The Spiritual Wisdom of Steve Jobs

So I stayed up late to write this. Past midnight, mind you. I was in bed, and actually got up and lumbered into my office, in the quiet dark, to write.

About Steve Jobs.

Everyone knew this day was coming. Yet I am struck by the strangeness of the loss I feel. First, you need to know something. I’m a huge Apple fan, but not a fanboy. More to the point, I am typically unimpressed by the deaths of great, noteworthy public figures. I’ve never mourned a CEO. Yet Steve Jobs was an anomaly. Apparently, not just for me. On Twitter, one guy wrote: “I never thought I could be so busted up about the loss of someone I never met.” At last count, hundreds had retweeted him. In these days of corporate rage and acrimony, of “Occupy Wall Street” protests, how is it that the founder of the highest (or second) market cap company in the world, sitting on $76 billion in cash, gets such unfettered love? People despise Exxon Mobile. They love Apple. They adore Apple. The Mercury News asked, “How could the death of a distant figure touch so many so profoundly.” Indeed, why?

For me, the question takes on strange, spiritual overtones. I have long wondered why Apple is so successful in ways the church so typically fails. I’ve been using Macs since 1987. After the magical experience of building my college newspaper on the tiny 9” B/W screen of a Mac SE with a whopping 2 mb RAM, I was hooked. Since then, I have never owned or even wanted a PC. Everyone knows the iconic genius of Steve Jobs. Countless articles attest to this (here) (here) (here) (here) (believe me, I could keep going). But what fascinates me most is not any particular Apple product, it is Apple itself. For a long time I have, and still do, think the Church could learn a lot from how Apple solves problem, inspires the public imagination, fosters a strong, transmittable internal culture, creates beauty, and defines themselves in a crowded market.

Not too long ago, a writer named Clayton Christensen wrote: “Steve Jobs’ legacy…is in the creation of Apple itself, reminding us that profit is not the ultimate goal, but rather a consequence of something greater.”

Wait, freeze for a moment. There are way too many issues to tackle in this one blog, but I’m convinced I’m on to something. For now, let’s look at this one thing: What is the ultimate goal of the church? That’s a really good question. Do we know it? Because if we don’ have the right question, how can we possibly answer it? Nailing this requires radical focus I’m not sure we possess. Changes may be in order. We’ll have to pare back, cut through the clutter, go back to the source, lose some weight. We might have to get rid of some really good things if we want to discover and communicate, once more, what is truly, eternally “insanely great.” As far back as 1985, Steve Jobs had this sort of relentless focus. He was dialed in. In a famous interview that year, he claimed, “We’ve never worried about numbers. In the market place, Apple is trying to focus the spotlight on products, because products really make a difference.” In this context, he made the most alarming statement: “You can’t con people in this business. The products speak for themselves.”

As a Christian, as a former pastor, as a man in ministry, that terrifies me. Why? Because it hit me: the church has been trying to con people! We didn’t know it (some did). We just saw our “numbers” taking a dive. In response, we became more busy and less authentic; more noisy, and less important; more impressive, but less relevant; more bark, less bite. We focused on the number and lost the product (and the number, too!). So we started to emasculate ourselves, or pretty ourselves, to make ourselves attractive again. The risk of Christianity is now officially gone. Simple, clean cutting truth is gone. We are domesticated, functional, useful. Hardly beautiful. Hardly fearful. Hardly consequential. You know what? The people are too smart to fall for it. They’re bored and uninterested with our vanilla Christianity. We’ve conned them with marketing and PR, slick worship, dazzling multimedia, cushy facilities and high-powered preaching. We’ve conned them with programs so polished, snazzy and diverse we might as well be carnival barkers, “Step right up and see our amazing new attraction!” We’ve thrown so much at them they couldn’t possibly know who we are or what we stand for. We are a glob. “Hey guys, it’s Sunday morning. Let’s go to glob!” Doesn’t happen. They aren’t moved. The con is up.

We’ve tried everything but the simplicity of Jesus. The church doesn’t have a product, it has a message. Right now, that message is so cluttered and gaudy, the fearful beauty is lost. The American church has become a passé 90’s era Windows machine. Bill Gates dressed up tech to make it look technical, so that people felt the power of their computer. Likewise, we can feel all buzzy and good about our local church when it’s doing Big Important Things. Steve Jobs was radically different. He stripped out every single bit of tech he could so that the only powerful thing in the room was the person using the computer. The irony? Beauty actually made the product more functional, not less. We need to trim it all back, back to the Beautiful Man. In 1998, Jobs told BusinessWeek, “That’s been one of my mantras—focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

Oh my goodness, did you hear that? You can move mountains? Who else said that? I remember that guy. What’s his name? Starts with a J. No, not Jobs.

In that same interview, Jobs said, “”It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

I don’t feel the need to draw conclusions as much as stir the pot. The statements Jobs made are profoundly spiritual in their insights and implications. Were it not for the success they earned, and the obvious net impact on our culture, perhaps they could be dismissed. We don’t have that luxury. The church needs to get a clue. In this regard, absurdly, I’ve wondered what if Steve Jobs had been a pastor? What would that have looked like? (I can tell you, he would have been lousy. His temper was awful). But you get the idea. The man’s convictions reveal not just a brilliant product strategist, marketer, and tech visionary, but an elegant willingness to stay single-minded year after year. How would that have translated to our product: the message…the gospel…the man, Christ Jesus, and how we form our communities around Him? Apple’s products create interest, loyalty, word-of-mouth, anticipation, and, contrary to all conventional wisdom, a willingness to pay more, not less, for the experience. In a sense, Jobs captured the zeitgeist of the masses, then sold them their own collected, unconscious dreams, after distilling them into steel, silicone and glass. Innate humanity has consistently been the most compelling product feature of (nearly) every Apple product since 1984. Jobs intuitive grasp of human nature is stamped on his company’s culture, molded to his image.

Church—ekklesia of God, image of God—what is our message? Better get this one figured out. Quick.

(If you have the time, the following video is really worth watching)

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