Solvent as Sears?

Ecclesiastes 4:13-14

My mother’s first job was with Sears and Roebuck. She worked in the catalog department in the huge warehouse and store that used to stand just east of Kansas City’s downtown. Her favorite tale of those times is handling a return of some chickens that had died in transit. Sears doesn’t issue a catalog anymore. They don’t sell chickens or much of anything these days.

But there was a time when they were the big roosters in the retail barnyard. The slogan, “Solid as Sears,” was not a punchline in those days. Fifty years ago they were the biggest retailer in the world. Today, much diminished even after merging with another former giant, K-Mart, they’ve sold off most of their brand assets like Craftsman and Kenmore, and seem to be circling the drain. The question is when, not if, they will eventually collapse completely.

Since we don’t have kings these days, we can maybe apply Solomon’s ideas to companies–or maybe to ourselves.

Better is a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer pays attention to warnings. For he came from prison to be king, even though he was born poor in his kingdom.

Ecclesiastes 4:13-14

Multi-Variable Math

It’s interesting to me that this text introduces three variables. He might have said it’s better to be poor and young than rich and old. Instead, he throws in that wisdom variable. Is it better to be a wise old king than a poor wise youth? I’m not sure, but clearly your wealth and position won’t help you if you are a fool.

Is it better to be young than old, all other things being equal? I think I’d opt for that, although I’m not sure Solomon would agree. Is it better to be rich than poor? We needn’t dignify that question with an answer. Clearly it is better to be wise than foolish. It’s the combination of these things that makes this passage a little tricky.

No Fool Like an Old Fool

Sears seems to have behaved foolishly, or maybe they’re just going the way that companies go after a 125 years. And what about people? Is it natural for people to become foolish, utterly stuck in their ways and resting on whatever success and position they have accrued over their lives? It certainly seems common, but there’s no reason to believe it to be natural.

From an early age, we are urged to do the right things. Stay in school. Work hard. Don’t do drugs. Save for retirement. Maintain a financial reserve. Floss. We’re admonished that if we do all of these things, then we will enjoy success. By and large, that advice is solid.

What a shame then that people follow that advice, attain a position of influence and respect, accumulate sufficient financial status to not worry, and then cease to listen to anyone around them. Such people wind up losing their influence and believing that their assets will render them important. If it doesn’t work for a king, it won’t work for mere commoners.

Getting in Tune

Most people who read this are not millennials. You’re mostly O4Cs (Over 40 Christians), and many of you have done a lot of the things that were impressed upon you over the years. Perhaps you have a secure job, good benefits, money in the bank, and all your own teeth. Congratulations.

Now that you have arrived or can at least see the destination to which you’re en route, don’t stop listening to wise counsel, especially the counsel of God. Solomon urges us to be wise, suggesting that whatever we have gained over the years, even to a crown, will likely be squandered if we’re not heeding warnings any longer.

Today, Sears stock is selling for $.29 a share. In 2005 if was over $50. Be glad if that wasn’t in your 401K.

Is It Better than Amazon?

My mother asked recently if they sell a certain something on Amazon. I chuckled and then informed her, “Short of a live elephant, I think you can buy just about anything on Amazon.” And it’s true. Yesterday, I bought an air-powered stapler locally, but I just checked and found the same exact model–two dollars cheaper–on Amazon. The staples for that tool are available in just about length and quantity. Obscure books, pointless Valentine’s gifts, and whatever this is are similarly available.

Amazon is amazing. They have everything. You don’t have to worry about some part being in the wrong bin or the price being mis-marked. With free shipping, it’s just about perfect. No wonder bricks-and-mortar stores are suffering so much.

There are, of course, some reasons why I might go to my local big-box store rather than scrolling through Amazon’s offerings. Let’s consider some of these.

  • I can actually see, feel, try on, or otherwise experience the item before I buy it.
  • I can talk to somebody about the item before I buy it.
  • I can get the item right now rather than a day or two from now.
  • I’m lonely and I just want to get out of the house.
  • I can do the right thing by supporting local business.

I mention this because I’ve been thinking about my church in relation to Amazon. Why should a “customer” come to my church rather than experiencing church online? I can watch Joel Osteen on TV. Better yet (for several reasons), I can stream Steven Furtick on my computer. Why wouldn’t I opt for this instead of going to the trouble of heading to a bricks-and-mortar church?

And it can be trouble. You don’t have to find parking at the Amazon church. Your kids won’t embarrass you there. There’s nobody with too much cologne or not enough deodorant sitting near you there. You don’t have to pretend to like people. No one will judge your clothes, your hair, your family situation, your lifestyle, or anything else. These are real obstacles.

Of course, I know the various reasons why I shouldn’t opt for the Amazon-era church. There’s Hebrews 10:25 and all that, but they didn’t have broadcast capabilities in the first century. How can I convince a potential church “customer” that my church is better than the one they can see comfortably and readily on a screen. And that question is only relevant if I can convince someone of the need to “shop” for some sort of church experience at all.

For the bricks-and-mortar church to thrive today, it needs to be better than Amazon. We, as dedicated church people shouldn’t be surprised when others don’t find our church body compelling if it does not offer something like what’s listed in the bullet points above.

We are not the Amazon church. We shouldn’t aspire to being the Amazon church. But in an age when Amazon is carving a path through retailing, we need to see them as a cautionary tale. If retailers don’t offer something that Amazon can’t, they’ll go the way of K-Mart. If the church doesn’t offer something that the Amazon church can’t, then we shouldn’t be surprised to see our attendance, our budget, our effectiveness, and our witness declining in the culture.