In response to new laws and countermeasures related to restroom usage and gender identity, Target has taken a stand saying it will allow customers and employees to use restrooms that best relate to one’s perceived gender. In other words, biological males who identify as women can be in the restroom with women and vice versa.
Social media lit up with opinions on both ends of the spectrum. From the side I’m on, one social call to action has stood above the rest: Boycott. The American Family Association’s online petition to boycott Target has garnered nearly 600,000 signatures, and the petition continues to circulate on social media.
I understand the sentiment and appeal of such an action. Hit board members where it hurts – their wallets. Stand up for truth. Click a few petition links and play a part in being the salt of the earth. It sounds like an easy and impactful way to take a stand, but is boycotting a corporation the best way to reflect Christ in light of the issues at stake? I worry that a strategy of cultural engagement centered around boycotts is doomed to undermine the true effectiveness of biblical evangelism.
Let’s Focus on the Real Problem
Boycotting typically focuses its efforts on reducing the ripple effects of the real problem. Think of it like this: You have a leak in your basement. Instead of fixing the dripping pipe, the plumber sets up various containers and buckets to contain it. But it’s only a provisional fix. Because the source of your leak hasn’t been addressed, your new bucket will eventually fill again. The plumber has only disguised the root problem.
Similarly, boycotts may make a statement, but often fail to trigger lasting change. We see the problem, in this case, a population that’s unsaved and thus has an unbiblical worldview, but instead try “a new bucket approach” by taking a stand against a corporation with our wallets. In the best-case scenario, Target goes back to its long-standing bathroom policy. While this would be great news, you could only call it a tempered victory—no disciples of Jesus would be made and the real underlying problem of sin would still exist.
If you look at the recent history of church-driven boycotts, you’ll find few long-term success stories. In response to Disney World’s “gay-days,” Christians began a boycott in 1997 that lasted eight years. Almost 20 years later, this event is now one of the largest gay celebrations in the nation, no one’s worldview has changed, and Christians are dressing their kids in Frozen, Avengers, and Star Wars gear—properties all owned by Disney. (See also: Starbucks, Apple, Amazon.)
As we’ve seen recently, boycotts and statements mirror the world’s response. Bruce Springsteen boycotts the state of North Carolina over its new legislation? Well then, Christians will boycott Target. Christians celebrate Chick-fil-A Day? Well then, the government will light up the White House in rainbow colors.
These back-and-forth “cultural stands” play out like a game of ping pong between Christians and the world. Once again, it’s gospel conversations, not a better spin move, that truly build up the Kingdom of Christ.
Despite the allure of boycott success (or the illusion of success), the real goal of being salt and light is to bring men and women out of darkness and into the marvelous light of Jesus’ gospel. Instead of signing petitions and getting our toilet paper from Wal-Mart over Target, we have the opportunity to engage our culture with conversations that gracefully illuminate the reason for our hope.
Let’s grow comfortable explaining why we trust the Bible. This then gives us the opportunity to share the Bible’s greatest story, the gospel. The gospel lends itself to a conversation about the cost of discipleship and the Lordship of Christ. And this in turn, leads to passages of Scripture that construct a Christian’s worldview on issues such as sexuality and gender roles.
Boycotting as a sole strategy for culture engagement bypasses these helpful conversations. It jumps right to shouting, “You need to act like us!” without explaining why we act the way we do. It leaves the gospel out and heralds morality agreement as the ultimate goal of a Christian’s cultural aim.
Boycotts Have Local Impact
Additionally, boycotting hurts people who have the least effect on change within their company. If all Targets in the South dropped top-line sales 3 percent over next month due to Christian boycotts, guess what would happen? It’s possible employees would get their hours cut to compensate for those stores’ bottom-line figures until things blow over. Do you think a CEO is sweating a six-digit bonus over a 3 percent decline in a certain cluster of stores for a quarter? Not at all.
I’m more concerned about the single mom making ends meet or the college kid paying his tuition by working the late shift at Target. I’ve worked in retail long enough to know that adjusting personnel expenses at the frontline level is the quickest and most controllable way to counter a decline in sales. When you boycott a retail corporation, you’re not sticking it to the man; you’re hurting those who live paycheck-to-paycheck in your neighborhood. As such, retail boycotting can hurt your witness to your local community.
Let me be clear. I’m very much against Target’s stand. Not only does it present a policy that goes against a biblical worldview, I believe it also harbors a very real safety concern. I’ll do my best to represent these concerns and use local, state, and national politics as an avenue to give God glory. I will strive to balance grace and truth in conversations that address the heart of issues at stake. However, for the love of my community and the sake of the gospel being proclaimed, I will not boycott in the name of evangelism.
Boycotting, as it turns out, is just too easy. Christians are not called to avoid the culture out of disgust, but rather to engage it in wisdom, love, and truth. In light of current events, it’s worth asking if our shopping habits and social media posts reflect that calling to a world whose ultimate need is not gender-defined bathrooms in stores, but a crucified, buried, and resurrected Christ who offers salvation from sin.
Aaron Wilson works as a church consultant after spending 15 years in Christian retail. A blogger, writer, and editor, he lives with his family in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The original version of this post, 3 Missional Truths to Consider Before Boycotting Target, appeared on Aaron’s blog, Give God Glory.