What Blockbuster got wrong and how that informs our approach to student ministry.

February 27, 2020 | Written by Suzy Bates

You remember Blockbuster Video don’t you?

Those awesome blue and yellow video rental stores that used to be packed full every Friday night back in the day? Well there is only ONE lowly Blockbuster Video left in the world and it is in Bend, Oregon.

What happened to this chain? Well in short, the world and technology moved right passed it and left it behind.

But I believe something deeper happened and I think it’s helpful for us as the Church to see how it’s tied to this statement:

As the Church, if we get our identity wrong, we will get the mission wrong.

This is what happened to Blockbuster. They got their identity wrong and therefore got their mission wrong. Blockbuster launched with their identity in the DVD rental business. And in the beginning, that identity was spot on.

But they refused to be willing to consider that their identity might need to grow as things changed around them.

In 1997 when Netflix pitched this new idea of mailing DVD’s to their customers’ doors, Netflix got their identity right by not having too narrow a view of what that identity was.

Revolutionarily, Netflix declared their identity was in the HOME ENTERTAINMENT business which was much more broad and holistic than Blockbuster’s identity in the DVD rental business. While Netflix’s mission adjusted to accurately reflect their identity, Blockbuster refused to budge on identity and stuck to the DVD rental mission. Which resulted in an identity that eventually became outdated and a mission that failed – while Netflix’s identity remains in a sweet spot with an effective and thriving mission resulting in a company with a net worth of over 160 billion dollars.

Now as a church, we’re not in the business of making money but we most definitely are in the business of getting our identity right so we can deploy an effective mission.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot and how it relates specifically to our ministries to the next generation at Pulpit Rock.

Will we be Blockbuster or Netflix?

You may have noticed we do things a little differently at Pulpit Rock, regarding Middle and High School programs – we don’t host a separate program for these students on Sundays when the rest of our church family is meeting together in the main services.

This is a growing trend among churches because research is showing that more and more young adults are leaving their parents’ church when they graduate high school and launch into the world. And they aren’t finding their own church home after that.

Research shows that this happens for a number of reasons. [1]

Some notable ones are:

  • A young adult who has only ever known their own separate program in church doesn’t know how to be a part of a community of faith. They only know their place in an age-specific program and don’t understand their influence in the church body as a whole.
  • Young people need adult influences outside of their primary caregiver(s). Intergenerational fellowship and worship helps foster a more real and lasting faith.
  • Allowing a young person to only ever be a consumer in church is detrimental to their faith journey.

We’re talking about teenagers here and they are for the most part naturally self-focused. We all are at that age, aren’t we?

We want to steer away from an environment where students merely consume what we offer. We would rather unleash students to join – and help LEAD – God’s redemptive work in our community of faith and in the world around us.

Moving our students from a consumer mindset (in which the church provides goods and services to the young people while the adults carry the serving and leadership loads) to one of participation in covenant relationships (in which ALL members bear the load and cultivate the culture together).

This allows students to be the Church while they are still with us so they know what it means to be the Church when they become adults in their own faith communities.

Without experiences like this, students often graduate youth group, move off to college life and have no picture of what their place in a church body is. They have only ever been consumers, in a separate and segregated program of their own. Sometimes for their entire adolescence!

We need them as much as they need us.

Separate programs make sense for our younger kiddos. But as kids grow into teens, they need much more from us as a church than a program of their own.

They need opportunity to lead the church.
To serve the church.
To learn about themselves and others.
They need adults in their lives, outside of their primary caregivers.
They need weekly opportunities to be a part of the church body as a whole.

They also need program and community tailored to their specific phase in life. And we will never stop offering excellent programs like that to the next generation.

We just don’t offer them to our teens at the same time our church body meets each week on Sundays because then they are forced to choose one or the other.

And they need both.

I know this move has been a bumpy one for some families. I know some parents (ME INCLUDED!) have heard their teenager say, “I wish we still had PRiSM on Sunday mornings. That’s more fun than church.”

I want to encourage parents to respond with understanding. Any teen would probably rather go play goofy games and hang out with their friends on Sunday morning than sit in the sanctuary and attend a church service with the rest of their community of faith.

But there is so much for them in our church life. And I believe whole heartedly that they will catch on to this.

There is also so much for our faith community when the next generation is invited to be a part of our weekly experiences and our culture as a whole! We are a richer community for their presence, their perspective and their influence among us.

It’s my job to make sure the next generation knows that and that our generation sees the great value in extending this invitation to them.

Leading doesn’t just happen from stage.

Here’s a picture of one of our Middle School students, Landon Brown, and his friend worshipping in one of our Sunday morning worship services recently…
When asked to share some words that reflected his feelings during this moment, a few Landon shared were:

BOLD
OBEDIENT
FREE
JOYFUL
FUN

The next generation does not need their own separate program instead of real connection to the church body as a whole to feel these very important things!

The youth band was not leading worship in this service. The youth pastor was not preaching. The service wasn’t taking place in the Student Center.

Those things are so important in the life of the next generation. But they simply cannot be all we offer them.

We would be selling them, and ourselves, short if that’s the only approach we took. We would be getting our identity as a ministry to students wrong too.

Our mission isn’t to have awesome student programs. Our mission it to help students develop a lasting faith of their own.

This adjustment in identity and mission is a difficult but necessary one. To trade in something that is good for something that is better is never easy. But this will reap much deeper and more long term lasting benefits as we carry over the strong foundation of community that our student programs have built into this identity and mission.

We are encouraging the next generation (and their parents!) to embrace this mission of teenagers having more holistic involvement in church.

Students, come worship with us. Come lead us like Landon is doing in this picture. Come find your place among the church body and practice using the gifts God has given you in leadership and in service now – you don’t have to wait until you’re an adult to do that.

Come find community with your peers on Wednesday nights in our awesome student programs and also come experience intergenerational community with us on Sundays because that will be your reality for the rest of your life once you graduate.

We are all better together.

As a leader overseeing our ministries to the next generation, it is imperative that we get our identity right in Kids and Student Ministries at Pulpit Rock. I will always challenge us to expand our view, to resist narrow mindedness. And we have leaders on our teams with the same heart. We have shifted our identity in PRiSM from being in the business of offering great student programs to being in the business of growing lasting faith in our students.

And growing lasting faith in the next generation means offering great student programs as well as offering involvement, influence and leadership to the next generation within our church body as a whole. And we can’t do both if we only offer our student programs at the same time the rest of our church is experiencing community together on Sunday mornings.

This more holistic identity continues to shape our mission. I believe with all my heart we are on the right track. And I deeply appreciate your faith and trust in us as we champion the next generation and fight for their hearts to connect with our mighty God in lasting ways before we launch them out into the world on their own.

[1] Research content comes from The Fuller Youth Institute https://fulleryouthinstitute.org/growingyoung/research

and their published research book – Growing Young.

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