When Giants Fall (What the Demise of Sears and Roebuck Can Teach the Church)
Today is the last gasp of a retail Goliath.
Either Sears ponies up $120 million dollars and supplies a clear plan for restructure, or the store will be sent to bankruptcy and formally liquidated. It will be the end of a megastore that ruled American commerce for 132 years.
Sears was originally founded in 1886 as a watch company and within two years launched a catalog that attracted both attention and customers. Like Amazon.com would do a century later, Sears eventually began selling “everything from sewing machines to sports equipment” through its mail-order catalogs. America was largely rural and Sears revolutionized how retailers operated. They succeeded by engaging modern middle class desires, mainstream print media and mechanized business formulas.
Sears revolutionized how retailers operated. They succeeded by engaging modern middle class desires, mainstream print media and mechanized business formulas.
Sears didn’t open its first physical store until 1925. Let that fact sink in. For forty years the company operated purely from a mail-order model, but now began to reinvent. In 1927, they launched the Kenmore brand, followed by All-State insurance (1931) and the famous Christmas catalog (1933). Everything they did, worked…and the company was highly profitable. At the end of World War 2, Sears was topping $1 billion in sales.
By then suburbia was bubbling in post-war America. Sears led the way and built new stores all over America (1946). They pioneered credit cards and innovated fresh brands like DieHard batteries and Craftsman tools. Sears could do no wrong. In 1973 they built the world’s tallest building: Chicago’s Sears tower. At their zenith they boasted over 3000 stores, many anchored to a new shopping destination called a “mall.”
But in the 1980s the Sears brand fumbled. Despite their anchor store status, Walmart emerged as the new retail giant. People liked “super store” variety but with affordability and convenience. In 1991, Sears finally lost their “top-selling retailer” mantle to the Arkansas superstore. Three years later Sears sold its namesake tower. In 1993 they stop producing their catalog and moved the Christmas catalog online (1998). In the early 2000s Sears merged with Lands End (2002) and Kmart (2005) but profits continued to slide. Sears was in a free fall.
In the past four years, Sears has been selling everything just to keep the lights on. Nothing’s worked. In the fourth quarter of 2016 Sears lost $607 million. Christmas never came for Sears that year. Nor Kmart. Nor other juggernaut stores like Macy’s and JC Penney. The mall they anchor is also dying a slow death. Toys R Us is history. Claire’s jewelry boutiques is in bankruptcy. Even Walmart has faced difficulty.
The new retail Goliath is cyber store Amazon. It’s now the most valuable company (and brand) in the world, overtaking Microsoft computers. Originally specializing in books, this online retailer now delivers groceries (something Sears originally did) and a zillion other things. Amazon gift cards are popular Christmas presents. The online retailer continues to rake financial fortunes as it pioneers future home deliveries through automation (robots, drones, driverless vehicles).
It’s a jungle out there and it’s called Amazon.
What can the church learn from Sears’ story?
1. Reinvent or die.
For most of its celebrated history, Sears innovated and led but when it relaxed, focusing more on maintenance than mission, it lost traction. In a 21C culture that’s fluid, fast and flexible, churches need to continually respond, reinvent and reimagine “wineskins” (but not the Wine). The Message or “gospel of Jesus Christ” never changes but the models, strategies, styles and frameworks do.
Too many churches fear change, particularly in technology that creates fresh social interactions. We live in a visual culture–an experiential society that learns through screens, podcasts and videos–and yet remain wedded to passive, lecture-driven communication formats.
2. Watch the lure of success.
Pride comes before a fall and Sears is a classic tale of hubris. Too many churches build towers rather than bridges, monuments rather than movements and legacies rather than living vision.
I had a Millennial couple recently join my home group. Afterwards, the young man enthusiastically shared how he finally felt he had found a real “church.” I asked him if he attended a church (like the rest of our group does every Sunday) and he said no. The reason? He struggled with how much money the church spends on its facilities. It turned him and his wife off. They felt it was wrong. He’s the son of a missionary, by the way.
3. Know your culture.
The same year Sears sold its tower (1994) Jeff Bezos launched Amazon.com. Three years later Sears finally entered dot.com world, but it was too late. Sears was tied to a dead man’s name. Amazon was the biggest river (and soon store) in the world. Too many churches overlook, dismiss or oppose cultural changes when they need to interpret, understand and embrace the opportunities change creates.
Since 1960, the modern culture has been on life support. Christendom, founded 1700 years ago, is equally fading into history. In a post 9-11 and Great Recession world, the Industrial Revolution is over. We now live in a post-modern, post-industrial, post-Christian world…but the Church is still operating like it’s 2005 or 1995 or 1985 or 1975.
Want to study the “generations” and how technology has changed our world and what the Church must do to reinvent? Book Rick to come share with your church, conference or training event in 2019!
Ultimately every living thing dies.
It’s the way of the world. Just ask Kodak (another one of those giants who failed to reinvent).
Fortunately the Church is Eternal and Living.
The Wine is always fresh. Sears simply teaches us that wineskins do fissure, fracture and fail if we don’t pay attention.
Church, we truly need to pay attention.
Posted on January 9, 2019, in American church, church attendance, Church buildings, Church Decline, Culture and Christianity, Leadership, Preaching, Worship and tagged Christian education, church, Culture, Leadership. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.