Lessons learnt in the shopping centre – Mary-Anne Rulfs

I’m shopping centre averse.

Given that I live 10 minutes from Pacific Fair and take less than 2 minutes to walk from my desk in the church office to be inside Robina Town Centre, I spend remarkably little time in either shopping centre.

On reflection, there are a few reasons for that.

My choice of venue for pastoral or social catch ups will always veer towards an outdoor setting, or at least one where I can see trees and the sky. I’m wired like that. Our local outdoor café, where many people from our church community catch up for coffee, is ideal. Not only is it a lovely walk past water and through an arbour to get there, there’s an outdoorsy feel once you’re seated. And I enjoy their coffee! It suits me.

I enjoy our community space, Lakeview, for the same reasons. We can roll the doors wide open and have inside-outside flow, as well as having natural light and a glimpse of trees and the sky through the glass around the ceiling. And the coffee is great!

In contrast, I feel I’m being swallowed up by concrete and glass when I walk inside a shopping centre, relying on artificial light to find my way around and breathing ‘processed’ air.

Time has played a part too. The last many years have felt ridiculously busy for several reasons with little time for shopping centres. Fortunately, that frenetic pattern has been dissembled in the last year or two and life has a much healthier rhythm and flow.

Online shopping works great for me! From the comfort of home I can scroll through options when I need to make a purchase and have it delivered. How convenient!

I can feel overwhelmed by the materialism of our culture when I’m engulfed by relentless in-your-face advertising and the surplus-to-need items stocked in shopping centre stores.

In a conversation with my spiritual director this week I also discovered that perhaps I hold an attitude of judgement towards the whole shopping centre culture. It came up when we were talking about sermon illustrations … she encouraged me to take a walk and observe people more closely. After all, ‘people’ are the core concern of my role, and I’m likely to encounter lots of people in the shopping centre 2 minutes from our office!

In reality, far more people are frequenting shopping centres than our church buildings. Far more people engage in the rituals of window shopping or making purchases than the ritual of Sunday morning worship and communion. I expect far more people are church-averse than shopping centre averse and there is a lot to be learnt from that.

Here’s what I learnt about myself and the world we live in as I made time to wander through Robina Town Centre this week …

I discovered that I had unnecessarily waited all year and done without simply because I hadn’t made time to go and buy 2 items in particular I needed – an item of clothing and a Bluetooth speaker. They have been on my ‘to do’ list all year! I couldn’t buy them online because I wanted to physically see the whole range, try them and talk through options with a shop assistant. Now I have them life will be better!

I discovered shop assistants to be amazing. They patiently answered my questions, showed me alternatives, were very well informed, and friendly and courteous. I felt so good after my interactions with them.

I discovered that while an online buying experience is efficient, it lacks the richness of human interaction.

I discovered that I felt more human, not less, by being in a space ritually frequented by other humans, where we were all trying to do our best in this life to do normal human things – to look good, feel good, care for our children, run our households, enjoy life and buy appropriate gifts for friends and family members.

I discovered that we have an amazing abundance of good things to enjoy. Discovering some quirky little Christmas decorations that I know will bring a smile to my grandchildren’s faces was a beautiful and unexpected moment. Bang smack in the middle of the materialistic excess I can feel so judgemental towards.

I also discovered that many things I’d wondered about were probably true – most people will find going to a shopping centre far more accessible, comfortable and even meaningful in the moment than walking into a church building. Shopping centres provide the language, images, sounds and habits that serve as meaning-making rituals for people. They are comfortable and familiar and you’re not alone.

Which doesn’t negate the reality that our consumerist culture is also an unsustainable burden for the growing number of people who are struggling financially .

Many people are church-averse through a perceived lack of time, judgement about who and what they will encounter, disappointment or pain from previous experiences and not feeling that church will add anything meaningful to their life.

While I don’t naturally feel inclined to walk into the shopping centre 2 minutes from our office, far more people don’t naturally feel inclined to visit our church property and engage with what we have to offer although they may walk right past every day.

Faithful people in our church community are offering all kinds of ways for people to engage with who we are and what we offer – God’s love. And new people are engaging every week in ones and twos. For me, the image of the doves flying out from the cross above the sanctuary in our church building is a metaphor for this kind of going out into the world to love and serve God by loving and serving others where we find them. And rather than feeling exclusive, embracing the richness of life around us in the company of others.

I’ll still want to value those things about shopping that bring dignity and respect to others – exploring fair trade and ethically produced options for Christmas presents, using recyclable or biodegradable gift wrapping and packaging, and focussing on people rather than things – yet in ways that makes me more connected with others and the world we live in.

As we prepare to make our way through Advent and towards Christmas, how might we make small changes to our routine and perspectives that will open the space we inhabit and connect it with our locality so that it becomes even more inviting, more appealing and more accessible for everyday people who deep down want to find something even more deeply fulfilling and meaningful than shopping centre ritual?

As I left the shopping centre on Thursday evening, almost as a benediction to my pilgrimage, these words played through the centre’s sound system, “O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord”.

Grace and peace,