Thanks for joining me for part 4 of a 6-part series I have titled, “Leadership-Lessons from Blockbuster! If you are just now joining me for this conversation, it might be helpful to go back and read parts 1-3 to catch up to speed. If you have been staying with me, here is a quick re-cap:

  • The Churches of Christ are on a decline in the United States.
  • We, as a church, can become indifferent to the world around us. As a result, the world can become indifferent to us.
  • Society is changing rapidly and, while we need to remain faithful to our mission of going and making disciples, how we accomplish that mission (our methods) much change to best reach our society.
  • Currently in our churches we see two distinct philosophies: The Craftsman Philosophy and the Apple Philosophy.  Both are trying to jockey for “who gets to decide what happens at this church.” We work best when we work together.
  • In Jesus’ ministry, he modeled for us the method of putting the attention on the lost rather than the found – which is striking different than what most churches practice.  We are typically set up to make church people happy and can forget to place our attention, focus, and decision making based on how to best seek and find the lost.

There you have it, the last 3 articles in a nutshell. 

We started this series examining the rise and fall of the one-time movie rental giant, Blockbuster. In 1985 Blockbuster began providing their customers with a chance to rent VHS movies for a low price and in the convenience of their own home. By 2010, however, Blockbuster was bankrupt and, as of today, only one Blockbuster store remains active. The leadership-lesson that we will look at in this article examines the critical stumbling block that caused many of Blockbusters patrons to look for their movie rental experience elsewhere. What was the stumbling block?  Late-fees.

Late-fees made for more than triple the amount of regular movie sales for Blockbuster, pushing the income of late-fees to over 800 million in their heyday.  While this was great profit for Blockbuster, it was not great for those who would often shell-out more in late-fees than it would have cost them to actually purchase the movie. And, without paying the late-fees, a patron would be unable to rent any more movies.  The convenience of watching a movie at home quickly faded as the price of late-fees escalated.  

Enter Netflix.  When Netflix first launched, you could order movies shipped to your home for one flat-fee per month and no late-fees.  

Keep in mind that Netflix and Blockbuster shared the same mission: Making money via renting movies to customers by the most convenient means. What Netflix discovered was that by eliminating stumbling blocks for people to rent movies, those people would eventually become customers. What Blockbuster discovered is that if you remain unaware of the stumbling blocks you put in-front of people, they will eventually go where there are less stumbling blocks. 

Enter our “Leadership-Lesson, Pt. 4.” As we look at the future of the Churches of Christ: What stumbling blocks have we placed in the way of people trying to find Christ? 

Before we get to some practical applications, let’s look at the way the early church wrestled with the dilemma of how to identify stumbling blocks for those coming to Christ. 

To set the stage, we must understand the relationship between God and the nation of Israel.  In Genesis 12 we read that God chose Abraham to build a relationship that would identify His chosen people and eventually bless all nations.  The Old Testament provides the narrative of God building the relationship with Israel, giving them laws to live by, re-telling how they neglected God’s laws, suffering the consequences of their rebellion and being restored in relationship with God.  One thing that Israel learned, albeit very slowly, was that when they broke the commands of God it was never a good outcome for them. Enter our dilemma in Acts 15.  As Paul and Barnabas were traveling and making disciples they encountered a group of people who were doing the same thing, but with one exception: You must obey the laws that we have been obeying since Moses – including circumcision – or you are not one of us. The nation of Israel had accrued some 613 laws, some serving to defining the covenant and some serving to protect the covenant, since God established the relationship with Abraham. These laws were valuable for not only keeping peace and order, but following God faithfully.  It was their tradition, their history, their identity… and to a certain group mentioned Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas were jeopardizing it.

There was such a heated dispute about whether Gentiles could become Christ-followers without adhering to the law that they had, possibly, the very first “Special Church Meeting.”  You know it’s bad when you need a special church meeting to settle a fight! The arguments went like this:

A group of God-fearing Jews argued that their tradition had always been to follow the law. It shouldn’t be compromised.  If new people were going to come on-board, then they needed to accept that was just the way it was going to be. Take it or leave it.

Paul and Barnabas argued that it was grace through Jesus, not the law, that was saving people and that they shouldn’t be tying-down the Gentile converts to the Jewish way of life. 

After a heated debate, James (the brother of Jesus), spoke up and concluded:  “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.”  

Let’s read that again:  “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” 

This would become a startling, and yet vitally important, conclusion for the early church leaders.  In fact, without this conclusion it is very likely that you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation.  Thats how big and important this decision would be. Their willingness to see how their traditions, practices, methods and approaches might be a stumbling block for others to come to Christ was huge.  Even bigger than that was their ability to put those thoughts into a tangible practice. 

With prayer, discernment and a short letter to aid Paul and Barnabas in their efforts of helping share the gospel with more people, the early church leaders removed the obstacles for the Gentiles down to just four. These four laws would prove to be the least obtrusive for Gentiles to follow and basically eliminated the “identity” portion of the covenant between Abraham and God. You and I can gloss this over, assuming it must have gone smoothly or people didn’t have any kick-back over the decision.  We would be wrong.  Very wrong. I am sure this more than ruffled a lot of feathers, but the church leaders were committed to the mission Jesus had given them “go and make disciples.” And, it was this mission that allowed them to see that they had placed stumbling blocks in the way of some people coming to know Christ.

Want a little hard truth?  Your church has stumbling blocks too.  It is likely that, like the early church, some of your greatest stumbling blocks might be very well wrapped up in your identity. This leaves us with two questions to ask: Can you identify your church’s stumbling blocks, and, are you willing to remove them? 

Let’s be honest, conforming to the life of a Christ-follower is difficult! I mean, how easy is it to forgive when someone has hurt you?  What about loving your enemy and praying for those who persecute you? Serving others, offering yourself as a daily sacrifice to God, keeping yourself pure and keeping a tight reign on your tongue – all of these things can be difficult even to those of us who have been Christians for a long time. Why, then, should we make it even more difficult for people who are turning to Christ to conform to Gods standards AND ours? 

In-light of the decline of the Churches of Christ, we need to critically examine our stumbling blocks that serve as barriers for those who might turn to God.  Are there obstacles we have in place that prevent them from building a relationship with Jesus before it really ever begins?  

In 19 years of ministry, I have observed that we tend build our own version of the 613 laws that we expect everyone to follow. These 613 laws might sound like, “This is the way we do things here.” or “This is the way we have always done things.”  The 613 laws can include things as small as “Don’t change our church bulletin. I like it the way that it is.” to larger things like “I cannot imagine having church without our building!!” or “If we do it that way, I will leave and I wont be the only one!”

Your stumbling blocks to those who are turning to Christ might include:

  • Preaching/teaching that is irrelevant to their life. (It is not good enough just to preach the truth, I think most preachers/ pastors aim for this goal.  We must aim for truth that people can understand how to apply. Most folks understand their life situations.  Most people understand the bible. However, most people don’t understand how the bible intersects with their life situations. This is where preaching and teaching should aim.
  • A lack of authentic fellowship. (Yes, you have programs and bible studies, but do you invest in each other personally? And, is there space for new people to do that with you? How easy would it be for a visitor to find authentic community in your church? How easily can they navigate how to get plugged in to real, meaningful relationships that will help them grow?)
  • Irrelevant music. (I get it, our tribe has a heritage in a cappella singing.  And, while I understand how meaningful that tradition means to those who have grown up in the Churches of Christ, it certainly can be a stumbling block to those who might be turning to Christ. Don’t believe me? Did you know that the average 18-24 year old listens to 8 hours of music every day? Music is a BIG deal today.  I am not necessarily suggesting you get a band by next Sunday – but I am asking you to think about how outsiders view your music. If you don’t know, ask them.) 
  • An ‘us’ vs ‘them’ attitude. (Most churches have some kind of slogan that involves the words “Welcome to our church” or “We welcome you to attend.” The question is not if your church ‘welcomes’ outsiders. The question is do you really want them? What if you felt incomplete as a church without outsiders joining/ serving/ learning with you? What if it bothered you that you didn’t have them there, hearing their thoughts, sharing their perspective, and listening to their stories while you both grew in Christ. Most churches would welcome outsiders if they showed up but if they are honest they feel content without the outsiders being present. This develops an ‘us’ verses ‘them’ attitude which can be a stumbling block.
  • The lack of intentionality in thinking about outsiders as you plan your worship service and events. (How do you plan for guests to be at your service every week?  It should be your plan that visitors come, so are you prepared? It is likely that you have “insider language” that you do not even notice.  But outsiders do! Do you say things like “Everyone knows about ______.” That may not be true of your guests.  Simple things like introducing yourself before you speak, explaining what is happening and why, etc. helps outsiders feel like they are insiders)
  • The way your church spends money. (Where and how you spend the money at your church tells outsiders what you value most. Does most of your money go to a building, programs, or to effectively discipling others? Are you willing to yearly evaluate, without defensiveness, if what you are spending money on actually accomplishes the mission that Jesus gave the church? )
  • A lack of diversity in leadership and decision making. (Can I take a wild guess? I bet your leadership is largely reflective of the demographics of your church.  Am I right?  Do you want to become more diverse? Then allow those who are diverse [in age, gender, and ethnicity] to have serious input in making decisions. They will see things from another angle, a different perspective, and help you think about how outsiders who look like them will interpret things.)
  • The way you take care of (or don’t take care of) your church’s building. (Have you ever walked in a business and thought, “Wow, this place is out of date!” As shallow as it might sound, there may be people who look at your church’s building and think the same thing. Even worse, they may believe that our out-of-date facility is reflective of your out-of-date methods. Maybe you just have messes, boxes, and junk that have piled up that you no longer see but are very visible to a first time guest.)
  • No opportunities for children, teens and adults to learn the basics and ask questions and not feel dumb for doing so. (Not everyone thinks and believes the same way you do.  In fact, most outsiders don’t! Giving opportunity for them to be ‘questioners’ of faith without feeling dumb or judged is a must. If you give outsiders permission to question things you will build a bridge of trust. If you take the “My-way-or-the-highway” approach you will likely provide yet another stumbling block.)
  • A lack of keeping up with the mobile world (The world is moving at a rapid pace, and social media is a part of that.  Recent reports have indicated that most teenagers and adults spend 3-4 hours a day, every day, on their phone.  If you are not utilizing technology to reach out, teach, keep connected, and plug-in with outsiders you will likely find that you have placed yet another stumbling block in someones way.)

This leadership-lesson leads us to look at the obstacles we place in the way of those who might be turning to Christ.  The question is, are you ready to address and remove those obstacles? 

I am going to leave you with a practical application.  Would you be willing to pay $200 to see what obstacles you might have?  Choose, at random, several homes that are close to your church’s building and ask the family living in those homes to visit and assess your church for one Sunday. Tell them that for their honest feedback and time you will pay them $25.00.  Then, after their visit, sit down and ask them how your church does on the 10 bullet-points above. 

Ask questions like – 1) Was the preaching/ teaching relevant? Did you get anything out of it? 2) Did you feel like you could make meaningful friendships at our church? 3) What did you think about our music? Did it lift you up? Did you connect to it? 4) Did you feel valuable and desired at our church? 5) Were there parts of our service that didn’t make sense to you or parts that we didn’t explain very well? 6) Could you tell, based on your visit, what we value most with our finances? 7) Was it clear that our leadership and church values diversity? 8) How did you feel when you walked in our building? Was it acceptable? Was there anything distracting? 9) Did you have any questions about our service? Would you have felt ‘at home’ and valued enough to ask those questions to someone? 10) Have you searched for our church online? Does it give you adequate information about what happens at our church, what to expect, and opportunities to engage with us during the week?

By the end of your time with these families you will have valuable insight into some obstacles that your church has put in place that are stumbling blocks for outsiders who might want to turn to Christ.

Then you have a decision, just like the early church leaders had 2,000 years ago.  We know how they handled the decision. How will you?