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Church Growth

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!