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.