Sears and the Church (2019)
*Editor’s Note: In light of the news that Sears has now officially filed for bankruptcy after 137 years of business, the Church & Culture team thought it would be timely to reissue this blog post from last year on its pending demise and lessons for the church.
I’ve previously written about what the church can learn from the retail slide into the economic abyss. But an article in the Washington Post, delving into the big missteps that brought American retail icon Sears to the edge of collapse, held too many parallels not to revisit the retail world again in (hopefully) ever enlightening ways.
I am old enough to have grown up with Sears. Kenmore washers and Craftsman tools were the mainstay of every home. Christmas? That was easy. It was no more – and no less – than the Sears “Wish Book.” I remember to this day pouring through its pages, circling specific toys and dog-earring entire pages.
Sears Roebuck & Co. began in the 19th century as a mail-order business for selling such things as watches, but quickly grew into a catalogue that sold everything from saddles to sewing machines largely to a rural nation. The combination of low prices, vast selection and mass production proved electric. They followed catalogue success with brick-and-mortar department stores, building off of the new mobility of automobiles.
Sears quickly became the country’s largest and most powerful retailer. Sears sold everything—cars, houses… everything. By the 1970s, 1 out of every 204 working Americans worked at Sears. The publishing of their catalogue alone made them the nation’s largest publisher. “Sears was regarded as a national institution, almost like the Post Office,” said Gordon L. Weil, who chronicled the history of Sears in a 1977 book.
So what can churches learn from its seeming demise?
Here are three big takeaways:
1. They lost their focus.
With ventures into Discover cards and Coldwell Banker real estate, their attempt to diversify led them away from both core competencies and market focus. In other words, by diversifying they got distracted from their core business.
What is the church’s “core business?”
I would argue that it is simple: evangelizing the lost, assimilating the evangelized, discipling the assimilated, and unleashing the discipled. It is not recreation leagues, fall festivals, egg rolls, blood drives, family life centers or the Boy Scouts. Driving the dagger further, it is also not singles’ ministry, men’s ministry or women’s ministry.
2. They didn’t get out of the malls.
Sears depended on malls. When malls began to decline – or at least when shopping diversified beyond the malls, not least of which by going online – Sears stuck to the malls.
And then began dying with them.
Want a quick comparison? Amazon stock trades at more than $1000 a share; Sears for less than $10.
Too many churches link methodology with orthodoxy. In other words, a way of doing things linked with being true to the faith. It’s a recipe for decline. There is nothing sacred about being in a mall, just as there is nothing sacred about doing Sunday School.
Back in the very early 90s, I wrote a little book for the Southern Baptist Convention (on “Convention Press” no less) titled, Opening the Front Door: Worship and Church Growth. It’s out of print, so don’t bother looking for it. The foreword was written by a then-unknown friend of mine out of California named Rick Warren.
The point of the book was simple: since 1971, the front door of the church had shifted from Sunday School to the worship service. Today, it’s an idea that is a “given.” When I wrote about it, it was declaring all-out war on some very protected turf. I might as well have said, “Jesus is not a member of the Trinity.”
But that’s the point. We can guard methods as if they are doctrines.
And if we treat them like they are, we go down like Sears.
3. They didn’t innovate fast enough.
Have you heard of “Sears Grand?” Probably not. And that’s the problem. Designed to compete with Walmart, it was rolled out too slow. As in only 10-20 stores per year. In comparison, there are now nearly 5,000 Walmarts operating in the U.S. alone.
And online shopping?
Not a priority. At least in terms of investing for success. From 2006 to 2008, the Sears website went down for hours at a time on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. And, according to the Washington Post, Sears seemed unconcerned. They “expected” it to happen.
So slow on innovation, and cavalier toward efficiency and effectiveness in areas of innovation.
Sears says it is hanging on.
To those who forecast its imminent death, a company representative said, “The folks who are playing taps at our funeral, we’re not in the box.” Going further, a Sears spokesman said: “People are shopping us to the tune of $20 billion in revenue. Clearly we mean something to a lot of people.”
But are they meaning something to the coming generations? The very future of Sears?
A professor at the University of Florida recently asked his students whether they have shopped at Sears in the past year.
Zero hands went up.
James Emery White
Sarah Halzack, “The Big Missteps that Brought an American Retail Icon to the Edge of Collapse,” The Washington Post, June 1, 2017, read online.
Emily Sullivan, “Sears, Drowning in Red Ink, Finally Files for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy,” NPR, October 15, 2018, read online.
Michael Corkery, “Sears, the Original Everything Store, Files for Bankruptcy,” The New York Times, October 14, 2018, read online.
Charisse Jones & Nathan Bomey, “Sears Files for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Protection, to Close 142 More Stores,” USA Today, October 15, 2018, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.