Leadership Lessons from Blockbuster, Pt. 1: “There is a time for everything…”

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I recently went to the movies with my wife and kids to watch ‘Aladdin.’  The theater was full of young families eager to snack on popcorn, sit back, and enjoy a fun (and nostalgic) movie.  After picking up a few bags of popcorn, some drinks and our tickets, I shelled out what seemed to be a small fortune (hey, we have 6 kids) and we headed to our seats to watch the movie.  Maybe it was the smell of irresistible movie theater popcorn, looking down at my children kicked-back, smiling and having a good time, or the realization that this trip to the theater cost me more than my first vehicle, but whatever, it was a thought hit me, “The movie business has GOT to be raking-in-the-dough!”

It turns out I was right.  

Over $11 billion dollars were spent last year on families ‘going to the movies.’  $11 billion!  That’s like 22 large popcorn tubs at the movie theater, am I right?

Yet, while people were willing to shell-out $11 billion in movie entertainment, I’d be hesitant to give up your day job to enter the ‘movie business’ just yet!  If you don’t believe me, just ask David Cook.  

Oh, who is David Cook?  He is the founder of Blockbuster Entertainment.  In 2000, Blockbuster easily sat atop the video rental industry as the ‘top-dog.’  If you or your family wanted to experience a fun and inexpensive Friday evening at home, you would just swing by the local Blockbuster store, rent a movie or two, grab some microwave movie-theater popcorn on your way to the check-out stand, and you were set.  Everyone who was anyone had a ‘Blockbuster card” which seemed almost as prevalent as drivers licenses.  But, by 2010 Blockbuster filed bankruptcy and as of 2018, there was only 1 Blockbuster store left in the United States (located in Bend, Oregon).  That’s right, hero-to-zero in just ten short years! 

With the movie industry producing over $11 billion dollars in sales, you might tend to think that it would be difficult to not make some money in the movie rental business… and that is where you are wrong.  You see, despite being the leader in their industry, Blockbuster executives failed to understand the wisdom of Solomon: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven” (Ecc 3:1).  

In 2000, just a year after it’s inception, Netflix founder Reed Hastings met with the executives of Blockbuster looking for a merger – some sort of way to join forces.  The merger never happened.  The executives, despite overseeing a well-oiled machine, overlooked the subtle changes in society that were allowing people even greater access to their wishes from the comfort of their own home.  That decision would cost them dearly. 

You see, the problem for Blockbuster wasn’t that the culture no longer enjoyed movies.  They did…and still do! 

The problem for Blockbuster wasn’t that people no longer were willing to pay for movie entertainment. They are apparently willing to spend about $11 billion a year on them.  

The problem for Blockbuster was that society was changing the way they were accessing movies, and the executives for Blockbuster were either largely unaware, or, they thought that those changes wouldn’t or shouldn’t have an impact them.

They were wrong.  

So why the dissertation on Blockbuster?  I think we can learn some things from them.  And, if we are not diligent in looking at the future of the Churches of Christ, it can experience the same fate.

Let me begin by saying that I both grew up in the Church of Christ and have a deep appreciation for the purpose, heart and direction of the Restoration Movement. I treasure the attempt at unity that the Churches of Christ are founded on.  There are many things that I value as a part of the Churches of Christ.  But with that being said, we, like the executives of Blockbuster, need to heed the words of Solomon and know that, apart from God, there is a season to every activity under heaven.

Much like the fact that people still enjoy, value and spend money at the movies, we do not need to feel threatened that the message of Christ is no longer valuable to our world.  It is extremely valuable! And, even better than that, people still value it, see its purpose and want to be a part of God’s kingdom work in the world today.  The method, however, is seasonal. Like the wise words of Solomon, our methods will have a season or shelf-life.     

There was a time where the methods that the Churches of Christ employed to reach out, share the gospel and bring people to Christ were working.  In fact, during some of the earliest years, the Churches of Christ were among the fastest growing churches in the United States.  But culture and society changed.  And the question is, have we?  

Carey Nieuwhof, a Canadian author/ pastor/ speaker, recently posted about church growth.  In his post, he stated, “What happens if you’re oblivious to the culture around you? If you’re indifferent to the culture, it should be no surprise that the culture is indifferent to you.”

One question that we have to ask is, “Is our culture indifferent to us?” Notice that the question isn’t, “Is the culture indifferent to Jesus?”  We don’t have to ask that question just just because there are plenty of churches which are growing. And, before we dismiss their growth too quickly, most of the growing churches in the United States today are bible based, place Jesus first, are committed to growing disciples, etc.  Unfortunately, the Churches of Christ have steadily declined over the last many years.  I won’t go into all the statistics on the decline of the Churches of Christ in this post, but if you would like some information on the decline of Churches of Christ in the United States, check out the following articles: http://www.michaelhanegan.com/blog/the-state-of-the-churches-of-christ-a-case-study;   https://wineskins.org/2019/04/13/churches-of-christ-in-decline-seven-things-we-can-do-to-transition-to-a-better-future/

I believe that we, like Blockbuster, have become indifferent to the world around us.  Maybe even worse, we are completely oblivious to them and to our own decline.  And, like Blockbuster, if we don’t take a closer look to see if our methods are ‘hitting the mark’ with the world around us we will become a relic of the past. 

But, here is the good news – it doesn’t have to be that way! You see, Blockbuster had a chance to branch out and grow.  It didn’t mean leaving behind the movie business. It didn’t mean leaving behind everything they had every known. But what it did mean was changing the way they would be in distributing movies. It meant that they would need to learn how the culture was accessing and viewing them.  For Blockbuster, their chance came and went.  They failed to grab it and, therefore, they failed.  For the Churches of Christ, our time is now.  

So, how do we do that?  Well, I’m not an ‘expert’ in church growth … but I did sleep in a Holiday Inn last night. 

Ok, I didn’t actually sleep in a Holiday Inn last night.  But, after almost 20 years of ministry experience and a couple of gut-checks along the way, I have seen a few areas that we should consider as we look towards the future of the Churches of Christ.   

Over the next several weeks I will be posting 5 articles dealing with how we can, in a very practical ways, begin to think and act differently so that we don’t end up like the next Blockbuster  – a valuable item that no one sees as relevant. 

I hope you’ll join me on this journey!

You can read Part 2 here – Dueling Philosophies

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