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Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Dr. James Emery White

Dr. James Emery White's weblog

*Editor’s Note: In light of the news that Sears has now officially filed for bankruptcy after 137 years of business, the Church & Culture team thought it would be timely to reissue this blog post from last year on its pending demise and lessons for the church. 

I’ve previously written about what the church can learn from the retail slide into the economic abyss. But an article in the Washington Post, delving into the big missteps that brought American retail icon Sears to the edge of collapse, held too many parallels not to revisit the retail world again in (hopefully) ever enlightening ways.

I am old enough to have grown up with Sears. Kenmore washers and Craftsman tools were the mainstay of every home. Christmas? That was easy. It was no more – and no less – than the Sears “Wish Book.” I remember to this day pouring through its pages, circling specific toys and dog-earring entire pages.

Sears Roebuck & Co. began in the 19th century as a mail-order business for selling such things as watches, but quickly grew into a catalogue that sold everything from saddles to sewing machines largely to a rural nation. The combination of low prices, vast selection and mass production proved electric. They followed catalogue success with brick-and-mortar department stores, building off of the new mobility of automobiles.

Sears quickly became the country’s largest and most powerful retailer. Sears sold everything—cars, houses… everything. By the 1970s, 1 out of every 204 working Americans worked at Sears. The publishing of their catalogue alone made them the nation’s largest publisher. “Sears was regarded as a national institution, almost like the Post Office,” said Gordon L. Weil, who chronicled the history of Sears in a 1977 book.

So what can churches learn from its seeming demise?

Here are three big takeaways:

1.      They lost their focus.

With ventures into Discover cards and Coldwell Banker real estate, their attempt to diversify led them away from both core competencies and market focus. In other words, by diversifying they got distracted from their core business.

What is the church’s “core business?”

I would argue that it is simple: evangelizing the lost, assimilating the evangelized, discipling the assimilated, and unleashing the discipled. It is not recreation leagues, fall festivals, egg rolls, blood drives, family life centers or the Boy Scouts. Driving the dagger further, it is also not singles’ ministry, men’s ministry or women’s ministry. 

2.      They didn’t get out of the malls.

Sears depended on malls. When malls began to decline – or at least when shopping diversified beyond the malls, not least of which by going online – Sears stuck to the malls. 

And then began dying with them.

Want a quick comparison? Amazon stock trades at more than $1000 a share; Sears for less than $10.

Too many churches link methodology with orthodoxy. In other words, a way of doing things linked with being true to the faith. It’s a recipe for decline. There is nothing sacred about being in a mall, just as there is nothing sacred about doing Sunday School. 

Back in the very early 90s, I wrote a little book for the Southern Baptist Convention (on “Convention Press” no less) titled, Opening the Front Door: Worship and Church Growth. It’s out of print, so don’t bother looking for it. The foreword was written by a then-unknown friend of mine out of California named Rick Warren. 

The point of the book was simple: since 1971, the front door of the church had shifted from Sunday School to the worship service. Today, it’s an idea that is a “given.” When I wrote about it, it was declaring all-out war on some very protected turf. I might as well have said, “Jesus is not a member of the Trinity.” 

But that’s the point. We can guard methods as if they are doctrines. 

They aren’t. 

And if we treat them like they are, we go down like Sears.

3.      They didn’t innovate fast enough.

Have you heard of “Sears Grand?” Probably not. And that’s the problem. Designed to compete with Walmart, it was rolled out too slow. As in only 10-20 stores per year. In comparison, there are now nearly 5,000 Walmarts operating in the U.S. alone.

And online shopping? 

Not a priority. At least in terms of investing for success. From 2006 to 2008, the Sears website went down for hours at a time on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. And, according to the Washington Post, Sears seemed unconcerned. They “expected” it to happen.

Oh my.

So slow on innovation, and cavalier toward efficiency and effectiveness in areas of innovation.

Sears says it is hanging on.

To those who forecast its imminent death, a company representative said, “The folks who are playing taps at our funeral, we’re not in the box.” Going further, a Sears spokesman said: “People are shopping us to the tune of $20 billion in revenue. Clearly we mean something to a lot of people.”

But are they meaning something to the coming generations? The very future of Sears?

A professor at the University of Florida recently asked his students whether they have shopped at Sears in the past year.

Zero hands went up.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Sarah Halzack, “The Big Missteps that Brought an American Retail Icon to the Edge of Collapse,” The Washington Post, June 1, 2017, read online.

Emily Sullivan, “Sears, Drowning in Red Ink, Finally Files for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy,” NPR, October 15, 2018, read online.

Michael Corkery, “Sears, the Original Everything Store, Files for Bankruptcy,” The New York Times, October 14, 2018, read online.

Charisse Jones & Nathan Bomey, “Sears Files for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Protection, to Close 142 More Stores,” USA Today, October 15, 2018, read online.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.

Amanda, a 28-year-old Los Angeles resident, prays nightly and believes in Jesus.

She also chants, goes to Kundalini (yoga), meditates with a group and is into crystals. “The energy they hold is this ancient energy,” she said. “It helps your own energy when you work with them; when you’re near them.”

According to a recent Pew Research poll, she’s not alone. Most Americans “mix traditional faith with beliefs in psychics, reincarnation and spiritual energy that they say can be found in physical objects such as mountains, trees and crystals.”

A staggering 41% of Americans believe in psychics. A stunning 42% believe spiritual energy can be located in physical objects. 

I recently did a series on the paranormal. You can get the installments in .pdf or .mp3 format HERE. I could tell it was one of the more eye-opening series I had ever done. Why? Because people genuinely didn’t know the difference between authentic spirituality and the world of the occult.

I started off by mapping the spiritual world, specifically the great spiritual conflict in the heavens and the nature and work of angels and demons.

Then I took the rest of the series to walk through the three marks of the occult:

1. The disclosure or communication of unknown information unavailable to humans through normal means. This involves things like horoscopes, fortune-telling, psychic hotlines and tarot cards.

That knowledge comes from somewhere—and if it’s not from God through the sources God has ordained, then it is through the evil one and his forces. There is no neutral and impersonal “Power” just floating around out there. Nothing that has a voice or can be tapped into—some kind of cosmic consciousness for secret knowledge about the future of a human life. Everything falls under heaven or hell, good or evil, God or the evil one.

Just so we’re clear:

“You have trusted in your wickedness... your wisdom and knowledge mislead you... Disaster will come upon you, and you will not know how to conjure it away... keep on, then, with your magic spells and with your many sorceries... let your astrologers come forward, those stargazers who make predictions month by month... they are like stubble; the fire will burn them up. They cannot even save themselves... each of them goes on in his error.” (Isaiah 47:10-15, NIV)

“... diviners see visions that lie; they tell dreams that are false, they give comfort in vain.” (Zechariah 10:2, NIV)

“I am the Lord, the Creator of all things. I alone stretched out the heavens... I make fools of fortunetellers and frustrate the predictions of astrologers.” (Isaiah 44:24-25, GN)

“Let no one be found among you who... practices divination or... interprets omens... Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 18:10-12, NIV)

2. The placing of persons in contact with supernatural powers, paranormal energies, or demonic forces. This involves things like spiritual energy in a crystal or any other entity, attempting to summon up a spirit or a deceased relative through a séance, channeling a spirit, or procuring the services of someone claiming to be a medium. 

Here is Scripture’s clear witness:

“Let no one be found among you who... is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 18:10-12, NIV)

“When men tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God?” (Isaiah 8:19, NIV)

So what is happening when you get in touch with a ghost? It’s not a ghost. There is no such thing as a ghost. So what happens at a séance when Uncle John suddenly seems to appear or to talk through a medium? You are either being tricked (and many really are just flat out hoaxes) or you are in contact with a demon impersonating who you hoped to connect with. The first scenario makes you out to be a fool; the second is simply nightmarish.

But in both cases, you are receiving knowledge, contact and advice that is not of God—it’s either of human origin or of demonic origin. Look at the words on this from the prophet Jeremiah:

“So do not listen to... your diviners... your mediums... They prophesy lies to you... ‘I have not sent them,’ declares the Lord. ‘They are prophesying lies in my name.’” (Jeremiah 27:9-10, 15, NIV)

3. Any attempt to gain and master paranormal power in order to manipulate or influence other people into certain actions. In other words, all forms of witchcraft and the casting of spells. Being clear on this is important because of the rise of modern day witchcraft, which goes by the name of Wicca.

Again, Scripture is clear:

“Let no one be found among you who... practices... sorcery... engages in witchcraft, or casts spells... Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 18:10-12, NIV)

So there you have it. A map of the supernatural world. On the one side you have God and His faithful angels. On the other side the world of the paranormal, or the occult, which is the world of Satan and his demons. These are the only two worlds. These are the only two forces. These are the only two sets of beings.

There isn’t anything else.

One of them is good, the other is evil. There are a lot of ways, sadly, that Satan and his team seduces us to engage the evil side—to open our lives to it and to invite it in without even knowing it. And when we do, whether we are aware of it or not, we are engaging the forces of darkness. 

We are connecting with Satan and his demons. 

We are willfully opening up the door of our life to their presence and activity.

And they will enter.

And nothing could be more dangerous.

Initially it might seem benign, even innocent, for as the Bible says, Satan positions himself as an angel of light. But then the evil engulfs you.

And it’s even more than playing with fire. It’s dousing yourself with gasoline and then lighting the match.

It is spiritual suicide.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Yonat Shimron, “New poll finds even religious Americans feel the good vibrations,” Religion News Service, August 29, 2018, read online.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.

I’m curious.

I’m going to reprint a letter a mother sent to her 15-year-old son. I’ve redacted their names to guard their privacy. 

Here’s why I’m curious: Should this letter have been sent? Do you think it will prove helpful or harmful?

Here it is:

“Dearest __________,

“… I have much to say to you, I’m afraid not of a pleasant nature. You know, darling, how I hate to find fault with you, but I can’t help myself this time… Your report which I enclose is as you will see a very bad one. You work in such a fitful, inharmonious way, that you are bound to come out last – look at your place in the form! Your father and I are both more disappointed than we can say, that you are not able to go up for your preliminary exam: I daresay you have 1000 excuses for not doing so – but there the fact remains…

“Dearest __________ you make me very unhappy – I had built up such hopes about you and felt so proud of you – and now all is gone. My only consolation is that your conduct is good and you are an affectionate son – but your work is an insult to your intelligence. If you would only trace out a plan of action for yourself and carry it out and be determined to do so – I am sure you could accomplish anything you wished. It is that thoughtlessness of yours which is your greatest enemy…

“I will say no more now – but __________ you are old enough to see how serious this is to you – and how the next year or two and the use you make of them, will affect your whole life – stop and think it out for yourself and take a good pull before it is too late. You know dearest boy that I will always help you all I can.

“Your loving but distressed,

Mother”

So…

What’s your vote? A letter well sent, or a case of unnecessary emotional discouragement that could scar for life? Should parents work at encouraging their children at every turn, or at times give them the facts of life in a way that refuses a trophy for every effort?

Okay, it’s time I came clean. This isn’t a recent letter, but one taken from history. It was from London, June 12, 1890, to be exact. And I’ll give you the mother’s name. It was Jennie. Jennie Churchill. And her 15-year-old boy’s name was,

… Winston.

Yes, the reveal probably sways you that this letter had a positive and formative influence on the future world leader. And you would be right. Her call for Winston to be “determined” was apparently the key. Indeed, it would be the greatest single characterization of his leadership and lasting influence.

And he knew it. Take his adult address to the boys of Harrow, the very school he attended at age 15, on October 29, 1941. Memorably, he said: 

“Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

So when reflecting on Winston’s life, don’t forget his mother’s influence. And maybe whisper a prayer that there will continue to be moms taking up pen and paper – or text and email – to say precisely what their sons need to hear.

James Emery White

 

Sources

David Lough, “A Letter From Winston Churchill’s Disappointed Mother,” The Atlantic, October 2018, read online.

Winston Churchill, “Never Give In, Never, Never, Never, 1941,” National Churchill Museum, read online.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.

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