November 2014

A Kodak Moment

On the website earlier this year, Thom Schulz wondered “Is the church the next to go the way of Kodak?” He explained:-

Kodak dominated the photographic scene for over 100 years. It commanded an 89 per cent 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 actually invented. That’s right. Kodak engineer Steve Sasson invented the first digital camera in 1975….
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 agonising decline, unable to perceive and respond to the advancing digital revolution. In 2012 this icon of industry filed for bankruptcy.
How could this happen? Where did the leaders of this once-proud organisation go wrong? And how might the church, which has also entered a time of decline, resemble this story?

Schultz goes on to make three observations about Kodak’s decline and possible parallels for the church.

A misunderstanding of mission
Kodak’s leaders thought they were in the film business, rather than 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 churches believe they are in the traditional preaching business, the teaching business, the Sunday morning formula business. Is clinging to the ways these things have been done, diverting the focus from the real mission of helping people develop an authentic and growing relationship with the real Jesus?

Failure to read the lines
Kodak’s leaders didn’t recognise 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, churches who assume that the current church decline is just a cyclical glip, will be left to sweep out the empty factories of 20th century religion.

Fear of loss
A central reason Kodak chose not to pursue digital photography in 1992 was the fear of cannibalising 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. It is a common experience that many churches will not make any changes to become more mission oriented because someone will inevitably object and get upset. We abdicate every time because we just can’t lose any more members. Schulz suggests that any congregation that thinks like that is already dead. They just don’t know it.

So what is the future of the Church? Is what we know of Christian ministry a Kodak photograph or a dodo bird?
Certainly there is great pain ahead for those who choose only to keep on doing what we have always been doing and who have no capacity for adaptation. It is becoming abundantly clear that a certain type of model and expression of how we do church and what a minister does is passing away.
Albert Einstein said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Many churches are, in effect, winding up. At best, they hope there will be sufficient consolidation of resources to allow some rare but quaint living exhibits.

Finally Schultz suggests that the church has to:-

1) Accept and understand reality.
Even though the decline is slow, it’s real.

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…. Is the Sunday morning service really how we want to define the sum total of the church anyway?

3) Take some risks. Experiment. Act now.
In a workshop some church leaders were asked to brainstorm about changes they might try to enhance the life of their church. The response was “People may not like the change” and “What if it doesn’t work?”
Schultz asks in response, “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. 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.


November 2014