willow-creek-community-churchs-new-care-centerA decade ago, Virginia Postrel argued in her book The Substance of Style that we live in an age of aesthetics, a period where the way things look, feel, and smell have come to matter to all social classes. She explained why the aesthetic aspects of products, services, and experiences are not merely cosmetic niceties but tap into deep human instincts and needs.

Many corporations, such as Apple and Target, have used this insight to attract new customers and increase customer loyalty. But social entrepreneurs whose “customers” are the poor and needy have been slow in making their services more aesthetically pleasing. One prominent exception is the services provided by Willow Creek Community Church, an evangelical megachurch located outside of Chicago. According to the Chicago Tribune,

Bray said oftentimes when someone is in need and they walk into an outreach center for help, they feel like they are “in a lower-tier environment.”

But Willow has “rolled out the red carpet” for people in need, Bray said.

The 60,000-square-foot addition to the church is laid out less like a thrift shop or food pantry, and more like an upscale mall, complete with cheery colors, welcoming seating areas and designer lighting.

The center was made possible through church members’ tithes and donations, the services of 2,000 volunteers, and “lots of years of dreaming and praying of what outreach in the community looks like,” said Nicole Burt, director of operations for the church.

The center includes a children’s clothing store that looks more like a boutique, offering new and gently used clothing for children. The store collects a $5 fee per child per visit to further promote a sense of dignity in families who shop there.

It also offers a “full-choice grocery store” where families can “shop” name-brand foods. It replaces the church’s food pantry in Hoffman Estates.

A full-service auto center also is on site. Volunteer mechanics help with any auto repairs and diagnostics, and labor is free, church officials said. This shop is the new location of the church’s C.A.R.S. (Christian Auto Repairmen Serving) Ministry, formerly in Elgin.

New to the church’s ministry are the dental and ophthalmologist clinics. Dentists and ophthalmologists volunteer their time to care for people who otherwise would not afford to receive such services. The church requests a $20 co-pay, which then is deposited into the church’s benevolence fund, which in turn helps others. For those who cannot pay, the co-pay is waived, church officials said.

Willow Creek understands, though, that “While it seems like the Christian thing to do to give somebody something for free, it actually undermines dignity and development.” Rather than merely providing relief services in an “upscale mall” setting the Care Teams at the church work to provide their clients with a stable, financially secure future. As senior pastor Bill Hybels says, the vision of the church’s Care Center is to lift people up with dignity and get them to a place where they can provide for themselves. That’s a worthy mission—and one provided in a setting that respects the dignity of those in need.