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When Giants Fall: What the Church Can Learn From Sears

by Rick Chromey

The news was shocking.  On March 21, 2017, retailer Sears and partner company Kmart announced a full-blown financial pickle. Two days later USA Today chronicled the demise of a “giant of its time.”

Sears was founded in 1886 as a watch company and two years later launched a catalog that created customers.  Within six years, the catalog was advertising “everything from sewing machines to sports equipment.”  America was largely rural, and Sears revolutionized how retailers operated.  They succeeded by engaging modern middle-class desires, mainstream print media, and mechanized business formulas.

Sears didn’t open its first store until 1925.  Two years later they launched the Kenmore brand, followed by All-State insurance (1931) and the famous Christmas catalog (1933).  By the end of World War 2, Sears was topping $1 billion in sales.

By then suburbia was bubbling in post-war America.  Sears led the way and built new stores all over America (1946).  They pioneered credit cards and innovated fresh brands like DieHard batteries and Craftsman tools.  Sears could do no wrong.  In 1973 they built the world’s tallest building: Chicago’s Sears tower.

But in the 1980s, the Sears brand fumbled.  Despite their anchor store status at malls, Walmart was the new retail giant.  People wanted “superstore” variety but with affordability and convenience.  In 1991, Sears lost their “top-selling retailer” mantle to the Arkansas superstore.  Three years later, Sears sold its namesake tower.  In 1993 they stopped producing their catalog and moved the Christmas catalog online (1998).  In the early 2000s Sears merged with Lands End (2002) and Kmart (2005), but profits continued to slide.

In the past four years, Sears has been selling everything just to keep the lights on.  Nothing’s worked. In the fourth quarter of 2016 Sears lost $607 million.  Christmas never came for Sears.  Nor Kmart.  Nor other juggernaut stores like Macy’s and JC Penney.  The malls they anchor are also dying a slow death.  Even Walmart has faced difficulty.

The new goliath is cyber store Amazon.  Originally specializing in books, this online retailer now delivers groceries (something Sears originally did) and a zillion other things.  Amazon gift cards are popular Christmas presents.  The online retailer continues to rake in financial fortunes as it pioneers future home deliveries through automation (robots, drones, driver less vehicles).

It’s a jungle out there, and it’s called Amazon.

What can the church learn from Sears’ story?

  1. Reinvent or die. For most of its celebrated history, Sears innovated and led; but when it relaxed, focusing more on maintenance than mission, it lost traction.  In a 21C culture that’s fluid, fast, and flexible, churches need to continually respond, reinvent, and re-imagine “wine skins” (not the Wine).  The Message never changes but the models, strategies, styles, and frameworks do.
  1. Watch the lure of success. Pride comes before a fall, and Sears is a classic tale of hubris.  Too many churches build towers rather than bridges, monuments rather than movements, and legacies rather than living vision.
  1. Know your culture. The same year Sears sold its tower (1994), Jeff Bezos launched  Three years later Sears finally entered world, but it was too late.  Sears was tied to a dead man’s name. Amazon was the biggest river (and soon store) in the world.  Too many churches overlook, dismiss, or oppose cultural changes when they need to interpret, understand, and embrace the opportunities change creates.

Ultimately, every living thing dies.  It’s the way of the world.  Just ask Kodak (another giant).

Fortunately, the Church is Eternal and Living.  The Wine is always fresh. Sears simply teaches us that wine skins do fissure, fracture, and fail if we don’t pay attention.

Church, we need to pay attention.
[i] “Sears, Kmart May Lack Cash to Stock Shelves,” USA Today:  March 23, 2017, B1-B3.

9 thoughts on “When Giants Fall: What the Church Can Learn From Sears

  1. Novelty, originality and “reinventing” ourselves is not what disciples of Christ are to be doing. And looking to the modern business world for our marching orders is a total lack of faithfulness – something that does characterize the true Church. Besides, Jesus promised to build his Church based solely on us abiding in him – and the gates of Hell (or in this case) the fall of the Sears financial empire will not prevail against it.

    • Snerd, thank you for your comment. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on the idea that “novelty, originality and ‘reinventing’ ourselves is not what disciples of Christ are to be doing,” as I think there are plenty of biblical examples–especially in leadership and communication–to suggest otherwise. The early church practice of “ekklesia” (gathering) in homes was an innovation or novelty, away from synagogue or temple court.

      Historically, the Church has continually reinvented itself to communicate to its culture in relevant ways. Jesus told parables in the spirit of Greco-Roman teaching. The church’s use of scroll, printing press, photography, film, radio, television and, more recently, Internet all point to novelty and reinvention. Sometimes the church has even led in their use.

      By the way, I wasn’t “looking to the modern business world for our marching orders” but rather revealing how, in this case a financial giant, can fail and fail if it doesn’t heed cultural change. This was the underlying message. As always, thank you for reading and blessings upon you and your ministry.

  2. Pay attention??? That is all the (American) churches have been doing for decades. This is not a problem for the American churches…you guys invent and re-invent the “wineskins” all the time. There is Willow Creek then Brian MLaren then the “Missional movement” then the “Home church movement” then “Preachers of LA” then whatever.

    Perhaps the issue is one of poor theology (Calvinistic) that teaches that “say a prayer at a camp when you’re 12 and you’re good to go”…i.e. lots of born again believers who are not, in fact, born again.

  3. Unfortunately, the church has made itself into a consumer good by cleverly marketing their stage productions as worship services. Too much teaching revolves around that mentality along with scripture hewn out of its ideas used to justify that. The church’s voice is the strongest when it becomes critical of greater society, which it was until its institutionalization. Today, it finds itself talking on both ends of issues while its members use doctrines, theology, and culture to determine who is Christian and who isn’t. One of the ways the church can adapt to society is to pay attention to demographic trends and to bloom where it is planted.

  4. I assume most leaders are looking at the Church as a business today ~ I still like the one JESUS died to purchase which assures me of a place in HIS kingdom without any help from the mindset of the world it will prevail because it is GOD who is revealing HIS SON and showing us HOW to navigate in a world that has catered to sin for so long it now catered right into the buildings which supposedly are where God dwells. I find the Camp experience that introduced me to the Power of the Holy Spirit has sustained me thorough many rough patches on this journey but I am getting ready to meet HIM in the air…someday. 🙂

  5. Darrell Hall

    I appreciate the wisdom and honesty in this article. While I concur theologically with the aforementioned replies, I think they miss the essence of this article. The article is not addressing the universal church as much as it is local churches. The universal church is an organism that cannot die. The local church is an organization that can. Thus the leaders of local churches, while staking claim to the promises made the universal church, must take heed to the culture in which they serve. Watching trends in business is not to take cues form the world over the Bible. It is to unearth nuggets of wisdom that apply to all. That pride goes before a fall is a universal truism. That a store or local church could become prideful due to its present success is also possible. Thus the application of this article is beneficial to the church leader who needs a wake up call not to snooze on the job. As the tribe of Isaachar understood the times, so must we. As children of darkness are shrewd, so should we children of light be shrewd. We must must shrewd as serpents but harmless as doves.

  6. Jesus is still building His church. It is the same mistake the early disciples (then apostles) made seeking an earthly kingdom in the here-and-now. His kingdom is being built brick-by-brick in the hearts of His people Christians the “living stones” of a temple “not made by hands”

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When Giants Fall: What the Church Ca...

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