The recent bankruptcy of the Borders Group, the second-largest U.S. bookstore chain has led to a rash of post-mortems as to why it failed. The company has 6,100 full staff, operates 508 namesake superstores and a chain of smaller Waldenbooks stores. As of December 25, 2010, it has liabilities of $1.29 billion and assets of $1.2 billion. Borders plans to close 30 percent of its stores and continues to pay its employees. Among the reasons suggested for its demise are:
- Failure adequately to address the Internet sales channel and the subsequent e-book market.
- Poor real estate strategy
- Over investment in music
- Over-reliance on assortment size to compete as opposed to efficient operations.
- Failure to build efficient systems and processes.
- Branding failure.
- With the arrival of the Kindle, even impatient shoppers had no need of Borders.
Perhaps, the most insightful post-mortem was offered by Paul Carr, who stated that Border’s biggest mistake was its attempt to become a cool place to hang-out at the expense of selling books. This TechCrunch’s noted purveyor of sarcasm wrote:
The company took a big gamble a decade or so ago in focusing on the notion of bricks-and-mortar book shopping as an “experience.” Stores were built with coffee shops and comfy chairs and warm little nooks in which people could hang out all day and read all the books and magazines they wanted. Unfortunately, after finishing their coffee and free reading time, many of these people subsequently went home and took advantage of Amazon’s significant discounts to actually buy books. Only a few customers, who demanded instant gratification, needed to pay the full price in the store.
The Borders debacle obviously raises the issue of the challenge of balancing innovation while remembering your mission. Its marketing strategies designed to respond to the changing lifestyles of the book buying public overlooked the underlying mission of Borders, namely, the selling of books. In an attempt to respond to the chaotic realities of this “age of the unthinkable,” a similar balancing act is a challenge confronted by all leaders. How do you balance innovation without forgetting your mission?
This dilemma is particularly vexing for church leaders. In his insightful book, The Culturally Savvy Christian, Dick Staub argues that in an effort to connect with the lifestyle demands of our changing contemporary culture, many Christian leaders have forgotten why they are in “business.” He argues many have settled for promoting what he terms “Pop Christianity” or “Christianity- Lite.” He writes, “This brand of faith tastes great but is less filling, and wherever it prevails, it is a source of impoverishment of faith and culture. Christianity, when it takes on these characteristics is an imposter.” Referring to A.W. Tozer, who believed churches are “failing” because they don’t know how truly to worship and lack a deep sense of the holy, Staub states, “The number one reason the younger generation leaves the church is sobering; they have never experienced God there.” Thus, one challenge confronting church leaders is how to “market” Christianity within our complex, chaotic, “age of the unthinkable” without losing our soul.
There might, however, be profounder reason for a disconnect between “outsiders” and the failure of churches to provide spiritually deep worship (although this is seminal). In their book, UnChristian,for example, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons contend that for many church “outsiders,” suffers from n image problem. This is especially true of the Mosaic (1984 – 2002) and Busters ( 1965 – 1983) generations. At a recent Academy leadership conference, Alan Hirsch, author of ReJesus, confirmed this assessment. In his largely secularized Australia, researchers found that when Australians were asked whether they believed in God, nearly all said they did. They shared an equally favorable view of Jesus and spirituality. Yet, when it came to the organized church, nearly all gave an emphatic thumbs down. The same was true in Europe, where aside from baptisms, weddings and funerals, the church was almost completely marginalized. He added that although about forty percent of Americans still attend weekly worship, the trend towards secularism continues to grow.
Hirsch stated that a basic principle in marketing is that if you have a good product and it is not selling, then you have a problem with your delivery system. The above surveys indicate the church has a great product, it just has a “lousy” delivery system. Einstein, he continued, defined insanity as doing things the same way but expecting different results . The predominant present ministry “delivery system” of most churches is what might be termed the “attractional” model as best expressed through the assumption in the movie Field of Dreams, namely, “built it and they will come. Even celebrated “mega churches, such as Willowcreek follow this ministry model. Yet, under the leadership of Bill Hybels, this pioneering congregation is now realizing the shortcomings of this ministry paradigm. Other super-aggressive “seeker-friendly churches, which in addition to investing in the “production” of high-tech worship services, bowling alleys, Starbuck coffee shops and the decision not to display potentially offensive Christian cross, are also beginning to realize the limitations of a strategy of investing in a “Christianity-Lite” faith as the best way to bring the un-churched through their doors.
Certainly, the attractional model still continues successfully to reach many, especially those who have been raised in the traditional church culture. Yet, Jesus said “new wine requires new wine skins.” So an increasingly secular culture requires a new ministry for reaching “outsiders” for Christ. This new paradigm , however, is not really new. As Hirsch and Michael Frost argue, the “new” model simply recovers the “forgotten ways” used by both Jesus and the Early Church. It is what they call the “missional” model in which Jesus ministered to people within the hub of their lives. His was an incarnational ministry model of proximity. Rather than having people come to him he went to themwhere they lived out their lives. As in sending Jesus into the world, God moved into our neighborhood, so Jesus moved into the neighborhood of those to whom he brought the good news of God’s all- embracing forgiving love and grace. Jesus did not “do” ministry at a distance. He engaged and entered into the personal stories of those to whom he ministered, whether a Mary at the well; a Zaccheus, high in a sycamore tree, or a Peter, cleaning his fishing nets. In each instance, Jesus saw through the externals to the person beneath , believing that each person is of sacred worth, created in the image of God and full of God-entrusted potential.
As a missionary, Jesus met people within their specific cultural settings, even at the risk of being misunderstood by those who were the professional handlers of the holy. For Jesus, the kingdom of God was not limited to the temple or the synagogue, but was alive and active even within the lives of those who might be dismissed by the religious establishment as “sinners,” beyond the pale of God’s redemptive love. For Jesus believed that God was already at work within the lives of everyone. John Wesley called this divine activity “prevenient grace,” God at work within our lives without us knowing it.
Indeed, a key in recovering what Hirsch calls the “apostolic imagination” is to move beyond the narrow spiritually blind categories, which would limit the transforming influence of God’s activity. For God is is a missionary, continually seeking and wrestling with us, no matter where we live within our lives. Thus, in the great commission in Matthew 28: 16, Jesus commands his followers to “Go into the world and make disciples.” The operative word is “go!”
Shifting to the missional paradigm simply means opening up our imaginations and hearts to the unlimited possibilities of joining God in what God is already doing. As case in point comes from the account given by a retired United Methodist pastor. When asked what he was now doing, the retired pastor replied, “My family and I have opened a little restaurant in my hometown. We are open for breakfast and lunch. I don’t do the cooking, I simply with the folks as they are eating. We share stories, jokes, laughter and often deep conversation. In a sense, our little restaurant has become a community watering hole. Do you know, in three years I have talked and become engaged in the lives of more non-church folk and non-Christians in all of my forty years of ministry as a pastor. Just the other day, some members of a motor cycle group dropped in for breakfast. Black leather jackets, scraggly beards, ear rings, tattoos, the whole works. I chatted with them as I do with all my guests and in passing mentioned a family in the community our church was helping, their house has been burned down. Next day, the leader of the cyclists came in and called me to sit with him. He then handed me a check for $1,000 for this family. He said, “When you told me about that family, I asked our cyclists what did they think about helping the family. We took-up an offering and here is what we collected. Who said the presence of God is limited within the four walls of a church sanctuary!”
The challenge is not only do most congregations not imagine of doing ministry this way, but many Christians are not sure how to connect with non-Christians. Indeed, studies show within three years of becoming a Christian, he or she has ceases to have a non-Christians circle of friends. So, to move Christians out of their spiritual ghettoes, a pastor might preach a series of sermons not only on what it means to be a missional church and missional disciples, but also suggest some concrete, practical suggestions of how to implement such steps. These might include that instead of the church opening a clothes closet have members partner with an existing community closet, where they can, perhaps, work alongside some non-Christians; instead of joining a church book club, join a community book club; instead of a church building a gym and walking track; have church members join a local gym where they can cultivate friendships with non-Christians.
When, however, the pastor casts this vision, there are two truths that should always remembered:
- All baptized Christians are called and empowered by God to be “missional” disciples.
- In going, we are simply joining God because the kingdom of God is already at work in the person with whom we are prayerfully led to connect.
- The motivation is not to guarantee institutional survival but to grow Jesus people.
Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost, ReJesus: A Wild Messiah for a Missional Church.2009
Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways and The Forgotten Ways Handbook, 2009
Alan and Debra Hirsch, Untamed, 2010
David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity. 2007
Alan Hirsch, Right Here, Right Now. 2011