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Adventists, This Is Your Kodak Moment

Kodak Fun with Film - The Company's Demise

We live in a world of extremely rapid change, which has profound implications for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. For a denomination whose identity and existence hinges on mission, the world’s constant changes demand attention. Despite the many global initiatives the church has launched—Total Member Involvement, the Great Controversy Project 2.0, Reach the World, Mission to the Cities, Chosen for Mission, and I Will Go—many Adventist churches in urbanized environments face missional paralysis as the message and methods remain the same as they have always been. 

Titles and slogans aside, Adventist mission continues to feature an evangelistic campaign model that lures people to a public venue over several days, a crowd-drawing keynote speaker and curated musical acts that, if all goes well, culminates in a baptismal service. Often, a preceding area-wide pamphlet, brochure, or book mass distribution campaign serves to chum the waters ahead of these fishing expeditions. Sometimes, food hampers (gift baskets) are used as bait. 

Borrowed from 19th century rural America, this model remains the default whatever the slogan or missional initiative. Other efforts like door-to-door campaigns, hospital visits, health expos, and literature distribution, ultimately serve to draw people to a venue to listen to Adventist preaching. But these evangelistic meetings increasingly struggle to attract crowds and even faithful Adventists opt out of the very efforts they publicize.

Missional Paralysis

I have sat in Sabbath school study groups where teachers’ efforts to measure members’ involvement in literature distribution, Bible studies, or acts of giving yield awkward silence. And I acknowledge that urban living compounds missional challenges. Busy schedules, traffic congestion, parenting demands, and late work shifts make attending meetings difficult. The importing of high-profile speakers and musicians and members being cajoled to “invite a friend” clashes with (and may contribute to) missional fatigue and apathy. Tasking members with simply inviting a friend is both harmful and unsustainable. Ellen White had thoughts:

“All through our ranks, individual talent has been sadly neglected. A few persons have been selected as spiritual burden-bearers, and the talent of other members has remained undeveloped. Many have grown weaker since their union with the church because, they have been practically prohibited from exercising their talents… [they] do not lift their hands to do anything for fear of being repulsed, for fear that others will regard them as out of their place… they are discouraged from putting their energies into the work. They are criticized if they try to do anything, and finally allow their talents to lie dormant for fear of criticism, when if they were encouraged to use them, the work would be advanced, and workers would be added to the force of missionaries.” Review and Herald, July 9, 1895.

The literature Adventists drop on doorsteps generally goes unread and lands in waste bins. A generation with continual access to information and bombarded by words makes prioritizing Adventist literature unlikely, and to suggest that people who reject the literature are rejecting God is careless. Adventists are one voice competing among many. Even when material goodies or charity serve as a bait, people can read through the deceptive tactics. Kindness as an evangelistic tool rather than a virtue indicates desperation. And when mission is more a church program than a lifestyle, it becomes difficult to patiently cultivate relationships. Small groups ministry illustrates the way community has become programmatic and reveals how Adventist DNA has mutated to treat relationships as Bible study-dependent.

Missional apathy often reduces spreading the gospel and reaching communities to slogans and songs, and it seems Adventists are primarily interested in reaching the kinds of people who will respond to narrow evangelistic techniques. So when Adventists encounter those outside their worldview, they struggle to engage them. By and large, Adventists do not study and understand the culture around them. The church does not invest in understanding their world views, their art, their language, or their value systems. Adventists have not prioritized building bridges with them and becoming familiar with their world. Instead, church members have created a cultural box and unconsciously choose to reach only those who fit into it. 

Compounding this, church culture is consumption oriented, focuses on rules, and prioritizes religious rituals, compliance, and control. This comes at the expense of relationships, connection, community, and love, as programs take precedence over people. Adventist churches lack that radical, socially-significant, prophetically-relevant identity that speaks truth to power and points the culture to the heart of God as revealed in Jesus. Adventists excel at argumentative discourse, but struggle to be creative, innovative, and warm. In a world of smartphones, smartwatches, smart TVs, smart lights and smart cars, Adventism risks being outsmarted by the world around it. Relying on worn-out methods and assumptions will keep the movement stagnant. What is required is a boldness aptly put in this African proverb:

“Not everyone who chased the zebra caught it, but he who caught it, chased it.”

The Kodak Story

When George Eastman founded the Kodak company in 1888, the portable, affordable equipment he produced made cameras widely accessible and revolutionized photography. Eastman followed a razors and blades business model, which meant selling an item cheaply to increase the sale of a complementary commodity. Kodak sold cameras at affordable prices with thin profit margins, then sold the consumables like film, printing sheets, and other accessories with much higher margins. Kodak’s core business was film and printing, not camera sales. The company was so successful that a “Kodak moment” became synonymous with a cherished memory.

Widespread use of film and printing sheets gradually dropped off with the advent of digital cameras in the 1970s, but Kodak downplayed their capabilities and resisted the digital revolution, despite having a head start in digital photography. Ironically, it was Kodak engineers who developed the first digital cameras and introduced the world’s first-megapixel sensor in 1986. But the company believed that digital photography would never catch on and failed to capitalize on these early successes. When the inventor of the digital camera, Steven Sasson, told the bosses at Kodak about his invention, their response, according to legend, was, “That’s cute, but don’t tell anyone about it. That’s how you shoot yourself in the foot!” While the reality may have been a bit more complicated and nuanced (the company invested billions in digital technologies that didn’t perform as well as expected, and after two years, shut down R & D), Kodak ultimately failed to fully appreciate digital photography’s disruptive potential, and largely missed the boat.

Adventism’s Kodak Moment

Today, a Kodak moment is a cautionary tale about rigidity and a lack of adaptability amid a changing landscape. The Kodak company chose not to fully embrace digital photography in the 1990s largely for fear of cannibalizing its still-lucrative film sales. Kodak became a hostage of its own success, clinging to a winning business model at the expense of embracing emerging technologies and markets. If their gamble on the long-term viability of film cameras had succeeded, they would likely have continued dominating the market, but we know how the story turned out. 

Kodak executives saw the costs of embracing change as outweighing potential benefits and opportunities. They saw preserving the film business as preserving the company. They may simply have failed to grasp what nascent social media companies figured out: that photography was a means of preserving moments and creating user experience, not just selling cameras and film. Had Kodak understood film as a means of helping people make and share memories—a means that could be phased out and replaced by other technologies—they might have avoided bankruptcy and their end as a legacy company.

Today’s Adventist church is not immune to conflating methodological consistency and missional fidelity. Many church leaders are prisoners to predictability. They believe that the church’s role is tradition-preservation, which has become its core business. This is Adventism’s Kodak moment.

Like Kodak, a church obsessed with preserving tradition and method will find itself proffering solutions no one uses and speaking to itself with no one paying attention. A failure to recognize the pace and character of societal change is a clear step towards irrelevance. 

Kodak wrongly guessed that people would not part with hard prints and discounted the new technology, assuming that even if some curious users wandered off to try digital photography, they would return to film-based photos for its perceived higher quality. But people did not return. 

In 2020 when COVID-19 came, pushing many churches online to utilize the digital space, most assumed this was a temporary measure, and that when church buildings reopened, business would continue as usual. Rather than reconfiguring church, they were content with temporary fixes limited to pointing cameras at their services to call it digital evangelism. 

Kodak’s corporate culture certainly played a role in the company’s decline. Kodak enjoyed a proud tradition, but its legacy led to a degree of complacency. The company was steeped in the idea that Kodak knew what was best for customers based on its long history in the industry. Because leaders focused more on defending their existing business than on apprehending shifts in consumer sentiment, they did not transition along with the marketplace. 

Similarly, church culture seems oblivious to changing attitudes towards religion and continues to run mission using the same methods it always has. Adventists embraced the internet, but primarily as a way to perpetuate traditional approaches and preferences. 

Even with the internet, success depends on the ability to lure people to evangelistic venues. Church web pages function as notice boards, competing with each other to lure the same people to venues around the city. Churches assume people still want propositional content rather than conversation, then feel surprised when nobody turns up for content-laden meetings. Because we have not taken time to understand how algorithms work, our platforms have very limited reach and fail to get any meaningful attention. The internet instead, of being a conversation point, we use it like a mega-phone which in itself is limiting. 

Like Kodak, Adventists offer a quality product in their message, but the danger is in failing to adapt the message to speak to the questions of the day in the way that Adventist pioneers did.

Adventism needs to be more attuned, more pragmatic, which requires faithfulness to the message and methodological adaptability. This can only happen by recognizing and cultivating diversity as a global church, not constraining people in the name of uniformity. Church leaders need to see in members skills and intellectual resources that will immensely contribute to the growth of the church. 

Kodak was also hamstrung by its own corporate structure. The company’s structure was too hierarchical, and the management team was too compartmentalized, making it difficult to execute any significant changes. Sound familiar?

Suffering from a lack of diversity at the leadership levels, many key executives became more focused on maintaining traditional operations than innovation. Kodak employees were buried under the hierarchical pressure, and their voices were unheard, leading to the company’s unraveling. Could Kodak’s failure to adapt to changing market conditions foreshadow Adventism’s fate with leaders who play the role of vanguard and preservationist, rather than being visionaries? 

Leaders, out of self-interest, perpetuate processes and attitudes that exclude women and youth. Many church workers would rather remain silent than risk losing their employment. There are unwritten rules that stifle critique and creativity. Election processes become a sanitized way to strengthen kingly power and coalitions of like-minded theological allies. The emphasis on homogeneity and centralization has consolidated power and bred globally-aligned churches that are contextually useless—churches lacking vision as they exist to comply with the demands of higher offices. 

But Adventists need to do more than survive. If the church it to thrive, it needs this new generation of leaders and churches with a renewed sense of mission and passion. In the words of Ellen White, 

“New methods must be introduced. God’s people must awake to the necessities of the time in which they are living. God has men whom He will call into His service, men who will not carry forward the work in the lifeless way in which it has been carried forward in the past.” Evangelism, p. 70

“New methods must be introduced. God’s people must awake to the necessities of the time in which they are living. God has men whom He will call into His service, men who will not carry forward the work in the lifeless way in which it has been carried forward in the past.” Evangelism, p. 70

We have reached a dangerous point. Homogeneous approaches will only see us “kodaking” ourselves out of relevance. History demonstrates how the one who is the same, yesterday, today, and forever moves with his people and manifests himself in ways relevant to where they are standing. The most naïve thing we can do is to cling to a method because it worked in the past, exert energies in trying to replay it, forgetting that God wants to reveal himself right here and right now. Change requires us to become students of what’s happening and to find new approaches that are biblically faithful and culturally effective. We need to figure out where culture is going, figure out how to meet people where they’re at, and then invite them to we sense God is moving. 

Our way of doing church, evangelism, and outreach is designed to reach people who don’t have many vices and who can comfortably fit within our worldview. We talk about outreach. We talk about evangelism. We talk about the great commission. But the inconvenience of love that calls us to adapt, learn, grow, think, devise, and become students of the culture around us is missing in our churches. We continue to roll out initiatives that confirm the church’s commitment to mission characterized by a strong doctrinal focus, emphasis on apocalyptic themes, and use of traditional methods such as literature distribution, culminating in an evangelistic campaign. This is not to take away the commendable successes we have achieved, but to awaken us to a new reality in mission because “Opportunity does not wake those who are asleep.”
~ African proverb

About the author

Admiral Ncube is an Adventist Zimbabwean writing from Gaborone, Botswana, where he is a humanitarian and development professional. More from Admiral Ncube.
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