The Spiritual Landscape
What Kodak Can Teach the Church
That's quite an achievement. But it's seductive as well. It is not just hard for those of us who grew up with Kodak to imagine that it is going to disappear from the American landscape. It was hard for Kodak to imagine. And because Kodak couldn't grasp its own mortality, the company fueled its own demise.
That really should not have been news at Kodak. But it is the same conceit that you can hear in the phrase, "Too big to fail." History is littered with empires and institutions that clearly illustrate that nothing is too big to fail. But in the moment there is nothing like conceit to hide that fact from us.
Those of us who occupy churches that branded the Christian experience should take note. None of us are too big to fail. In fact, a lot of us are well on our way to doing just that. There is nothing about what we have done or accomplished that can't one day be captured in a footnote describing something that happened a long time ago and far away.
The third problem at Kodak was that when the company finally did recognize the need to change, it chose the wrong kind of innovation.
When Kodak discovered that the film business would no longer sustain them, they announced in 2000 that they were going into the digital camera business. Contrary to predictions, they actually succeeded in selling no small number of them. In fact, by 2005 they had moved to the number one position in the sale of digital cameras. Unfortunately, the profit margin on digital cameras is so small that their achievement could not sustain the company.
The church should be so thoughtfully wrong. What we have are seminaries whose strategy is to not offer a Master's degree; judicatories without leadership in the development of ministry to youth, young adults, and families; and leaders who have announced that any global expression of our unity with churches in the more conservative southern hemisphere is probably just a non-starter.
It is not hard to imagine what the "profit margin" will be on such imaginative initiatives.
The fourth mistake that Kodak made was to underestimate the extent of the change that faced them.
While Kodak pivoted to digital sales, it bet that the company could sustain itself on the sale of film products in China. (Sound like a familiar gambit?) But, unfortunately, for Kodak, the Chinese market embraced digital products as fast or faster than other parts of the world.
The nation and the world are becoming more, not less Christian. But the church will be non-white, Catholic, Pentecostal, Pentecostal-Catholic, and Fundamentalist.
The church can ill-afford to underestimate the change. And, yet, the leaders of many denominations are opting for a smaller church, shaped not just by national boundaries, but by their own interpretation of the Gospel. Difference is a ________, isn't it?
But we have a bigger obligation to acknowledge it than simply issues of market share. The nature of our message is, in and of itself, one that is universal and unifying in its message. And if it becomes something fit for only a single brand of interpretation east of the Hudson and south from New York to Washington, then whatever it might be, it is not the Gospel.
The church is what it is today, not just because it acknowledged change, but because it actively embraced it, spreading from culture to culture and country to country.
The fifth and perhaps most basic mistake that Kodak made was it confused what it does with how it was done.
Frederick W. Schmidt is the author of The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Life in Hard Times (Abingdon Press: 2013) and several other books, including A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). He holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He and his wife, Natalie live in Chicago, Illinois. He can also be reached at: http://frederickwschmidt.com/