The Value of Intentional Disruption

Something about yesterday’s blog touched a nerve, it seems. Based on daily hits, The Spiritual Wisdom of Steve Jobs got anywhere from 30-40 times more hits than my average. A 40-fold increase? Why?

No doubt, several factors converged. I assume many readers were curious fans of Apple tech. Others might have agreed with the longings I expressed (and still feel) for a truer, simpler, more daring church experience. In that sense, Apple was and is a useful metaphor. When Jobs died, a rash of articles basically asked the question, how could one man turn the world upside down in so many areas: computers, music, phones, retail, animation and marketing? One guy! Makes me recall another time when a couple of bearded, sandal-wearing guys were accused of turning the world upside down. So what happened? Between then and now, how has a company like Apple become the poster boy for innovation and cultural transformation, while the Church merely duplicates the same boring Sunday service over and over (using Apple products)?

Here’s a key. Before Apple upended the world, it upended itself many times—not accidentally, but intentionally. Apple disrupted it’s own products, strategies or the successful formulas of others to create entirely new categories of products that no one even knew they wanted, until Apple showed them. If Steve Jobs was afraid of anything, it seemed to be the inertia of his own success. This is counter intuitive. Successful companies are typically less likely to risk their hard-earned dominance doing something young and crazy as a start-up might attempt. Boldness threatens stability. The status-quo becomes a security blanket. So, for example, when disruptive digital tech came along, Kodak, being highly invested in film to the tune of billions of dollars, found it hard to pull anchor and sail into newer waters. They were too invested in the old gig. History is littered with these stories. From USA Today:

“At some point, (companies) shift from offense to defense, becoming managers of empires ruled by the law of large numbers. Jobs attacked this model with the energy and aggression of a hammer-wielding athlete…He innovated early and often, and never stopped… Until Apple came along, the norm for tech companies was to pass through a period of explosive growth into a cozy midlife.”

Disruption isn’t pleasant. If the risks are poorly timed, unwise or badly managed, stocks can take a hit. Employees get laid off. A company can even go under. The risk of failure keeps most domesticated and tame. Let me ask you: how dangerous does your church feel? How near to the cliff edge does it set up shop? Most churches flee from the cliffs as much as possible. Rarely does a leader rise up in the ranks of Christianity to risk anything on a scale grand enough to actually redefine the norms of culture. I challenge you to name a single “innovator,” “strategist,” “visionary,” or “entrepreneur” within the ranks of church leadership that could compare favorably to Steve Jobs. (No, I’m not talking about heresy boldness vis-a-vis Rob Bell).

The point isn’t to get all bent out of shape and criticize. The point is to take note of the remarkably broad, pervasive impact of Steve Jobs’s style of leadership, the culture he constructed at Apple, and then ask ourselves: Are there lessons to be learned? Why aren’t those guys at the helm of our churches? Better still, why aren’t we those guys? Do our families and communities need any less? How often do we stop everything and go, “Wait! This isn’t working! Let’s scramble all our assumptions and start over. Get back on message!”

When Jobs died, I tweeted two things: “Apple taught me more about evangelism than the Church ever did.” And “How do you *convert* entire nations? Learn from #SteveJobs.” Simplistic? Yes. Melodramatic? Yes. Yet these statements help to convey the disruptive effect on my own thinking. Apple did things in a way that messed with what anybody expected. By contrast, I haven’t been surprised by the Church in thirty years.

We live in uncertain times. All of us feel the threat of job loss, financial softness, wars and rumors of wars, political instability, natural disasters, etc. It all seems so fragile, like a house of cards. When will it all come tumbling down? It’s normal to withdraw, play it safe. Again, I propose an alternative strategy. Steve Jobs famously declared that Apple would “innovate our way through the recession.” When other companies zigged, he zagged. Others retreated, he advanced. Others played it safe, he risked. Now, everybody is trying to catch up to Apple.

It’s our turn. It’s time to lead. “The people that do know their God shall be strong and do exploits” (Dan. 11:32).

The Church is notoriously safe, which is not entirely bad. But safety has become stagnant, morose, over-hyped, and underwhelming. I think it’s time to get a little wild. Throw out the rule book. Cut to the core, disrupt ourselves first…then get to the Kingdom business of disrupting the culture.

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