I still have a blockbuster card to the last blockbuster left on the planet.
We live in the Pacific Northwest, about a 4 hour drive away from Bend, OR where the only remaining blockbuster sits. (You can read more about the last Blockbuster here.)
There have been many articles about how the world has changed in the last 15 years. 15 years ago, Blockbuster had 9,000 locations. Today, just one. in 2011, Dish network bought blockbuster for 320 million. Today they have one store that probably nets way less than one million.
“Signs of the times” people say as these changes occur. “That’s the price we pay.” Now many people can stream more movies on Netflix, Hulu and other sources than you could fit in a blockbuster store. (We happen to live in one of the parts of the world that doesn’t have good enough internet to stream, so we’re old fashioned and get Netflix discs in the mail.)
Things have definitely changed. The last time we were in Bend we rented from a Redbox in the Fred Meyer vestibule, not Blockbuster. I still feel guilty about it.
As the pastor of a small (but amazing!) church, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the effects of modern society on God’s precious bride. And while there are serious conversations being had about VR church, that’s not really the direction I’m heading here.
We like new stuff. I do. I’m probably an early adopter, though I usually can’t afford what the new stuff costs. If I could, I’d definitely be one. There’s some cool stuff out there now. Actual, legitimate jet packs. Real flying cars. Drones. Self-driving cars. And that’s just the stuff that we know about. There’s a lot more in development that if we knew what was coming, we’d probably all be trying to live where the internet doesn’t go. I’m thoroughly convinced “they” already have the ability to read our minds. Go ahead, call me crazy, you’ll see soon enough.
But, have we allowed our love for “new” to erode the foundation of our faith?
I have noticed two trends in the last year in our part of the country.
1.) People leaving churches to go to larger, popular, “trending” churches.
2.) People leaving church to go to a startup church.
Please don’t hear me being critical of either kind of church. I love the church, period. There are no doubts in my mind that it is the most glorious thing on the planet. I am friends with local pastors of larger/trendy churches as well as local startup churches. They are a blessing to me and we regularly try to support one another and partner together.
Neither am I being critical of those who have left our church or other churches. They are just as much a part of the bride of Christ as are all believers. I will say, though, that much as been said about the tenure of senior pastors and youth pastors, (Lifeway research did a study showing Senior pastors move every 3.6 yrs, and youth pastors every 17 months) not much has been studied (to my knowledge) about the average time people stay at a church. That would be good information to have.
Also, I’m not saying every church has this problem. There are some on extreme and some on the other. And, as is always the case, there is the faithful middle who don’t get enough attention.
Lastly don’t hear me as being fearful. Jesus is building His church. He will not let it be destroyed.
With my caveats out of the way, here is my point. I fear we have allowed our love of the “new” to affect our approach to church. I’m guessing it’s unwitting to many, but it would appear that the need for something new has affected our paradigm for church.
So, just like Blockbuster, faithfulness to a church body through thick and thin appears to be a thing of the past. This is not to say there aren’t many who are faithful and have remained faithful for generations. But, it would seem they are more and more the exception.
There is an unfair assumption that is made of small churches. Being, if a church is small it’s because it’s outdated and old fashioned. While there are certainly some who have remained the same, there are MANY small churches who have sought to stay effective in the midst of a rapidly changing world that still stay small.
I know all of this from first hand experience. Being the senior pastor of a small church for 6 years, I know what it’s like to be the trending church. I know what its like to lose people you love to other churches. And while God has been good through it all and I would never want to write in a way to denigrate the faithful in our church, myself and the faithful have endured a lot of heartache as a result of the search for the next new thing.
Remember the days when you’d scan through radio stations and hear drastically different styles of music? You had oldies, country, pop, rock, jazz, classical. Now, you can be listening to a country station but have to look at the dial to see if this is in fact a country song. (If anyone actually listens to the radio anymore instead of Spotify or podcasts.)
I see the church as this beautifully complex representation of Christ on earth. Just as there are billions of different people who are all distinct, there are tens of thousands of churches that are distinct. Together, we all make up the bride of Christ.
But, has our desire to have what’s new combined with our desire to be relevant amputated the very thing that distinguished us in the first place? For parishioners, have we allowed our desire to want the new thing we heard other churches doing become an idol? For church leaders, have we allowed our desire to keep people from leaving our church drive us to change who we are to be more like other churches?
“Get to the point, man. This is why people leave churches, because the pastors are too long winded.”
Okay, here’s my point. The world has been changing so fast around us the past 5-10 years that we’re all just doing our best to keep our head above the water. We’ve been in survival mode. And when you’re in survival mode, you’re not thinking longterm about what’s best.
Maybe for a moment, things have slowed down in our technological advancement that the church can stop and think about what it’s doing. Maybe for a moment, we as the parishioners of a church can stop to think about what we’re doing to the churches we join and then leave? Church leaders can we think about the changes we’re making to the church to try to keep up.
Have we been following Jesus’ leading in the church in the past decade, or have we been following the winds of culture as it changes around us?
Maybe we need to sound the alarm and get everyone’s attention before we go the way of blockbuster. Then CEO, Jim Keyes, wasn’t all that concerned: “Neither RedBox nor Netflix are even on the radar screen in terms of competition.” Only, our mistake is not our refusal to adapt to the times. Our mistake is chasing them.
We, the church, have been chasing new things for several generations now. With all the water under the bridge, all the mistakes I’ve made in my ministry years and all the mistakes we’ve all observed in recent history, I’m pretty sure we’ve been chasing the wrong things.
I think some of us have followed in Keyes steps, refusing to let God mold and shape His church for His purposes. I think others have gone the opposite route and, not wanting to be a “Keyes” who missed the boat, have embraced everything that has come along.
Maybe we thought chasing strategies was easier than pursuing personal transformation? Maybe our arrogance led us to think we could do it better and we were determined to do so regardless of the toll it took on the body of Christ? Maybe we had the blinding light of massive numbers in people and square footage shining in our face, keeping us from being focused on Christ.
What I’m asking is, wherever you are, will you take a minute and breathe. Stop chasing new and chase Jesus. Seek His face. Seek his face for yourself. Seek to be transformed by him for yourself. Seek to let his transforming power work through you in the lives of others in your church community. And instead of seeing that other church and coveting (I think that’s a sin, if I’m not mistaken) what they do, look at the people God has put around you and ask God, “what can I do to love them like you loved me?”
In the literal end, Jesus isn’t going to care about whether you attended a cool church or not. Jesus isn’t going to care if you were able to run a cool church. Jesus won’t care if you stood your ground and kept your church the same for your whole life. He won’t care if you didn’t bend to the will of the people.
Jesus’ only agenda for the church is to transform us into his image. To transform us from one degree of glory to another. To reconcile people who have been enemies of God into friends of God. The only thing that matters is Jesus and becoming more like Him.
Let’s forget about Blockbuster and Netflix. Forget about Apple, Google, Amazon, Tesla, and all of it. Can we learn from them? Sure. But, I think what we need most is more of Jesus. The Church of Jesus needs more of Jesus. If we can just get more of Jesus in the church, all the unnecessary peripherals will fade because the appeal of Christ transcends all cultural trends.
You are where you are for a reason. God put you there. He has chosen to work through you. If you’re a church leader, God has you where you are by design. If you’re a parishioner, God has you there by design as well. Maybe he wanted you there to help the church be more effective at making disciples. Maybe he wants you there to encourage someone. Maybe he has you there because there’s something He wants to do in you through this church. Maybe you’re not as mature as you think you are and God has someone in your church right now that He has tapped on the shoulder to walk with you in an unconditional way. And if you leave, you’ll miss out on that.
Church leaders: Can we just stay put for a while? Can we just stay focused on Jesus from now on? If we can’t be trusted to direct the attention of our people to Jesus, then maybe we should go the way of Blockbuster. Don’t be stubborn and refuse to change just because it’s hard work and you’ve never done it that way before. At the same time, don’t constantly change just because it’s easier than sticking with something for the long haul.
Church Parishioners: Can you stay put for a while too? Can you just love God and others right where you are? If there are problems, can you go about the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5) and seek to do the harder work of loyal love mentioned in 1 Cor. 13?
God has put the church of the 21st century in our hands. We are the stewards of his mission at this moment in History. What are we going to do with it? What will they say about us?