June 10, 2014


“If Peters’ doesn’t have it, you probably don’t need it.”

That has never been the official marketing slogan of Peters’ General Store in the Berkshire town of Heath, Massachusetts, but it might as well be. At Peters’ you can get anything your heart desires—so long as your desires are restrained by Yankee thriftiness.

In its dark and narrow aisles you can find everything you need for a weekend at your summer spot or the supplemental odds and ends that get you through until your next visit to the nearest Walmart, fully an hour away. Cereal, peanut butter, milk, toilet paper, laundry soap, fishhooks and the worms with which to bait them—all are stocked in the aging store that still gets most of the attention in this town of 706 inhabitants.

Christians linger where they are loved, embraced, and made to feel welcome.

I have been browsing the aisles of Peters’ Store for more than 50 summers now, beginning when my eyes were barely above the level of the counter that still offers penny candy. Butterscotches, root beer barrels, yards of thin red licorice: all were—and are—still counted out with slow deliciousness into the pint-sized paper bags.

And though I went there mostly for the candy and the fishhooks, I soon discovered that the tiny store is the emotional and spiritual crossroads of this hill town, more central to its life than the annual town meeting or the nearly empty wooden churches that line the town common. At Peters’ you can find your neighbors and your necessities, usually in that order. I’ve often marveled how a simple trip to get a box of Cheerios becomes an hourlong meander through the status of the corn crop, the prospects for the August town fair, and the totals of the turkey hunt. In case you missed any of it, copies of the Heath Herald are available beside the gummy bears.

I remind myself that analogies are dangerous tools, but I can’t resist the one that compares this “old-fashioned” country store to the most successful Adventist congregations. No, it’s not the sticky flypaper or the clover honey they have in common, but a deep, intuitive understanding of the reasons people choose their company:

1. An emphasis on needs, not wants. At Peters’ you don’t expect to find the Jumbo Super-sized Water-Soaker Cannon with which to blow away your brother in the annual July 4th water fight. A simple dozen red balloons are all you truly need—those, cold water, and surprise. Congregations that study the needs of their communities—for health, for safety, for reasons to hope—are economical in outreach, “scratching where it itches,” offering what harried, hurried men and women call out for, not just what the loudest voices demand.

2. A focus on essentials, not fads. Truffle oils and designer vinegars may be the rage in pricey Boston boutiques, but you will search in vain for them on Peters’ narrow shelves. Canola and corn oils will work as well, and leave more of your money in your pocket. The churches that do the core gospel things well—inspiring worship, relevant music, strong preaching, and frequent fellowship—are rewarded with the loyalty of members who gladly call those places “home.” Christians linger where they are loved, embraced, and made to feel welcome, not only where the hearers text their questions to the preacher or the Facebook page is hourly updated.

3. An expectation of conversation. The young woman behind the cash register at Peters’ is anything but a chatterbox, but it seems somehow uncivil to buy your picnic supplies without at least a brief inquiry about the weather, the price of gas, or the new house going up on the No. 9 Road. By shopping at Peters’, you acknowledge a basic human need for interaction with your neighbors. The healthiest Adventist churches also understand this baseline requirement that the congregation be a “house of conversation” as well as a “house of prayer”—a companionable refuge for people made lonely by the fragmentation of families and the isolations of technology. In such conversation, new life in Christ will flourish and bear fruit.

God willing, I will get to Peters’ at least once this summer, if only for the root beer barrels. And, by His grace, I’ll worship this next Sabbath with an Adventist congregation that understands—like Peters’—what holds a community together.