Reflection: What Steve Jobs Can Teach the Church

Tributes flowed around the world for the Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who has been described as a "visionary." Photo: Koratmember/Shutterstock
Published October 19, 2011

“Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” Those words could have been spoken by Jesus, but they were uttered by Steve Jobs at the Stanford University commencement in June 2005. He was citing from the final issue of The Whole Earth Catalogue, one of the bibles of his generation back in the 1960s and early ’70s.

Steve Jobs was a very complex person. He was a Buddhist and a visionary, almost a mystic, whose most exhilarating experience was walking in a Zen garden in Kyoto, Japan. Intellectually, he was an innovator and inventor, ranking with the likes of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. Temperamentally, he was a free spirit who integrated his love of design with technology in a user-friendly way.

He was not perfect, to be sure. He could be the best and worst boss at the same time. He was something of a bully, firing and rehiring people the same day, intense, direct, strong-willed, a control freak with a binary view of the world. He did not suffer fools gladly, did not enjoy small talk and would turn off people who did not interest him. His management style will never be touted in leadership books. He would not make a good parish priest, nor would he fit well into most churches, especially ones with lots of rules and regulations.

And yet, I greatly admire Steve Jobs and will miss him, even though we never personally met. I especially appreciate his conviction that we are on this earth for a limited time, that we will someday die and that others will take our place. For Jobs, this meant making the most of life while we can; living passionately, intentionally and deliberately; not wasting or squandering our precious time.

Jobs told the Stanford graduates: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma-which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

In Steve Jobs’ words, we hear echoes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the New England Transcendentalists. His personal and business philosophy went beyond the boundaries of conventional thinking. He would not use the past to shape the future. He didn’t drive his company by looking into the rearview mirror. He didn’t settle for doing what others already knew-only better.

Instead, he managed to fuse a core business with disruptive innovation. He combined the intellectual with the artistic. He balanced the rational with the lunatic. He refused to admit that something was impossible only because it had not yet been done. He found ways where there was no way, because life for him was about possibilities, not limitations.

Steve Jobs understood the paradox that disruptive innovation is essential to any healthy, growing organization.

When he returned to Apple, he developed an ad that said: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

The problem with being a rebel, a misfit, a troublemaker is that you are not likely to be cheered by the authorities. Consider Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi and the dissension they caused in their communities. Consider the many theologians and scientists who were condemned by the church-Galileo in the 17th century, Darwin in the 19th century and Teilhard de Chardin in the 20th century.

Even Steve Jobs was lambasted before he was praised. It took him years to come up with a turnaround strategy that showed what Apple could do. People tend to forget the years between 1996 and 2001, when much of the market called him more insane, than insanely great.

So, what might churches learn from Steve Jobs at this moment in history as we struggle to do ministry in a rapidly changing world? Here are six insights to reflect upon.

First, be open to the Holy Spirit, to God’s plan for new times and seasons, and to the Spirit’s working in the world.

Steve Jobs was able to see things in a way that other people did not. His biographer Walter Isaacson refers to him as a “visionary”-and that he was.

Christians have the Holy Spirit to help us see clearly, discern our choices and act courageously into the future. In the Spirit we can make Jesus central to everything we do as a church, and everything else secondary. We can re-examine the assumptions in how we do ministry. We can overcome “hardening of the categories” by getting rid of the traditions that no longer make sense.

Instead of asking, “What are we going to lose by moving into God’s new times and seasons?” we can ask, “What is the kingdom of God going to gain?” Or, to put it another way, “How can the church position itself to respond to what God is doing in the world?”

Second, master unlearning.

Not everything we learned is wrong or outdated, but we live in a world where yesterday’s successes are tomorrow’s failures. We need to be flexible, agile and ready to move beyond conventional ways of thinking and doing ministry. We need to reshape tradition to the present context of ministry rather than be stuck in the past.

In a world going at warp speed, only the fast survive. Steve Jobs knew this.

In January 2007, while unveiling the iPhone, he made a very telling comment about his business philosophy. He said, “There’s an old Wayne Gretzky quote that I love-‘I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.’ And we’ve always tried to do that at Apple, since the very, very beginning. And we always will.”

Could the church do the same?

Third, be willing to look beyond the church for answers.

The knowledge we need for the future may not exist inside the church. If we believe that the Spirit is at work in the world as well as the church, then the world may have something to teach us about how we do church.

Jobs never was ashamed to look beyond Apple for innovations that he could make better. When everyone was praising the invention of the e-Reader, Apple came out with the iPad. Jobs not only made something better, he transformed it into a revolutionary new product with multiple uses.

Might we in the Anglican church look to non-Anglican churches and even secular organizations for ways to improve our mission and ministry? We don’t have to accept their message, but we can learn from their methods.

Fourth, experiment, fail and try again.

Steve Jobs understood that the future will not look like the past, nor can anyone fully predict the future. Charting new paths, even in failure, became characteristic of his way of moving forward.

For the church, there is no clear strategy to take us into the future. We see the future dimly, and no one is likely to get it right the first time.

So why not allow parishes to be places of exploration, trying new things, taking risks, experimenting and even accepting failure as a way of learning new ways of doing ministry?

Institutionally, this means becoming permission-giving rather than permission-denying, because there is no one-size-fits-all approach anymore. Consensus in synods, or even among bishops, seldom represents the cutting edge.

Instead, we need to listen to the voices on the margin and not just the mainstream, because often the answers we seek will come from places we least expect to find them.

Fifth, expect the uncomfortable.

To minister effectively in a secular, post-modern, post-Christian world means that at some point we can’t keep doing what got us here. Remember Einstein’s famous maxim: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

We need to step out in faith, move beyond our comfort zone, look into the lens of the future and imagine what could be. Safety, security and the status quo lead only to death. Today it is not enough to manage an institution. We must also lead a movement.

If we only manage yesterday’s church, we forfeit the opportunity to shape tomorrow’s Christians.

Lastly, maintain your passion.

By passion, I mean holding on to what you love.

Steve Jobs, reflecting on the days after he was fired from the company he built, told the Stanford graduates: “Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

Do you remember Steve Jobs’ famous conversation with John Sculley, the one that brought him to Apple? Sculley, who then worked for Pepsi-Cola, told Jobs he could not accept his offer to join the company.

Jobs confronted Sculley with a crucial choice: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?” Translation: Do you really want to spend the rest of your days on work that fails to inspire, or stuff that fails to count, for reasons that fail to touch the soul of anyone? The question knocked the wind out of Sculley, and he went on to join Apple.

That’s the challenge before us in the Anglican Church of Canada. Do we want to continue to live just somehow, or would we like, in Christ’s name, to live triumphantly and be part of changing the world, our lives, and the lives of others? The ball is in our court. Hit it back-or let it die there bouncing slowly, slowly, slowly, while we hesitate and procrastinate.

Steve Jobs knew what to do-and he did it with love, passion and gusto.

What about us?


The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.



Related Posts

Skip to content