Physical media, streaming and ministry as a metaphor
The story of how Netflix replaced Blockbuster is a well-researched and well-cited warning tale. The documentary The last blockbuster can of course be streamed on Netflix. The fall of a video rental empire is the founding story of the popular TV show Schitt Creek… Also available on Netflix and other streaming services.
Netflix was founded as a DVD-by-mail subscription service with no late fees. Having a feel for the technological improvements to come, they began to create a streaming platform that they were fully committed to by 2007. The innovations continued as Netflix formed an industry to create its own. contents. In 2019, Netflix received 14 Oscar nominations. Not bad for a young rental company. Netflix has a current net worth of around $ 300 billion, which puts it on par with companies like Disney and Adobe, while surpassing household names like Nike, Exxon Mobile, Toyota and Coca-Cola.
Alternatively, Blockbuster has made heavy investments in more traditional brick and mortar storefronts. Much to the chagrin of their clients, an important source of their income was rooted in the application of late fees. In 2000, Netflix approached the CEO of Blockbuster to propose a $ 50 million merger, where Netflix would put Blockbuster online and Blockbuster would traffic the Netflix DVD offering in stores. Netflix founder Reed Hastings was laughed at from the audience.
You know the rest of the story. Blockbuster attempted to create a postal service and even recklessly bought another failing company, Circuit City, to catch up with Netflix. It was already too late. Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy in 2010 and there is only one Blockbuster store left in the world.
Cautionary tales like Blockbuster, Sears, Kmart, and Toys “R” Us are often used as warnings against falling in love with the status quo business model … and the ministry. Netflix is often used by speakers at conferences and retreats to motivate church leaders to embrace new models of ministry that are better equipped to meet the needs of the missionary landscape in which we find ourselves. The metaphor is as simple as it is dramatic: don’t be a Blockbuster! Be Netflix!
I have the opportunity to walk with pastors and leaders from various backgrounds, providing them with guidance and resources to help them discern best ministry practices in their local situations. I also serve as a faculty mentor for seminary students who obtain graduate degrees. And I regularly share coffee with retired clergy and denominational leaders. This means that each week I engage with elders, established, and future leaders of the church. It is a wonderful vocation.
However, when I think about Netflix illustration, I sometimes get discouraged. It seems it is too late for many of our church and church leaders. I know many leaders who laugh at Netflix-style mission and ministry opportunities on the doorstep. They love the church, they just don’t understand the changing landscape, find it hard to imagine anything different, or, like a blockbuster, simply refuse to change. Do you think the people at Blockbuster didn’t like movies? Of course they did. They just couldn’t imagine a new delivery system.
But I also know pastors and church leaders who are creative and passionate ministry entrepreneurs. They seek out where God is in motion in their community and find new ways to engage. Their successes are often small and not celebrated, but they are meaningful and have profound impacts for those they serve. They understand and love their community with great pastoral sensitivity. But they will never be Netflix. They will never have a role model to emulate, a must-listen podcast, a sought-after speaker, or a publishing darling.
And that’s the dramatic pause the speakers use when they use the Netflix metaphor. Is it already too late for your church? Ministry? Vocation? Being Netflix or dying are their only options.
It is too crude an illustration. Not all ministry opportunities are a Blockbuster or Netflix duality. That’s why I had a love / hate relationship with the metaphor. Of course, I want to be effective and even “successful” in the ministry. When I come across a new ministry opportunity, I put it in my personal Netflix filter, so I don’t mock Blockbuster. Does this meet the needs of people in our context? Is it adaptable in the future? What are the costs in the hearts, minds and souls of those who are left behind if they are not early adopters? Am I passionate about it? Will the gospel be shared? Is it the institutional survival or the flourishing of the kingdom?
These and other questions haunt me about the current and future state of the church. This is why I have never used the Netflix illustration in my speech or my writing until now.
You know what a Redbox is even if you’ve never used one. There are 40,000 bright red phone booth-sized boxes outside your favorite grocery, drugstore and donut store that boasts a loyal member base of 39 million people who rent DVDs and Blu-rays from a self-guided kiosk. The obvious problem, of course, is that physical media rentals have declined 90% over the past decade, and Redbox’s revenue has fallen 34% on the eve of their stock market launch on October 25, 2021. That is. one of the few companies in history to go public with declining revenues.
But that’s not the end of the story. Redbox recently announced mergers with production company Lionsgate and streaming company Roku to expand its business model beyond storefront kiosks. Red Box is also a lot like Netflix now with its own streaming service available on multiple platforms. And they started a production company, giving them the opportunity to grow and thrive in creating original content at low cost.
In order to make these mergers and expand their streaming platforms, Redbox has done extensive research to find out what makes its millions of members unique. Their research found that Redbox users are late adopters of new technology, watch 72% more movies than the average American household, still use traditional cable services, and see themselves as offer hunters. Redbox knows that the physical media side of its business will decline to become unsustainable. But until then, the company plans to use its highly visible red boxes to promote its online platform and slowly bring its members into the streaming age.
Redbox, I think, is a much better metaphor for how we can approach the current church age. Redbox is expected to succeed despite physical media still being part of their business plan, as they haven’t ignored their current customers in favor of an archaic business model like Blockbuster, but they haven’t lost either. late users like Netflix. They found a way to move their customer base from one type of entertainment platform to another.
This is how the many ministries, missions and services focused on the kingdom of God through the church can be held in the changing missionary landscape. It is our vocation to walk with people where they are. We can’t keep using models that don’t work… don’t be Blockbuster. But not everyone fits some type of ministry model going forward… we don’t have to be Netflix.
There is a Redbox-like way for us to use the best of all available practices to thrive as a people of the realm in our contexts. Our vocation is to continue to seek where God is active and moving in our communities. Our churches and ministry buildings are like Redbox booths all over our community. These are beacons and billboards. They represent the kingdom of God in the towns and villages where they are located. They are full of people who have one foot in what was and another in what will be. We can be the people to guide them through this process.
We also need to think about embracing hybrid church models that hold in-person gatherings while developing exciting and accessible online ministry practices. Each of our relationships extends to new media platforms. It is a real space where we work, play and worship and which obliges us to bear witness to the presence of Christ in these spaces.
If we do nothing, some of our churches and ministries will go the Blockbuster path. But Netflix isn’t the only option. It might not even be the best option. Think of Redbox. Use what works until it is unsustainable, then be ready and equipped to walk with Christ in the next step.