Ken Brown is the manager of two Salvation Army Family Stores in Greensboro, North Carolina—and it is accepted that the main purpose of such stores across the territory is to provide funds to benefit the corps. These Greensboro stores, the main one located close to downtown, have been in the black for some time now.
It’s just that making a profit is not the prime objective. It is not even a close second. More like third, according to Ken.
“I’ve made it clear to our staff that evangelism is the most important mission of our store,” Ken says. In his 20 years as manager, Bibles and tracts are routinely given to customers and it is common to see a store volunteer praying with someone.
A secondary purpose for this Greensboro ministry is an arrangement with local courts to provide a work release alternative to incarceration for at-risk youth.
Ken leaves the third goal, revenue-generating, to God—Who promised Ken that “if I put first the things that are important to Him, He will take care of the rest!”
Ken’s first interaction with The Salvation Army came back in 1989, when he traveled to work with his Baptist Church disaster volunteers in the wake of Hurricane Hugo. He came away impressed after witnessing the close association of The Salvation Army Emergency Disaster Services and his Southern Baptist Convention Disaster Relief.
A few years later, Ken met The Salvation Army in Greensboro through the intervention of an advisory board member. “By that time, I was going through a dark episode in my life. I lost my family, my job, and was technically homeless while living in the unfinished house I had been working on.”
But Ken was hired by (then) Major Ward Matthews to oversee the thrift store program. As Ken came aboard, he says he felt the Lord saying to him, “Son, this is what I’ve been preparing you for all these years!”
Naturally, at first Ken thought of the family store as a revenue-generator—and he certainly realizes that money is needed to run the Army’s myriad ministries. But that soon changed.
“We used to have ‘roundtable’ meetings of family store directors, and at the very first one I went to, the first (and only thing, really) we discussed was revenue,” Ken recalls.
“What I didn’t hear,” he continues, “was the first part of the Army’s mission statement—‘to preach the gospel.’” That caused Ken to ask himself, What does preaching the gospel look like in a ministry like family stores?
The emphasis at both stores immediately shifted to personal interactions with customers, volunteers, and even folks dropping off donations. When the Army’s disaster canteen goes out for feeding the homeless, cards are distributed that allows them to come to the store for five items of clothing and shoes.
“If I see an employee intently talking with someone instead of hanging or sorting clothes, I will never come down on them. They are doing Kingdom-building, and that should be what family stores are all about!”
He’s even seen employees with an open Bible sharing with customers.
Ken has his cashiers routinely conclude each transaction with an offer to customers, like, “Tomorrow morning, we are having a staff prayer meeting—is there something you’d like for us to pray about for you?”
Ken says that usually catches people quite off guard. He calls that “the shock factor.” “Face it, who really asks someone if they can pray for them? There are times that people break down and open up to the gospel.”
With thousands of people entering the Army’s family stores every year, Ken sees this as what ought to be the focus of every store in the territory.
“They come here with a void in their lives, and our main focus is to try to fill that void by sharing about Jesus Christ!”
Another aspect of “Family Store Preaching” is in the Scales program, inaugurated by the Greensboro School District for troubled students expelled from their regular schools. The program ran for about ten years but was discontinued four years ago by the city. A similar arrangement is with juvenile detention services for work-release youth.
“We take a special interest in these kids,” Ken says. “We’ve had about 800 kids to date, and some of them have really turned their lives around.”
Ken sites one example of a young man approaching him while Ken was going through a fast-food drive-through. “He told me, ‘Mr. Ken, you don’t remember me, but I still have that Bible you gave me years ago. I joined the church and have a great job!’”
Occasionally, he will take a group of 25-35 kids to the Army’s Boys & Girls Club for an evening of hotdogs and basketball.
Ken is convinced that God is financially blessing the Greensboro Corps—not because of him—but because his staff is putting the things God cares about first.
“These are not customers, or kids in trouble, they are souls entrusted to us by God. It’s my vision that one day the Army everywhere will see Family Stores as a unique instrument for the gospel to be shared on a large scale!”
To emphasize that, Ken quotes Proverbs 29:18: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
“This is not really a business; it is a ministry—and there is no limit to what can happen to your family store when you use it to build the Kingdom of God! To do otherwise it is putting the cart before the horse.”