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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Living With Joy

The Super Bowl is a cultural spectacle. It is the only championship game where you will have more non-fans or marginally interested people tune in to watch the festivities. The game is almost a side attraction to the entire event and day.

You have the six-hour pre-game show. You have the halftime show. You have the commercials. I think more than anything else it is the commercials that non-sports fans will take away from the game. Were they funny? Were they relevant? Did they make you want to buy what they were selling?

This year’s Super Bowl commercials were of the typical variety. You had some that were emotional. You had some that were innovative. You had some that you wished never were aired. And, of course, you had some that were absolutely funny.

For my take, none were funnier than a commercial featuring the iconic Morgan Freeman. The short spot featured Freeman dance and lip sync to a Missy Elliot song while trying to promote “Mountain Dew Ice.” Extra points for anyone who watched the commercial and could remember exactly what Freeman was advertising.hqdefault

Several days after the game and I cannot get the commercial out of my head. I’ve watched it a few times since on YouTube. It is a great commercial. When you watch it you can feel Freeman’s sense of joy. It radiated through Freeman’s performance as he walked from the fireplace to the middle of the floor while trying to keep up with the lyrics. He was enjoying life.

What I love about the commercial, as well, is that Freeman is 80-years old and will soon be 81. Age is truly just a number for Freeman. It was not going to prevent him from enjoying life and living it out.

I don’t know about you, but when I am 81 I want to have that kind of zeal for life. I believe that kind of zeal is what God desires for us. I believe God created us to be people of joy and love who do not allow things like the number of years of our life or our own beliefs of what we can and cannot do keep us from living with a sense of joy.

The Psalmist writes in Psalm 9:2, “I will be filled with joy because of you. I will sing praises to your name, O Most High.” I read that and hear God calling us to find joy throughout life, to find ways to be emotionally, physically, and spiritually active, and to inspire others with our sense of joy that comes from the Lord.

You are never too old to live with joy. You are never too old to find a way to inspire others. You are never to old to love God and share that love with others. The question becomes what does that look like when you’re 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, or even 90? It is going to look different throughout the ages, yes, but it doesn’t mean we stop looking for joy or serving God simply because we’ve hit a certain age. God doesn’t call us to give up on finding joy in our lives simply because we are not comfortable with our age.

Life is best when we are living it to the fullest for God with joy no matter what age we are.

Walking into an Unknown Future

Recently, the Commission on a Way Forward, a 32-member team tasked with discerning the future of the United Methodist Church, released its initial proposal aimed at resolving questions within the church regarding homosexuality. This team has worked since the middle of 2016 on a plan, which will need approval by a called General Conference in February 2019.472017_436765336365086_256924354_o

According to the United Methodist News Service, the options on the table include:

  1. Keep the Book of Discipline language regarding homosexuality, and place an emphasis upon accountability.
  2. Remove language regarding homosexuality from the Book of Discipline in order to allow for contextualized ministry. The plan would also protect those who would not be comfortable with ordaining or marrying LGBTQ individuals.
  3. Would provide a unified set of doctrine, services, and Council of Bishops, while also paving a way for different groups within the church to have its own values, accountability, and mission.

As is often the case, when receive new information on something that is unknown we want to know more. What does this mean for Ogden Memorial? What does this mean for the Kentucky Annual Conference? What does this mean for the church as a whole?

Many of those questions we cannot answer, at least not yet.

That becomes the struggle of living into the unknown. We want to have all the answers before we take a bold step into an unknown future. The same is true for us, as a local church, as we discern where God is leading us within a changing culture and ministry context. We want to know what will happen, when it will happy, and how it will happen.

I get it, because I am just like that. Sometimes I am more like the Israelites walking with Moses than I care to admit. I want to be like the disciples who dropped everything to follow Jesus. More often than not I ask questions, want all the information, and hesitate to act before I am confident I know what is going to happen and when, just as the Israelites questioned Moses’ leadership continually, in part, because they weren’t sure what would happen next.

Faith, however, is the willingness to see the unseen and trust that God is at work, even when we do not have all the answers. No matter what happens within the United Methodist Church, there are some constants that will not change.

We will love Jesus.

We will love our neighbors.

We will make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our world here in Princeton.

So, even though we don’t have all the answers we know where God is calling us to go and who to be: love the Lord, love our neighbors, and make disciples. That is our greatest purpose as we walk into a new future.

Keep Persevering

There is nothing better than baseball in October. The thrill of the playoff chase. The tradition of the World Series and hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy at the end of the season. The tradition that the Cubs will lose.

At least, that is my yearly hope. You see, I am a St. Louis Cardinals fan which means that cheering for the Chicago Cubs is one of the worst thing you can do in sports. Some friends of mine who share my opinion have gone as far as to say we are “NeverCubs.” My few Cubs friends tell me this is the year. That this is the year the curses will be lifted and that a championship will return to Wrigley Field for the first time since 1908 William Taft was preparing to make William Jennings Bryan the Chicago Cubs of presidential politics. Look it up and you’ll see what I mean.

My few Cubs friends tell me that all their troubles center around a goat named Murphy. Legend has it that a storeowner, Billy Sianis, tried to bring his goat to Game 4 of the 1945 World Series. When he was asked to remove the goat, Sianis became irate said that the Cubs would never win another World Series. The Cubs were up 2-1 in the series and would eventual lose the series.

Truthfully, though, as much as I cannot pull for the Cubs I do admire the perseverance of Cubs fans who continually believe, “This is our year.” Even when things seem too difficult to believe or the season does not go as they would hope they never give up. They continue to believe that something good, another World Series title, is coming their way. Continue reading

Turn Out the Distractions

Every Sunday before the sermon, I try to gather us together with a centering prayer. What this prayer does is it gives us space to catch our breath, collect our thoughts, and to prepare ourselves to hear what God wants us for us today. I know, for some, the sermon is a time for a nap, but this time is truly a time of deep discipleship where we are encouraged and challenged to grow closer to God’s love. This is the most important time of the worship service.

The importance of this time is why I try to include this phrase in the pre-sermon prayer each week: Turn out the distractions of our days and of our lives so that we may be attentive to your voice and what you have for us this day. Sound familiar? These words are important for all of us, because I recognize we often come to worship distracted by the concerns, worries, and moments in our lives. Continue reading

Sunday Sermon: Run the Race

Today’s sermon will be a little different than normal. This morning, I want to specifically speak to our five youth who were confirmed today. In doing so, I hope I might say something that will impact each of our lives, and that includes my own.

This is a momentous day in each of your lives and in the ministry and life of this congregation. What each of you have done is to make several public proclamations. By your presence, you have proclaimed your thanks for those who have walked with you through the years and have taught you about faith, about Jesus, and about what it means to follow the Lord. You have proclaimed your desire to live for Christ with your every word and breath. Finally, you have proclaimed your intent to be a witness of Jesus Christ through your example and actions in this world.

It is a huge responsibility and blessing you have committed yourselves to today. It is not something to be taken lightly. For as all of us can attest, living for Christ and seeking to be his witness every day are some of the hardest things we will ever attempt to do. That is why stories like the rich young ruler, who wanted as little of Jesus as he could without the Lord wrecking his life, speak to us. We want to proclaim our faith in Christ without the life Jesus desires for us ever messing with the life we want. Continue reading

Sunday Sermon: Not That Heavy

It was a short walk, maybe about 10 steps, from my bedroom to the kitchen where my mom would sit at the table. Often I would make those few steps to go to her with a question on how to do something.

How do I solve this problem? How do I answer this question? How do I get out of this bit of trouble?

We all go to our parents, especially our mothers, for assistance, because we trust them and know that they will help us. So, we go with our questions looking for help and trusting that our mothers will try to lead us in the right direction.

So it is with questions in mind as we gather today. I think all of us gather for worship each Sunday with a very basic question on our hearts. That question is this: How do we live this life that Jesus desires? In other words, how are we to follow what Christ desires for us today in a world filled with all of its challenges, obligations, and influences? Continue reading