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Is Your Church More Like Blockbuster, Netflix, or Redbox?

Last week, I came across an “infographic” on the decline of Blockbuster Video. As I looked over it, I realized an undeniable takeaway regarding the state of many churches today: Are our churches more like Blockbuster or Netflix?

Perhaps one of the reasons I began pondering this question stemmed from a discussion the night before. After our weekly prayer meeting one lady – out of the blue – asked why some churches are attracting so many people while other churches seem to struggle keeping attendance up. She named the fastest-growing church in our area. I told her that I know the pastor as well as the “mother church” that this local church has recently partnered with. I said that for the most part, these churches have been solid, evangelical churches.

The church in question is – for the most part – very similar to our church, doctrinally speaking. Their music is much more up-beat than ours, however, I told those present that I don’t think that the music is the real draw. Lots of other churches have added a “contemporary” service or have begun to blend contemporary “praise and worship” with traditional hymns. Without exception, those churches haven’t seen a sharp spike in their attendance.

What about special “programs”? Church growth expert, Ed Stetzer points out in Comeback Churches that churches don’t grow through programs. They never have and they never will. Instead, Stetzer says, churches grow through relationships

What about the preaching? This particular church’s pastor is a very dynamic preacher, however, I’m not convinced that this is the only reason for their growth either. But I think we’re getting closer. So what’s the difference?

Let me answer that with a question: Why have so many people begun to use Netflix and Redbox? or, Why did people stop going to Blockbuster?  I think the answer to these questions are very closely tied to the question of why some churches are barely hanging on while others seem to thrive.

Ok, before I go any further, let me say that I am not a “church growth” expert, though I have had some training and have read a few books in church growth principles. Neither am I a marketing genius. But one doesn’t have to be either to see that the times have changed.

For the most part, Blockbuster and Netflix both carried the same movies. Blockbuster, however had newer movies. As soon as movies were released to the public, you could walk into your local store, pick it up and watch it that night with your family. What a deal! Why wait a few more weeks, or even months before the same movie was available to watch on Netflix?

Our family had a subscription to Netflix when they offered unlimited movies by mail for a set price. We could configure our movie preferences online, selecting the order of the movies we’d like to watch and then check out a couple of movies at a time. After watching a movie, we would send it back to them, in their postage-paid envelope, and they would send out the next movie in our queue. In many cases, we would get the next movie in our queue a couple of days after we dropped the previous movie in the mail. What a deal! That was convenience! Netflix also had another offering the sweetened the pot; I’ll talk about that in a moment.

Then Blockbuster began something similar. You could rent a movie in the store or online for home delivery. Once you had watched the movie, you could return it in the postage-paid envelope, or you could take it to your local store and pick up another movie right there; you didn’t have to wait two days to get your next movie. It seemed Blockbuster was gaining the upper hand.

However, I believe that the draw for Netflix was that in addition to their mail-order distribution, you could – with the right equipment – stream movies right to your TV through the Internet. By this point, many people had bought game systems for our kids and already had the necessary equipment. Netflix provided software with their subscription and they advertised like crazy on the radio and TV. For “ just 8 bucks a month”, you could watch movies an unlimited number of times on your home TV. Immediately. No waiting two days for the next movie. No driving to the video store. Just run the app on your Wii, PS2, or Xbox and watch as many movies as you want when you want to. And it worked.

Blockbuster was late in the game in offering the streaming of movies. Perhaps too late. And I believe the reason why stemmed from their business model: come to the store and get what you need.

In April 2011, Blockbuster was bought by Dish Network, the number two satellite TV company, behind DirecTV. But in order to use Blockbuster resources, you had to be a Dish subscriber. In addition to its Dish Network offerings, Blockbuster began offering to stream movies over the Internet, but unless your TV had an Internet connection, you had to stream the movie on your computer screen. Comparing the size of computer screens with the size of modern large format TVs, it was obvious that Blockbuster’s relevance was fading quickly.

As Blockbuster’s relevance was fading, a new player came on the scene: Redbox. The draw for Redbox was that you could rent newly-released movies at a number of locations, including your corner convenience store or grocery store. Their business model was streamlined; they didn’t have to rent expensive space for a brick-and-mortar store and pay several employees to remain onsite twelve hours a day. Instead, each week an employee would visit the local kiosks to add the latest movies and update the available selections. Compared to Blockbuster, Redbox’s business model featured a much lower overhead, including a few traveling employees, low rental space fees and a cellular connection for credit card processing. With their lower overhead, they could afford multiple kiosks in more locations than Blockbuster stores. Instead of making a special trip to the video store, they could simply pick up a movie when they did their weekly grocery run. With Redbox’s option of newly-released movies coupled with Netflix’s option of unlimited viewing of slightly older movies, few consumers needed Blockbuster anymore.

Again, I believe that Blockbuster’s business model was the reason for its failure. The marketplace changed and the business model didn’t. Consumers no longer wanted to drive to their local store to rent movies to drive back to return them the next day. Consumers didn’t want to leave their homes to drive to a single-location local store when they could just power up their home TV and game console and watch an almost unlimited selection of movies an unlimited number of times for one monthly fee or pick up a movie at the gas station on their way home from work. Additionally, you could do it in the privacy of your home and not have to interact with strangers at the store.

Blockbuster, Netflix, and Redbox offered the same product; they just offered it differently. Each limited its method. But because they were slow to adapt to change, Blockbuster, with its limited traditional methods, lost its relevancy and even lost its existing customer base. Blockbuster no longer appealed to younger audiences and even its long-established base soon moved to the new offerings of its competitors. Blockbuster was forced to close its doors.

So what’s the connection between the Blockbuster, Netflix, and Redbox battle and the growth or decline of local churches? Well, just like with movie distribution, I believe it comes down to different business models.

Traditionally, local churches have had a business model similar to Blockbuster: come to our church building and get what you need. This model worked for decades. Many churches even had “specials” each year in the form of evangelistic meetings called revivals and vacation Bible school. Outreach often consisted of sending out flyers or “visitation” by going out in the community, knocking on doors to invite neighbors to come to the church. Some churches, through a bus ministry brought people to their building. However, the business model remained the same: come to the church building and get what you need.

The culture has changed. Businesses no longer use door-to-door salespeople to sell vacuum cleaners, make-up, or brushes. And the companies that do are often seen as shady businesses seeking to take advantage of homeowners. The main exception is cultists, and homeowners don’t want them either. Today, if they open their door at all, the homeowners will often have a baseball bat or shotgun within reach of the front door. Yet, some churches still use the same business model of church growth; after all, it worked well in the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.

The culture has changed. If consumers have chosen to not go out of their way for a movie, why should churches expect them to go out of their way to go to a church building? If people don’t want to interact with strangers at the video store, why should churches expect them to interact with strangers at church, especially the strangers who dress strangely (except for bankers and lawyers, who wears a suit and tie anymore?), sing strange-sounding music played on strange instruments (organ and piano),  and use a strange words like, “fellowship”, “inspiration”, “tithe”, “saved” and “lost”, and call their leader, “Brother”. Indeed, we are a strange bunch!

The culture has changed. And if churches wish to retain any relevance at all, we must change our business model and hence, methods as well. But we must be willing to embrace other methods. And we must embrace the other methods quickly if we want to stay in business.

In discussing this issue with my teenage son, we began to draw some analogies:

  • Blockbuster is like the traditional church building.
  • Redbox is like church community groups.
  • Netflix is like streaming church programming through a live feed or an on-demand podcast.

Having a “brick-and-mortar” church building costs a lot of money. Blockbuster invested a lot of resources for its rent, utilities, signage and employees. Similarly, the traditional church invests a lot of resources for its building, utilities, signage, and employees. Traditional churches recognize that the daily usage of human resources and the other costs are worthy investments.

On the other hand, church community groups, like Redbox kiosks have very little overhead. Churches that use community groups believe that the weekly investment of human resources and other minimal fixed costs is a worthy investment.

Streaming of movies by Netflix depended on some investment of human and technical resources; the rest of the equipment was provided by the consumer. Once Netflix invested the initial capital on the technical resources, except for ongoing advertising and personnel, it cost absolutely nothing to add more consumers. Netflix could provide on-demand programming for one home or ten million homes for the same investment of resources.

In a similar way, churches can stream programming with an investment of some technical resources up front, and a small amount of ongoing maintenance costs, but can add a virtually unlimited number of users for no additional investment of resources. Some of these resources, such as social media including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest are completely free. Other online resources including website and podcast hosting are relatively inexpensive and can handle virtually an infinite number of users.

Compared to the costs of building and maintaining a brick-and-mortar church building, using neighborhood locations and streaming to individual homes is much more cost-effective. Churches should look at using new methods like adding a church website in the same way they would look at adding a new building on the church property. But how much more cost effective!

Perhaps this cost comparison for a small-to-medium sized church will help:

    • New building:
      • Hundreds of thousands to even millions of dollars to build
      • Hundreds to thousands of dollars to maintain each month

  • Professional church website
    • A few hundred dollars to build
    • Much less than $100 host the site and on-demand media (sermons, etc.) each month

It’s not a question of which method is better. Businesses have discovered that each of these methods has advantages and disadvantages. And just like businesses have done, churches can leverage the advantages of all three of these methods and virtually eliminate the disadvantages. Churches should be looking at all three business models, while keeping their eyes open for new methods and technologies as they come along.

What about Ed Stetzer’s statement that churches grow through relationships rather than programs? Justin Wise, in his book The Social Church, says that the younger generations view social media “virtual” connections/relationships (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, texting, etc.) the same way they do “physical” connections/relationships: connections are connections. If this is true, our entire business model of “come to the church building and get what you need” should be completely reevaluated!

What has “always” worked for churches will not work as we move forward.

As Justin Wise points out, the Reformation had the Guttenberg Press; the modern church has social media. Yes, utilizing social media and websites is that transformative. I cannot recommend his book too highly. It’s that good.

Adoption of social media and websites is necessary if churches wish to remain relevant. And as I have demonstrated, the costs to do so are minimal. Even the smallest of churches can use the free social media options to reach out to the community as well as its own members. (but read Justin’s book first)

Churches have a choice: They can adapt newer business models … or they can literally hold a death grip on their limited traditional business model.

 

 

Application

What about yours? Is your church more like Blockbuster, Netflix, or Redbox?

 

I am very interested in hearing your feedback!

Propitiation, Jealousy, and the Providence of God

Call it coincidence or the providence of God, but I have found myself reading a couple of books which remarkably parallel each other, my daily through-the-Bible reading plan and my preparation for a sermon series on the Ten Commandments at church. I think this is the third time that I have read JI Packer’s Knowing God. I have also been reading DA Carson’s The God Who Is There. My Bible reading plan is currently taking me through Leviticus. Today and yesterday’s readings from Knowing God was on God’s jealousy and propitiation. Today’s reading from The God Who Is There was, “The God Who Legislates”.

What’s amazing to me is that through these books and my own Bible reading, He is confirming the same thing. What God has given me a deeper understanding of His righteousness as revealed in the Old Testament Law. Maybe I’m just a little slow in my understanding. Or maybe God is revealing yet, another layer of Himself. Or exposing another layer of myself.

 

God is Jealous

Jealousy is a negative character trait for people. Or so we think. But what if a husband wants a mistress in addition to his wife. Wouldn’t his wife be jealous? Wouldn’t she do whatever she could to fight for her marriage?

That’s a picture of God’s jealousy. He so wants a relationship with his people (the church is the bride of Christ [2 Corinthians 11:2]), that He will do whatever it takes to woo them and protect them for Himself. That’s why He said He name is Jealous (Exodus 34:14) and why He prohibited His people from worshiping other gods. He loved them too much to share them with anybody or anything else. God’s jealousy shows the exclusivity of God (Carson, p. 61).

I’m sure this point will come out in the coming weeks as we look at the Ten Commandments at Center Point Baptist Church [gratuitous invitation to join us].

 

Expiation/Propitiation

Most often when we think of the gospel message, we think of Jesus’ death as covering our sin so we can be saved and go to heaven. That is correct (partly) and can be described by the word expiation. However, propitiation – the word used in the Bible referring to what happened in the death of Jesus – goes much further than simple expiation. So what do those words mean? They aren’t words we use every day.

Expiation describes the ancient pagan custom of offering something of value to appease the gods in order to provide some kind of blessing or protection. Jim Dennison (my seminary Philosophy of Religion professor) calls this “transactional religion”. You give the pagan god something and it gives something to you. None of the various gods were omnipotent; each had their own quirks and special interests and would be offended by a small offering or if you gave another god a bigger offering.  The ultimate offering was human sacrifice. In connection with human sacrifice, the Bible mentions the god Molech in Leviticus 18:21; 20:2-5.

According to Packer, “Expiation is an action that has sin as its object; it denotes the covering, putting away or rubbing out of sin so that it no longer constitutes a barrier to friendly, fellowship between man and God. Propitiation, however, in the Bible, denotes all that expiation means, and the pacifying of the wrath of God thereby.” (p. 182)

The point I’m trying to make is that when we look at the gospel, we often look only at the expiation part of propitiation. We see Jesus’ blood as covering our sin, but we neglect the other problem of our separation from God in our fallen condition: God’s wrath. We think that God’s wrath is no longer an issue since we’re under the New Covenant. God in the New Testament is the God of love, not wrath, we tell ourselves and the people we seek to evangelize.

In seeing God in this light, we overlook the fact that God doesn’t change (Malachi 3:6, Romans 1:18). The God of the New Testament is the same God as the God of the Old Testament. God as the Righteous Judge has a wrathful punishment that must be dealt with if He is to be truly Just/Righteous. To merely overlook our sin, pretending it isn’t there, would invalidate His justice.

Under the Old Covenant, the people’s sin was covered by the annual Day of Atonement sacrifice and God’s wrath was put off for another year. But they had to do the same thing year after year after year to keep delaying His just wrathful punishment.

In Jesus’ death, God poured out all of His wrath on Jesus in our place. All of it. Hence, as Jesus hung on the cross He cried, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus took our place in receiving the just, wrathful punishment for our sin.

 

Application

Jesus took your place as His Father poured out His wrathful punishment on himself. That’s the “good news” of the Gospel Message! Today, ask God to give you a fresh taste of the relief you enjoy as one of His children.

 

 

How to Read Through the Bible in 2014

Yesterday I suggested that we approach our Bible reading as a means of growing our relationship with God, rather than looking at it as something we’re supposed to do like eating our veggies and flossing daily. Yesterday, we looked at the right “why” of reading the Bible

Today, I want to look at the “how” of reading the Bible in 2014.

Assuming you have the right approach, knowing that you are eager to hear from your loving Father, how can you go about reading through the Bible in a year? Given the fact that there are about 775,000 words in the Bible and most people read about 200-250 words per minute, you can read the whole Bible in about ten minutes a day. Just saying, “I’m going to read the Bible for ten minutes a day.” may not be enough planning for everybody. So what is one to do?

Which Bible Reading Plan?

There are many ways to read through the Bible and none is the “best”. It comes down to asking what do you want to accomplish? Do you want to read through the Bible straight through from Genesis to Revelation? Do you want to read the Old and New Testaments together each day? Do you want to read the Bible in a more chronological way? Do you want to just read the New Testament? If you want to read just the New Testament, do you want to include readings from Psalms and Proverbs?

A few years ago, our church read through the Bible using a plan developed by the 19th Century pastor, Robert Murray M’Cheyne. The plan had four readings from roughly two chapters from the Old Testament and two chapters from the New Testament. M’Cheyne’s plan is tried-and-true, but many of us found it to be a bit disconnected and lacked continuity as we read a little bit from four different Bible books each day. You may want to try this plan; if you do, you might want to check out Donald Carson’s “For the Love of God” blog which adds a devotional commentary to the daily readings.

The next year, I chose the Blue Letter Bible’s reading plan that covered readings from the Old and New Testaments. We found it to be much easier to follow.

Last year, I thought it might be better to get a chronological view of the Bible, so we went with Dr. George Guthrie’s plan based on his book, Read The Bible For Life. I used YouVersion’s free Bible App (works with iOS, Android and web) because it keeps track of where I am in my readings. I found the plan to be ideal and will use it again next year, however the Bible Eater Plan looks interesting.

For other thoughts about Bible reading plans, I highly recommend you take a look at Justin Taylor’s very helpful blog post. and you can find even more Bible reading plans at your favorite online Bible resources.

Though I think most people underestimate what they’re capable of, there’s always The Bible Reading Plan for Shirkers and Slackers.

Once you have chosen a plan, you need to choose a Bible. Some Bibles come with their own reading plans built in, such as the hugely-popular One Year Bible.

 

Which Bible Translation?

People used to be able to say that they couldn’t understand the Bible because they don’t understand all the thee’s and thou’s. Through its 400-year history, many believers have benefited from the King James translation of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament. I don’t know about you, but I don’t speak Elizabethan English like William Shakespeare did, and I have as many issues trying to understand the King James Bible as the next guy! I have briefly discussed modern Bible translations elsewhere on this blog.

Since you’re reading this on a computer connected to the Internet, you have access to many Bible translations in your native language on numerous websites, including YouVersion, Biblia, and BibleGateway to name a few.

So how do you know which one to use?

That depends on what do you want to get out of it. If you want to get the general “feel” of the message from the Scriptures, you may want to use the New Living Translation or the New International Version. If you want to get more specific about the words used to convey the message, you may want to use the English Standard Version.

 

Now what?

You know that the reason to read the Bible is to grow in a relationship with God. You know that there are many plans and translations to choose from. But please don’t let yourself get overwhelmed with all the choices. And don’t run out and spend a bunch of money on a fancy Bible. Ask God to guide you and then “get after it!”

This time next year, you’ll be glad you did; you’ll have a better understanding of who God is and how He works to bring people into a relationship with Him.

 

(Note: Some of the links on this page will take you to Amazon where you can purchase products. If you use these affiliate links, I will receive receive a small  commission for the referral.)

 

 

Read Your Bible in 2014

If you’re like most Christians, you rarely pick up your Bible to read it on your own. You know you should read your Bible, just like you know you should be a better steward of your body with diet and exercise, and you should floss your teeth daily. You know you should do these things, but at the end of the day, you’re tired. And the last thing you want to do is head to the gym, get saliva all over your fingers, or read a book that seems a bit outdated. And the thought of reading through the whole Bible is, well, nothing short of impossible.

I have good news! You’re not alone! And it’s not an impossible task!

The first thing is to ask why you should to read the Bible.

Is it because your pastor or Bible study leader says you should? Is it because you read somewhere that you should?

If your reason for reading the Bible is because you think it’s something you should do, then maybe you need to rethink your reason.

Don’t get me wrong! I think you should read the Bible. But the reason isn’t because it’s something you should do. Your reason should be because you want to experience a deeper relationship with God. If you want to experience a deeper relationship with your spouse or a friend, you must spend time with them. The same is true with God. The primary way we experience a deeper relationship with God is by spending time with Him, reading your Bible and praying.

Too often, we approach our relationship with God with the idea of “doing” and “not doing”. But God is a person and we build a relationship with Him just like we build other relationships: by spending time talking and listening.

If you’re a child of God, you need to know that God wants to speak to you! (John 10:27) But unless you read what He has revealed, you can’t hear what He says. Sure, you may occasionally hear a “still, small voice”, but how can you know if that voice is the One Who loves you and wants the best for you, as opposed to the one who hates you and wants to destroy you? (2Corinthians 11:14-15; John 10:10)

Knowing the Bible will empower you to distinguish between the voice of our Shepherd and the voice of our enemy. And we will know our Bible as we read it.

“‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

As long as our approach to reading the Bible is one of obligation or duty, we will continue  a hit-and-miss experience of Bible reading and we’ll continue to walk in shame when we fall – the same shame we feel when we visit our doctor or dentist. However, if our approach to Bible reading is one of wanting to grow closer in a relationship, and one of wanting to eat a much-needed, delicious meal, our desires will be fulfilled. Oh taste and see that the Lord is good! Those who find their refuge in him are blessed! (Psalm 34:8)

The right reason for reading our Bible is crucial to success in reading it.

 

Application

Take a few minutes to pray about reading the Bible in 2014. Confess your approach of duty and obligation. Ask God for a fresh taste of Himself. Ask Him to give you a fresh perspective of growing your relationship with Him through reading your Bible.

Tomorrow, we’ll take up the “how-to” in reading through our Bible in 2014.

 

 

A Hard Day at Church

It was a hard day at church Sunday. Perhaps the hardest I have ever experienced. Definitely the hardest I ever want to experience.

We hoped and prayed that last Sunday would never come. But Sunday, our church family at Bethel Baptist Church in Weatherford, Texas voted to begin the process of transferring the property deed to the Parker Baptist Association. John Thielepape, the Association’s Director of Missions and the Association’s Executive Board will administer the transfer of our deed. We look forward to seeing how God will use the facilities for His glory to reach people that we might never have been able to.

For several years, Bethel has been on life support. We saw the demise coming several years ago and sold our parsonage. We had a flood a few years later and due to the insurance settlement, we were able to do some much-needed updates of the vintage 1970s-era carpet and paneling. All of this helped keep us afloat. For a while.

Last November, as we considered the 2013 budget, our treasurer informed us that with our current average expenses and income, we had about 4-6 months left of savings. I challenged our people to fast and pray through December and be ready to discuss at our quarterly business meeting what we felt God was telling us. At the January meeting we said that we felt that God still had work for us to do at our location. Perhaps we were in denial. God continued to provide for our finances through October — eleven months into our “4-6 months”. He’s still providing. He always does. He always will, but not necessarily the way that we pray for – or expect.

If our church has been on life support, then last Sunday was the time to “call in the family”. I don’t think anyone was surprised by the realities I presented, though not all of us were ready to “pull the plug”. As a matter of fact, I don’t believe any one of us wants to pull the plug. But there comes a time that you have done all that you can do to extend life and that the life support no longer extends life; it actually extends death. And we have passed that point.

It is only a matter of time before we close the doors of the church as a fellowship. We will soon turn the page and close the book on Bethel Baptist Church. As we seek God’s plans for us as individuals, we look forward to seeing how He will use what we have learned and the experiences He has blessed us with. And we look forward to seeing how He will use our facilities in the future.

Only He knows. But as I have told our people for over six years, it’s not about us; it’s about Him and His Kingdom. We get to show up and participate.

But Sunday wasn’t just a hard day. It was also a great day to spend time together with our church family. Most importantly, we praised and worshiped the God Who called us together to begin with. Our task at this point is to continue to seek His lead as we move forward.