If your church attendance is slipping and your ministries are drying up, consider the following story:
Travel back 50 years to the mahogany-paneled office of Sewell Avery, then chairman of Montgomery Ward & Company. Avery was responsible for Ward’s failure to open a single new store form 1941 to 1957. Instead, the big retailer piles up cash—and then sat on it. Ward’s amassed $607 million even then a very large sum of money!, earning them a dubious Wall Street nickname: "the bank with the department store front."
So why didn’t Avery join in the nation’s postwar expansion by following Americans to the suburbs? He held firmly to the belief and vision that a depression had followed every major war since the time of Napoleon. “Who am I to argue with history?’ Avery demanded. “Why build $14-a-foot buildings when we soon can do it for $3-a-foot?”
On the other side of Chicago, Ward’s rival, Sears, Roebuck & Company, had a different idea. In 1946, Sears gambled its future and began a costly expansion into suburbia. Had another depression occurred, Sears would have been financially devastated. Instead, Sears doubled its revenues while Ward’s stood still. Sears never looked back, and Ward’s never caught up. In fact, Ward’s eventually went bankrupt.
How could corporate planning go so wrong? Montgomery Ward’s postwar troubles sprang from its firm adherence to an idea from a different time and culture. Because Sewell Avery thought a depression would follow World War II, and because he failed to see that middle-America was moving to the suburbs, he misread the cultural waves and consequently his business was wiped out.
Christian leaders also, and not just business executives, need to read the waves of cultural change.
It is interesting to note that since the original penning of this illustration just over a decade ago, Sears, Roebuck & Company is now itself in danger of going the way of Montgomery Ward. It's reported that by the end of last year (2011), profits were considerably down, and the former retail giant was looking at closing more than 100 stores nationwide. The poor performance points to "deepening problems at this struggling chain and renewed worries about Sears survivability," said Gary Balter, an analyst at Credit Suisse. …But the big problem, analysts say, is "Sears hasn't invested in remodeling, leaving its stores uninviting."
The lesson here is that "reading and riding! the waves of cultural change" is not a one-time adjustment, but an ongoing process. Churches which once rolled with the waves and introduced "Jesus music" in the 1970s are still singing the same, tired worship choruses, causing today's young people to roll their eyes, rather than causing them to lift their eyes to the heavens.
Jesus and His message are the same yesterday, today and forever. But the way we present that message to an ever changing world must be continually fresh. We must always be willing to "remodel" if we are to remain culturally relevant.
"I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some" (1 Corinthians 9:22).