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Can the Church Learn Anything From Books and Newspapers?

Over the past twenty-five years, books themselves haven’t changed all that much. They pass along ideas and thoughts, some doing so better than others, as well as seeking to inform and inspire.  While the books haven’t changed, the ways in which they’re sold have changed again and again.  These changes are the result of a variety of cultural shifts (political, economical, social, and technological).  People who sell books have either adapted or gone out of business.

The church finds itself in a similar position.  In a simplistic comparison, the church passes along a reality that it believes can inform, inspire, and transform humanity.  But in the last twenty-five years, has the church, while never abandoning its core value, done much in the way of adapting to the culture it inhabits?

A Brief History of Books

In 1985, if I wanted to purchase a book, I had to go to the mall.  This mall might have both a B. Daltons and a Waldenbooks, but most mall had one or the other.  Grocery stores rarely carried any books other than romance novels.  At times, I lived near a used bookstore, but those were few and far between.

Not only did I have to go to the mall to purchase a book, but in Texas in 1985, I also had to get there between Monday and Saturday.  Malls and most retailers were closed on Sunday in adherence with the Blue Laws.  In 1985, Texas repealed portions of this law which allowed me to buy books seven days a week.

This shift, a political one, changed my life, as I now had more opportunities to buy books.  It was a great day!

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, books became even more readily available.  Not only did larger bookstores emerge (Bookstop, Barnes & Noble, and Borders), but other retailers such as Target, Wal-Mart, and Sam’s Club began to carry books. My first trip inside a Barnes & Noble made my mouth drool.  I couldn’t believe the enormous quantity and variety that was now available to me.

This shift, an economic one, changed our culture as well. There was money to be made (and money to be paid- by me the consumer).

In 1995, Amazon.com emerged on the scene. Not only could I order books from my home or office, but they offered a backlist even greater than the nearby Barnes & Noble.  If that weren’t enough, they allowed me to read what other people posted about a particular book as well as providing me with recommendations about other books that people like me had purchased.

This shift, a technological one, changed our culture again. I could order more books, at any time, and they expanded my horizon of possible titles beyond what I thought possible.  It was an incredible day (also an expensive one).

In the late 2000’s, e-books (such as the Kindle), another technological shift, came on the scene, which further changed the culture. Instead of ordering the book online and waiting for it to arrive, I could push a button and have it on my Kindle within seconds.

And to think, twenty-five years ago, I had to go to the mall between Monday and Saturday and hope that the bookstore had the book I wanted in stock. One industry has experienced a seismic cultural shift.

What about the church?

Does the church do anything different?

Granted, some churches have changed their musical style.  Hymnals have been replaced by screens.  People might be more casual in their attire.

But has anything really changed?

Some churches got rid of Sunday School and replaced it with home groups (or cell groups).  That took place nearly twenty years ago.

But how has the church adapted since then?

This is not to argue for the blind embrace of change. People can and have done so with disastrous results.

The Recent History of Newspapers

Newspapers began to notice the technological shift brought on by the Internet and believed they needed to adapt. In doing so, they made a number of critical mistakes.

Newspapers engaged in the battle to be first, which is usually destined to be a losing battle. Someone will beat you to deliver the news first, and in the rush to be first you may, as we have seen, issue erroneous information.

Newspapers then noticed that internet news articles tended to be shorter than their own print articles. Thinking that the reader wanted shorter articles, newspapers began to cut back on the size of their articles. This became their second mistake. Instead of trying to match the internet word for word, they would’ve been more successful in providing longer, more researched articles.

Don’t be the same, be different.  Newspapers could’ve succeeded by providing context and analysis rather than information.  There’s a reason I haven’t read my local paper in years, yet I still read The Wall Street Journal.

As much as newspapers realized the technological shift, they missed it in one area, advertising. They failed to see how Ebay and Craigslist would cannibalize print media’s advertising.  “It’ll never happen to us,” they proudly declared.

They were wrong.

What can the church learn?

The church cannot abandon its values. Its core message is essential to its being.  Books didn’t change their content and they thrive. I am engaged and reading more and more books.  Newspapers watered down their content and they suffered.

The church must figure out ways to pay attention to the cultural shifts that are happening so that it can continue to have a voice. It needs to find ways to be able to communicate the transforming message of Christ in an ever-changing culture.  The culture of 2011 is far different from that of 2000 and 1990.  Does the church even realize?

Categories: Ministry

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