Douglass Blvd Christian Church

an open and affirming community of faith

n open and affirming community where faith is questioned and formed, as relationships are made and upheld. 

Filtering by Tag: Christianity

What If Small Is the New Big?

By Derek Penwell

Bookstores and Our Relationship to “Bigness”

As a kid growing up, almost all of the bookstores I knew about were found in malls—B. Dalton and Walden Books. You could expect to find one (sometimes two if the mall were big enough) in almost every mall. These bookstores didn’t carry an extensive inventory—mostly best sellers, coffee table books, children’s books, magazines, and so on. The experience was about buying—browse if you must, but find what you want, buy it, then get back to the rest of your business at the mall. They had no chairs, no coffee. It was a place to stop in and take a break from doing something else. The strategy wasn’t about great selection; it was about ubiquity: “We’re everywhere, and if we don’t have it, we can order it.”

As the 1990s unfolded, however, the ubiquity of mall bookstores began to decline. People’s relationship to books and the stores that sold them began to change with the increasing popularity of a couple of new chains, Borders and Barnes & Noble, and their imitators. These stores carried much more substantial inventory, and they appealed to people’s book buying experience. These new bookstores made an attempt to appear like a cross between a retail library and a coffee shop—come in, browse, relax, read a little, and have a latte. They provided comfortable chairs that they actually seemed to want you to sit down in, new and interesting music softly played, grad students with tattoos and multiple piercings, and a crap ton of books that allowed you to discover new authors and subjects you didn’t know about. The strategy was about great selection and an inviting experience—”We’ve got stuff you didn’t even know you wanted, which you get to explore at your leisure.”

But as the Internet realized popularity, a new kind of book buying experience emerged—online shopping, led principally by Amazon. Amazon and the other online bookstores boasted a nearly exhaustive inventory that could be accessed from the comfort of your own living room. What they gave up in ambience, they made up for in convenience. Not only could you order books and have them shipped straight to your door, you could order just about anything else—from TVs to hernia belts. The strategy centered on almost unlimited selection available with unbelievable convenience—”We’ve got just about everything, and you don’t even have to put down your Mountain Dew to get it.”

Things really started to change, however, with the advent of e-books. Amazon introduced digital books that gave people the convenience of online ordering coupled with instant online delivery. There was almost no waiting at all. You could have a new book in seconds, no matter where you were.

Still, after the big chain bookstores almost crushed them, and after Amazon and e-books almost crushed the big chain bookstores, some local independent bookstores have managed not only to survive, but to thrive. How do they do it?

Here’s where a really good writer might offer the winning strategy, distilled to its essence: The thing that makes some small independent bookstores succeed in the land of the giants is __________.

But if there is a strategy, distilled to its essence, I don’t know what it is. Of course, I have some ideas—an emphasis on niche marketing, an appeal to customer service, a local community atmosphere. I imagine all those things, and probably some others, have contributed to the success of certain small independent bookstores.

What I want to focus on is the broader reality of bigness. For years the roadmap to success appeared to wend its way through Mega-ville. Go big or go home, right? Walmart. Microsoft. McDonalds. Google. The New York Yankees. Hollywood blockbusters. Page views. Empire.

In fact, so closely did success seem to correlate with bigness that—at least informally, if not explicitly—that’s gradually how success came to be defined. Biggest is best.

When Big Became Small

But the narrative of bigness has bumped up against some difficult realities. For one thing, a market that is increasingly fragmented by the vagaries of demographic diversity—race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender expression … not to mention, the perennial issue of the range of individual taste—is difficult to dominate in a general way. When a culture is largely homogenous, generating broad appeal is much easier—you only need to get a couple of things right to saturate the market. When the market is fragmented, however, broad appeals are almost impossible, since whatever you offer will almost certainly exclude wide swaths of the population.

For another thing, with the increasing presence of the Internet, and it’s almost endless platforms for publishing and marketing, the signal to noise ratio is as high as it’s ever been. So, while it’s easier now than ever to get your message out, your message is one among millions. Being heard is both easier and more difficult, in that your message is easier to broadcast to a potential audience, but because there are so many voices, it can be more difficult to have your message actually heard. Time was you could craft a message, publicize it through traditional media, and have a reasonable chance of having it being heard by your intended audience. If you were quick enough, properly resourced, and sufficiently smart, you might run the table. Boom! Big. Nowadays, however, mass appeals untailored to highly specific audiences have difficulty making connections.

No question but that bigness still exists. And where it does, it’s really big … huge, in fact. (Think Apple, Walmart, Google, Comcast, Verizon, American Airlines). But it’s becoming rarer and rarer.

Small and local are also thriving (Think Farmers Markets, CSAs, Record Stores, Community Ministries). What we have less and less of is moderately big (Think Montgomery Ward, Circuit City, Newsweek, Borders, My Space). A large swath in the middle—including much that would traditionally have been called large—finds itself being squeezed on both ends.

So, maybe we need to rethink the endgame. Maybe our understanding of success needs recalibration.

* What if scrambling to be a monopoly is a waste of time?

* What if “mega” scares off more people than it attracts?

* What if, as Seth Godin has suggested, small is the new big?

I want to suggest that these are questions denominations and congregations should be considering just now.

Where Do I Want to Be When Justice Rolls Down?

By Derek Penwell


I had a parishioner write something the other day that I can’t quite get out of my head. Darla is an advocate in the state capitol on behalf of the rights of the disabled and the elderly, and had a bill go on life support -- the Adult Abuse Prevention Bill. (How do you not support that?)

In her disappointment, she wrote: “I sit here again thinking about exactly where do I want to be when justice does roll down!”

I’ll be honest: That question haunts me. Darla was referring to the famous passage from the prophet Amos, who , in a time where grave disparities existed between those in power and those on the margins, between those dining on bone china and those forced to eat leftovers out back from the dumpster, wrote:

“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (5:24).

Apparently, God has become upset with Israel because of the way those in power have treated the folks at the bottom of the food chain. God’s anger stems from the fact that “they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals -- they … trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way” (2:6b-7a).

The irony in Amos, however, is that the people who oversee this oppression labor under the assumption that they’re on God’s side. The oppressors are God’s people, people who long for the “day of the Lord.” They believe that when God sets things right, they’ll be -- as they’ve always been -- on the winning side of things.

But God says something like, “Don’t be so quick to hunger for the day of the Lord. The justice you seek may not be nearly as pleasant for you as you imagine” (5:18).

In other words, the people God is most annoyed with are the people who’ve always considered themselves the heroes of the story, the ones whom God should be grateful to have on the team -- the ones who throw holy festivals, who gather in solemn assemblies, who offer up all the right sacrifices, who sing beautiful songs -- all to God. These are the people who’ve taken care to make sure they believe all the right things, who hold all the correct theological positions and whose liturgical prowess is unmatched.

What is God’s response to these pillars of the assembly?

“I don’t care about your spiritual virtuosity! Fine, you know your way around the scriptures. You know what fraction of an ephah of flour should be used to bake bread for the tabernacle. Congratulations! You have an exhaustive metric concerned with determining who’s fit to bother with, and who doesn’t measure up. Here’s the problem, though: none of that means anything, since you forgot that all that stuff is a tool to make you into the kind of people who seek justice by loving the people I love.”

When my daughter was about 4 years old, she’d just received (at our prompting, of course) the latest in what must have felt like an endless string of apologies from her older brother for hitting her.

“Tell your sister you’re sorry,” we said.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled.

And she said something that still calls out to me: “I don’t want your ‘sorries.’ I just want you to stop hitting me.”

You see, the thing is: It’s easy to do that which seems big and true and righteous, but costs me little. Doing something that costs me, really costs me, is difficult. And I’m not talking about money, except inasmuch as money stands as another way to control the world I live in.

Making myself vulnerable. Voluntarily surrendering power. Placing myself in someone else’s hands. Not getting to be the boss of who’s in and who’s out, who’s worth helping and who “should have known better in the first place.” These things cost me.

Being right isn’t a bad thing. I try to do it regularly myself. But when being right costs you nothing and someone else everything, Amos says you’re bound to get crossways with God -- since God seeks first to love us, and through us to love one another. Even God is less interested in being right than in being loving -- for Christians, that’s what that whole Jesus thing was about.

God says to the keepers of the keys: “For my part, give me justice. Justice. Let it roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”

And for God, justice doesn’t mean simple fairness, flattening everything out so it’s the same. Justice means seeking for everyone what they need to flourish.

So, where do I want to be when justice rolls down? My first inclination is to say: “I want to be on the right side of it.”

If I read Amos anything like correctly, my heart says: “When justice rolls down, I want to be right in the middle of it.”

Sermon Podcast: Just Trying to Hear

Freedom House Shower.jpg

So how can we hear what he has to say? How can those who earnestly seek to be his sheep know what his voice sounds like?

You want to hear Jesus? His voice sounds like a hungry child being fed.

You want to hear Jesus? His voice sounds like an undocumented worker being treated like a human being—with kindness and dignity.

You want to hear Jesus? His voice sounds like the hand of an old woman being held as she struggles to take her final breaths.

You want to hear Jesus? His voice sounds like a gay teenager being treated like a normal kid in a world intent on treating him like he’s got something wrong with him.

You want to hear Jesus? His voice sounds like a poor mother finding medicine for her sick children.

You want to hear Jesus? His voice sounds like an eight year-old boy holding a sign that says, “No more hurting people. Peace.”

Subscribe to us on iTunes!

Sermon Text