We walked through the nearly empty, formerly flourishing space
of the Kodak manufacturing plant near our home. The plant manager,
a friend from church, sadly described how Kodak plants had been
downsizing and closing ever since the advent of digital
“We have a wish here,” he said. “We just want to be the last one
standing.” Kodak since abandoned most of its space on this
campus. This week the company announced the latest job
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My friend from church is gone. And I wonder. Is the church the
next to go the way of Kodak? I see some chilling parallels.
Kodak dominated the photographic scene for over 100 years. It
commanded an 89 percent market share of photographic film sales in
the United States. Almost everyone used the brand. And the
company’s advertising language of a “Kodak moment” became part of
the common lexicon.
What happened since then has become a colossal story of failure
and missed opportunities. A gigantic casualty in the wake of
digital photography-a technology that Kodak invented.
That’s right. Kodak engineer Steve Sasson invented the first
digital camera in 1975. He later said, “But it was filmless
photography, so management’s reaction was, ‘That’s cute, but don’t
tell anyone about it.'” And the company entered into decades of
agonizing decline, unable to perceive and respond to the advancing
digital revolution. In 2012 this American icon filed for
How could this happen? Where did the leaders of this
once-proud organization go wrong? And how might the American
church, which has also entered a time of decline, resemble this
SIGNS OF DEMISE
1. A misunderstanding of mission. Kodak’s
leaders thought they were in the film business-instead of the
imaging business. Their clutching of the traditional methodology
clouded their ability to think about the real objective and outcome
of their work. The same is happening in churches that confuse their
methodologies and legacies with the real mission. Many church
leaders believe they’re in the traditional preaching business, the
teaching business, the Sunday morning formula business. Clinging to
the ways these things have been done diverts the focus from the
real mission of helping people today develop an authentic and
growing relationship with the real Jesus.
2. Failure to read the times. Kodak’s
leaders didn’t recognize the pace and character of change in the
culture. They thought people would never part with hard prints.
They derided the new technology. They assumed that people, even if
they wandered off to try digital photography, would return to
film-based photos for the perceived higher quality. People did not
return. Similarly, church leaders who assume that the current
church decline is just a cyclical blip, will be left to sweep out
the empty factories of 20th Century religion.
3. Fear of loss. A central reason Kodak
chose not to pursue digital photography in 1992 was the fear of
cannibalizing their lucrative sales of film. Kodak had become a
hostage of its own success, clinging to what worked in the past at
the expense of embracing the future. The same tendency befalls
churches. A pastor in our upcoming documentary, When God Left the
Building, said his church will not make any changes to become
more effective because someone will inevitably object and get
upset. “We abdicate every time,” he said. “We just can’t lose any
more members.” That congregation is already dead. They just don’t
The Kodak story didn’t need to take such a dismal turn. And
neither does the story of the American church. The times call for
proactive steps for a brighter future, if we’re willing to learn
from others’ mistakes. Some thoughts to consider:
1. Accept and understand reality. Even
though some of the decline is slow, it’s real. The American church
is fading. (See the cold facts in our new book
Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore.) Work through the
data and the realities with your staff and lay leaders. Do not be
misled by anecdotal glimmers of numerical growth in isolated
examples. Examine the overall trends in the country. And look past
the easy measures of butts in seats, and ask deeper questions about
true spiritual vitality. And, resist the temptation to defend the
2. Don’t just tweak. Revolutionize. Once
digital photography began to take off, Kodak tried tweaking their
old models. It was a case of too little too late. Many churches
today are tweaking with cosmetic changes-in music, church names,
and pastoral facial hair. A church leader in our documentary said
if his traditional church would just install screens, the people
will come. They won’t. It’s too late for tweaking. It’s time to
re-examine everything we’re doing and re-evaluate. Ask big
questions. Is the old Sunday morning formula of half singalong and
half lecture what works anymore? Is that performance on Sunday
morning really how we want to define the sum total of the church
3. Take some risks. Experiment. Act
now. At Group Publishing and Lifetree Cafe, we talk
with hundreds of pastors and church leaders every week, many of
whom are discouraged. As we brainstorm with them about changes they
might try to enhance their ministries, some sink into paralysis.
“People may not like the change,” they say. “What if it doesn’t
work?” And we ask, “What are you afraid of?” It’s time to have some
faith-faith that God will walk with the faithful who are willing to
step out and risk a little love on his behalf. Try something.
Experiment. Let your people experiment. Be bold. Don’t delay.
Kodak failed and squandered tremendous opportunities because its
leaders chose to defend the status quo. We can learn from their
mistakes. And we have an additional resource on our side-God. He’s
not giving up on his church. He’s already moving into the future.
We need to muster the courage to move with him.