LITERACY MISSION: With his tour across the nation, Acts of Love founder William E. Hall hopes to improve the lives of urban kids one book at a time. (Photo by Amanda Edwards)
How do you measure the impact of an act of kindness? Is it by the words that are spoken or perhaps by the response that you elicit? Or is it something subtler?
For William E. Hall, pastor and founder of Acts of Love, the measure of his organization’s effectiveness comes by counting the number of smiles he sees each time he hands out books to children.
Based on the mantra “Extending a Hand and a Heart to the Next Generation,” Acts of Love is a community-based, non-profit campaign founded with the goal of collecting and distributing 1 million books to marginalized and underprivileged youth. “Our ultimate hope is to improve the reading and comprehension skills of students across the nation,” said Hall.
Birthed four years ago on DePaul University’s Chicago campus, Acts of Love is an outgrowth of Hall’s civic outreach organization, Communigize. Along with several of his closest friends, Hall launched Communigize as a community program centered on educating, mentoring, and inspiring urban youngsters.
Hall was born and raised in the Chatham neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. He grew up like any normal teenager, having fun and exploring the city and all that it had to offer. But he discovered early on how random acts of kindness can transform a person’s life.
“For me, it was always about how can we make lives better, for real and that’s no cliché,” he said. “As a kid, I saw so many examples of that right next door. My grandma and grandpa would wave or talk to strangers walking down the street and make their day.”
Hall added that his grandfather was especially interested in encouraging young people. “He just lived to see young people walk by, and encourage them by giving them pencils and raisins, and little cookies for afterschool treats.”
He carried those ordinary examples of kindness with him as he grew into adulthood. Now as a youth pastor, one can see how those principles have helped shape his ministry.
WORDS OF LIFE: At urban schools around the nation, Hall shares with young students about the importance of reading, learning, and making good choices in life. Here he meets with students at a Chicago grade school.
At DePaul, Hall always had those principles in mind as he pursued his studies as an economics major. While on campus, he was instrumental in starting several student organizations that shared that focus. Groups like Soul Food and Communigize were organizations designed to positively impact students’ hearts through the Word of God.
But Hall quickly realized that by only working with kids while in classroom settings, his outreach was limited. He remembered a specific field trip where he and his friends took several students to Navy Pier.
“As a youth pastor, we used to bring young people up and would allow them to run around on campus. We would just mentor them and expose them to places they probably wouldn’t see. When driving past [Chicago’s] Navy Pier, one of the kids in the car did not know what it was, and looked at the big Ferris wheel and was like, ‘What’s that?’ And that’s when I knew how important it is to really love young people and to really help them.”
Over the course of the next four years, he would yearn to do more. Hall realized that although he had touched the lives of numerous young people, God had placed a greater mission field in mind that would extend far beyond his reach with Communigize and the city of Chicago.
He completed his bachelor’s in 2007, and then went on to further his studies at McCormick Theological Seminary, where he received his master of divinity degree in 2011. It was during his years in school that he says God inspired him to take the message of love and inspiration across the country.
“I told my friends, let’s do this. Let’s organize and begin to look at ways we can strategically build something to help young people,” Hall said. And that’s how Acts of Love was born.
“[We are] living out what’s required of us as Christian people created by God, and that is to love others,” he said. “When we do a kind act, that’s really saying to someone I’m giving you the joy and happiness that comes from God, abounding love.”
This summer, Hall and his team of volunteers hope to inspire 700 or more adults to join the “Love Young People Tour” in going door to door, visiting some of the nation’s poorest communities in cities like Chicago, Gary, Detroit, Miami, and Washington D.C., and handing out 7,000 or more books to elementary, middle, and high school-aged students.
THE POWER OF BOOKS: Hall loves counting the smiles that come as he and his volunteers hand out books to young people. After getting their books, these young students in Columbus, Ohio, were eager to start reading.
Hall says he wants to make love tangible, and wants young people to “fall in love with knowledge” and the wisdom that can be discovered on the written page. He believes that when a difference is made in a young person’s life, the world can be changed. That’s why he and his staff of volunteers have partnered with Chicago aldermen Pat Dowell and Roderick Sawyer in hopes of counteracting literacy rates in the Windy City. And he hopes to duplicate this in other communities around the nation.
He added, “We never know how the seeds of knowledge that these kids find in books or just in the art of reading will impact them 10 or 15 years from now.”
In addition to the ambitious goal of collecting a million books, Hall also plans to join with other community partners to provide new books for urban libraries, build 50 reading rooms centered on growth and development, and supply 50 urban schools with a comprehensive extracurricular reading curriculum to aid them in improving student reading skills.
With more than 6,000 books already collected and nearly 500 people that have already pledged their support, Hall and his team are seeking additional supporters willing to make the commitment of sowing a seed of knowledge into the lives of the next generation.
“I want people to understand the power of love, and the need to love young people,” he said. “That’s what I was created for. We want a million people to make that commitment; to take that pledge, participate, and pass the word.”
If you would like to partner with the Acts of Love campaign or the Love Young People Tour 2012, please visit the www.millionactsoflove.org for more information.
MASS REPEAL: Calls for the dismantling of President Obama’s signature healthcare legislation have gone into overdrive since the Supreme Court ruled the law as constitutional last month. (Jonathan Ernst/Newscom)
The federal government has not taken over health care. The federal government has taken over access to health care. There is a difference.
When I was a student at Morehouse College in the early 1970s, activists launched a campaign to address the shortage of African American doctors in the state of Georgia. They produced bumper stickers that asked “Only 100 Black doctors in Georgia?” with a map of the state’s 139 counties in the background. With many of those 100 doctors concentrated in urban areas such as Atlanta, people voiced clear concern over access to health care for thousands of African Americans in rural, poor and remote areas. Morehouse College President Hugh Gloster responded to this concern by founding the Morehouse School of Medicine, which joined Howard University Medical School, Meharry Medical College and the Charles Drew School of Medicine (similarly founded to address access issues in the Los Angeles area) as the nation’s only predominantly Black medical schools.
Were the government to have taken over health care, the government would be proffering medical diagnoses, prescribing medicine, and performing surgery. This is not the case. What the Supreme Court’s ruling upheld on June 28 was not government-controlled health care, but a federal system that expands access to health care for millions of Americans, mostly poor and many people of color. In a country where national strength finds measure on barometers of military might and economic prosperity, Scripture connects a nation’s well being to its care for the poor. In the fifth chapter of the biblical book bearing his name, Jeremiah challenges his nation, saying:
5:26 For among my people are found wicked men: they lay wait, as he that setteth snares; they set a trap, they catch men.
5:27 As a cage is full of birds, so are their houses full of deceit: therefore they are become great, and waxen rich.
5:28 They are waxen fat, they shine: yea, they overpass the deeds of the wicked: they judge not the cause, the cause of the fatherless, yet they prosper; and the right of the needy do they not judge.
5:29 Shall I not visit for these things? saith the Lord: shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this?
And among the judgments God speaks through Ezekiel, health care stands prominently:
34:4 The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them.
Interestingly, the arguments against the healthcare reform upheld by the Supreme Court do focus on the problem of systemic access, and the price to be paid for it — whether the price is monetary in the form of the penalty for failure to carry health insurance or individual liberty in the form of governmental coercion. Yet in both cases, the plight of the poor and needy, the sick and infirm, goes unaddressed. How to make health care accessible for those on the margins of society receives little attention from those who would dismantle “Obamacare.” Promises to repeal the legislation without offering a clear alternative for how we as a nation make health care available and accessible to all persons reduces “the least of these” to political pawns, whose lives represent fodder for a political machine designed to appeal to the self-interests of America’s middle class.
UPHOLDING THE LAW: Supporters of President Obama’s healthcare reform rallied outside the Supreme Court chambers prior to the Court’s historic ruling on June 28. (Jonathan Ernst/Newscom)
Such a move must be resisted by President Obama and supporters of the legislation. The president campaigned for much of 2008 by appealing to that same middle class. He has lost some of their support with his championing of this version of reform, but that is precisely because our electoral system makes it difficult to appeal to a moral high ground as a strategy for garnering support (unless the issues revolve around sexuality and/or abortion). Some who have been disappointed by the president but still support him for reelection need to become more vocal in raising this issue above individual self interest to the moral high ground, much as Jim Wallis and Sojourners put forth the notion that poverty is a moral issue in the 2004 presidential campaign.
The question of access to health care ought matter significantly to people of faith. But it is easy to see how a church whose own theology promises personal prosperity apart from systemic issues of justice can miss the mark of its high calling to care for the poor. Indeed, it is as if a central claim of many messages draws directly from the Rev. Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter, better known as Reverend Ike: “The best thing you can do for the poor is not be one of them.”
Our ministry to the sick must move beyond prayer and visitation, and our work amongst the poor requires more than acts of charity. Justice questions continue to loom large in a nation with rampant inequality in quality of life, minimized access to maximal care, and economic stumbling blocks that tie the quality of health to possession of wealth. The spiritual gift of healing is not restricted to those in a specific economic category. If God’s divine, miraculous intervention to bring healing cannot be tied to social status, why should not a national healthcare philosophy be similarly non-discriminatory?
The Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act provides the opportunity for the various agencies: government, hospitals, physicians, pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, and employers to move with plans for implementation. It is good news for many who currently have little if any access to health care.
While many decry the “intrusion of big government,” an unanswered question for Christians who have opposed healthcare reform is “how has the church mobilized on behalf of the sick and the poor?” In other words, could it be that the intrusion of “big government” in part reflects a gaping hole in our mission to care for the least of these through ministries of mercy, prayer for healing, and advocacy for the oppressed? Are we so busy with “destiny and prosperity” that our attentions have been taken from our responsibilities to fulfill Jesus mission in Luke 4 and Matthew 25?
COMMUNITY SERVICE: Elevate Detroit staff members and volunteers serve area residents during one its CommuniD Barbecues last year at Detroit’s Robert Redmond Memorial Park.
Is Detroit coming or going?
The conventional wisdom is that the once-bustling Motor City is the epitome of a metropolis in decline, a remnant of a bygone industrial era. But for many of us who have decided to intentionally make Detroit our home, we choose to believe that the city has a future.
It’s in our nature, I guess. We love to root for the underdog, and Detroit is definitely that. As politicians, businesspeople, and sociologists ponder the city’s chances, it takes faith to see a bright future for a city that has lost so much of its luster. But over the last few years, the city’s been gaining notoriety as a business incubator (see Detroit’s Future: From Blight to Bright), a destination for good eats, and the slow (but steady) revival of America’s number one auto manufacturing center. It’s home to four professional sports teams, including the Lions who went from serving as the laughingstock of the National Football league to finishing with a 10-6 season and making their first playoff appearance since 1999. Most recently, Detroit was even rated as having one of America’s top ten best downtowns. Detroit’s full of previously unrecognized promise. It’s resilient, tenacious, and on the verge of exciting change.
VITAL SIGNS: An attractive waterfront, competitive sports teams, and fine restaurants give Detroiters reason for hope.
However, a lot is still broken. Detroit’s also been synonymous with present-day notions of urban crime, decay, and impoverishment. At the height of its powers in 1950, Detroit had 1.8 million residents and a thriving economy that helped drive the fortunes of the rest of the nation. Now, 60 years later, the population has dropped to just 700,000 and is in a desperate struggle to recapture its cultural and economical relevance.
Over the past few years, Detroit has become a case study in what ails American cities. In 2010, Time magazine set up a special outpost in the city for a year to chronicle the city’s challenges. And a new book, Detroit: A Biography, finds former Detroit News reporter Scott Martelle analyzing what led to the city’s current misfortunes. Though a sobering read, a strength of the book is that it doesn’t live in the past by romanticizing the bygone glories of the auto industry or the Motown era. Instead, Martelle drills deep into the troubling factors that contributed to Detroit’s decline. Endeavors like Time’s reporting project and Martelle’s book are important reminders of Detroit’s challenges and possibilities.
Detroit is a city begging for educational reform and financial restructuring. And though Michigan’s unemployment rate has steadily decreased over the past year, Metro Detroit’s rate remains higher than state and national averages at 9.2% as of April.
Still, we hope.
Let the Sonshine
With unemployment rounding out at over 50,000, Detroiters have begun exploring other employment options. Detroit residents have begun to reimagine how to create a more sustainable economy — one that isn’t dependent upon a single industry. Through the diversification of business endeavors, some see slow progress.
Historically, a bottom-up, micro-level approach to local economic development has proven to be the most effective. According to the World Bank in a recent report, “Local economic development is about local people working together to achieve sustainable economic growth that brings economic benefits and quality of life improvements for all in the community.”
THE ROAD AHEAD: Downtown Detroit as seen along Woodward Avenue. Strapped with the fallout of crime, poverty, and political corruption, city leaders are in a desperate search for answers. Meanwhile, a cadre of Christian visionaries hope to become part of the solution. (Photo: Rebecca Cook/Newscom)
Some Detroit entrepreneurs have even begun to use their business ventures in order to combat joblessness in their individual communities. Take, for example, Café Sonshine, a local eatery in the New Center neighborhood which employs local residents and provides a community gathering space. Or examine Wayne State University’s Tech Town, an organization that trains and equips fledgling local entrepreneurs with the tools they need to foster a successful business.
Following are the stories of three entrepreneurs who are working to address poverty and stimulate the metropolitan Detroit area through local business. Though all significantly different from each other, these individuals share the same passion and enthusiasm to eradicate poverty, share the love of Christ through community, and see Detroit become healthy and whole.
GO-GETTER: Elevate Detroit’s Mike Schmitt
Mike Schmitt, director and community architect at Elevate Detroit, has a very intentional vision for his corner of Detroit. He’s firmly planted himself in the geographical area called Cass Corridor. The neighborhood — a small grid of streets located in the Midtown district — has been coined by some as “the Jungle.” It’s a high crime area rife with prostitution, drug dealing, and a strong gang presence that dates back to the early twentieth century. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was even partially plotted in Cass Corridor by Detroit’s Purple Gang, associates of Al Capone.
“It’s entirely likely that the same people who may have smiled at you earlier in the day have been up all night making drug runs, selling crack and heroin,” said Schmitt. “Though there are more churches per capita in Detroit than in any other city, there’s an unfed hunger here for community and love.”
Four years ago, Schmitt started Elevate Detroit and a related outreach event called CommuniD BBQs. To date, Elevate Detroit now organizes five BBQs in four different cities — Detroit, Flint, Pontiac, and Mount Clemens. Each week, people come from across the metro Detroit area to join in fellowship with people of different ethnicities and socio-economic positions. On these Saturdays, it’s a piece of God’s kingdom here on earth.
“I’ve tried to move away a couple of times now, but Detroit is my home. Once you see God moving in so many different ways, it’s impossible to leave,” he said.
SERVING THE WHOLE PERSON: Community residents wait in line for food and other resources during Elevate Detroit’s CommuniD Barbecue and mobile health clinic events.
Schmitt also is the primary visionary behind Dandelion’s Café, a new business and community outreach model in the heart of Cass Corridor. Though not officially off the ground yet, Schmitt and his team are in the process of raising capital and hope to get started soon. The hope is for Dandelion’s Café to serve the dual purpose of a coffee shop and concert venue in the building directly adjacent to the park at 2nd and Seldon in Detroit. Schmitt dreams of hosting open-mic nights, karaoke nights, local music nights, and even bring in national acts for concerts. Schmitt and his crew envision this venue becoming a center for community in the neighborhood and creating jobs for those who are in disadvantaged situations.
To complement this model, Schmitt hopes to purchase a nearby house or small apartment building for his previously homeless employees to live in with other residents — families, singles, and the elderly alike. He sees this partially as an antidote to the “No ID” problem. Without a permanent residence to reference on employment applications, it’s impossible for many transients to nail down a job. And without a source of income, the cycle of poverty repeats itself.
“I believe that by doing life together, we’ll create a support network for those who don’t have one,” said Schmitt. “The more that I came down to Detroit from my suburban home, the more I started to realize how much we all had in common and I wanted to do something to help cultivate a support network for those who didn’t have one.”
Harriet Tubman in Detroit
Similarly, Mark Wholihan of The Car Whisperers, LLC yearns for Detroit’s “second chance.” Wholihan began praying for a purpose from God immediately after he became a Christian. After praying for more than eight hours straight one day, he began to envision a new kind of auto repair service, an opportunity that would allow him to use his business to employ people in his community with a lack of resources.
VEHICLE FOR OUTREACH: In this ad for his auto shop, Mark Wholihan stands out in his red suit. He launched the business as a way to connect with people in his Detroit community while aiding the city’s restoration.
The Car Whisperers, LLC opened in February of last year in Livonia, Michigan. This mobile mechanic auto repair facility services western Wayne County. Because it’s largely connected to other cities through an infrastructure of highways, the city of Livonia is an ideal base of operations for any largely mobile organization. Additionally, with easy access to cities such as Farmington Hills, Detroit, Canton, and Allen Park, its socioeconomic range of customers is widely varied and diverse.
“When God put this business on my heart, I nicknamed it The Harriet Tubman Mission,” said Wholian. “Through using this business, I’m trusting God to help me bring people from slavery to freedom.”
Like Mike Schmitt, Wholihan envisions his auto repair service as a stepping stone to a larger organization designed to provide clients with total rehabilitation. In the case of The Car Whisperers, he has dreams of founding a residential long-term rehabilitation program in Detroit for people in need of holistic recovery. This projected program, called Second Chance at Life, will include a homeless shelter, drug and alcohol rehabilitation program, job placement services and an education center. As they continue to develop the micro-economy that will help to fund such an endeavor, Wholihan and The Car Whisperers are partnering with the YWCA community centers in order to expand how they meet the needs of their community.
“Reducing drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment, homelessness, crime, poverty and the return to previous lifestyles will make the program successful,” declares a blurb on the ministry’s website. “[It is our hope] to help Detroit and the surrounding communities to become a better, safer place for everyone.”
Repairer of Broken Walls
Like the Wholihan and Schmitt, Lisa Johanon and her non-profit ministry, the Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation (CDC), are targeting poverty and joblessness in Detroit through a grassroots movement. Johanon lives and works several blocks north of the burgeoning New Center district in Detroit. Located adjacent to the Midtown neighborhood and about three miles north of downtown, New Center was developed in the 1920s as a business hub that could serve as a connecting point between downtown resources and outlying factories. Today, New Center is slowly developing into a commercial and residential success. From the summer-long event series in New Center Park to the growing headquarters of the Henry Ford Health System, New Center is making its mark on the Greater Detroit area.
FRESH VISION: Lisa Johanon (right) and her daughter Emma. (Photo: Cybelle Codish)
But blocks away in the neighborhoods north of New Center where Johanon lives, it’s another story. Though only separated by some city streets and skyscrapers, this area hasn’t been able to grasp the same commercial success that its evolving counterpart has enjoyed. Rooted in a chronic, generational poverty, these residential neighborhoods have more than just economic obstacles to overcome. The community’s struggles with drug abuse and mental illness are visibly prominent. It’s been calculated that up to 72% of the households are single-parent families. Johanon said the amount of tragedy and injustice has led residents to ask God, “Why?”
“You can’t talk about Jesus when your neighbors are hungry and don’t have a job,” said Johanon. “Long term impact happens because someone is walking beside them.”
So, that’s what Johanon made plans to do. She moved to Detroit in 1987 after helping plant a church in Chicago’s notorious Cabrini Green housing projects. During her first seven years in Detroit, Johanon established and oversaw the Urban Outreach division of Detroit Youth for Christ. From there, she went on to become the executive director of the CDC, which she co-founded more than 15 years ago. She’s been planted there ever since.
The CDC aims to be a well-rounded resource for the central Detroit area. They organize and administer educational programs, orchestrate employment training, and create opportunities to spur job growth in the area. With their outreach initiatives and organic structure, the CDC takes Isaiah 58:12 to heart — “Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.”
“The CDC is the model for economic development in our community,” said Johanon. “Walmart isn’t going to come to our neighborhood, so we have to create the job opportunities ourselves.”
Of the three Detroiters highlighted, Johanon has the most business experience to date. The CDC has launched five businesses in their community — Peaches & Greens Produce Market, Higher Ground Landscaping, Café Sonshine, CDC Property Management, and Restoration Warehouse. Each business has a twofold goal — to meet the needs of its community members and simultaneously provide them with jobs.
ON THE MOVE: Lisa Johanon (far right) and her Central Detroit Christian Development Corporation team received a May 2010 visit from First Lady Michelle Obama, who was encouraged by CDC’s Peaches & Greens venture, which provides Detroit neighborhoods with access to low-cost fruits and vegetables through a produce truck and store which are clean and safe. Mrs. Obama, whose “Let’s Move!” initiative targets the problem of childhood obesity, hailed the CDC’s efforts.
But it’s not just about providing community members with a sense of dignity that financial stability can bring. Johanon understands that there needs to be a holistic approach to the restoration of dignity – an approach that includes attention to a person’s physical, social, and spiritual needs.
“The CDC believes that education empowers our community to grow and thrive. Employment equips our community to sustain families. [And] economic development transforms our community,” said a source on their website.
It’s easiest to understand what the CDC aims to do by looking at individual stories. “When we hired people from the neighborhood to work for Higher Ground Landscaping, not a single one could pass a drug test. Now, we only have two who still fail,” said Johanon. “The minority has pressure to change their lifestyle. We want to show that we’re committed for the long term.”
And she’s right — it’s consistent commitment that’s going to change the DNA of Detroit. Each of the entrepreneurs featured in this piece have committed their time, experience, and vision to making their little corner of Detroit more sustainable. In essence, they’ve surrendered their lives to God and His mission for them. And this is something that no politician or urban developer will ever be able to replicate — God using ordinary people to bring about change and renewal. Ultimately, Detroit’s revival — and the resurgence of any ailing city — will start and end with these kind of committed efforts.
O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant …
It was a chilly December night in downtown Chicago, and about a dozen of us from a suburban Christian college were Christmas caroling. My best friend, Uriel, stood next to me as we sang. A few people stopped to listen.
… O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem, Come and behold him …
A black man edged closer as we sang. He seemed to eye me, the only African American in our group. His head nodded in rhythm with the melody.
… O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!
“Say, brother,” he said, approaching me as the song ended, “would you please help my family? We ain’t got no money and my baby needs formula.”
He was probably in his 20s, but his tired and ragged appearance made him look much older. “Please, man. I need to get us some food.”
I glanced at the others in my group. We knew the safest response was to politely refuse. Yet we were Christians. Weren’t we supposed to help needy people?
“Would you please help me?” the plea came again. “Just a few dollars.”
I looked at Uriel.
“We can’t give you money,” we finally said, “but we can buy you what you need.” If the guy was telling us the truth, it was something we had to do.
“My name is Jerome,” he told us as we hiked toward a nearby convenience store. He lived in a city housing project with his wife and three kids. As we entered the store, I noticed that his eyes seemed to brighten. Maybe we’d brought a little hope into his life.
Soon we’d bought him baby formula, eggs, and milk. This seemed a fitting conclusion to our evening of caroling.
As we handed Jerome the groceries and bus fare, I noticed his eyes had darkened into an frightening stare. “You think you better than me, don’t you?” he said. “You all think you somethin’ ’cause you come out from the suburbs, buyin’ food for the po’ folks, but you ain’t no better than me.”
“No …” I struggled to find more words, but nothing came. I realized there was nothing I could say that would change his mind.
After a moment of awkward silence, Jerome grabbed his bag of groceries and walked away. Then he suddenly turned and said sharply, “Merry Christmas.” It was not a warm wish, but a condemning statement filled with broken pride.
The December air blew colder. No one said a word.
There wasn’t anything to say. Our holiday spirit had suddenly evaporated, and there was no way to bring it back.
We might have resented Jerome and felt justified. But was he wrong? We gave him a gift. He accepted it. Should there have been anything more?
That’s sort of how it was at the first Christmas. Jesus wasn’t born a helpless baby for applause. Years later, he didn’t hang on the cross for the praise and adulation — many of those he died for made fun of him. Still, he gave selflessly and unconditionally. So, why had we expected gratitude and warm fuzzies for our gift to Jerome?
Strangely enough, Jerome gave us something far better than another opportunity to feel good about ourselves. He made us look hard at our motives and gave us a sobering lesson on the real reason for giving.
We were expecting a pat on the back. Jerome reminded us of what the true reward of Christmas is all about.
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.