Profundity in the Tall Grass
“If we change reality only in order to realize our dreams, without changing these dreams themselves, then sooner or later we will regress to the former reality.”
Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times, 79.
Sunny and 72 degrees, two days after Thanksgiving. I didn’t think I would get another chance, so I took the opportunity to do some much needed yard work. As I cut the grass in the back yard, I listened to one of my nerd podcasts.
These podcasts are usually about one of three things: productivity, politics, or Apple computers. Yeah, I know.
Anyway, as an Indian Summer breeze blew, I listened to John Siracusa explain how Microsoft blew it –falling from their perch atop the technological world fifteen years ago, to their present position, floundering about trying to figure out where it all went wrong–and what they need to do regain their mojo. Lawn mowing and snark–an amazingly satisfying combination.
Siracusa began his rehearsal of the computer marketplace by recalling the lay of the digital land back in the mid–1990s, when Microsoft was generally viewed as the embodiment of business genius, while Apple suffered as a marginal niche presence. Microsoft dominated the field of computing. Apple, on other hand, appeared to be on its last legs in 1997, having fired its latest CEO, Gil Amelio in July, and naming Steve Jobs as interim CEO.
The trajectory of the two companies could not have been more dissimilar, symbolized by the infamous press conference in November 1997, in which Steve Jobs announced a partnership with archenemy, Microsoft. The staging, which Steve Jobs later lamented, had Bill Gates via satellite looming over the proceedings on a giant screen. At that press conference, it appeared as though Apple had approached Microsoft, hat in hand, to beg for help, since Apple’s financial situation had gotten so dire.
One of the first things Jobs did after resuming control was to take a company already operating on thin margins, and cut it more–from fifteen product lines down to four. This streamlining, in retrospect, must have appeared harsh in a situation where survival was not a foregone conclusion–like throwing most of the remaining food on the lifeboat overboard. As it turns out, that redefining of focus back onto core principles saved the company.
In fact, that focus on its core identity, that commitment to its vision, has brought Apple back.
What Apple has historically done, according to Siracusa, is to concentrate its energies on the computer user’s experience, rather than on the demands of corporate IT managers. It has a history of saying, “No, that’s not who we are; it’s not what we’re about.” Apple prides itself on caring more about making great stuff than about making easy money. Apple has passed up opportunities to make more money by expanding its focus or by being more accommodating to the demands of different monied constituencies, because it believes that it’s better to make great stuff (even if nobody buys it) than to make crap (even if there’s a short-term financial advantage to be gained).
Microsoft, on the other hand, Siracusa argues, has tried too hard to please what it figures is its most important market … big corporations–and not even the people who work behind computers all day in big corporations, but the people who buy computers and set up networks in big corporations. In other words, Microsoft has too often listened to the wrong people, if what they want to do is sell software that ordinary people want to use. Consequently, as Siracusa’s argument goes, Microsoft has declined precisely because it has failed to be clear about who it is and who its products ultimately serve, and therefore doesn’t know when it’s important to say, “No, that’s not who we are; it’s not what we’re about.”
Anyone who follows computer technology will recognize this argument between Apple’s philosophy and Microsoft’s. It may be overly facile to say that the whole thing boils down to a dispute between creativity and capitalism, or between clarity and confusion of purpose. Historical narrative can be high-jacked by rhetorical virtuosity, making reality up as it goes along. I understand that.
But there is the ring of truth to what Siracusa identifies as differing philosophical perspectives between Apple and Microsoft on what it means to have a purpose in the struggle. Being committed to making great stuff and being committed to keeping people from being upset are two radically different things. At first blush, the distinction sounds merely like one of emphasis.
The obvious question: Isn’t making great stuff the way to keep people from being upset with you?
Answer: Yes and no.
Yes, because if your focus is first on the work, it will find an audience that appreciates its quality, its vision, its potential. If your goal is to make everyone happy, it will eventually surprise you to learn that you’ve managed to irritate even the people who are pulling for you.
No, because doing great work, work that’s interesting in any way, is probably going to be work that strikes some people wrong. Focus on integrity, not unanimity. That is to say, if you enter every situation knowing that there is no perfect decision, that someone’s probably not going to like it, then that frees you up to worry not about whether everyone will be happy, but about whether what you’re doing is worth doing, and whether or not you’re doing it well.
Leaving aside the question of whether Siracusa reads the history correctly, he does make a point that stopped me in the middle of trimming around the cherry tree in the back yard. He says something like, “Maybe the best thing that could happen to Microsoft at this point is for Metro–the design language for the new Windows 8 operating system –to fail, so that Microsoft finds itself 90 days from bankruptcy.”
Though probably nobody at Microsoft, from the stockholders to the employees, wants something like that to happen, they’d ultimately be better off for it.
If Microsoft changes reality to realize its dreams, without changing its dreams, its goals, its vision, its philosophical self-understanding, it will only regress to the former reality. That is to say, tweaking (no matter how radical) isn’t enough if what you want in the end is still the same thing. If all you care about is making more money, gaining market share, establishing product preeminence, figuring out a fancier or cooler way to do that won’t change the fact that you’re still willing to sell anything that will get you what you want.
If, on the other hand, what you care about is making great stuff for its own sake, whatever monetary value you realize will be a bonus. Apple’s philosophy, as best I can tell, is something like “Make great stuff, and the money will take care of itself. And if it doesn’t, then at least you got a chance to do interesting and meaningful work–something many people who’ve made a lot of money can’t say, because they cared more about making money than about making great stuff.”
Making computers and the software that supports them the way Apple does strikes me as very Aristotelian. Aristotle said that bearing in mind the end or goal (telos) of a craft is essential–both as a way of knowing what to produce, as well as as a way of knowing whether you’ve succeeded in producing it.
What, then, is the good of each action or craft? Surely it is that for the sake of which the other things are done; in medicine this is health, in generalship victory, in house-building a house, in another case something else, but in every action and decision it is the end (telos), since it is for the sake of the end that everyone does the other actions (EN 1097a18–21).
I would add: In designing satisfying user experiences on a computer the telos is providing the tools to do the job efficiently and elegantly.
Meaning that any time you take as the primary goal of your work something like “being successful” or “making money” you will have cheated yourself out of the chance at knowing the fulfillment (eudaimonia) that comes from doing the work as an end in itself. Moreover, you will never know when you’ve crossed the line and stopped making great stuff and started making crap, because money and success aren’t (at least in the long term) good measures of the goal of a craft–since history has shown that people will continue to buy crap for a while … but not forever.
In other words, if you concentrate on the craft, rather than on the money, you’ll actually have a chance to find the audience that appreciates the craftsmanship; and these people tend to remain loyal. It may take time, but if you care about doing interesting and meaningful work, and you care about doing it for a long time, you’re better served to care more about what you’re making than how much you’re making.
All right. But what does any of this have to do with the church?
The standard measure of the success of a church boils down to how big it is, and how much money it has–a proposition I will simply assert rather than defend.
I cut my teeth as a minister in the shadow of the mega-church phenomenon. (In fact, as I emerge from my neighborhood every morning to get to work, I cannot help but stare into the maw of one of the ten largest churches in the United States.) Mega-churches were the standard, and in many cases still are, against which all churches were taught (if only implicitly) to measure themselves.
I can’t tell you how many times someone, commenting on this or that mega-church, will say, “Look at ’em. Look at that campus. [Really? A campus?] Look at all those people. They must be doing something right.”
And I will say something smart-alecky–as is my custom–like, “Clearly, they’re doing something right; but it doesn’t necessarily follow from your observations that it has anything to do with God or Jesus or sacrifice or discipleship. In fact, it may be precisely those things you name that are getting in the way of doing something not just right, but interesting.”
Big churches aren’t, by definition, inveterate point-missers; but I think the fact of their “bigness” places the burden of proof on them to continually show why they’re not . Jesus had a nasty habit of walking away from big crowds, rather than trying to build them.
“Of course, you’d expect that sort of thing from a minister at a small church”–which is pretty much how Al Mohler dismissed me.
I’m not going to answer the “sour grapes” charge, since my own motives seem always to be so mixed up that there’s probably some bit of truth to it. My own character flaws notwithstanding, though, such a charge misses the point. Even flawed messengers–or perhaps only flawed messengers, since that’s all there are–can tell the truth.
And the truth is: If the purpose (telos) of your work is something that can fit on a spreadsheet or on a bank statement, you have cheated yourself and those with whom you work out of a chance at the fulfillment (eudaimonia) that comes from doing the work as an end in itself.
The work of the gospel ought to be something we do because it’s the right thing to do, not because we get something out of it. Teaching illiterate adults to read, feeding and clothing poor people, offering space for the outcast to be welcomed and accepted, praying with the sick and dying, putting an arm around the shoulders of the grieving, visiting the prisoner–these are things Christians should do whether or not another person should ever walk down the aisle to join our congregations.
“Yes, but those numbers represent people and their commitment to God.”
True. However, numbers aren’t people. People are people. Numbers represent a lot of things–not least of which is the ambition and self-worth of the people who wield them. My point is not that numbers (e.g., baptisms and transfers of membership, worship attendance, and local operating receipts) shouldn’t be one of the tools churches use to evaluate themselves. But numbers tend to be overly reductive.
The kind of growth that makes the work congregations do interesting often eludes the people doing the evaluation because those kinds of growth defy quantification. That is to say, there any number of areas of growth that are qualitative, which–because evaluating them is impossible to reduce to statistical representation–means they get overlooked as meaningful indicators of health.
How many drug addicts have had their hands held while suffering withdrawal?
What’s the level of growth achieved through small group community that allows a woman to confront the harassment she faces daily when she goes into work?
By what metric do we evaluate our success at teaching teenagers to say no in a culture that seems bent on teaching them only to say yes.
What reporting tool do we use to assess the hospitality and embrace that allows LGBTQ people to quit hating the church–not join it … just quit having the blackness of rage descend every time they hear somebody say “Jesus?”
By what algorithm do we judge whether our people are being better parents? Children? Partners? Spouses? Friends? Bosses? Employees? Students?
The answer to these questions won’t fit in any of the spaces provided on the annual report required by denominational agencies.
If I’m anything like right, the church needs to be more like Apple than Microsoft.
That is to say, congregations need to adopt a new way of thinking about identity that no longer relies on the mistaken assumption that the purpose of the church revolves around keeping people happy by producing the kind of crap the “experts” think congregations need to attract large numbers of people.
That sounds like hyperbole.
Look, I’m not above the meticulous construction of straw men, ripe for harvest at my rhetorical hands. I’ll let you, fair reader, decide if that’s what I’m doing here. But let me offer one question that ought to help us achieve some clarity about what is the interesting work of the gospel and what is the work designed to please.
Why did Jesus have to die so … ?
Why did Jesus have to die so I could have a cappuccino in the coffee bar outside the worship space?
Why did Jesus have to die so I could listen to a sermon on which kind of Christian I am by referring to the seven dwarves as identifying archetypes? (Dopey, Grumpy, Sleepy, etc.)
Why did Jesus have to die so I could use a “Christian” toaster?
Why did Jesus have to die so we could ignore the powerless and those who’ve been ruthlessly excluded, in order to be able to devote more fully our attention to people’s sex lives?
Why did Jesus have to die so we could be nicer people?
The church: “If we change reality only in order to realize our dreams, without changing these dreams themselves, then sooner or later we will regress to the former reality.”
Our dreams had better align with God’s vision of life under the reign of Christ. We need to have a much clearer vision of who we are and who we serve.
We need to learn to say to those who would have us undergo endless contortions in order to please: “No, that’s not who we are; it’s not what we’re about.”
Do great work. The rest will take care of itself. Or not. But that’s God’s responsibility–not yours.
- If you think this proposition fails to describe accurately the ecclesiastical state of affairs, at least in American Protestantism, I don’t know how to help you. There’s not much I’m going to say from here on out with which you’re going to agree. ↩
- Clearly, small churches aren’t, by definition, “authentic” and preferable either. Small churches can often be the biggest “sell-outs,” since they have the most desire to prove themselves to be on the track to success. ↩
- No, seriously. I heard that sermon. ↩
Make sure to read the other articles in this series on church organization: Killing Church Committees and Other Reflections on Church Organization, Killing the Whispers and Other Reflections on Church Decision-Making, Crack Addiction and Church Transformation, On Neediness, Dating, and Congregational Transformation, Death of a Salesman . . . Please? Making the Time to Be Scared of More Interesting Things, Doing the Reassurance Dance, Embracing Failure: Why the Church Needs to Quit Worrying about Dying, Driving the Words Across the Page: The True Work of Ministry and Tingling Masses of Availability: Changing Congregational Expectations.