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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Lessons from Sam the Record Man

Sam the Record Man, Toronto
When I was a teenager, one of my very favorite things to do was to make a pilgrimage a couple of times a year to 347 Yonge Street in Toronto – the home of Sam the Record Man.

For a kid who loved music, Sam’s was like dying and going to heaven. Room upon endless room filled with every record you could imagine – and many you could not imagine even existed until you found them in the bins at Sam’s. I’d go with my Christmas money, or my savings from part time jobs and browse for hours, until I’d settled on the two or three precious LPs I could afford to buy.

Once I left a brand new record in the back window of the car where it melted into a warped, gooey mess. I was so devastated by my loss that I dissolved into tears.

I remember the feeling of sadness and loss when Sam’s flagship store closed in 2007. Precious memories. The end of an era.

Of course, the demise of Sam’s didn’t mean I could no longer get music. In fact, quite the opposite. Retail record stores failed not because people lost interest in music, but because there were far easier and cheaper ways to access it.

Now, I pay $10 a month for a streaming service that gives me access to more music than I
will ever be able to listen to, on my cell phone, at the click of a button.

Sam’s was a delivery vehicle. It was a means to an end. When better means came along, there was no need for Sam’s.

Sam the Record Man was part of the same vanishing world as the church I grew up in – Lincoln Avenue United in Cambridge. That church played an even bigger role in my life than Sam’s, and when it closed in 2002, the feeling of loss was the similar, but more powerful.

But both Sam’s and that church closed for the same reason. People were no longer coming.
And I hear the same question asked over and over again in our churches today: “Why? Why aren’t people coming? Why aren’t they interested in anymore?”

I’m convinced that’s the wrong question. Or, at least, it’s not the first question. Just like the closing of  Sam the Record Man didn’t mean people had lost interest in music, so the closing of our churches doesn’t necessarily mean people have lost interest in what churches claim to offer – spiritual nourishment, guidance, friendship, prayer, community, God. People, we’re told, are as spiritually hungry as they have ever been. It’s just that we keep offering it in a format that no longer works. Oh, it still works for some of us, which is why we still have churches. But fewer and fewer people are willing to travel to a fixed location at one fixed time in the week to satisfy their search for God.

Most of our churches follow a script that hasn’t really changed much since the 1950s: a Sunday morning worship service, plus midweek groups and activities, all in the church building. That’s the equivalent of telling people that, if they want music, they have to drive to a record store to get it. It’s preserving the form and neglecting the content.

Now, I want to be careful. I don’t want to suggest that the church should become like Amazon – one click shopping in the privacy of your home. And I don’t want to suggest that something precious hasn’t been lost in the age of instant connection and information. Downloading an album from Apple Music is not the same experience as a trip to Sam’s.

The point is that there are changes happening that are way bigger than we are, and there is no way for us to turn them back.

The music industry to turn the clock back. They tried to resist the shift from hard recordings on CDs to music downloaded from the internet. They even managed to close down the original file-sharing website, Napster, after a costly court battle. But they couldn’t resist the tide of change. Ironically, by resisting rather than seeking ways to work with new formats and technologies, they hurt their own cause.

If churches want to connect with people in new ways, they need to learn about the ways in which people, especially young people, connect. And they need to think long and hard about the new tools, the new “delivery systems” that might bring the Good News to people in fresh ways.

Otherwise, Sam’s fate will be our own. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Capitalizing on Assets

The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto has an interesting theory about the difference
Hernando de Soto
between rich and poor countries. It’s not that poorer countries lack assets. It’s that they lack capital.

An asset is something you possess. Even very poor countries, de Soto argues, have a wealth of assets. What they don’t have are the mechanisms to turn their assets into capital – to unlock the potential of those assets to generate greater wealth.

For example, a house is an asset. It provides protection from elements, a place to sleep at night, prepare meals, store your belongings and raise a family. If your house is near other houses, it provides you with a place in the community.

But if that house is a corrugated metal shack in an illegal squatter settlement on the edges of mega city, it will never be anything more than a roof to keep the rain out. That asset is inert. 

On the other hand, if you have legal title to that house, it can do many things in addition to providing shelter. It can be used as collateral to borrow money in order to finance an education, start a business, or boost the economy. It is an identifiable address that gives its owner access to a wide range of public services, It generates taxes that support everything from reliable utilities to police protection – all the things that make communities safe and liveable. That asset becomes a generator of greater wealth and opportunity.

Poor countries may be rich in assets, but they lack the financial mechanisms and legal system to turn those assets into wealth-generating capital.

At least that’s de Soto’s theory. And I’m not an economist, so I can’t judge how true it is.
However, de Soto’s ideas made me think of an intriguing parallel in the area, not of economic capital, but of “social capital.” Social capital refers to the connections between people that make human communities possible.

Churches are rich in social capital. They have a wealth of interpersonal connections. And they are rich in assets – far richer than they may realize. But often, churches don’t know how to capitalize on those assets to generate growth and fruitfulness. Their assets aren’t being used to their fullest potential.

Take, for example, that basic church asset -- friendliness. I don’t know of a church whose members don’t think of themselves as friendly. And that is a vital asset. After all, who wants to go to an unfriendly church?

Friendliness can be a precious commodity in today’s culture of loneliness. And it’s often our smaller churches who have this asset in the greatest abundance.

But many churches don’t know how to get the most out of their innate capacity for friendliness. They lack the means of sharing that asset with people outside their own circle, of leveraging that asset to generate a greater wealth of meaningful relationships. With visitors or with people outside the church, they don’t know how to move from a polite greeting, to an open conversation, to significant relationships – to move, in other words, from “friendliness” to “friendship.”

This problem begins with the question of purpose. We have been conditioned over generations to think that the end game is how to attract people into the church – and that the only really valid measure of success is how many show up on Sunday morning. Many a youth ministry or outreach project has been labelled a failure because it doesn’t increase worship attendance.

Congregational assets may be producing in ways that we don’t count because we aren’t looking for them. We don’t see the many ways in which people experience hope, healing and the presence of God through contact with Christians because those people don’t follow the expected path to church involvement.

A critical task for churches these days is to take stock of their assets – not just buildings and trust funds, but the capacity of their people to represent Jesus to those to who do not yet know him.

But a second and equally critical task is to come up with simple, practical, effective ways of sharing those assets with others so that Christ’s ministry is extended.