Have we become Sears?

The PC(USA) may be following in the footsteps of the once-popular department store, writes N. Graham Standish, but not if we think like entrepreneurs.

Dec 6, 2019 San Jose / CA / USA - Sears store having its store closing sale; several Sears stores are scheduled to close in the next months as result of the company's reorganization efforts

Photo by Sundry Photography

I wish I saved the Facebook post. It was a long lament about Presbyterian decline: how perhaps God’s okay with it; how God’s winnowing us so other churches can thrive; how we pastors should accept our collective role as hospice chaplains for dying churches.

Having witnessed a 40-year decline from 4 million to just over 1 million during my time as a Presbyterian, I’ve spent my career pushing back against it.

On the hard days, I wonder, if we’ve become an ecclesiastical version of Sears. From 1893 to the mid-1900s, Sears dominated the U.S. (just as Presbyterians did). It sold everything from clothes, tools, washing machines, dishwashers and more.

Then Walmart cut into its dominance, followed by Home Depot. Finally, Amazon sealed its fate. Sears stopped innovating and adapting, trying instead to hold onto what was rather than adapting to the reality of what is.

Having grown both churches and non-profits, I know decline isn’t inevitable, but it requires adopting an entrepreneurial mindset and practices. Here are some that have helped me:

Entrepreneurs see obstacles as opportunities. I have several mantras I follow consistently: “Every obstacle is also an opportunity.” “Look for what’s right not what’s wrong.” “Focus on what’s possible not what’s impossible.” Ultimately, entrepreneurs see problems as potential paths for creating new possibilities.

For example, when faced with the reality that Sunday morning sports meant parents had to choose between athletics and confirmation classes (i.e., not choosing us), my church quit focusing on the problem and embraced an opportunity to revamp our confirmation program. Based on the Great Command, we created a unique curriculum with three emphases — loving God, loving others, loving ourselves.

We offered loving others mission activities at times other than Sunday morning — church clean up, meals for a homeless shelter, visiting nursing home residents, support for a new church development and more. We trained them in loving self by teaching personal prayer, Bible-reading, discernment and responsible living that prepared them for life beyond the church. We offered loving God Sunday classes that integrated film, music, videos and more to teach lessons about who and where God is. We turned a challenging problem into a creative program.

Entrepreneurs are eager to learn what they don’t know, even if it means learning from those they feel competitive with. In the 1980s, the U.S. car industry was decimated by high-quality Japanese cars. In the 1990s, they started recovering. How? By visiting Japanese car factories, studying their processes, and then applying lessons learned to transform themselves.

Our church started live-streaming services in 2010. We had no idea what we were doing when we bought the equipment for it in 2009. Having nowhere to turn to in the denomination, we studied what non-denominational churches were doing.

Afterward, I felt called to talk with a seminary president about the need to train students to integrate technology into the church, including streaming, if we’re to adapt to a changing culture. He listened politely and asked how much it might cost ($30,000 to retrofit the chapel?) and who could teach it (any of their tech persons — just get a professor to oversee it). Nothing came of that conversation, and I wonder how different the pandemic might have been for seminary graduates trained in live streaming.

My successor and a good friend at the church I led for 22 years, David Paul, entrepreneurially built on our existing streaming platform during the pandemic, leading them to add more cameras and a recording studio. He and the worship team saw the pandemic as an opportunity, allowing them to thrive during the pandemic and grow an online congregation.

Entrepreneurs resist their own urge to say, “This is how I’ve always done it.” Pastors frequently lament the seven words of a dying church: “We’ve never done it this way before.” Yet we don’t recognize it when we say it ourselves: “I can’t do that … that’s what non-denominationals do,” or “I’ve always preached/worked/led this way.” So, we safely stay in our pastoral silos, failing to learn from other disciplines and fields.

The irony is that as “adaptive leadership” has become a hot term, we generally apply it to others and not ourselves. We complain that they won’t change while we cling to increasingly ineffective manuscript preaching; lectionary preaching; formal, wordy liturgies; worn-out leadership models; and so much more. Entrepreneurial pastoring boldly examines what’s ineffective in us and adapts to what is effective.

Entrepreneurs know that true creativity uniquely integrates others’ ideas: True creativity doesn’t develop out of nowhere. Creative geniuses take seemingly disparate ideas and find ways to uniquely integrate them. It’s how contemporary worship started. In the 1960s, Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California, recognized the power of the growing rock movement. So, they infused rock music with Christian lyrics, modeled their worship services on rock concerts, and launched the contemporary Christian movement.

In the early 2000s, our church recognized that younger generations were becoming indifferent to our style of worship. So, over the next ten years, we had teams visit churches that were successfully reaching them — evangelical, emergent, Taizé and more. Each time we brought back ideas that slowly transformed us. We created a thriving, unique, growing worship service that integrated traditional, contemporary, Taizé, contemplative, jazz, blues, Celtic, evangelical, charismatic, sacramental and even self-designed elements. We didn’t become contemporary nor were we just blended. We developed our own style, even writing our own songs that integrated R&B, Latin and Celtic styles. I wrote about how to do this in my 2010 book, In God’s Presence.

Entrepreneurs always look for opportunities, want to grow, resist their own complacency, and embrace creativity. Maybe we’ve become irredeemably Sears, but I hope not.