We walked through the nearly empty, formerly flourishing space of the Kodak manufacturing plant near our home. The plant manager, a friend from church, sadly described how Kodak plants had been downsizing and closing ever since the advent of digital photography.
“We have a wish here,” he said. “We just want to be the last one standing.” Kodak since abandoned most of its space on this campus. This week the company announced the latest job eliminations.
My friend from church is gone. And I wonder. Is the church the next to go the way of Kodak? I see some chilling parallels.
Kodak dominated the photographic scene for over 100 years. It commanded an 89 percent market share of photographic film sales in the United States. Almost everyone used the brand. And the company’s advertising language of a “Kodak moment” became part of the common lexicon.
What happened since then has become a colossal story of failure and missed opportunities. A gigantic casualty in the wake of digital photography–a technology that Kodak invented.
That’s right. Kodak engineer Steve Sasson invented the first digital camera in 1975. He later said, “But it was filmless photography, so management’s reaction was, ‘That’s cute, but don’t tell anyone about it.'” And the company entered into decades of agonizing decline, unable to perceive and respond to the advancing digital revolution. In 2012 this American icon filed for bankruptcy.
How could this happen? Where did the leaders of this once-proud organization go wrong? And how might the American church, which has also entered a time of decline, resemble this story?
SIGNS OF DEMISE
1. A misunderstanding of mission. Kodak’s leaders thought they were in the film business–instead of the imaging business. Their clutching of the traditional methodology clouded their ability to think about the real objective and outcome of their work. The same is happening in churches that confuse their methodologies and legacies with the real mission. Many church leaders believe they’re in the traditional preaching business, the teaching business, the Sunday morning formula business. Clinging to the ways these things have been done diverts the focus from the real mission of helping people today develop an authentic and growing relationship with the real Jesus.
2. Failure to read the times. Kodak’s leaders didn’t recognize the pace and character of change in the culture. They thought people would never part with hard prints. They derided the new technology. They assumed that people, even if they wandered off to try digital photography, would return to film-based photos for the perceived higher quality. People did not return. Similarly, church leaders who assume that the current church decline is just a cyclical blip, will be left to sweep out the empty factories of 20th Century religion.
3. Fear of loss. A central reason Kodak chose not to pursue digital photography in 1992 was the fear of cannibalizing their lucrative sales of film. Kodak had become a hostage of its own success, clinging to what worked in the past at the expense of embracing the future. The same tendency befalls churches. A pastor in our upcoming documentary, When God Left the Building, said his church will not make any changes to become more effective because someone will inevitably object and get upset. “We abdicate every time,” he said. “We just can’t lose any more members.” That congregation is already dead. They just don’t know it.
The Kodak story didn’t need to take such a dismal turn. And neither does the story of the American church. The times call for proactive steps for a brighter future, if we’re willing to learn from others’ mistakes. Some thoughts to consider:
1. Accept and understand reality. Even though some of the decline is slow, it’s real. The American church is fading. (See the cold facts in our new book Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore.) Work through the data and the realities with your staff and lay leaders. Do not be misled by anecdotal glimmers of numerical growth in isolated examples. Examine the overall trends in the country. And look past the easy measures of butts in seats, and ask deeper questions about true spiritual vitality. And, resist the temptation to defend the status quo.
2. Don’t just tweak. Revolutionize. Once digital photography began to take off, Kodak tried tweaking their old models. It was a case of too little too late. Many churches today are tweaking with cosmetic changes–in music, church names, and pastoral facial hair. A church leader in our documentary said if his traditional church would just install screens, the people will come. They won’t. It’s too late for tweaking. It’s time to re-examine everything we’re doing and re-evaluate. Ask big questions. Is the old Sunday morning formula of half singalong and half lecture what works anymore? Is that performance on Sunday morning really how we want to define the sum total of the church anyway?
3. Take some risks. Experiment. Act now. At Group Publishing and Lifetree Cafe, we talk with hundreds of pastors and church leaders every week, many of whom are discouraged. As we brainstorm with them about changes they might try to enhance their ministries, some sink into paralysis. “People may not like the change,” they say. “What if it doesn’t work?” And we ask, “What are you afraid of?” It’s time to have some faith–faith that God will walk with the faithful who are willing to step out and risk a little love on his behalf. Try something. Experiment. Let your people experiment. Be bold. Don’t delay.
Kodak failed and squandered tremendous opportunities because its leaders chose to defend the status quo. We can learn from their mistakes. And we have an additional resource on our side–God. He’s not giving up on his church. He’s already moving into the future. We need to muster the courage to move with him.