Church Planters: Learn the Lessons From Sears (Yes, Sears)

The lessons from Sears include three big takeaways. Church planters: take note from the demise of a century-old retail giant.

Church Planters: Learn The Lessons From Sears (Yes, Sears)

I’ve previously written about what the church can learn from the retail slide into the economic abyss, particularly the lessons from Sears. 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-earing 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 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?”

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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.

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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.”

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But that’s the point. We can guard methods as if they are doctrines.

They aren’t.

And if we treat them like they are, we go down like Sears.

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James Emery White
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 book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and 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 @JamesEmeryWhite.