God’s Agitator

God’s Agitator

LEGEND: A statue of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth stands in front of the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama.

As an evangelical Christian teaching theology in a secular university, over the years I have cleaved to civil rights saints like Fred Shuttlesworth for wisdom and encouragement. I have, of course, never been attacked by racist mobs or police dogs, nor have I been put in jail for speaking the name of Jesus. Nevertheless, it is impossible not to get a whiff of Jim Crow in an academic culture that continues to evade the theological discoveries of Reverend Shuttlesworth and his brother and sister travelers in that great Pentecostal moment called the American civil rights movement.  Rev. Shuttleworth’s death last week once again reminded us of the centrality of faith in the black freedom struggle.

Like the prophet Amos, the tender of sycamore trees who was called in from the sticks to proclaim the justice of the Lord, Rev. Shuttlesworth agitated righteously, with guns pointed on him and lynch mobs forming everywhere, a fully realized African American male, an exemplar of civil courage and costly discipleship. He offered the segregated South a generous helping of hilaritas, a “boldness and defiance of the world and of popular opinion,” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “a steadfast certainty that in their own work they are showing the world something good (even if the world doesn’t like it).”

An exchange with the Birmingham, Alabama, police commissioner Bull Connor during the heat of the city sit-ins offered not only high theological drama but ample evidence of theological deftness and imagination:

Connor:  You know what I think? I think you have done more to set your people back and cause more trouble than any Negro ever in this town.

Shuttlesworth: Mr. Commissioner, whether I’ve done more to set them back or you, that’s a matter for history to decide. The problem is what will you do?

Connor:  I aint’ doin’ nothin’ for you!

Shuttlesworth:  I haven’t asked you to do anything for me. I asked you to do for the Negro community, of whom you are the Commissioner.

Connor: Well, I ain’t gon’ do nothing for you.

Shuttlesworth: Well, I was pretty sure you wouldn’t when I came down, but the fact is we asked, and the Bible says ask.

Bull Connor, guardian of the Southern Way of Life, came undone under the glare of the New Kingdom’s brilliant light.

Rev. Shuttlesworth continued: “I just don’t believe I have to cringe before a thing when God’s already promised it. “[For] the question comes down to … ‘Do you believe in God or not?’” 

Shuttlesworth later said the only way he found such strength was in the confidence he had in “the everlasting arms of Jesus.”

What about Bull Connor? When asked by Samuel Hoskins, a reporter from the Baltimore Afro-American visiting Birmingham, whether his brutal strategies were legal, Bull shouted wildly, “Damn the Law. We don’t give a damn about the law.”

Shuttlesworth “conducted his civil rights activities with his hands still tightly grasping the pastoral reins of his local churches,” as my friend Andrew Manis told us in his wonderful 2001 biography, A Fire You Can’t Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. He believed that God was the great deliverer, who showed the Israelites that “all was not Egypt” and set the captives free.

MAKING HISTORY: Rev. Shuttlesworth (far right) marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others in March of 1965. (Newscom photo)

Fred Shuttlesworth gave us a glimpse of the New Kingdom: “Against the racist’s hate and scorn we are using the love of Christ, against his oppressive and abusive acts we are using the weapon of Prayer on whose mystic wings we sweep into the presence of God to lay out our troubles.” He decentered the totalizing claims of white southern Christendom, one might also say, but he did it for the sake of the in-breaking reality of the kingdom of God.

Shuttlesworth’s was indeed a soul on fire. During a speech commemorating the second anniversary of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, of which he was the founding president, he framed the ongoing civil rights struggle as “a religious crusade” and a “fight between light and darkness.” He concluded:

“Thus we are never tempted to hate white people or to return them evil for evil. …Always remember that we are healed by the ‘wounds in His side,’ not by wounds we inflict upon others….  Victory waits on those who work for victory. And victory is sure — Thanks be to God which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Andrew Manis explained that the Birmingham minister practiced a “holistic religious philosophy that did not separate physical, social or political needs from the spiritual,” unlike the religion of gnostic southern evangelical Christianity. Shuttlesworth operated instead out of a theological worldview that refused to segregate discipleship to Jesus and righteous action in the social order. And through the courageous faith of men and women like Rev. Shuttlesworth, our nation was changed.

The Wisdom of Steve Jobs

The Wisdom of Steve Jobs

VISIONARY: Apple cofounder Steve Jobs recently stepped down from his revered role as CEO of the company. Photo: Beck Diefenbach/Newscom.

Despite being a member of the young creative class, I’ve never really been a Mac guy.

Being a Windows computer and Android phone user, I’ve often poked fun at the cult of Mac, a common term for the religious fervor surrounding every new hardware or software release by Apple. When Apple launched the iconic “I’m-a-Mac” commercials, I was consistently entertained, though annoyed at the characterization of PCs as old and stodgy. And I was stoked when Microsoft fought back with their “laptop hunters” ad series, because for a lot of people picking a computer most often comes down to price. My refusal to drink the “iKoolAid” has been a stance of righteous indignation.

But let me be real: for many in my generation, Apple has always been the gold standard for professional grade technology with user-friendly interface. And there are many reasons why the company has remained the #1 purveyor of all things creative and digital. Most of these can be traced to Apple’s iconic (and at times, iconoclast) founder Steve Jobs, who last week announced his resignation as CEO of Apple. Under Jobs’ direction, Apple has become an innovative juggernaut, particularly in its influence in popular culture.

And if there is any class of people who should be interested in creating and influencing culture, it should be pastors. After all, Macs and iPhones are just as embedded into the stereotypes of emerging church planters as skinny jeans, coffee shops, and thick-rimmed glasses.

So in begrudging honor of the cult of Mac (and the hopeful advent of the iPhone 5 with Sprint), here are five lessons, with direct applications to church leadership, that pastors can take from Apple’s Steve Jobs:

Lesson #1: Form and function maximize each other.

The thing that usually sets Apple products apart from the competition is the combination of high-quality components and attractive design. Long before HP launched its campaign proclaiming “the computer is personal again,” Apple had already cornered the market on personalized computers. Remember all of those cute little iMacs that came in different colors? People loved those things because they worked well and they looked fabulous.

Pastoral Application:  You must have both form and function to compete. All pastors who preach the gospel of Jesus Christ are on the same team. So remember, as a pastor you’re not competing with other churches. You’re competing with sports leagues and video games and book clubs and live performance art and all manner of forms of entertainment and leisure that people spend their time doing when they’re not in church.

Therefore, it’s not enough to have EITHER a distinctive style of presentation OR effective programs with solid theology. If the service is all sizzle and no steak, people might be amused or entertained, but not necessarily transformed by the renewing of the mind. On the other hand, how will people come to know the truth about Jesus if there is nothing interesting or attractive to bring them in? Form maximizes function, and vice versa.

Lesson #2: Being first is overrated.

Apple did do many things first, but it did many more things better.

For example, I get irritated every time I see or hear people refer to the iPhone as “the first touch screen phone.” Maybe it was their first touch screen phone, but the HTC Touch Pro had a touch-responsive interface well before the iPhone came out. What Apple had was the first touch-screen phone that was a bona fide hit with consumers. And in the end, that’s what most people will remember, in the same way that only a select few remember the fact that GoBots preceded Transformers on the small screen and in the toy stores. (Yep, I’m a nerd.)

Pastoral application: What matters more is making a connection with people. Being a pastor is fraught with temptations, and one of them is the temptation to join the technology arms race. How many pastors wanted to be the first church in their neighborhood to have a digital projector? Or their own mobile-optimized website? Or iPhone app? Or the first to use a hit TV show as a theme for a sermon series?

What matters more is how well you are connecting with people. Folks won’t give two whits about whether or not you were the first on the scene with the latest gadget or trendy sermon illustration if it doesn’t help them grow closer to God. But when God is moving in their lives and the local neighborhood church is the place where it happens, they might not know if that church has the latest and greatest growth techniques, but they’ll know that God changed their life there.

Lesson #3: Better culture beats better numbers.

One of the things that used to crack me up about Mac users was the claim that their operating systems were inherently safer or more secure because they never had to worry about viruses. This is a classic post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, as avid West Wing fans should remember. The people who write malicious code tend to target Windows machines not because Windows operating systems are less secure, but because there are many more Windows machines in operation. This has, more or less, always been the case. Digital criminals go where there is the most amount of money to be taken.

But this Mac-is-safer spin is a great example of how Apple used the power of marketing to change its biggest weakness (less market share) into its biggest strength (dedicated fandom). Part of being cool is the novelty of being apart and distinct from the mainstream, and nobody does cool better than Apple. Starting with the “Think Different” campaign and continuing with the Mac-versus-PC television ads, Apple leveraged its underdog status into a cultural phenomenon that transformed Apple products from mere electronic devices into elite, stylish status symbols. And in so doing, it further dominated the market share of higher-end computers.

Pastoral application: Create a culture, numbers will follow. Church leader and vision strategist Andy Stanley once said something brilliant that I’m choosing to slightly modify. When it comes to churches, I believe that the culture in the hall trumps the mission on the wall. Therefore, it’s not enough to just have good programs or a radical vision.

There must be a culture that embodies your God-given unique vision breathing in every part of your church. It should be something that one can see and feel and notice by spending time with people in the church community. If you can create a culture that does this, you won’t need to worry about chasing the latest fad or trying to intentionally do things to create numeric growth. Chasing after numbers is a lot like chasing after wind. But if you effectively create culture, then you won’t have to spend tons of money on marketing. A compelling Christ-following community sells itself.

Lesson #4: Don’t apologize for excellence.

In the smartphone arena, most of the competition lately has been between iPhones and Android phones, which ideologically means the difference between open standards versus closed standards. Many people prefer Android over the iOS, because Android offers more flexibility and more of an open atmosphere.

Google’s Android platform gained a lot of market share in smartphone sales in the last few years, but Apple had so much market share in the first place because it prioritized a good user experience over customization and openness. There are certainly users who complain about the closed aspect of the iPhone experience, but most of the people who flocked to the iPhone didn’t care about what it couldn’t do, because they were too busy being impressed by what it could do really well.

And the credit for this goes to Steve Jobs, who once said the following:

“Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.”

The subtext is clear — y’all better get used to it, because I’m not changing. Where others saw arrogance, Jobs saw a commitment to a vision. Steve Jobs was a leader who expected excellence of himself and the people around him, and did not apologize for having high standards, even when he took criticism for it.

Because let’s face it, as much as Apple has been an overall success story, there have been plenty of times where Apple products were heavily criticized for things they didn’t have — that is, features that people expected but were left out. Like the lack of floppy drive in the iMac G3. Or no copy-and-paste on the iPhone 3G. Or no Flash support or 4G network access for the iPad 2.

Did Steve Jobs ever apologize for any of these perceived shortcomings? Of course not. Because they were still game-changing products that sold like hotcakes.

Pastoral Application: Be Unapologetically You. The point is not to be arrogant or to never listen to criticism. That would be foolish. The point is to know who God called you to be as a leader, and refuse to be anything or anyone else.

People will always find things to complain about, and will always find a way to compare your ministry to the ministry down the street or the up-and-coming ministry that’s always in the news. And some of your lay leaders might want to know, Why aren’t we active in these areas? Why aren’t we doing some of these ministry events?

You need to have answers to these questions, answers that are grounded in prayer and conviction. You need to be secure enough in your vision to be willing to be confident in your role in the kingdom of God, and to let other churches and other leaders fill their roles.

If it’s true that we’re all one body, then not everyone needs to be a foot or a nose or an elbow.

Be you, let them be them, and everybody wins.

Lesson #5: Don’t be afraid to change.

Compared to most of its product launches, one of the most important defining moments in Apple’s rise to dominance was met with a collective yawn. But when Apple Computer became Apple, Inc., it was more than just empty symbolism. It was an outward sign of the shift that had already taken place from being a company that focused exclusively on a computers to a company that sought to rule many aspects of consumer electronics — phones, televisions, software, and downloaded media in the form of music, TV shows, and movies.

In other words, it was the final marker that Apple, under Steve Jobs, had fundamentally altered its own business model.

It’s not a surprise, then, to read one of Jobs’ most famous quotes about customer service: 

“You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.”

Steve Jobs was not content to simply stay on top of the present market conditions. He was bent on finding out where the market was heading and positioning his company in the best possible way to serve and expand his customer base in light of that coming reality. It’s a high-risk, high-reward proposition. And except for a few missteps along the way, Jobs and Apple generally succeeded in anticipating the future and changing accordingly.

Pastoral application: Allow God to change His church for the better. This is one of the hardest things for successful pastors to understand, that what worked in the past is not necessarily a predictor of what will work in the future. Too many successful ministries become victims of their own success, whereby they get stuck in whatever mode or brand or style of ministry they started with, and they spend the rest of their existence trying in vain to replicate their initial wave of success.

In Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrase, this is how John 3:7-8 is rendered:

So don’t be so surprised when I tell you that you have to be ‘born from above’—out of this world, so to speak. You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, the Spirit of God.

This is Jesus talking to a confused religious leader about what it means to truly be born of the Spirit. And I think that sometimes when Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, tries to get us church leaders to move in a new direction, we give Him the same response Nicodemus gave, which was essentially … “Wait, what? How?”

According to Dr. Reggie McNeal in The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church, churches are no longer viable organizations when they exist to operate solely as vendors of religious goods and services. We must ask God where and how He is moving, we must listen for where He is calling us to go, and then we must be courageous enough to move ourselves and our organizations into that space.

We’ve got to be willing to change.

And maybe if we do, our churches can do a better job of telling people the truth. And instead of giving people a gospel of hope based on technology, we can give them a gospel of hope based on the person and work of Jesus.

This article was originally posted on August 29, 2011.

The Inevitable Amy Winehouse

The Inevitable Amy Winehouse

FALLEN STAR: Amy Winehouse, dead at 27.

Amy Winehouse emerged on the pop-music scene not so much like a rising star as like a falling one.

In “Rehab,” the hit song from her 2006 breakthrough album, Back to Black, the singer let us know upfront what we were in for if we decided to become her fans—a maddening, chaotic, troubled ride. But her soulful and honest voice, and the potential we heard there, left us no choice but to listen, appreciate, and hope against hope that she would eventually shake her well-publicized demons and rise to the brilliant promise of her talent.

But it was not to be.

The report of the British singer’s death today at 27 was not unexpected, but it still jarred us, like the earthshaking blast of thunder that trails a violent lightning flash. On Twitter and Facebook, update after update expressed a sort of resigned shock. “I knew it was a matter of time,” wrote one commenter. “I’m surprised she lasted this long,” said another.

Another popular Winehouse song found the singer declaring, “You know that I’m no good.” Like “Rehab,” it was a prophetic moment of self-disclosure that felt like both a defiant proclamation and an eerie plea for help. The lyrics — “I cheated myself, like I knew I would” — resonated with many of us who, like the apostle Paul, struggle with the reality of our sinful natures.

“I do not understand what I do,” said Paul. “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”

For Amy Winehouse, the struggle was with drugs, alcohol, and bad relationships. For us, the addictions might be different, but we have felt the strain nonetheless.

There’s so much in Ms. Winehouse’s tragic story to explore. In some ways, her brief career was the most convincing anti-drug campaign to hit pop culture. Or, maybe everything that needs to be said was already said during her descent.

The initial reports said Winehouse’s cause of death was unexplained. But no explanation was really necessary.