Category Archives: church attendance

When Giants Fall (What the Demise of Sears and Roebuck Can Teach the Church)

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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.

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The Great Church Exodus: Three Reasons Why They Left

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The Millennials have left the building.

Countless kids who grew up in children’s and youth ministries, who memorized scripture at Vacation Bible School, who spent summers in church camps, who worshipped in age-segregated “children’s” and “teen” churches, who served as youth mentors, participated in mission trips around the world and enjoyed the finest youth ministry resources, events, concerts and experiences in the history of the Church…no longer attend church services.

In general, they’ve been tagged the “nones.”

When it comes to church affiliation, they mark themselves “none.” They don’t attend church. They don’t appreciate church. They don’t think it’s necessary to their spirituality or Christianity. Many profess atheism or agnosticism. They want “none” of it.

Even Gen X is quitting. 

Known as the “dones” this cohort of American Christians are tired of the games, the “show,” and the politics of “churchianity.” They endured the worship wars between the Boomers and their G.I. elders in the 1980s. They suffered through the “mega-fication” of the Church, particularly in evangelical strains. They watched the quaint church of their youth evolve into malls, performance halls, schools and corporate offices. They’re now in their 40s and 50s and growing tired, cynical and cranky.

It’s why most American churches are graying fast.

The Baby Boomers are the only ones left.

I recently enjoyed two insightful conversations with formerly churched individuals.

  • Bryan (not his real name) is a twenty-something Millennial who grew up as a pastor’s kid. He attended church every Sunday with high participation in the events, programs and studies his church offered. He volunteered to lead worship, counsel and mentor. He went to Bible college but eventually dropped out. He stopped attending church recently, mostly due to work conflicts on Sundays.
  • Jerry (not his real name) is a fifty-something Gen X pastor who rarely missed a day of church until five years ago. He’s got a degree in theology, served as a small group leader, youth minister, lay counselor and elder. He and his wife moved to town a few years ago. They found a church, but not “community.” Now they stay home and “live stream” services and fellowship in a small group Bible study.

Both men are committed to Christianity. They believe deeply in Jesus, but have grown cynical of what they experience at church.

I asked them both “Why don’t you personally attend church anymore?”  

 

“It’s not engaging.”

Despite all the bells and whistles, lights and fog machines, video and sound cues, both Bryan and Jerry found their church experiences dry and “ho hum.” Bryan says most Christian music bores him, even though he played in a worship band. Jerry was more complimentary. He likes the contemporary worship and preaching, but has tired of fighting traffic to just “sit there” for an hour.

Both Bryan and Jerry say church isn’t worth their time. In fact, it’s often a waste of time.

Now before we judge that harsh view of church, let’s be brutally honest. We raised our Millennial kids in an “entertainment” church model. We suckled them on “Veggie Tales” and weaned them on Crowder and Tomlin worship sets. We incentivized their spiritual practices with “Bible Bucks,” candy, toys and money. We reduced discipleship to entertaining curriculum, youth pastor “talks,” large events, youth lock-ins and retreats, and annual teen conferences.

So it’s no wonder they’re walking away. The church will never compete with Hollywood (nor should it try). We taught Millennial Christians to conform (to the rules) and perform (to our expectations) but not to be transformed by Jesus Christ. And, frankly, if we’re honest most of our churches today are just doing “youth ministry for adults” and that’s the problem. That model failed to attract young disciples yesterday and it’s failing to retain adult disciples today.

 

“I don’t need it.”

Which produces the second general reason Millennials and Gen Xers are done with church attendance: it’s not necessary to their Christianity.

I asked Millennial Bryan where he goes to be nurtured and discipled in his faith and his answer was sobering: a small community of Christian friends, podcasts and the Internet. Gen X Jerry expressed a similar sentiment: “I can get the same experience in my pajamas at home on Sunday morning as I do in physically attending a church service.”

Again, this brutal critique has some truth to it. The modern Church, driven by Enlightenment values in reasoning and Industrial Age principles in business and operations, essentially created a conveyer belt religion that focuses on producing numbers (attendance, offerings) and things (programs, staff, facilities) rather than discipling persons. We see it in the vocabulary of the “modern” Christian: “I went to church last week” or “I’m attending church tomorrow.” Modern Christianity was about place and time, but in a post-Christian and post-modern world that’s 24/7/365 both space and time are irrelevant. We can learn without a physical school and the dying modern church is discovering that postmodern Christians don’t need a “place or time” to spiritually grow.

 

“They don’t miss me.”

Ironically, both Bryan and Jerry echoed this same refrain: after several weeks of absence their churches showed no concern.

Millennial Bryan views this as hypocrisy. He says his church was always preaching “community” and “friendships” but as soon as he stepped down from his leadership role (to ease some burnout) and missed a few weeks, he realized no one really cared about him. Gen X Jerry said the same thing. He still goes to church occasionally (“out of guilt,” he confides) but no one acts like he’s been gone. “It’s just easier to stay home and mail in the check,” he adds, “besides I find my ‘community’ in my small group and that’s good enough for me.”

The dirty secret reality of many churches today is the average church-goer moves on within a few years and many leave within months. People join a new church hoping to find friends but end up disenchanted.

Ironically, when I asked both Bryan and Jerry what it would take for them to return to active church attendance, they both quickly answered: a friend. I want to hang with people who have similar values, said Millennial Bryan. Essentially, they’re not going to church for the worship (though inspiring) or the preaching (though instructive). What they want is connection, cooperation, companionship, collaboration and community. They hunger for a spiritual experience with friends and most churches don’t offer (at least easily) these opportunities.

“When was the last time you went to church and made a new friend?” Gen X Jerry asked.

Friendships and authentic community is what’s missing.

It’s definitely what the first century church enjoyed:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47).

It’s the type of church Bryan and Jerry long to experience.

Come to think of it, it’s the type of church I want to attend too.

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