What J.C. Penney, Sears and Montgomery Ward Taught Me About the Mainline Church

sears-move

Ever since it appeared a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about John Vest’s blog post called “The Vine is Dying.”  The Presbyterian pastor from Chicago has been involved in finding ways to help the Presbyterian Church (USA) rebound after decades of decline and his February 27 post was one borne of frustration with the church he loves:

I’m growing increasingly frustrated and impatient with mainline Protestant churches like the one I serve, the Presbyterian Church (USA). At every level of our system, from congregations on up to General Assembly agencies, we keep missing the big picture. We measure our success by how well we manage and deploy an increasingly small pool of resources—people, money, influence, and relevancy. The things we do with these resources are often really great, but we consistently fail to reckon with the stark realities of mainline Protestant decline. We close more churches than we open. We lose more members than we baptize. And because of this, we have fewer and fewer resources with which to serve the world, yet we continue to follow the same basic game plan developed during the zenith of mainline Protestantism in the middle of the 20th century.

I’m not claiming to fully understand the reasons for mainline decline, nor do I claim to have solutions ready to roll—but I do spend a lot of time thinking about this. It seems to me that mainline Protestants have so closely identified our understanding of the gospel and the purpose of the church with social justice agendas that we are stuck trying to serve those agendas—worthy as they are—at the peril of church growth and vitality. I’m finding it harder and harder to be proud of our mission work when our church is marching steadily toward extinction. I’ve lost patience with General Assembly statements and actions about social justice that make us feel good but don’t really register a significant impact in the world. And I wonder what good it is to update our structures if we don’t shift our priorities and rethink our purpose.

I share John’s frustration.  Working for two mainline denominations, I think we are become experts at managing decline instead of finding a new way of being in a changed world.  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people talk about how Mainline Christianity is the next big thing, or how we should ignore the naysayers.  Meanwhile we close more churches and seem to have lost any interest in reaching other folks with the good news of Jesus.

For some reason all of this talk about decline had me thinking of some of the oldline department stores.  Recently, JC Penney hired a new CEO, Ron Johnson, who cut his teeth at Apple and Target.  Coming from two of the hip and trendiest companies around, he sought to jazz up the staid retailer, with a different pricing structure, neater stores and a nice simple logo ala the bitten apple and the bullseye. So far, things aren’t going well.  Penneys has lost money and had to lay off thousands of employees.  The media is having a field day with all the bad press. Derek Thompson of the Atlantic has a good summary of the problems facing Penney’s

Ever since it appeared a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about John Vest’s blog post called “The Vine is Dying.”  The Presbyterian pastor from Chicago has been involved in finding ways to help the Presbyterian Church (USA) rebound after decades of decline and his February 27 post was one borne of frustration with the church he loves:

I’m growing increasingly frustrated and impatient with mainline Protestant churches like the one I serve, the Presbyterian Church (USA). At every level of our system, from congregations on up to General Assembly agencies, we keep missing the big picture. We measure our success by how well we manage and deploy an increasingly small pool of resources—people, money, influence, and relevancy. The things we do with these resources are often really great, but we consistently fail to reckon with the stark realities of mainline Protestant decline. We close more churches than we open. We lose more members than we baptize. And because of this, we have fewer and fewer resources with which to serve the world, yet we continue to follow the same basic game plan developed during the zenith of mainline Protestantism in the middle of the 20th century.

I’m not claiming to fully understand the reasons for mainline decline, nor do I claim to have solutions ready to roll—but I do spend a lot of time thinking about this. It seems to me that mainline Protestants have so closely identified our understanding of the gospel and the purpose of the church with social justice agendas that we are stuck trying to serve those agendas—worthy as they are—at the peril of church growth and vitality. I’m finding it harder and harder to be proud of our mission work when our church is marching steadily toward extinction. I’ve lost patience with General Assembly statements and actions about social justice that make us feel good but don’t really register a significant impact in the world. And I wonder what good it is to update our structures if we don’t shift our priorities and rethink our purpose.

I share John’s frustration.  Working for two mainline denominations, I think we are become experts at managing decline instead of finding a new way of being in a changed world.  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people talk about how Mainline Christianity is the next big thing, or how we should ignore the naysayers.  Meanwhile we close more churches and seem to have lost any interest in reaching other folks with the good news of Jesus.

For some reason all of this talk about decline had me thinking of some of the oldline department stores.  Recently, JC Penney hired a new CEO, Ron Johnson, who cut his teeth at Apple and Target.  Coming from two of the hip and trendiest companies around, he sought to jazz up the staid retailer, with a different pricing structure, neater stores and a nice simple logo ala the bitten apple and the bullseye. So far, things aren’t going well.  Penneys has lost money and had to lay off thousands of employees.  The media is having a field day with all the bad press. Derek Thompson of the Atlantic has a good summary of the problems facing Penney’s

Maybe it’s too late to save big department stores like Penneys.  Maybe some of Johnson’s ideas don’t carry over well.  But I’m glad he did something because at least he tried even it didn’t work out as planned.  What’s worse is not doing anything and just stagnating.

Which is what has happened to Sears.  Being a child of the 70s, I remember how Sears was the place to go for about everything.  I still remember the old Toughskins and of course the special size for kids called “Husky.”  But it seems like the 1970s was the zenith of Sears because after that, it kind of went downhill- not all at once, but slowly.  It became a less attractive place to go to.

Of course, it wasn’t always this way.  A Chicago Business article describes Sears’ heyday and what caused its decline:

For nearly a century, the company was able to anticipate important changes in the marketplace and profit from them. It mastered mail-order when America was young and rural. Foreseeing the rise of the automobile and the shift to cities, it began building stores. Next came the suburban shopping mall revolution of the 1960s: Sears seemingly anchored every last one.

But like so many other once-unbeatable companies, Sears eventually turned inward, intent on maintaining its success by repeating what had worked before. As a mall-based mass merchant, Sears failed to specify a niche and articulate the well-defined identity necessary to compete with 21st-century rivals. Its mall-heavy real estate portfolio suffered as Americans flocked to stand-alone big-boxes like Target, Wal-Mart and Costco, while its stores, starved of capital investment, often felt dingy. It also failed to listen to customers — or to keep an eye on new competitors springing up in places like Bentonville, Ark.

By the time Sears realized the danger poised by Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Best Buy Co. and Home Depot Inc., it was too late. Transformation efforts through the 1990s and early 2000s showed early promise but failed to gain traction. Ironically, what began as an attempt to keep pace with the big-boxes by buying bankrupt Kmart stores ultimately led to the 2005 Kmart-Sears merger under hedge-fund manager Mr. (Eddie)Lampert. Since his arrival, things have spiraled from bad to worse.

Now let’s move from the world of department store chains and head back to the church.  This is the latest news from the Presbyterian Church (USA):

In approving a new structure and leadership design for the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) on February 27, the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) simultaneously approved the accompanying staffing rationale, which includes reductions in force.

“While the new structure will enable OGA to better serve the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) by being more focused, flexible, and intentional,” said COGA Moderator Vincent Thomas immediately after the vote, “we are very aware of our decision’s impact on the OGA staff, both those who will depart OGA and those who will continue, all of whom love the PC(USA) and view their work as a ministry.”

This is not to pick on the Presbyterians; my own denomination has gone through this.  But I’ve been around long enough to see denominations come up with some new vision or restructuring that is hailed as the new way of doing ministry, only to have it replaced a few years later with another one, not because it wasn’t working so much as the resources are growing smaller and smaller.

When it comes to the mainline church, we have become Sears instead of J.C. Penneys.  We aren’t really trying new things as much as we try to manage the decline, to not make it so messy.  We are good at cutting staff and closing churches, but we don’t invest in planting new churches or making disciples.  We are good at talking about social justice and it is one of our strong points, but we do it in a way that is so divorced from daily Christian living that it seems more like talking points from the Democratic Party platform than it is about following Jesus.  Just as Sears is slowly liquidating itself, we in the Mainline are doing our dead level best to make sure our demise is orderly.

So what to do?  I think what we need is “Corazón” or “heart;” which is something we don’t have right now.  I tend to believe most mainline churches have so prized the mind over the heart that we have become functional atheists-believing we and only we can save the church which this or that program.

But a new program won’t help us.  The only thing that will make a difference is placing our trust in God.

Last fall I read a story about how the Methodist church is growing…in Cuba.  The Cuban Bishop, Ricardo Pereira, came to the States and he shared through a translator what made the difference on that island nation:

“In the 1970s we tried every program that came along, but the church continued to grow older and decline. We had no other option but to pray and fast with all our power.”

And what happens when you pray and fast? Miracles:

Some of his statistics were staggering: There were 3,000 members in 1985, today there are more than 30,000. In 1999 there were 90 Methodist churches in Cuba; now there are 361. The church there has averaged 10 percent growth each year, but in the past quadrennium it has been more than 60 percent. When he was elected bishop there was a Methodist presence in less than half of the nation; now it’s up to 90 percent, “and I know we can finish the last ten percent before I end my episcopacy!” he said to much applause.

If the mainline church wants to thrive, then it needs to find that passion for God that I think it has lost.  If it doesn’t well we won’t be Sears any longer, but another famous retailer-Montgomery Ward, which closed all of its stores in 2001.

 

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