January 5, 2015
They were Amazon, before Amazon.
Richard Sears was a railroad station agent in the 1880’s in North Redwood, Minnesota. A shipment of watches arrived in his remote frontier rail office, destined for a local jeweler who turned down the delivery. Sears bought the watches, resold them… and the rest is history.
Along with a partner in Chicago – Alvah Roebuck – he saw an opportunity in making big-city merchandise available to rural farmers who were captive to general stores with limited inventories and floating high prices. They published their first catalog – using the railroads to deliver the goods – and the rest is retail history.
The first Sears Roebuck store didn’t open until 1925, after the company had gone public and made its mark as America’s source of everything from dolls to kit houses, sold and delivered without a brick-and-mortar retail presence. Originally, their stores emerged alongside fulfillment warehouses; later, they would become anchor tenants in suburban shopping malls across America. Originally established as an alternative to the limited-inventory general stores, they ultimately became the general store institution, and their decline began…
Today, many analysts are suggesting that Sears’ real estate holdings are of greater value than the operations they were built to house. Their catalogs are long-gone, and the panache of their retail outlets disappeared with the advent of upscale department stores on the other end of the mall. Sears is now worth more as a real-estate play than as the once-giant retailer who once defined the category.
Last Saturday’s Wall Street Journal had a strange photo on the front page, above-the-fold: an adolescent skateboarder doing tricks on an indoor skate park ramp… set up in the Church of St. Joseph, in Anhem, Netherlands. The headline below the photo: Europe’s Empty Churches Go on Sale.
A full page of the front section of WSJ, exploring the phenomenon of a community category – local churches – that once commanded the best corners near the city centers of western Europe, but today are empty warehouses of religious art seeking to be repurposed.
Alongside the article are statistics from the Pew Research Center – based on surveys done in 2010 – reflecting the population of various countries self-defining as “unaffiliated with any religion.” China: 52%. Netherlands: 42%. France: 28%. Germany: 25%. United Kingdom: 21%. USA: 16%. National church bodies find themselves managing a real estate portfolio of single-purpose buildings without a continuing need for serving the spiritual communities they once housed…
From the WSJ article: “In the U.S., church statistics say roughly 5,000 new churches were added between 2000 and 2010. But some scholars think America’s future will approach Europe’s, since the number of actual churchgoers fell 3% at the same time, according to Scott Thumma, professor of sociology of religion at Connecticut’s Hartford Seminary. He says America’s churchgoing population is graying. Unless these trends change, ‘within another 30 years, the situation in the U.S. will be at least as bad as what is currently evident in Europe’…”
Jesus’s professional career was in real estate: he was a building contractor in the village of Nazareth until He launched His ministry. The earliest – and, some would say, most dynamic – years of the Christian movement established virtual communities of faith who had no plans to build real estate portfolios. They needed no building to house their personal God: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). The church? People, together; wherever…
Has the Christian faith become a distressed portfolio of real estate, no longer needed by a world not looking for another obligation to attend a meeting?