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: 


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.


Watch What We Say: Marketing Methodology

Recently I had a conversation about the nature of church communications. One of the challenges a lot of churches face in communicating is that we are all stuck in communications overload. We have about 10 to 15 things to tell people every Sunday, plus whatever makes it into the worship guide and then our groups announcements. Realistically folks attending might hear or see nearly 20 different ads for their attention.

Does this bother them? Probably not. We’ve all been in a multichannel advertising environment for decades now and we can shut it off pretty easily.

Does this help us? Probably not.

Organizations that operate at high functionality have a tendency to be able to identify the primary points that need to be said, focus their message, and articulate with excellence.

Lots of churches don’t do this well. We settle back into an institutional model of communication where all of our ministries are fighting for time and recognition. As a result, we end up overcommunicating and the people we’re trying to connect with the most just don’t hear us.

In this conversation we ended up talking about the two primary channels we have to communicate through on Sundays. We have the “Insiders” and the “Outsiders” communication channels. So we looked at a couple of our major communication pieces that lead to Sunday morning. (Honestly, the Sunday morning challenge is deserving of an entirely different conversation.) My question in this conversation ended up being, why are we pushing our insiders to the outsiders channel to get all their info. If we have a social networking tool, why not push our insiders into this venue to get their information. Where there is reduplication of events or information, we can use a common medium. However, if we want to step up our communication level, why not use the appropriate channels and draw people into anticipating our communication through their appropriate channels.

Outsiders are going to be attracted to using whatever channel we give them or validate for them. They’re outsiders, they don’t know any different. They don’t know our culture and that’s good. Use that knowledge and leverage it. But our insiders know enough about us to anticipate our inadequacy of communication. This is where the “re-education” (not in the Maoist sense here) comes in.

By taking our insiders through their own channel, reinforced by social media and (perhaps most importantly) consistent platform validation, they will grow accustomed to anticipating their information comes through their specific channel. The challenge for the church staff is differentiating the channels and being zealots for sticking to our guns when staff members get their noses bent out of shape. Of course part and parcel to this is recognizing and classifying events according to their role within our larger assimilation framework. Not everything is a front door event (which is for outsiders.)

I think the hardest thing a church has to do as it grows (or any organization) is helping its communication process evolve along with its growth. How you communicate to 500 people is different than how to communicate to 5000.

So, how do you use channels for communicating appropriately? What are some of the challenges you’re facing in communicating consistently to your insiders and outsiders?

May 2013