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Microsoft Sermons

Over the past month or so, there has been a recurrent Microsoft ad that has been dominating commercial life on about all the channels. We’ve all seen it, here it is right below here, and it has found high visibility on almost all major viewing occasions.

The other day, I sent out a tweet that basically summarized my thoughts on this commercial:

This is a bad commercial if for no other reason that it is a stunning representation of the tremendous distance between Microsoft and Apple in terms of product placement, market capitalization, marketing strategy, and the market approach of Microsoft. Ironically in the ad, Apple comes out on top for the primary market segment that Microsoft is appealing to in the ad.

This is exactly the kind of ad that Apple would never make.

Of course this ad has been critiqued by far more engaged minds than mine. Suffice to say, the commercial fails to develop a case for the product against the thin criticisms (and outright misleading information) against its most potent competitor. Microsoft capitulates its own standing with a trite comparative ad that is easily dismissed because we all know the truth that is missing in their ad. Apple has a better product and the mocking claims are benign swipes by a displaced competitor.

The Microsoft ad parallels the attempts of many ministries in their quest to relate to culture by creating comparative illustrations or biting critiques in the form of media, clips, or other content that appropriate components of culture. In doing so they inadequately recreate culture, often capitulating entirely to the cultural form, that discredits their larger point. As this happens, particularly with younger generations, the audiences might be entertained by the correlation to a cultural form or style, but the opportunity to point out the exclusivity of the Gospel message within the biblical text can be missed.

As a result sermons, and worship services, are left confined to a particular cultural form that limits the ability of the communicator or the worship team to fully develop a biblical text. The cultural form dictates the limits of application for a biblical text and isolates the ability of exposit its full points.

This is not to say that using these kinds of mediums and media are never appropriate. There are most certainly times where they can be used and used to support a larger point. The challenge is when a cultural medium or aspect of media becomes the ultimate lens through which the biblical text is filtered. At that point the box is placed upon the biblical text and confined. This is a form, that while popular these days, is not sound homiletic practice.

Notice how Paul handles using a cultural form in Acts 17:

Acts 17:22   Then Paul stood in the middle of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that you are extremely religious in every respect.  23 For as I was passing through and observing the objects of your worship, I even found an altar on which was inscribed: 

  TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.

Therefore, what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.  24 The God who made the world and everything in it—He is Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in shrines made by hands. 25 Neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives everyone life and breath and all things. 26 From one man He has made every nationality to live over the whole earth and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live. 27 He did this so they might seek God, and perhaps they might reach out and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us. 28 For in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ 29 Being God’s offspring then, we shouldn’t think that the divine nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image fashioned by human art and imagination.

30   “Therefore, having overlookeda the times of ignorance, God now commands all people everywhere to repent,  31 because He has set a day when He is going to judge the world in righteousness by the Man He has appointed. He has provided proof of this to everyone by raising Him from the dead.”

As Paul is speaking to Gentile pagans (the truly unchurched) he places his challenge in a cultural form that they would immediately recognize. He also appropriates two forms, one present before them, and one that was, perhaps, a popular literary quotation. Yet Paul places these both within the bounds of his sermon and not his sermon within the bounds of his examples, or illustrations.

In the end the sermon draws on these forms for connection and then leverages for a redemptive point.

For Paul, understanding his context was a critical point of his sermons in Acts. The sermon to the Jews in  Acts 13 shows how Paul leverages Jewish cultural forms to make points of connection as opposed to the Gentile forms here in Acts 17. Yet in both places Paul is clear to ensure that his redemptive point is not clouded by the cultural form that connects with his audience.

Instead of crafting a sermon at that capitulates the redemptive Gospel narrative to the cultural form, Paul confines his use of cultural forms to allow the crucial redemptive point to stand on its own.

For too many of us who have attempted to use cultural forms, we have allowed them to cloud that larger point. By appropriately seeing the New Testament example of using illustrative material to bolster a point or make a connection instead of being the narrative upon which the biblical text is confined, we see the redemptive point of the Gospel is able to be expanded and not confined.

Just like with the Microsoft ad, our task as expositors is to move beyond the trite commonality of poorly framed points and allow the grand Gospel message to stand on its own.

Instead of lowering the biblical text to the cultural level, our job as faithful expositors is to allow it to remain elevated above the cultural milieu. Allow the cultural forms to support the biblical text, not the other way around.

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Objecting to the Obvious Reality

As I was taking a momentary break from another late, late night studying theological French for my competency exam, I hoped on Twitter. While scrolling through my timeline I saw a tweet from the venerable Michael Frost that quoted the title of a recent Fast Company piece: “In 20 Years, We’re All Going to Realize This Apple Ad is Nuts” written by Mark Wilson.

Wilson’s article is pointing out a recent commercial from the techno-cultural guru’s in Cupertino, California. Here it is:

The ad is startling and should provoke a broader conversation. However, the ad is also honest in capturing the encounter and experience so many of us are having with our mobile and computing devices. (As a disclaimer: I use the full array of Apple products for my work from iPhone, iPad, and MacBook Air…I like them.)

The opening lines, as Wilson points out in his piece, are compelling: “This is it. This is what matters. The experience of a product.”

The images in the ad, shown during Apple’s WWDC a couple of weeks ago, then show people, students, children, and adults engaging with their devices while disengaging from those around them. The experience of the device is the ultimate engagement for them.

Now, there are certainly people that will speak more profoundly about the socio-cultural implications of the ad. My point here is this: Apple is, in an almost mind-numbing display of honesty, stating the growing reality. We are moving from engaging with each other to engaging with devices.

More and more people are preferring electronic community over physical community. They are enjoying their shows or programs digitally and neglecting the communal aspect. How easy is it to load in a movie as you hope on your next plane ride and disappear from reality for the next two hours. As we grow more technologically rich we are becoming increasingly marginalized.

This trend has been growing for some time and it is most evident in tools like Facebook, Twitter, and other “social” media services. Individuals seem more open to discuss and engage in a virtual medium rather than in person.

For our churches the growth of mediums of marginalization, be they ecampuses or even certain forms of multi-sites, where a pastor is unknown to the people he ministers the Gospel to should give us pause. While internet campuses might provide an effective platform to keep families and individuals away for a week connected, we should be challenging those who rely on them week in and week out that there is no replacement for authentic community and Christian hospitality. Both of which are marks of New Testament ministry.

It is ecclesiologically challenging to think that electronic mediums could replace physical proximity.

Yet the challenge of encouraging and embracing physical community continues to grow. Groups numbers are dwindling across the board as is the frequency of attendance from week to week. No longer is a “connected” family or person seen as one who shows up nearly 4 times a month. Yet our call to make disciples still persists.

If we consider the cost of making true disciples the necessity of physical proximity becomes the primary focus initially. When one was following a rabbi at the turn of the first century, they were expected to be in the immediate presence of that leader. Though our technological advantages allow for continued disciple-making across large geographical differences, there is still the need of being personally and physically present with the one who is doing the disciple-making.

Ultimately, we must consider this: Apple’s ad is simply stating the obvious reality…growing personal disconnect. As followers of Christ, who hope to grow true disciples, perhaps our first, and most, counter-cultural step is to call believers into physical, personal, regular community sans electronic devices.

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