by Pastor Doug Kings

In response to my last Reflections about the recent ELCA Assembly meeting, a member wrote wondering if some of the ELCA’s problems could be helped by denominational rebranding. It is a common way for companies to refresh themselves. While that could be of some help, I wrote back that the ELCA’s problems were deeper than rebranding could help. Twelve years ago (!) I wrote this post to address that question.

Imagine it is 1905 and you are president of Acme Buggy Whip Company. Your sales are dropping alarmingly. Without questioning why this is so, you assume you need to improve your product to make it more appealing to your customers. As a result, you begin making buggy whips in different colors, different sizes, and with different grades of materials. You begin having contests, two-for-one deals, a buggy whip of the month club, and other promotions. Result? Sales continue to drop, and you are soon out of business.

The problem, of course, wasn’t with the quality of your buggy whips or their price. The problem was that fewer and fewer people wanted buggy whips at all. The problem was the arrival of something brand new which you did not anticipate: the automobile. As a result, there was nothing you could have done to improve your buggy whips that would have made any difference. What you really needed to do was change your product.

Businesses have become very introspective. They are all followers of Socrates: “Know thyself.” Business guru authors, seminar leaders and consultants all preach that businesses need to better understand their operations. They need to have a clear understanding of their “mission,” of their customers, of their products, of their internal operations, and of their company culture.

To be successful, businesses need to know who they are and what they are trying to accomplish. In short, they need to know what business they are in. Remarkably, this is much more difficult than it sounds. Like people, businesses are reluctant to change, preferring to keep on doing what they are familiar with. If there is enough cash coming in to cover expenses, why do something risky? And we don’t want to alienate our stockholders.

Yet as Acme’s story illustrates, business thinking doesn’t start with dollars and cents. It with a more fundamental question: What business are you in? Acme Buggy Whip was making a product which its customers no longer needed. It had to re-imagine itself and understand that its primary objective was to meet customer needs. If customers no longer needed buggy whips, Acme needed to re-create itself to meet some other need or go out of business.

Today, the church needs to be asking itself: What business are we in? Like Acme, the church has been offering a variety of products and services for which there has been a steadily falling demand. Also, like Acme, the church has responded by trying to improve those products making them more appealing, more consumer friendly, more affordable, etc. Result? “Sales” have continued falling with hardly a pause. Could it be that, like Acme, the church’s real challenge is not to improve its product but to find a new one?

Of course, the church’s product is not as tangible or simple as a buggy whip. Over the centuries, the church has provided a variety of services and, as a result, people have joined churches for a variety of reasons. Take worship, for example (the church’s most well-known service). I have learned during my years as a pastor that people come to worship for many reasons. For some it’s the liturgy or the sacraments, for others it’s the sermon, or the music, or having some quiet time, or the coffee and donuts afterward, or just habit.

Because the church has this multi-faceted nature, it’s been hard to figure out what isn’t working (“maybe we just need better donuts”). A big part of the church’s success has been the variety of products and services that it offers. It’s given people many ways to connect with it. So, when, despite that variety, and the tweaking and improving that’s gone on lately, participation in church life is still falling, then something has fundamentally changed.

Remember again our beloved Acme: the reason it couldn’t sell its buggy whips wasn’t because it didn’t make good buggy whips. They were the best. It was because people no longer needed them. Their horses and buggies had been replaced by automobiles. What could Acme do? Assuming its whips were made of leather, it could have found a different leather product to make. If it wanted to stay in transportation, perhaps it could have shifted to making leather wrapped steering wheels or gear shifts, or leather interiors.

What business is the church in? That’s been a difficult question for church leaders to look at. When you think you’ve been given your mission by God it’s hard to imagine that mission changing. Acme’s management couldn’t imagine a world without horses and buggies, or that they could be replaced by those noisy, dangerous, unreliable auto-mobiles, motorcars, or whatever you wanted to call them (“Menaces is what I call them!”).

 While a cliché, “out of the box thinking” is a useful image because our thinking often does get trapped inside of mental “boxes.” Cars were outside the box of Acme’s leaders. And being unable to imagine such a world, they couldn’t imagine how Acme could fit into it—and so it didn’t. End of Acme.

The church is in a new world it is having trouble understanding or imagining its place in. Its thinking is still in that box with the horses and buggies. Surely some people will always want our buggy whips, won’t they? For a while longer, yes. However, that time seems to be coming to an end. But imagine the opportunities in this new world! If only we get out of our box, put aside the buggy whips—and imagined?


Blessings in your life and ministry.