Lessons for the Church at Sears

My grandmother has this fascination with buying Christmas presents early. I want to appreciate that in her, but something has always made me shrug my shoulders when in August and September she lovingly asks, “What do you think Noah wants for Christmas.”

Now, take me back to the days of getting the Sears’ Wish Book in the mail and I can promise you I had a different reaction. We looked forward to receive the catalog each year. When it arrived, we would turn through the catalog’s pages as if it we were on a shopping spree filled with endless wonders. We would circle our desired items and eagerly wait for Christmas morning.

I still have never got the electronic football field game.

On Monday, a part of the American experience came to an end. Once the nation’s largest retailer, Sears Holdings filled for bankruptcy protection in a move that was long expected for the struggling commercial giant. The filling sets in motion a series of developments that will lead to the closing of 142 stores and other changes.

While business writers and economists will talk about what Sears’ bankruptcy filing means for the economy or, even, the upcoming midterm elections, I’m left wondering what lessons the church can take from the bankruptcy. There are warning signs for the church within Sears’ bankruptcy.

For one, at the root of Sears’ struggles is a legacy of trying to maintain its current business model without much adaptation to reach new people. Since Sears’ lost the title of “America’s top retailer” to Wal-Mart in the 1990s, the company has been trying different approaches with the same goal in mind: Get back to its once lofty position in the American consumer market.

What Sears failed to realize was how the market was changing, especially with the advent of online shopping and retail stores that were more targeted to specific segments of the economy. It struggled to adapt and maintained a large presence in the “big box” store mindset of having people come to them.

The church, especially in the United States, has a similar problem. One of our struggles is how to adapt to the world around us. We are in the midst of a historic seismic shift in the way people think and approach religion. At the same time, we are seeing changes in the culture, especially in how people receive information and engage with one another. This is a 500-year shift in how we think and approach community life that is the equivalent to the changes that took place prior to the Reformation.

In response, we are struggling to appropriately adapt to the changes. Many of our activities with the culture are centered around a mindset of “doing the things we’ve always done … but better” mindset. We are more concerned with maintaining the status quo, and often believe that if we do so that we will also reach new people. The two cross each other out. We cannot continue to do the same things, especially if they are not working to reach people, and expect them to work.

What adaptations Sears did undertake, in the last 20 years, was centered on consolidation and assuring loyal customers would remain loyal. There was limited outreach to gain new consumers for their stories.

One of the biggest decisions for Sears in that time frame, beyond today’s announcements, was the acquisition of Kmart in 2005. The merger was intended to promote a larger outreach and a renewed vitality for the retailers, but in time only led to a weaker product. Sears was left to deal with under-performing stores in bad locations. The move led to the company beginning a slow process of closing stores, while also trying to maintain its customer base.

It didn’t work.

The church struggles with the same temptation to try new things that only end up reaching the same people. A merger, for instance, of Sears and Kmart only benefited those who favored shopping at those stories. It wasn’t going to move people who didn’t like shopping in giant stores to come their way. It was an internal move that led to disastrous internal responses.

Many of our conversations in the church only pertain to those who are already part of our communities, especially when it comes to outreach. When we talk about reaching new people, often what we really mean is we want to encourage those who have left to come back home. While that kind of outreach is important and needed, what we often forget about is the important bridge-building work that needs to be done to share the love of Jesus Christ with those who believe there is nothing for them in the community of faith.

Like Sears, what often hinders us from having those conversations are concerns about resources and money. The church, today, spends a large amount of our resources making sure we have enough money in the offering plate to support our work. The conversation, though, is about maintaining what we are doing, because by the time we get to doing missions and outreach there is seldom enough time, because our focus is on making sure the church doesn’t close its doors.

Jesus doesn’t call us to a Sears-type ministry. In fact, Jesus calls us into a ministry and mission where the harvest is plentiful. To reach the generation that is in front of us will require us to adapt our missional engagements to be more effective. The message of Jesus Christ never changes, but how we reach people and share that love may need to look different in order to share that love.

If we are unwilling to make the necessary adaptations, the stories written about the church in the future may be the same written, today, about Sears: A once mighty cornerstone of the community that was never able to keep up with the times.

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