In 2000, at the age of 18, I started working in churches. Since then, my time in vocational ministry has seen a ton of changes. The church growth movement and endless optimism of 1990s Christianity is no more. Most churches have now suffered from decades of decline, with little to no control over the cultural forces around them that seem to be causing the decline. I have thought a lot about these changes and what the future of the church might look like and shall focus on a different aspect in four posts.
Part 1: Mission Driven
Before we get into what I mean by “mission driven,” let me illustrate the point. When I show you the picture below, what comes to mind? Take some time to think through the thoughts you have before reading on.
Blockbuster used to be an industry leader who completely revolutionized access to video entertainment. They made obtaining and enjoying a wide array of video entertainment cheap and convenient for the average person. Growing up as a child of the 80s and 90s, there was hardly a week that went by when we did not visit a Blockbuster or Hollywood Video (their next closest competitor in Northern California where I grew up) to turn in last week’s videos and pick out new ones. Once video games began to take off, the video rental business became equal parts video game rental business.
At some point, all this began to melt away. Blockbuster and its major competitors began losing shares of the market. Their stock began to tank and locations started to close. All this began to happen when strange little red vending machines began showing up at your local grocery stores. Due to their extremely low overhead, these machines offered the same convenience, but at a much lower price. It was the first blow, and, I believe, the fatal one to the model of Blockbuster’s success.
The funny thing is, Redbox, which began the downfall of Blockbuster, is nearly in the same place now that Blockbuster was when the next big thing started to take off, Netflix. You will have to work hard to find a Redbox these days. Their locations have shrunk, and they have made last minute throws to “innovate” their business model and to keep up with their competition.
Netflix actually started before Redbox, and may have been an earlier blow to Blockbuster’s business, but it didn’t have the overnight success of Redbox in stealing away the brick and mortar giant’s business. By 2006, Netflix had 6.2 million DVD-by-mail subscribers. When I first heard about Netflix I thought, “Who in the world wants to pay a monthly subscription to receive DVDs through the mail, and then have to mail them back?” It felt so cumbersome and impersonal to me. Boy, was I wrong! Once Netflix had taken over the lion’s share of the video rental industry, Blockbuster had been issued the final blow. Blockbuster attempted to “innovate,” much like Redbox has strained toward in recent years, but it was too wounded to play the new game.
I’m guessing many of you, when seeing the picture of the old Netflix envelopes, synonymous with the company in its infancy, had a rush of thought, “Oh yeah, I forgot they did that!” For most of us today, when we think of the current juggernaught of video entertainment, we think of the image below.
Netflix has already survived far more tenuous and rapid changes in the industry than those ever faced by Blockbuster or Redbox in their heyday. Looking at the company’s tenure, they have shifted their model no less than three times. From direct by mail DVDs they entered into the streaming game. Strangely, it has come out publicly in recent articles that their by mail DVD service is still going with a small, but consistent, market. An article from 2017 shows that just two years ago Netflix’s by mail DVD service was still at 4.3 million subscribers. If this is accurate, then they have lost nearly 2 million subscribers in the last two years.
Further analogy of Netflix’s story can be played out here to the plight of the church in 2019. Gil Rendle talks about the church’s need to both create new models and improve old models simultaneously. In those early days of streaming, the game was all about licensing content from the content makers. They did this before most of their competitors and with more gusto. Soon, their streaming library was to be envied by everyone. I remember thinking at the time, “Who wants to stream over this new technology onto tiny screens and bad resolutions? I can get DVDs in HD through the mail!” This new model would be as impersonal and cumbersome as their original mail service.
That was only the beginning of the change. Soon competitors like Amazon fought hard for the licensing. Content makers realized they didn’t need to license any more to capitalize on their products. They could build their own streaming services. Netflix once again faced a threat to its business model. They went through their next major shift, original content. Not fully leaving the licensing game behind, they began to test the market of becoming a content producer as well as a licensor. With huge hits right out of the gate, people began subscribing to Netflix just to watch shows they couldn’t get anywhere else. I would argue that recently Netflix went through another transformation. They announced that they are committing 85% of their $8 billion budget into original content. They are leaving the licensing game behind.
What is the difference between Blockbuster, Redbox, and Netflix? They seemed to have all started with the same basic mission statement, “To provide video content as cheap and conveniently as possible directly to the consumer.” The major difference is that Netflix placed its mission far above the model in their company culture. They never held too tightly to “how” they accomplished the mission. Both Blockbuster and Redbox were far too invested in their model, in both cultural ways and pragmatic ways, within their company structures. This mentality stifled the innovation needed in the rapid pace of today’s technology for them to keep up with competitors.
The church needs to examine this saga and remember that they are not immune to the same forces. I predict the Church of the future will be far more oriented toward its mission than its model. There will be fluidity in the “hows” of their mission lived out, but the mission will remain consistent. You will see as this series moves forward, I will argue these challenges we face are not bad things, but good things. They all hold the keys of focusing the church on pivotal characteristics important to the reason we have existed for 2000 years.
Notice that Jesus never gave models to the disciples for the community they would build. He never said, “You must build a structure, play this kind of music, and provide these programs.” He gave them a mission, “GO!” The culture we live in forces all institutions to reexamine their models. The pace of change is too great to rest on our laurels and assume one model. This worldwide information technology revolution will force those who are unable to make this shift disappear into the vapor of history, the way Blockbuster has and Redbox soon will.
If you are anything like me, you may be saying “We can’t abandon the great traditions of our church,” or “Church is meant to stand outside of culture and not be tied to the every changing whims of the public’s fancy!”
Remember my once certain comments about the model of Redbox and Netflix over whatever I was preferring at the time? I would never advocate we abandon the traditions, language, or culture of the church. My point is we need to stop worshipping model over obeying the mission. There is a very real possibility that some tried and true models of the church are absolutely necessary to our future. The trick is letting the models be secondary to the mission. Letting God define for us our mission and making the models serve that rather than the opposite way around.
Mission Statements Are So 2005!
Some have suggested recently that millennials hate mission/vision statements. This is probably an oversimplification of a complex cultural shift, but generally describes how younger generations feel about “institutions” in the USA. Mission statements have been overused and misused for a few decades now. Despite these feelings, I do not advocate throwing out defining a mission by discerning God’s will. I believe that feelings about mission statements some younger folks have are more about the statements not leading to action, than the statements themselves. It is clear in many cases that the mission statement is a servant to the model rather than the other way around. This makes the statement feel hollow, like words never put into action. If an organization of believers truly lets the mission God has given to them drive the model, then the use of a mission statement shouldn’t illicit those feelings.
My Tips on Mission Statements
First, the mission statement should be discerned, not decided. Decision making is necessary and important in any organization. God has called us to be stewards and has given us reason and intelligence to figure things out. Discernment is completely different though. In discernment, God is the definer and we are the receiver. When we discern, we listen for the clear call of God and surrender ourselves to the mission he calls us to. This process takes time and has more to do with the transformation of our hearts to be willing to do God’s mission, than it does with timelines we think must happen. For more on this check out Graham Standish’s excellent work on discernment.
Second, the mission should be simple. Notice every time God gives promises or missions to his people in the Scriptures, it is never over complicated.
“Be fruitful and multiply.”
“You will be a blessing to the nations.”
“Go therefore and make disciples.”
The “hows” of any mission are often complicated and take much decision making, but always comes after the impetus, or mission, is given. If your mission statement requires a doctorate in linguistics to understand, it will not likely capture those it is meant to communicate to and will not unify people toward God’s aim.
Third, the mission statement should be clear. Christians are way too good at creating lingo that no one truly understands. We use words that have long since fallen out of favor in popular culture and are only used by us (for example, propitiation). We use words that culture uses differently for our own ends (for exmaple, We want to touch people’s lives). We use words that we make up completely (for example, missional). I am not saying this is a bad practice. Every sub set of human culture does this. Surfers have a language no one else understands because it comes from the experience of surfing which they all share. Christianity should have its own language and should continually explain that language in the context of what it means to live out faith in Jesus daily. Just don’t use that to form your mission statement. Anyone not “in the know” will be confused as to what you stand for. If you want people to join your mission, they need to be able to understand what you’re getting at without any prior insider knowledge.
Do you have any helpful hints toward becoming mission focused over model focused? Or ideas about what would make a mission statement more effective at guiding a community of believers toward God’s will for them? Leave them in the comments.
Chris Thomas is the Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Dearborn, MI, with a heart for helping others grow in their faith. Born and raised in Northern California, he met his wife Stacy there, and together they have four kids and two dogs who keep them busy. Chris has a Bachelors in Bible and Theology as well as Counseling Psychology from William Jessup University, and a Master of Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He has served in vocational ministry from age 19 in multiple denominations and contexts. Since high school, Chris has run a video production business, now using those skills to create video curriculum for the church. Chris writes about topics where faith, life and culture intersect. He is a huge fan of story and loves to read books or watch shows that spark his imagination. You can see more of Chris’s work at his website pastorchristhomas.com. You can follow him on Twitter at@chrissthomas, on Instagram at @pastorchristhomas, and here on YouTube.