Apple, Evangelism, and why I wouldn’t make a good pastor.

Today Apple hosted one of their (seemingly) increasingly common Special Events in California. This time the announcement was a slightly smaller iPad, a slightly thinner iMac desktop, and a slightly higher resolution for their 13-inch macbook pro.

This post is not about any of that. I really don’t care that much about it. A few years ago I would have cared a great deal. I have always loved technology, and to this day Gizmodo.com is one of my most-visited sites. The latest trend became a big deal to me, but over time I have lost a great deal of interest, especially with Apple. They haven’t really been innovative for some time, and in the end, I just want a computer that works. If that’s a mac, fine. If it’s not, it’s not going to break my heart.

This is not what Apple wants. Apple wants me to love my mac, to cherish my phone – it’s even in the name: iPhone. mine. my precious. Not only does Apple want me to cherish their products, they want me to tell other people to cherish their products. In short, Apple would be overjoyed if I (along with everyone else who owns an Apple product) became an evangelist for them, spreading the good news of Mac.

While the content of the Apple Special Event did not interest me, the delivery did. As I watched, something strange stirred within me. Tim Cook, Apple CEO, came to the stage wearing a collared shirt and black slacks.. There was a small cheer, which he quickly quieted. He then began to talk about how amazing the launch of the iPhone 5 was last month. The inflection was on amazing. He gestured with his hands, and gave a very precise and practiced monologue on the virtues of the iPhone 5. As I watched, I began to have deja vu. I had seen this before, somewhere, but could not put my finger on it.

Mr. Cook then introduced a video with some highlights of the iPhone 5 launch weekend, set to a catchy song – Run Run, by The Rival. My jaw dropped. I got it. I knew where I had seen this before. I turned to my wife.

“It’s a sermon.” I said. She nodded in agreement.

Watch it for yourself (you’ll need to download Quicktime if you’re on a PC). Watch the hand movements. Listen to the cadence of Mr. Cook’s voice. Then watch the video he introduces a couple minutes in. Is this not just like any high-powered summer camp promo you’ve seen? Here’s one I found on the web, a promo for a summer camp in the UK. This is just one example, but there are many, many, many more. Watch it here.

Here’s a couple sample sermons, in case you don’t get what I’m talking about. Here’s one by Mark Driscoll, at Mars Hill Church. And here’s one by Greg Boyd and Bruxy Cavey, two very experienced pastors as well. And finally, here’s one by Jeff Bucknam at Northview Community Church in Abbotsford. Coincidentally, and completely by accident, Mr. Bucknam’s random sermon that I linked to is about preaching, or proclaiming the gospel. Listen to the cadence, watch the body language. I’m not talking about the content here, but the delivery. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery… but who is imitating whom here? What’s going on?

Maybe there is simply a good way to speak in public and a bad way. Good speakers, regardless of content, speak using an open body posture, by talking with their hands (just a little, not too much), by placing inflection on important words and terms. They talk about past successes (300 baptisms! 200 million iPhones sold!) and future plans. Bad public speakers do none of these things. Perhaps that’s all that’s going on here. They’re all using the same medium (public speaking), and so the message (Jesus, or iPhones) is a moot point – it isn’t affected by the medium.

Prior to moving to the Downtown East Side, and prior to going to Bible School, I went to school and received a two-year certificate in Applied Communications. During those two years I studied video and radio production, desktop publishing and photography. While many of those skills are non-transferrable into my current line of work, they did help me develop a critical eye towards media, and introduced me to a very, very important phrase: The Medium Is The Message.

This phrase was coined by Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian media critic and philosopher (and devout Catholic, incidentally). McLuhan was alive during a fascinating time for media, the mid-20th century. He watched radio and TV take hold, and predicted how media would impact the future (there is a fascinating clip of him predicting the fundamentals of the Internet in the documentary ‘McLuhan’s Wake – worth seeing if you can find it). His most famous phrase was the one I just mentioned: The Medium Is The Message. What this means is that the method of broadcasting information actively changes the information being broadcast. The two, the method and the information itself, become intertwined, inseparable. It’s easiest to explain this using an example.

A man and a woman, let’s call them Bob and Jane, walk into a bar and sit down. The bar is crowded and noisy, so the two sit close to one another. Bob says to Jane, ‘I’ve had a busy day, but I’m glad I get to talk to you now. How was your day?’ Bob looks into Jane’s eyes with care and attention; Jane smiles back. Jane replies, ‘My day was fine, but I’m tired.’

Let’s try this again, but different.

Bob is in his car, Jane is at home. Traffic is bad. Bob calls Jane on his Cell, and she answers. ‘Jane, I’ve had a busy day, but I’m glad I get to talk to you now. How was your day?’ Bob is looking ahead, watching the road, talking on his hands-free device. Jane is sitting on the couch, phone to her ear. ‘My day was fine, but I’m tired.’ He can hear a smile on her lips through the inflection of her tone. This makes him happy.

And again. Bob is in his office, Jane is walking home from the grocery store. Bob opens up his email and types.

From: Bob
To: Jane
Subject: Long day

Jane, I’ve had a busy day, but I’m glad I’ve got a few seconds to write. How was your day?
<3, Bob.

Jane, walking home from the grocery store, gets the message on her phone. With one hand, while walking, she replies.

From: Jane
To: Bob
Subject: re: Long day

Fine, Tired now. 🙂
As you can see, the perceived information being sent and received (both had a long day, both were glad to hear from each other) was the same in all three cases. However, due to the change in medium (a crowded bar, a cell phone, an Email message) the message is changed and distorted. In the email response, not knowing Jane’s context, Bob could assume that she is being short with him for some reason. Hopefully you get the idea. The change in medium actively changes the message – in fact, the medium is the message – the message could not exist without the medium.

The same is true here. The medium actively alters the message. We adopt certain media because we believe that they help us convey our message, or because they give us power, or reach a wider audience, or have more convenience, or because it’s the way things have always been done and we just haven’t thought about it. Personally, I think the last statement is the most true when it comes to sermons and presenting the Gospel through a sermon.

Which brings me to my point. I don’t want to be a Christian who spreads the Good News of Jesus Christ through a medium developed and perfected by corporate America. The single-presenter-plus-powerpoint may work perfectly for hyping iPhones or selling computers, but Jesus Is not a product to be sold or hyped. I am not about to go onstage and tell the world how great my wife is… but if you asked me, or if you and I were talking together, I would surely tell you that she’s incredible. I think the same is true about my relationship with Jesus.

This makes me  think about a post my friend Chris Lenshyn posted the other day (Chris is an associate pastor, by the way). I commented on his post about Mennonite Megachurches that we must decide what church is for: Is it information distribution, or is it relationship development? For a long, long time, we have treated church as an information-delivery mechanism, simply an effective medium for transmitting the message of Christ to as many people as possible.

If that is what church is for, how is the church different from Apple? Are we not simply hawking different wares? The question I must ask myself is this: is there something fundamentally different between my relationship with an object (a phone or computer) and my relationship with a living person? If there is a difference, why would I advertise and talk about both in the same manner? Why would I use the same tools to ‘sell’ Jesus as I would to sell an iPhone?

This is especially relevant for me as I am speaking my first sermon at my church in Abbotsford in November. I am going to stand behind a pulpit or a music stand with a microphone, and transmit a message to a roomful of people waiting to receive my transmission. But I’m going to be talking about people! About my friend and saviour Jesus! How do I turn that into a 20 minute information transmission? I could do it by watching Driscoll or Tim Cook – both are masters at information transmission.

If that is what it takes – if being an effective pastor takes being an effective salesman – I’m out. I will not sell Jesus as if He were simply a set of information. I will not trivialize my relationship with him in that way. My relationship with Jesus is not about information transmission – it is about friendship, about trust, about comfort. It is about looking into the eyes of another person and seeing dignity and worth. It is about drinking coffee with a drunk man; it is about playing scrabble with someone who has no home. It is about joy, and peace, love and hope. Is there information involved? Sure. But that information quickly becomes meaningless when removed from the context of relationship. If I introduce you to Jesus, I want to at least know your name first.

I don’t know if any of this makes sense. Let me know what you think – Should there be a distinct difference between the way we communicate our relationship with Jesus, and the way that iPhones are sold? Should we, as Christians, care about the media that we use to communicate? Or am I making a mountain out of a molehill?

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8 thoughts on “Apple, Evangelism, and why I wouldn’t make a good pastor.”

  1. Hey Jordan,

    This was a really intriguing post! It would be great to grab a coffee or something sometime to chat it through, there is something lost in just replying via comment. I’m going to post a few thoughts, but if you’re up for grabbing a coffee I’d love to chat sometime about it further!

    (1) I would not say that the church is primarily about either transferring information or building relationships. I would say that the church’s purpose it to love God, love others and love the world. And the church reflects this differently when she is gathered and scattered. When the church is gathered her focus is on corporate worship, edification of the community (which includes learning and building relationships), and equipping for when the church scatters.

    (2) I appreciate McLuhan’s helpful “Medium is the Message” insight, but we run the risk of ignoring two other important factors in communication – motivation and intention. It is entirely possible that I misread you (and I’m open to correction), but it seemed to me that you were making a close link between “preaching monologue sermons” and “selling Jesus like a product/transferring information”. The foundation of the argument is linked to the fact that corporations trying to sell stuff also use monologue sermons. I’m not sure that the link can be made that (a) because someone is preaching a monologue sermon that (b) they are merely or primarily interested in selling a product and/or transferring information. I also got the impression that you feel pastors at large churches try to communicate well out of motives altogether different than your motivation to communicate well when you preach in November. This line of thinking sounds like big necessarily equals bad, which I’m not sure is charitable and fair. I also don’t think it is fair to presume that pastors at large churches are seeking to communicate well when they preach out of a motivation of merely/primarily transferring information rather than talking about the person, life, work, death, resurrection, and reign of Christ. The uniqueness of Christianity is not that we preach, but that we preach Christ. Any good proclamation (about anything) includes a cognitive element and an affective element.

    As I said at the top, it would be great to chat about this further over coffee – I’m sure it would definitely be more helpful. I might have misread you or got unnecessarily defensive because I serve at a somewhat large church. I also could have just flat out missed the point, but I hope that my comments were somewhat edifying.

    All the best to you as you preach in November. I trust the Spirit will move and work in and through you as you prepare and proclaim the person of Christ for the good of the church and God’s glory.

    1. Hey Greg,

      Thanks for your comments! Coffee would be great sometime, but I’m actually living full-time in Vancouver and working in the Downtown East Side. Perhaps we could still connect at some point though. I’m going to do my best to respond to your comments here.

      1. I would agree with you here – my catch-all term of ‘building relationships’ is exactly that: Loving God (relationship between humanity and God), Loving people (Relationship between one another) and loving the world / creation (relationship with our environment / place, not in a hippy sense, but in the sense that where we are matters). My worry is that the way that we choose to do church affects our ability to do these things. If the transferral of information takes precedence over acts of relational love – and by this I mean love based on interactions between god, humanity, and one another – then I think we start to lose track of why we do what we do. It becomes about me, and not about God.

      2. Hmmm, a lot to unpack here. First, motivation and intention are vitally important – however, if we do not understand McLuhan’s maxim, motivation and intention can be completely lost on the receiver. I can have the best intentions in the world, but if the way I communicate those intentions causes them to be lost in transmission or translation, then they are all for naught.

      Second, yes, that is the question I was asking – is there something fundamental in the method of communication of monologue sermon that causes a consumeristic response in the receiver? I’m not arguing that it’s a conscious choice on the part of the sender, but that it may be the result of the medium processing the message. In other words, I don’t think pastors choose monologue because it ‘sells’ Jesus in a particular way, but I wonder if passive corporate listening of a monologue sermon creates a mood or framework of passive consensus or approval, apart from the message itself. This is why I compared Apple and a variety of pastors – is the medium creating an atmosphere in which ideas (and products) are more easily accepted? If this is the case, is that healthy for long-term community relationships?

      Third, I’m not meaning to criticize big churches in particular here – I’ll save that for another post 😉 I do think that healthy community gets harder the larger the corporate body is, but that’s besides the point. I think all churches which use the model of monologue sermon / passive audience (99.99% of churches) face this same dilemma, regardless of size. I picked larger churches in my examples for sermons purely because they were the first I found with a quick internet search. I did try to find churches from a variety of theological perspectives to emphasize that it is the medium I am speaking about here, and not the message itself. Now, in a larger church this medium is going to be more present, just based on the logistics of the situation. A pastor of a church of 500+ people is simply not able to meet and know each one by name and circumstance. In such a case, the information-based monologue becomes much more present.

      Fourth, talking about the person, life, work, death, resurrection and reign of Christ is transmitting information. It is vitally important information, but it is still information. your thought here strikes at the heart of what I was trying to say – is there something fundamentally different about preaching a monologue sermon about Christ vs. selling an iPhone? Hear me out here – I believe sharing Christ is essential. I believe that He is central to our faith, and that we have been asked to share Him with others as often and as readily as possible. However, is it enough that the information being transmitted is vital? Or should we be analyzing the medium as being vital as well? The message of Christ can always be distorted, but is it more easily distorted through a monologue sermon vs. a small group or one-on-one relational sharing? You say that ‘The uniqueness of Christianity is not that we preach, but that we preach Christ.’ This is a good point, and a good rebuttal to my thoughts. You are saying, if I understand correctly, that there is indeed something fundamentally different about transmitting information about Christ vs. transmitting information about anything else. I also agree with you, to a point. Again, however, I worry that we run the risk of boiling Christ down to a set of cognitive assertions that we must agree with, rather than a relationship with a living breathing person. This is more about perspective than anything; When I married my wife, I made a cognitive assertion to be with her for the rest of my life. However, that cognitive assertion was made in the context of a relationship with another human being which extended far beyond any conscious cognitive assertion. My worry is that we have put the cart before the horse, and through the monologue have emphasized the cognitive assertion above and beyond the relational agreement.

      I don’t know if that’s any clearer or not… thanks for the thoughts though, they definitely helped me clarify my thinking a bit.

  2. This was a brilliant piece. You are walking in the right direction as a shepherd. So many times church is viewed as corporate and that is just plain sad. Be blessed, you will make an impact.

    1. Thank you Mrs. Smith, whoever you are 🙂
      I must correct you, however – I’m not a shepherd – just a person sharing his thoughts. The preaching I do in November is just one Sunday at a church that I’m connected with. I’m glad that you enjoyed my thoughts however!

  3. I am in total agreement with your thoughts here. The medium is, indeed, the message, and the medium is and has been heavily, heavily influenced by North American Consumerist Culture.

    All you need to do to figure out if it’s merely coincidence or not, is look at the past. Was Christ preached in this manner before Consumerist Society came into being? Fifty, one hundred, two hundred years ago, is this how the Gospel was spread?

    No, it wasn’t. I’m not saying that that outright makes it a bad thing, being new. It just means that as our society has changed towards a certain focus, so has the Christian method of relaying information. You could also look at different cultures. If you go to a church in Chile, a church in Morocco, a church in Kenya, a church in Russia, would they all be giving their messages in similar ways? While church to church the style would vary wildly, I believe that you would not find a single church that is similar in style to our megachurches in Vancouver, Toronto, New York, LA. Therefore, it simply MUST be influenced by our culture, and the way our culture lives their secular lives.

    Is it a bad thing that Christ is “sold”? I don’t know. My gut reaction is yes, it is. However, when I am convinced that something is good, that something is worth having, and I follow that advice and acquire the thing, I spend some time getting to know it for myself. Now, Christ should not be thought of as a thing, but perhaps the parallels hold true. Maybe, in our society, where people are so accustomed to being talked at, this is the best way to relay the message. Maybe our churches have adapted this strategy because, heck, it works.

  4. Another great reflection, Jordan. Re preaching, I was once told “you don’t sound like the preachers I’m used to” which turned out to be a compliment as this person was looking for something new and is now an active member of Emmanuel. So don’t even think about trying to sound like someone else–just be yourself with the message that God is giving you 🙂

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