The Kodak Effect

Archie Poulos

Kodak is still a highly recognisable name. For a century it shaped the world of photography, accounting for 90% of film sold in the USA, and leading the way in photographic innovation. It was Kodak engineers who created the first digital camera. And then in 2012 Kodak filed for bankruptcy. What happened? What can we learn about ourselves for their demise?

The game has changed

It appears that they did not realise that the world in which they were operating had changed.

When they developed the digital camera in 1975 the company sought to keep it under wraps for fear that it would threaten their film market. When they realised that digital cameras were here to stay they did not put much effort into the product because it did not have the same profit margin as did film. And so the world passed them by.

It seems to me that Kodak had two things going against them: they did not see the massive change in the visual image landscape, and they were lulled into a false sense of security precisely because they were so successful generating profit from the alternative technology that they did not feel the urgency for change.

Ever changing world

One thing sociologists agree upon, and that everyone knows, is that the world is constantly changing; and changing at an ever increasing rate. Recognising this, there are two ways to function: either you can change yourself and your actions incrementally, little by little; or you may decide that radical change, and radical change often occurring is what is required. Robert E. Quinn, in his secular best seller Deep Change argues that you can either change significantly or face slow death. There is no middle ground, no incremental change. This way of thinking is getting wider acceptance, even though it tends not to be the way churches think. Certainly, it did not work for Kodak.

Our dilemma

The complication for Christians as we face our changing world is what to change and what we must not change. We have a changeless Lord, a non negotiable gospel and a certain, sure, immovable hope. Our dilemma is knowing what we must change and what we must not change. I perceive the way many of us navigate this complexity is by changing everything a little bit and seeing what happens. This is unacceptable and dishonouring to God!

The situation

We must recognise that the church’s relationship with the world has radically changed (as the photographer’s relationship with 35mm film did). We are at best seen as quaint, often seen as irrelevant, and increasingly perceived as evil. We are beyond the day of seeking to merely incrementally change our relationship with those around us. The situation is urgent, and our previous success may well blind us to the necessity to change.

But we must also recognise that God still uses the same resources he always has to move people from death to life, from mortality to immortality. It is the same gospel we must proclaim, trusting in the same Holy Spirit to do His work, extolling the same Saviour, and inviting people to enjoy the blessing of being united in the same church. To incrementally modify these things is to dishonour God.

Some early thoughts to avoid going the way of photography film. I know that my comments open a ‘can of worms’, and raise so many questions. But here are some ideas of what we must do.

  1. Better observe what is going on in our world
  2. Listen to what people think of the church, and whether they would ever be involved in it
  3. Speak into the situations everyone experiences with the better way of being (and only hope for the world) that comes through being united to Christ and what He has done
  4. If we do not make deep change, project where we will be in a decade’ time. I know Sydney is doing better than many other denominational churches in Australia, but despite all our efforts we are only growing at about population growth, and in fact if it were not for new migrants joining our churches we would be under population growth. Despite our efforts in attracting people, the number of first timers coming to church has constantly decreased over the last decade. Irrespective of the resources we have put into youth and young adult ministry there is a decline in the percentage of 15-29 years in our churches over the past 20 years!
  5. Recognise the situation is urgent, and be willing to endure the pain involved in change.
  6. Pray to the Lord of the harvest, that He will have mercy on the 4.5 million souls in Sydney alone who do not bow the knee to Jesus.