Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Sears and churches in a changing world

I was a seminary student in Fort Worth, Texas from the fall of 1988 until I graduated in the summer of 1991. After graduation I moved to North Carolina where I live to this day. I was the manager of a retail store in Virginia before moving to Texas and within five days of arriving in Fort Worth, I got a job as a part-time sales associate at a three-level, 240,000 square foot Sears store in Fort Worth Town Center on Seminary Drive only a few miles from my seminary apartment. I worked there, selling men's clothing and shoes, for the entire time that I was a student in Fort Worth. 

When I worked for Sears it was the largest retailer in the world. Shortly after I left the company Wal-Mart claimed that title. This morning I saw a news story proclaiming that the company that operates Sears (along with K-Mart) informed the Securities and Exchange Commission that "serious doubt exists" that the the 131 year-old company can stay in business. 

Like many traditional retailers, Sears is having trouble competing with online retailers. In Sears' case, however, several management decisions over the last two decades or so have exacerbated their problems. They are scrambling to come up with some cash by liquidating some real estate holdings and borrowing as they search for a new model that might allow them to keep their doors open. But there's a good chance that many of the 140,000 people employed by Sears might be looking for new jobs soon. 

Last Saturday, Terri and I wanted to get in a little exercise. It was raining, so we went to Cary Town Center Mall to take a walk. We made several passes by the vacant space that housed a Sears location up until it closed about two years ago. After I saw the news story about Sears' woes this morning, I looked up the location where I worked as a seminary student. It closed in 2002.

What's happening to Sears is further evidence that the retail landscape is changing rapidly, but then we all know that our whole world is changing ... fast. As Sears and many other retailers are having trouble keeping pace, so are many churches. A Lifeway study of 2015 revealed that 3,700 churches in this country closed their doors in 2014. The good news is that 4,000 new churches opened their doors that same year. However, one study indicates that about one-third of new church starts fail within four years. So it may appear that church openings are barely keeping pace with church closings, but the reality is probably worse.

Every generation of Christ-followers must prayerfully seek the best ways to translate the good news of Jesus Christ in an ever-changing world. I am convinced that, overall, the church will be successful in this task. Yes, some churches that are resistant to pondering new ways to tell the old, old story may close their doors. But I believe Jesus meant what he said when he proclaimed his intent to build his church and "the gates of Hades will not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18, NRSV).

I was a saddened to learn that Sears' doors may soon close. I'm even more saddened when I hear of churches that struggle to keep their doors open. Yet my occasional sadness at the plight of many churches of our culture is tempered by confidence in the promises of Christ. While the future of some churches may be in doubt, the future of the church is bright.

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