A few weeks back, I wrote this on my Facebook wall:
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, he took the entire museum of old Apple computers and gave it to Stanford in an effort to stop looking back and start looking forward. No longer did Apple worry about what had happened but it began to focus on who it was and where it was going to go. Perhaps it is time for us in the Church to tear down our traditions and reevaluate them. Let's simplify our products and figure out what the Church is. What would it look like if every church tore down its walls and started over? It would send a message for sure.
The question posed saw more responses than I imagined. (I won't include a permalink to the conversation because Facebook's privacy policies are iffy at best and I haven't asked permission to post any one person's comments.)
The part that I choose to focus on here is: "Perhaps it is time for us in the Church to tear down our traditions and reevaluate them. Let's simplify our products and figure out what the Church is."
In order to understand this fully, you'll need to understand a few things:
1) I'm slightly obsessed with Apple Inc.'s product line.
2) I'm significantly impressed with the work that Steve Jobs has done at Apple. (and much of that respect leads to number one being a reality)
3) I get criticized quite a bit for being so Apple centric. (It's ok, courage of my own convictions)
4) I think quite a bit about the dying mainline churches and what might save them.
You'll also need to understand the history of Apple Inc. (formerly Apple Computer, Inc.) and the highs and lows that the company has been through. If you aren't that up to date, don't worry, you can get the basics here. The important part is that Steve came back and revamped much of the company to turn it into what it is today.
My question posed above resulted in several responses both on Facebook and in person(reminder: name omitted):
"Steve Jobs isn't Jesus"
"Is the church a product?"
"The Church does not have "products;" the Church is not something that can be marketed."
"I'm not sure how [John] Wesley would have felt about the church having products..."
"The church absolutely is marketable if that means sharing via medium other than word of mouth although you can certainly say that inevitably has flaws also."
"Bryant, you love Apple too much."
"Rather than us forming the Church into what we think it should be, we should be asking the questions about why we haven't allowed the Church to form us."
There were more, but now you have an assortment.
In trying to understand this more fully, I did some thinking and ended up at my bookshelf. I noticed that there were a lot of books on it that had to do with the Church and in one way or another the world (and therefore, the Church's relationship to it). I took a picture of all of them.
There are lots more. Written by all kinds of people: bloggers, Pastors, missionaries, seminary professors, and Apostles.
As far as I can see it, the question of "Does The Church Have Products?" stems off of this struggle with where the Church fits into our everyday lives. In the midst of the dying Church (some stats peg the United Methodist Church to have lost 6 million in membership over the past 50 years), we question whether the Church is still "relevant" to our lives. The body of Christ-as a whole-has responded by creating magazines to investigate this, commercials to combat this, and books (see above) to discuss this.
Naturally, churches have moved to worldly ways of getting the word out about their relevancy in order to attract new people. As a result, we have seen the rise of a few things: Contemporary worship music (no longer boring services), stylish preachers (think gel'd hair and tight jeans), new looking buildings (the warehouse look is in), and advertisements on billboards (we all know who the churches with the money are).
This is scary to many. Especially (as I am learning) to seminary students.
Because here we are learning about the history of the Church, the mistakes and progression its made, and somehow this new fangled worldly marketing is scary. Rob Bell even mentioned in his book Velvet Elvis that he was appalled when he saw a sign advertising his new church.
"The thought of the word church and the word marketing in the same sentence makes me sick."
Rob Bell argued that people had to "want" to find the church. they had no advertisements, no flyers, no promotions, no signs.
The first week they had 1000 people in attendance. (People on Amazon.com's reviews of the book argue that Bell came from another giant church as an associate and so his name was probably already known to the area and his follower base was already there. I can't vouch for those facts because I simply don't know, but it would explain quite a bit)
The bigger issue to me is not the marketing. I agree with Bell that if we break down our evangelism into "marketing", we have missed the boat. But that doesn't mean that the Church doesn't have products.
The obvious answer to whether or not the Church has products is "Yes, it does." For better or worse, it does. Products, as I see it, are the things that come out of the Church. The things that the Church produces. Perhaps we should stop and look at some of the products of the Church (as as to convince you more fully): pastors, businessmen, bad theology, good theology, morally responsible citizens, not-so-morally responsible citizens, worship music, "non-worship" music, art, advertising, love for the marginalized, hate for the marginalized, etc.
Things come out of the Church. Because the Church is a body of people. And bodies of people exist for a reason (whether or not they are aware of it). From our own nature, we exist to produce. And so, we have products.
Here's where Steve hit it on the head in his return to Apple. Apple had too many products. One of the famous stories centered around Apple's printer production. He asked, "our printers suck, why are we making them?" They stopped making them. They later gave up on the Newton project because Steve said "handwriting is the slowest form of input". When something wasn't working, they gave it up. The started again and worked on it until was good. Then, when they debuted it again, they told people about it. And, because it was worth having, people flocked to it. In a mixture of simplifying and revamping, Apple turned around from being nearly bankrupt to being the powerhouse and influence that it is today. That's how the Newton turned into the iPhone.
So the Church has products. But the products aren't what we tell people about. Or at least maybe we shouldn't. Jesus is what we tell people about. Or what we should tell people about.
Here's my proposition: Jesus isn't the Church's product. To say that he is would be to commit heresy. But, our perception and portrayal of Jesus IS a product of the Church. And sometimes, that is messed up. So perhaps we need to examine how we are portraying both Jesus and ourselves to the world. If we can re imagine a better way to be the Church and the body of Christ, we could score big. Maybe then evangelism would be what it needs to be. Maybe then disciples would be created instead of just church attendees. Maybe then people would fall in love with Jesus through the Church instead of falling in love with the music.
Of course the Church has products. If it didn't, it wouldn't contribute to the world. That would be a shame.
Evangelism is the key to the Church's growth. Proper evangelism comes from discipleship. All these things take care of each other. We ought to be more aware of how progression in culture effects us and what we can glean from it in order to better ourselves. The Church is a God-ordained body that exists to spread his name and glory so that more may grow in their pursuit of Christ-like life and perfection. But it is made up of imperfect humans that try their best. Sometimes, we just have to be realistic and trust that God will work through our imperfect products.
P.S. - I've had the opportunity to help start two churches now from scratch. We talk about marketing in a live or die fashion. These churches cannot exist without people knowing about them. Word of mouth is great (and the best form of spreading the news) but sometimes isn't enough. We aren't looking to be huge, we aren't looking to be a mega-church, we are looking to survive. Many who have argued against me (though admittedly not all) have not started a church from scratch. I would highly recommend that those who have not had that opportunity, need to have it. It is an important experience full of highs and lows. For those who think they know the "right path", it is a nice reality check.