Blockbuster is Dead, Long Live Blockbuster

In business news this week was the announcement from DISH Network that it is ending Blockbuster by closing all remaining aspects of the business. This wasn’t surprising.

When DISH bought Blockbuster for $234 million in 2011, a price which was befuddling at the time, it began a program to turn around the beleaguered movie rental giant. Now, within 24 months, they’re pulling the plug.

Think about this for a moment, at the height of its corporate model, Blockbuster owned the retail market for video game rentals. (For a great history of the company since its inception in 1985 head over this piece at the Street.) Blockbuster expanded across the US and in every market became the Wal-Mart to any locally owned, or regional, video rental store. Other competitors attempted moves against them and had marginal success. Blockbuster became a massive corporation that seemed unstoppable…until the market conditions shifted and they were unable to move.

Who would’ve thought that on August 29, 1997 that Blockbuster would be shut down 16 years later. That day, in 1997, Netflix launched its website. 

Business analysts and journalists are writing a lot about this and there are plenty of great articles, see Justin Carr’s Fastcompany piece, about this soon to be MBA case study o business history. The keyword for this whole episode has been disruption. Now the focus of this disruption hasn’t just been Netflix, but a set of market and cultural shifts that made Blockbuster’s model obsolete. Netflix was a major factor, but so was RedBox, video streaming, on demand content, and the idiocy of renting a movie and having to rush it back to the store before a late charge is assessed. Blockbuster didn’t adapt nor did it foresee this could happen.

One of the greatest fears for many tech and digital industry leaders is that there’s some kid in a garage in suburbia who’s crafting a new algorithm that will put all the leading players out of business. What simply couldn’t have happened back in the post World War II generation, massive disruption based almost entirely on a better mouse trap, is now easily possible.

The lessons of Blockbuster for those of us who lead churches and ministries shouldn’t be missed.

With the ongoing cultural shifts taking place what other metrics and models are out there which should be diligently studied, prayed through, and discerned? Even though we continue to see substantial movement towards ecclesial consolidation into large and mega-church ministries, especially by 20somethings, there should be something about our movements and ministries that is continuing to keep us deft and nimble in how we go about ministering to others.

Maybe one of the best lessons about the Blockbuster episode that we’ve seen is when executive leadership turns a deaf ear to the innovations and ideas of lower level directors and leaders. Though your business model is churning out revenue and new stores constantly, your demise is being written by the memo or meeting that you disregard. Though not all ideas are good ones, and there is a long line of executives who professionally died after taking a bad risk, there are some organizations that have thrived after making a tough decision.

In ministry not all ideas are good ones. We must be discerning and prudent about what models we adapt, however we also need to notice if our leadership is in cruise control or turf protection mode.

Having a regular and robust dialogue is one key to moving forward. While the Church is not going to die out suddenly, the prospect of our prophetic bankruptcy amid a changing culture is very real and very scary. Just because we continue to see growth in some sectors doesn’t deny that there will be diminishing returns in others. Part of the challenge of market and cultural shifts does result in Schrumpeter’s “Creative Destruction.” Yet just growing doesn’t always lead to health.

So how are you engaging in looking around the corner? Who are you in conversation with and what are you reading to stimulate your ability to see ahead of the curve? What “market forces” might lead to the shift away from your model towards something different? What is your goal for ministry and for those involved in your ministry?

Being able to discern and see how things are going also requires knowing where you’re heading. Those who think they can simply build a better bomb shelter for Christians don’t realize the true danger that lies ahead. Prayer and discernment are key functions for any leader.

Nov 2013



Are Millennials Returning to Liturgy?

Over the last several years, maybe even decade, we’ve seen discussions about whether young people are turning to more liturgical or high church traditions.

One of the first to broach this conversation was Robert Webber in his important text The Younger Evangelicals. Following this the rise of “Ancient-Future Worship” seemed to expand into many churches, and especially in the emerging/emergent type churches. (I’ve talked about this in a post called “Generational Divides.”)

Also, during the early part of last decade there were a number of notable departures of evangelicals to return to Roman Catholic roots or the embrace the Catholic communion anew. Most notably here was Dr Francis Beckwith during his tenure as the the President of the Evangelical Theological Society. As a result many books have been written on the subject of evangelicals returning to liturgical and high church roots such as: Evangelicals on the Canterburry TrailBeyond Smells and Bells The Accidental Anglican, and several others.

As a result, there has been an increasing growth in discussions about high church, liturgical forms in present day church movements. These discussions seem to arise about every other year and eventually flare out with little change having taken place. In light of the increasing dramatic declines in mainline and traditionally liturigcal denominations, this conversation has been harder to advance with substantial legitimacy (specifically in North America.)

Earlier this week another post, over at The Christian Pundit by Rebecca VanDoodewaard, stirred the pot again and brought up a good conversation. The central contention of the piece might best be seen as this statement:

Young Christians are going over to Catholicism and high Anglicanism/Lutheranism in droves, despite growing up in low Protestant churches that told them about Jesus. It’s a trend that is growing, and it looks like it might go that way for a while: people who grew up in stereotypical, casual evangelicalism are running back past their parents’ church to something that looks like it was dug out of Europe a couple hundred years ago at least.

I certainly appreciate the desire to engage this topic and I do find myself fascinated with liturgical and high church models for worship and church. Perhaps it is my upbringing in the first Catholic colony, but I have enjoyed reading and hearing from friends who are part of these movements.

However, I would challenge the extent to which this movement of young Christians is being made “in droves.”

As we’ve been seeing, there is a departure of young Christians from regular and trackable church attendance in their college or post-high school period. This data is troublesome but, in my opinion, should be understood as not a lack of faith across an entire generation but simply the challenges of regular and consistent church attendance in environments where these young adults on now on their own. I do believe there is credible information that many young adults return to their faith following college, though in different ways than the generations before them. Pew Research has clearly shown that church attendance patterns in Millennials (those born between 1980 and 1996) are not comparable to previous generations.

In our own research and discussions, many of my peer group ministry leaders are seeing Millennials (including those in college or having finished college) stay connected with church, or reconnecting. What is attracting them back to church involvement is not, however, liturgical movements or high church ecclesiology.

Instead we are seeing a movement of Millennials who are involved with churches that are, primarily, large church (running over 1,000), have a progressive worship style, have a low church method, and are attractional in outreach. (Check out my post about “Reaching Twentysomethings.”)

This is a notoriously challenging topic because no reputable agency polls on these matters and when they do they rarely, if ever, ask specific questions about worship style, orientation, and tradition which Millennials (or anyone) might attend. However, when we see polling data that is done by appropriate agencies this appears to reinforce our top line conclusions.

As Ed Stetzer of Lifeway Research has noted when comparing worship trends from 1972 to 2010:

  • Mainline Protestant numbers dove from 24% to 6% and their worship attendance slid from more than 4% to less than 2%.
  • Young evangelicals rose in number, up from about 21% to 25%. But only about 9% attended church at least once a week in 2010, up from about 7.5% in 1972.

When one considers the annual list of the 100 fastest growing churches (based on percentage of growth) there are few, if any, purely liturgical communities represented as “fast growing.” If mainline liturgical churches were seeing this uptick, shouldn’t the list have grown to include them?

Still, there is an aspect of ad hoc rationalization being done. (On both sides.)

I will agree with this: that Millennials (and young Gen-Xers) are embracing a faith that is multi-faceted and they are open to worship experiences that are varied in style and the relation to liturgy.

This does not, however, translate to a massive shift of Millennials reengaging liturgical, high church traditions “in droves.” The data seems to suggest otherwise. Right now the largest movements of Millennial Christians are happening within specifically evangelical circles that embrace progressive methodology and free church ecclesiology. The Passion Movement, which we can look back into the late 1990s as the 268 Generation or One Day parts, is specifically centered around this methodology.

Where is the data backing up the point that Millennials are engaging liturgical, high church elements in such compelling numbers? Why have we not seen this movements being reported?

Perhaps it is because most liturgical, high church communities are relatively smaller (below 300…yes that is relatively smaller) and haven’t prepared adequate tracking mechanisms like the larger, big box attractional model churches. This is, perhaps, the reality.

Usually when we hear about Millennials embracing sacramental movements, such as pre-Vatican II Catholic liturgy, the stats presented are specious as they only survey committed Roman Catholics. Also, when the mainline denominations discuss these trends they do so from within their own perspectives. 

Millennials do desire to connect with God in worship, though on their own terms. They desire to connect in unique and varied ways, and are not opposed to multiple worship environments and styles to do this even in the same week. They also, desire control over their own participation and how much authority (or complete lack thereof) a spiritual leader might have over their lives.

So, what’s the bottom line:

Simply, I don’t see a massive shift in Christian Millennials turning to liturgical style worship and high church models of ecclesiology.

The Millennials that are involved with liturgical churches are a) highly engaged in spirituality but b) highly sporadic in their attendance patterns.

Finally, I still believe Millennials desire to have a meaningful spiritual journey, though it will look entirely different than other generations. This means that liturgical communities can grow, they just need to show how their teaching is relevant and meaningful to Millennials and motivate them to engage in authentic worship and community.

So, what do you think? What are you seeing? Is there better data out there? What are we missing here?


The Tension of Reviving or Birthing

There are many tensions that exist in present day church growth and health conversations. One of the more impacting ones is whether we focus on new church starts or church revitalization.

In my home denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, this tension exists in many of the conversations taking place about long term strategy. Of course, this tension isn’t limited to just Baptists, it includes most churches.

It’s easier to give birth than raise the dead.

This mantra is one which I learned early on in my ministry while interning at the mother church for the college I attended. It reflects an honest, and perhaps a bit ambivalent, assessment of the challenges confronting ministers who go into established churches that have plateaued or are in decline. Southern Baptists have measured that 72% of our churches have plateaued or are in decline. As a result we have a overwhelming majority of churches that are in need of intentional ministry to repurpose and revitalize their ministry

As a result, we have heard a continued emphasis about church planting that has led many of my peers to go out and start new churches. This has had mixed results, depending on who you talk to, but overall I believe it is has tremendous Kingdom value.

However, for many of our largest and focal churches across the US, they have moved away from either church revitalization and planting. They are favoring the expansion of their ministries through multi-site church campuses.

So a new tension is introduced into the conversation, it isn’t just reviving or giving birth, but also multiplication. These large churches (for a host of reasons) continue to grow at significant rates while medium and smaller churches are seeing decline. If a measure of ministry successfulness is found in numerical growth (I don’t think this is either a principal or sole measure) than these multi-site churches are perhaps the most “successful” churches in the land. Yet their approach to church strategic growth is to perpetuate their own existence by expanding their influence through new campuses. For many small and medium sized churches, it is having the same effect as what happens to small business when Wal-Mart coming to town.

So, is their resolution to this issue? Not immediately. However, if we consider that these existing churches (the 72%) still have worth if we become intentional about sending new ministers into their midst there might indeed be a wave new growth that continues to provoke change in our communities and culture. Far too often the conversation has moved to the church planting and multi-site options as having the better answers.

Church revitalization remains an important, and perhaps, more opportune ministry. By leveraging existing facilities, perhaps with a strategic rebranding and some updates, the actual barriers to entry into a ministry sphere become lower than both multi-site and planting. By revitalizing our plateaued and declining churches we might be able to also revitalize the communities in which they live.

Perhaps at this crucial moment in our churches we can embrace an ethos that motivates us to consider the all important starting of new churches an campuses alongside revitalizing established churches.