey, everyone knows the owner is a Christian.

More than a few local businesses let potential customers know they are Christians by using religious symbols in their advertising — especially the cross and ichthys (fish) icons. These symbols are tribal affiliation markers, much like gang members wearing particular tattoos. These business owners want customers to know that they are frequenting a Christian-owned, Jesus-approved business. Because I’m unbeliever, these icons say to me that I am not welcome; that the business doesn’t want my money. Message received. You push Jesus, and I will spend my money elsewhere.

I am not anti-Christian. I know that most local businesses are owned and operated by people of faith. I don’t care what a business owner believes or doesn’t believe. What I want is hot food, and excellent service, at an affordable price. Sweetwater Chophouse in Defiance is one business that gets it, and that’s why I eat there with Polly and my friends several times a month. Many of the patrons around us are Christians. We know this because of their prayers before eating and their banter about Jesus, the Bible, and the church they attend. I am sure they can hear our ungodly, irreligious banter too. Such is the communal aspect of sharing meals in restaurants. Sweetwater’s goal is the same as it should be for every restaurant: to make as much money as possible while providing excellent food and service. If Sweetwater ever starts pushing religion, we will eat elsewhere. We want to give our hard-earned money to people who don’t view their businesses as advertisements for Christianity or tools to evangelize unwashed, uncircumcised Philistines. As an atheist business owner, I would never push my atheistic or humanist beliefs. I wouldn’t plaster the walls with Christoper Hitchens quotes or give 10% discounts to patrons who didn’t go to church. (Some businesses give church-attending customers a discount if they show the server a bulletin that proves they attended church.) Whosover will, let him come — and eat at my restaurant. 🙂 Christian money spends just like atheist money, and, as a business owner, I want as much money as possible, regardless of where it came from or how it was earned. Famed early 20th-century Fundamentalist evangelist Billy Sunday once was asked why he took money from bar owners. Sunday replied, “The Devil has had the money long enough.” Sunday didn’t care where the money came from, and neither should Evangelical business owners.

Years ago, I got into a heated discussion online with a local Evangelical business owner and avid Trump supporter. His storefront windows and walls were covered with Evangelical, pro-Trump, and anti-Obama/Clinton signs, pictures, and stickers. I told him that these things were driving away customers who believed differently from him. He told me that he didn’t care; that he didn’t want or need my money. Well, evidently he did. A few years later he went out of business. The reasons for his store’s closing were many, but one thing was certain: fewer customers = less income; less income = more financial pressures.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    When I was an evangelical, I refused to patronize businesses that featured Christian symbols in their advertisements. I didn’t see a cross on a business sign as an indication of tribal affiliation; to me, it was a transparent attempt to exploit faith for profit. It offended me to see Jesus used as a mascot for selling cars and plumbing services, and I was never shy about making my opinion known. 😉

    Being autistic (although I wasn’t diagnosed until my 40s), partly explains why tribalism held little sway for me. I was more concerned about what I believed to be sound theology than the trappings of church culture. This outlook obviously put me at odds with most fellow believers, but I didn’t feel the same level of social obligations to conform.

    That non-conformity would eventually lead me out of the fold.

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    If a business has religious symbols or political posters, I choose not to frequent that establishment. There’s a truck for a construction company located in a neighborhood near us, and it has a Christian cross as a logo. I definitely will not reach out to that company for an assessment. If you want my business, keep your religion to yourself. I don’t want to see your private parts, and religion should be part of your private parts.

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    Years ago I read novel set in ancient Rome. The author described an inept businessman as unable to run a profitable wine shop in a location between a men’s club and a brothel. it takes effort to drive customers away!

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    That’s a great point a business is for making money. In most instances I wouldn’t penalize a company for incorporating some of their religious sentiment in their company logo. I assume they are just proud of their religion and not using it as some sort of seal of quality selling feature. Politics, now that’s poison. I have to wonder about the judgement of a merchant that indulges in this. (Unless you’re selling Trump trash… and good luck with that.)

    One thing I would suggest to the Bruce and Pollys of the world is that if you do find something annoying, such as Christian music be blasted at the Chinese buffet write a snail mail letter to the establishment. Snail mail is very effective, because it is so extraordinarily rare the impact is much more pronounced. Be terse and polite : “Me and my wife had dinner at your buffet on (day and time). The food was satisfactory, but we were put off by the radio station played during our dinner. Not everyone is a Christian so playing contemporary Christian music isn’t great for business (and seems an odd choice to pair with stir-fry). We hope this will be corrected before our next visit.”

    One of my brothers owned a restaurant for many years. If a patron had any problem with the food or service he wanted to know it. There are a plethora of restaurants to go to it’s better to get customer feedback then to lose a customer. (And for every customer who complains there are 10 more that had the thought)

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    Flaunting your fish symbols or declaring yourself to be x-tian in your business here in the UK is not common. And certainly I’ve never come across any who use it to proselytise by having tracts etc there. But, since deconverting, I won’t go to the only craft shop in town which has all my many craft needs, ever since the owner was chatting to another customer ahead of me about her wonderful church. I’m a big fan of charity (thrift) stores, but won’t use any that support churches or missions, preferring cancer, hospice or heart charities. And, alluring as the St Vincent RC Charity shop looks when I pass it regularly…..and their £1 rail very enticing….I won’t even give them £1 of my money!

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    MJ Lisbeth

    Even when I was an Evangelical, I thought operating a business was a strange way to evangelize. I am not against people making money, but I have to wonder whether, to use Xian terminology, God or Mammon was the priority.

    On a related topic: When I was writing for a local newspaper, I covered community board meetings. One such meeting was held every month in a Knights of Columbus hall with a crucifix that covered most of its eastern wall. The meetings began with a prayer in which the CB President would beseech the Lord to “help us make good decisions.” Given that most CB members (and those who attended) were business and/or home owners, “good decisions” meant ones that would help them financially.

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    Bruce I always liked dealing with the public. I ran the concession at the Bryan Theater and later on the concession at the theater (name forgotten) in Defiance. I was popular with customers. I enjoyed people and always mashed an extra scoop of popcorn into the box which was noticed and appreciated. It wasn’t calculated to attract business but just because I enjoyed it. People do come back for more when they feel like it’s a good deal and I sold a lot. I always felt I had talent for business but I never had the confidence to try it on my own. A drive to succeed, confidence to try, and good business sense, need to coincide.
    Re: religious music piped in reminds me of Home Depot playing “God is Watching” on a loop to subliminally deter shoplifting. In don’t know if it ever worked but It annoyed me to the point I told the manager that if anything, it encouraged me to shoplift.

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    When approached by an evangelical, play dumb as if you know nothing. Then you can ask logical questions without them yelling, “Apostate! Heretic!”

    They automatically attack when they see that you used to be in the cult.

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    This reminds me of the story my dad told about the John Birch fanatic who ran his gas station/mechanic shop out of business. A combination of Christian music+speeches from Brother John didn’t go well with customers. An old man bought the place and in a few years, was popular and successful. Nothing drives customers away like a forced agenda.

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