Death Spiral: What Sears, the Mall, and Your Church Have in Common

For anyone older than 40, you likely grew up with a Sears catalog in your hand, flipping through the “Wish Book” as you looked for a toy to add to grandma’s Christmas list. Sears was a mainstay of 20th century American life. It’s where we got our appliances. It’s where we bought our tools. It’s where we went for back-to-school shopping.

And what we bought from Sears, we expected to last. With brands like Craftsman, Kenmore, and DieHard, the company once represented stability and dependability, particularly for older Americans.

But as of last Wednesday, the iconic company is on a death watch. In a stunning development, the company that operates Searsreported that it had “substantial doubt” it could stay in business much longer.

If Sears can go belly up, any organization is vulnerable—and so is your church.

It’s not that industry analysts didn’t know the company was in trouble. That was obvious. Total revenues dropped by nearly half over the past decade. The company went from a net income of $1.5 billion to losing $1.5 billion during that same span. Maybe most troubling? Sears has shut down more than half of its 3,500 stories since 2010.

In fact, the losses speak to a larger trend in the retail industry. J.C. Penney’s will close 138 stores this year. Macy’s will close 68. Aeropostale filed for bankruptcy last May. American Eagle, Chicos, and The Children’s Place are all “managing multi-year plans to shrink their bricks-and-mortar footprint,”according to USA Today.

Once, they were the cornerstones of the prime American shopping experience—the mall—but now the closing of these stores points to the end of an important chapter of the American retail experience. At least 200 shopping malls across America may close as a result of the industry instability.

There’s little doubt over the reasons—online competition, change in spending habits, etc.
But one factor overshadows all others. Our world is changing—at supersonic speeds. Think of all the common items that have become obsolete or nearly obsolete in the past decade alone, such as printed maps, the landline, and the phonebook. We’ve stepped full force into the internet and mobile revolutions and haven’t looked back.

Many companies, even outside of the retail space, have suffered through these changes. When John F. Kennedy was elected President, companies on the S&P 500 had an average lifespan of 60 years. In 2016, that number dwindled to 18 years.

These changes have taken their toll on the church, too. Thom Rainer has suggested that between 4,000 and 7,000 churches die annually. Millennials are fleeing evangelical churches like mice fleeing an alley cat. (Surveys show 6 out of 10 Millennials who grew up in the church are leaving it behind.)

Some of the reasons for these troubles parallel what has happened to Sears and other retail giants.

1. We don’t really understand the changes taking place in the world

A year after Sears CEO Eddie Lampert inked the deal to merge the company with Kmart, forming Sears Holdings, he described the new company as a “$55-billion revenue, 350,000-person startup.” He then compared the company’s strategy to Apple’s and Microsoft’s.

But the problem was that Lampert’s vision didn’t match reality. Hayley Peterson of Business Insider writes, “A hard look at the numbers shows that Sears Holdings looks nothing like a fast-growing tech company.”

Lampert’s tactics should be familiar for those involved in church ministry. For too long, we’ve tried to put a fresh coat of paint on the American church’s problems and expected Millennials to come rushing back home. We’ve added smoke machines, put younger faces on our stages, and wondered why young people still flee our churches. We deal with cosmetic details while missing the deeper cultural changes that impact the people we want to reach. And like Lampert, our vision at times seems woefully out of touch with reality.

2. We’ve overcomplicated our work

One of the biggest initiatives that Lampert led at Sears in recent years is a loyalty program that gives customers (or members, as Lampert likes to refer to them) loyalty points they can turn into discounts and coupons. The goal was to gather customers’ information that could be sold to other companies. Lampert pushed the program hard, requiring employees to meet large sign-up quotas. But one of the major side effects of the initiative is that it severely slowed down the checkout process for customers. Kmart cashiers, for example, went from scanning 18 items a minute to just five. Many frustrated consumers would simply abandon their carts, which meant employees had to spend time returning the merchandise to shelves.

The temptation to complicate church work, particularly in the last few decades, has often been too much for church leaders to resist. Though we’ve been given a relatively simple (though admittedly profound) mission statement—make disciples—we’ve added program after program to the work of the church. In an era when simplicity could have set our work apart from our over-complicated culture, we’ve moved in the other directions—choosing to provide more options for the overloaded people we want to reach.

“The reality is that many of our churches have become so complex and so cluttered that people have a difficult time of encountering the simple and powerful message of Jesus,” writes Rick Ezell.

3. We’ve fallen behind in technology

According to STL News, online competitors have sealed the deal and “ripped up the playbook” for Sears and other department stores. They write, “Sears has upped its presence online but is having a hard time disguising its age.”

Though forward-thinking churches were among the first entities to go digital, the vast majority have lagged behind. Fearing that people may decide to skip the physical church for a digital one, many churches decided early on against online engagement—and they haven’t caught up.

Like Sears, many churches have made significant efforts in recent years to upgrade their technical efforts to engage their communities through a digital presence. But churches have a hard time disguising their age, too. We don’t tend to think digitally. We don’t think to place digital thinkers in key leadership positions to help us improve.

American writer Eric Hoffer once wrote, “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”
Too many of our churches are perfectly designed to reach a world that no longer exists—and hasn’t existed for some time.

It’s the one lesson few of us learned in seminary. We learned how to preach. We learned to study scripture. We learned to lead organizations. But we didn’t learn how to prepare ourselves for the unique ministry challenges tomorrow holds.

The answer? Never quit learning. Read blogs like this one. Take a class. Keep growing.
Jesus promised to build the church and that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
Sears didn’t get that promise. J.C. Penney’s doesn’t get that assurance.

The church does.

Thirty years from now, if Jesus hasn’t returned yet, the church will still be here. It’ll still be transforming lives. Communities will still be different because of God’s work through local churches.

The question isn’t whether the church will be around in 30 years. That’s clearly a red herring.
The question is, will your church be around in 30 in years? And will your community be impacted by your church in 30 years?

Or will your church go the way of Sears, a beautiful memory of a once-significant institution for a world that no longer exists?

That’s up to you.

What will you do?

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