The Real Reason Why Evangelicalism is the New Blockbuster
I Can Return a Redbox Anywhere?
Around 15 years ago when Christina and I wanted to watch the first two seasons of ‘Lost’ to catch up with all our friends who loved the show, we did what everybody did - we went to Blockbuster and rented it 3 DVD’s at a time. We’d lay in bed and watch an entire disc-worth of episodes, check the time, and if it was before midnight, I’d rush back to Blockbuster to get the next set.
This is how movies and TV series were watched. The video store had all the power. To rent movies, you needed a membership. You could only rent a few things at a time. You went to them at their location and brought the movies back to the same store. There were no alternatives to this, and everyone accepted it as the only way to watch movies at home.
But then one day these red vending machine-style boxes appeared outside grocery stores and Walgreen’s and inside some fast food places. No membership required. Movies cost $1 per day and you only paid for the days you used it. But the most revolutionary part was that you could return the movie to any Redbox anywhere in the country. The customer suddenly had control.
And just like that, Blockbuster was dead.
DON’T BLAME REDBOX
Well, almost. It took a few years to become official. In 2013, one of Blockbuster’s last acts as a company was to officially change its slogan from “Bring Home the Fun,” to “That’s all Folks.”
Yes, that’s a true story.
We assume that Redbox (or Netflix) killed Blockbuster, but that’s not true. Blockbuster’s death did not come from an outside force, it came from within. Blockbuster killed Blockbuster.
When Redbox began to draw their customers away, Blockbuster’s response was to lower and then eliminate late fees. They increased the number of movies you could rent at one time. Their only real competitive advantage was that Blockbuster got new releases a week or so before Redbox, so they poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into marketing that message.
They made some minor tweaks to their operation, but it never occurred to Blockbuster that their whole model was broken.
Redbox was strategically available where people already went. No need to make a special trip to another store, just grab your movie on the way in to get your prescription refilled or while you pump gas. Nobody cared that Blockbuster eliminated late fees or let you rent five movies instead of three. Waiting an extra week to see a new release was worth it for a $1 rental that could be returned to any machine, anywhere, anytime.
Blockbuster sold movies. Redbox sold convenience, which happened to come in the form of movies.
Ultimately, when a cultural shift occurred, Blockbuster’s instinct was to protect the institution. Redbox’s instinct was to serve the people. And that’s why they won.
THE CHURCH IS THE NEW BLOCKBUSTER
Today, Blockbuster is happening all over again in the evangelical church. It’s a big, massive institution that knows only one way to exist. People show up once a week on Sunday morning to pray, hear teachings, sing songs, and celebrate some form of the Eucharist. It’s been that way for over a thousand years.
But culture is shifting. Over the last 50 or so years, the evangelical church has hung its hat on knowledge and teaching. Sermons and Sunday School are the driving forces behind every Sunday experience. And, like Blockbuster, that worked when church was the only source for spiritual knowledge. But things have changed.
The internet has placed unlimited knowledge and information in every person’s pocket on their phone.
If I want to know what a particular passage of scripture means or wrestle over some theological problem, I don’t need to schedule an appointment with my pastor or wait for it to come around in the liturgy, I can just google it and get 8 million results in 0.563 seconds.
I can listen to a hundred podcasts a week instead of one sermon.
I can download literally millions of books in just a few minutes.
And it’s not just knowledge. The entire traditional church experience is found in any number of places. I can upgrade to Spotify Premium and get all the worship music I want. I can get on GoFundMe and find fifty different causes to tithe my money to and know that I’m making a direct impact in someone’s life. I can attend meditation retreats to explore the inner life and prayer. I can join a book club to find community. I can go to dinner with my friends to share a meal in the name of Christ. I can volunteer with a nonprofit or attend political rallies to advocate for good in my neighborhood and city.
As for God, I can find God anywhere: on a hike near a stream, in the face of my wife over coffee, in scripture, in music, in changing seasons, in a piece of fresh fruit. God is not exclusively experienced inside a church building, and, as culture evolves, neither is Church.
But that’s actually not the deepest issue.
A RECKONING IS COMING
For the last decade, people have made these very comparisons between the Church and Blockbuster, warning that the Church better adapt or it will die.
Unfortunately, most of those warnings are about the mechanics of keeping up with cultural developments: churches should modernize their buildings, live-stream their service, use better graphics, tell preachers to wear flip-flops, and start a podcast.
Marketing and technology are not the Church’s biggest problem. Like Blockbuster, our biggest problem is from within.
The reason churches close their doors, the reason evangelicalism declines every year, the reason people have all but stopped looking to their pastors for council, the reason once-prominent evangelical voices continue to publicly renounce their faith, is not because of our failure to be cool.
It’s because the Church is more committed to protecting the institution than it is to loving and serving people.
The Church as a whole is in a state of decline because there is more love outside our walls than inside. Women, LGBTQ persons, immigrants, the disabled, and other marginalized people have to look beyond the Church to be treated as equals, valued for their gifts, and accepted as they are. Those with sincere doubts are looked down upon and given no room to wrestle, struggle, grow, and evolve in their faith. Pastors hold back for fear of offending big donors. Sexual offenders in the clergy are protected by their governing bodies.
And yet somehow we say culture is the reason why people leave the faith.
IRRELEVANT, DULL, OPPRESSIVE, INSIPID
I’ve shared this a number of times, but the words of the Jewish mystic, Abraham Joshua Herschel, written in the 1950’s during some of the most intense years of the Religion vs Science debates, are just as powerful and true today.
“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion — its message becomes meaningless.”
The Church is no longer the first place people look for acceptance, love, and belonging. That’s not culture’s fault, it’s ours. We’ve become anti-cultural instead of counter-cultural. We’ve made enemies out of those who most need a place to belong, who most need a place to be loved.
Culture hasn’t made us do that, we’ve chosen it. We oppress and marginalize and bully all in the name of Biblical Truth. If that’s what we’re selling to people, it’s no wonder nobody’s buying it.
Loving community is popping up all over our cities and towns. Until Church becomes the first place people look for love, belonging, vulnerability, honesty, and spiritual depth, then I fear we’ll eventually go the way of Blockbuster.