Apocalypse How?

3pm (weekend): an American mall

I recently went to a mall that has one of the last remaining Sears stores in the region. It is closing at the end of the year, and I thought I would see what kind of deals I could find. I have only been to this mall once or twice in the 20+ years I have lived in the area, but I was still shocked at what I found – or rather, DIDN’T find.

Other than the folks hauling the deep discounts from the closing Sears store, and there weren’t even that many people there, the mall was empty.

For a weekend, it was devastatingly empty. In another store, a quick tally of the number of employees I saw, and the average sale per customer (I stood in line behind a few folks before checking out) told me they were in trouble too.

You don’t have to be a math whiz to look around at the infrastructure supporting once-bustling businesses and know that there’s a problem.

In another neighborhood, just a few miles up the road from this mall, one Summer weekend I drove my grandchildren around a deserted mall parking lot, explaining the changes that we were seeing. I told them that when I was their age or even a little younger; these shopping malls were brand new and the stores on main streets in small and mid-sized towns everywhere started to close like the malls are closing today.

a (former) American mall

I’m certain that if there was a way to “save” these expensive behemoths (shopping malls), someone would have figured it out by now. The numbers have been telling the story for some time.

The truth of the matter is that like the downtown department stores of the 1960s and earlier, the large shopping malls of the late 20th and early 21st centuries are quickly fading into history.

There are many reasons for the changes – just as there are many reasons for the shifting landscape in church affiliation and attendance in the United States.

A 2019 Gallup survey reported that membership in a church and affiliation with a particular religion fell precipitously over the past 2 decades, noting that “The past 20 years have seen an acceleration in the drop-off, with a 20-percentage-point decline since 1999 and more than half of that change occurring since the start of the current decade.”

If the current trends persist (10% decline each decade, and accelerating), churches are in even more trouble than they realize. And if that’s not pause for thought on its own, the patterns and trends in giving show additional data for concern:

  • Tithers make up only 10-25 percent of a (typical) congregation.
  • The average giving by adults … is about $17 a week.
  • 37% of regular church attendees don’t give money to church.
  • 17% of American families have reduced the amount that they give…
  • 7% of church goers have dropped regular giving by 20% or more.

There’s no playbook for this scenario,… or is there?

What can we learn from the Retail Apocalypse?

As Amazon and other online retailers began to dominate the shopping scene, traditional retailers had to make some hard choices. Sixty-eight (68) retailers have declared bankruptcy in the last 4 – 5 years, making it hard to know what is coming next.

According to CB Insights, these retail bankruptcies fall into a few themes:

  • Decline of physical retail – With the shift to e-commerce, fewer and fewer customers are shopping at big-box physical retailers and malls. Additionally, many of these physical retailers have lost the cache they once had as new direct-to-consumer brands with a hyper-focus on specific products have taken off.
  • Digital laggards – Many big-box retailers either failed or were too late to establish an online presence. …retailers that don’t adapt quickly enough inevitably fail to compete.
  • Mounting debt – Crippling debt,…has forced many retailers to declare bankruptcy.

One comment by a successful disrupter struck me as important to ponder:

“…disruption [is] a way to innovate and so blatantly change things for the better that you become an industry standard.”

Harry’s co-founder

What can churches and spiritual centers take away from lessons-learned by the Retail Apocalypse?

I’ll start with the digital laggards issue. Churches and centers are mostly aware of this need, and working at various levels on getting up to speed. There must be digital giving enabled, online access to (just about) everything and the general business practices must come into alignment with the rest of the business world. I’ll give churches and centers, across the board, a letter grade of C+ on this.

Next is the issue of money. In the retail space it was crippling debt, while for most churches and centers I suspect the issue is likely that of poor cash flow. Either way, it’s a money problem. Here I think the model of how churches and centers manage their budgets needs to change.

Full-time ministers with benefits and housing payments may need to fall to the pages of history, and multiple part-time ministers may need to be considered. Part time ministers can work another job for benefits and other necessities (like a salary that supports them and their families).

Before anyone gets angry about this, consider that most of the congregants in your pews are working multiple jobs to keep their heads above water, so… yeah. I’ll give churches and centers a B- on this one. It’s higher than the digital issues because some denominations (Methodists for one) have been assigning ministers to multiple churches and the Catholic Church has been combining parishes continually over the past decade or so, seeming to understand this as an option.

The last point that we can consider from the retail apocalypse data is the issue of disruption – also know as innovation.

The problem with innovation in churches and centers is that most belong to organizations that write all the rules. This hierarchical structure type is slow to move and slower still to accept and adopt change. The cynic in me says this is because the people writing and enforcing the rules have the most to lose if things change. Overall I give churches and centers a failing grade here.

The success stories emerging from the Retail Apocalypse show that the businesses that narrowed their focus and stepped way outside of the norms are the ones making news, profits and strong leaps forward.

Churches and centers aren’t looking to make profits, but they are businesses – and need money and customers (congregants) or they won’t be around for very long.

The takeaways from the “winners” among the crash and burn of traditional retail have some common themes:

  • Simplicity (easy access to their products/services)
  • Narrow focus (not trying to be everything to everyone)
  • They connect directly to their target audience, using the tools that audience wants (e.g. eCommerce)
  • They didn’t listen to the “we can’t do that!” chorus (I’m sure Warby Parker founders heard a few of those statements when they wanted to sell prescription eye wear to people online)

It remains to be seen whether the demographic and societal changes outlined in the Gallup poll (earlier in the blog) ultimately impact church/center attendance and membership or there will be a pivot point that starts to change the trajectory. What is clear is that doing things “the way we’ve always done it” or making only the changes we are comfortable with, is a death sentence.

I look forward to seeing (perhaps to being a part of) the disruptive force that will lead the change that is needed in this still-important corner of American life.

(C) 2019 Practitioner's Path

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2 thoughts on “Apocalypse How?

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