Learning from CarMax

Dr. James Emery White

I hate buying cars.

I hate how the sales staff waits like vultures out front, descending on you before you even get out of your car.

I hate how they push to get information about you – what you want to spend, are you going to trade anything in – all going into a plan to “work” you.

I hate how they steer you away from what you really want to what they are trying to “move.”

I hate how hard it is to get straight answers.

I hate how pushy they are to decide then and there, and won’t let you walk away without getting as much contact information as they can.

I hate haggling over a price, the back and forth, the mind games, the manipulation.

I hate having to bone up on the car’s actual price, being coy about whether I’m going to trade anything in, and getting my guard up about the “second” salesman who postures as a finance person but only wants to sell me more add-ons.

Did I mention I hate buying cars?

So I haven’t.  For a long time.  Like two cars with over 200,000 miles each long time.  But at some point, life – and mileage – catches up.  So I broke down and bought a car. 

Now get this:

For the first time in my life, I am actually looking forward to going back and, when needed, doing it again.

Because of CarMax.  (No, I don’t work for them, get kickbacks, have family involved, or own stock.)  Their slogan is simple: “The way car buying should be.” 

And they’re right.

They have changed my entire attitude toward buying cars, because they gave me an entirely different experience. 

I could skip the lot, go online, and select exactly what I wanted in a car – type, mileage, price, features.  Then a search engine would show me all the cars that fit my parameters. 

There was a “no-haggle” policy about the sticker price.  The idea was simple: they set what they felt was a reasonable and competitive price, but there were no negotiating games.

I could explore financing through the site, and if so desired, could have it completed online before I went.

The specific car I selected would be ready for me to test drive when I arrived on the lot, even if it meant getting there from 50 miles away.  No charge, and I could still walk away from it. 

There was no bait and switch when I arrived, or pressure to look at other cars.  Because of the online process, when I bought the car, they even had my tags ready.

So a reluctant, even hostile customer became a raging fan – and all it took was a different process.  Same transaction, same product, same goal, but a radically different experience.

It made me think about someone interested in exploring the Christian faith through a church.  Yes, like me with a car, there will be times even the most reluctant will find themselves walking through the doors of a church.

Easter and Christmas Eve. 

Birth of a baby. 



A wayward teen. 


Lost job. 

Unplanned pregnancy. 


Loss of a loved one.

But let’s face it.  They dread it.  Most people are open to God, but hate church. 

They hate having to dress up on a Sunday morning.

They hate having to listen to music that is either outdated, poorly performed, or just weird (what’s up with building an Ebeneezer?).

They hate feeling “hit on” for money, assaulted by ten-week sermon series titled “Tithe or Burn”, or forced to face a thermometer on the wall charting the latest drive.

They hate being recognized as a first-time visitor, made to stand out and feel more conspicuous than they already do, and then being forced to share contact information they aren’t ready to give.

They hate pushy, plastic “preaching” types that say the word “God” as if it has three syllables.

They hate being bored out of their skull for an hour or more.

They hate feeling judged and looked-down on for their lack of regular attendance.

They hate not knowing when to stand, when to sit, and what to recite.

They hate…

the experience.

But they don’t hate God.  Just like I didn’t hate new cars.  I actually wanted a new car, just like most people truly want God.  So maybe what we need in church isn’t a different “product,” as some mistakenly assume.  It’s not about watering things down, airbrushing out the tough parts on sin and repentance, or capitulating to cultural mores.

After all, I didn’t want a moped.

Maybe all we need is a new way of doing church. 

Of course, that would take doing something along the lines of what CarMax apparently did.  Namely, listening to the “customer” and finding out what it is they hate about the experience.  No, not letting surveys create a consumer-driven theology or anything else that would compromise the gospel.  But simply letting the feedback speak to the experience of attending, an experience that is often mired in practices and manners and methods that can create an alienating and off-putting experience.

Who knows? 

People might just drive away with a new life.

James Emery White


Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president.  His latest book is What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary (Baker).  To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world.  Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.