What The Church Can Learn From Apple

Imagine a world where Apple existed as a company but didn’t sell any products. Would they have achieved the same remarkable grasp on the imaginations and hearts of millions of people?

For years we’ve been having an interminable national conversation about “the cult of Apple”. It’s a story with legs. Bafflingly, members of the media still unironically refer to the “Apple faithful” as if unaware that nearly half of all smartphone users have an iPhone. To be fair to them, the devotion that Apple engendered back in the dark days when they weren’t the most successful company on the planet did have a religious flavor to it.

The experience of being part of a “community” of people who love using and talking about Apple products and the company will feel amusingly similar to anyone who’s been significantly involved in a faith community. Popular speakers and writers, their words eagerly anticipated. Endless discussions of mundane intricacies. The specialized vocabulary.

Some have suggested that these secular communities are attempts to fill the void left by lack of a faith community. That’s possibly broadly true. But if that’s the case, why are they so successful? Surely some technology company shouldn’t be able to compete with the sublime?

One might stop at explaining human nature, which always grasps for the easy, short-term bauble over more complicated long-term riches. That’s certainly a large part of it. But I think that there is a lesson that Christianity could learn from Apple’s example.

Product and Marketing

To paint in broad strokes, there are two pillars that Apple’s success rests on:

  • the products
  • the marketing

Apple makes great products, but other companies have made better. What’s enabled them to succeed on such a grand scale of late has been their intelligent marketing, which specializes in creating a direct connection to the heart and emotions of customers.

At the same time, all the great marketing in the world won’t make you as successful as Apple if what you’re selling doesn’t have an appropriate level of quality.

The Church, I believe, has some great products. The best, in fact.

What are we selling?

What are those products? Truth is one. Community is another. Depending on your tradition, Sacraments might also be available. Love is the flagship. It’s a rock solid lineup.

But a lot of the rhetoric I’ve heard over the past few days about “hate” has reminded me that just having that lineup is no guarantee of even moderate success.

Right now, the position we’re in is the position Apple would be in if they didn’t really bother much with marketing, but were happy to sit back and let their competitors do their marketing. Imagine how much you’d want to buy an iPhone if the only things you read about it were written by Samsung employees! This is precisely how the majority of the Western world hears the Christian viewpoint. So it’s not really surprising that in a lot of people’s minds the words “Christian” are synomous with the words “hatred and intolerance”.

If you bother to really understand where the doctrine and belief comes from and what it’s rooted in, you might still disagree, but at least you’ll understand that it comes from a place of love. But there is literally no incentive to do that when you could just read Gawker and the New York Times for a snappier (though heartily false) summing-up.

Read The Manual

I would humbly suggest that the progressive, anti-orthodox-Christianity slant of the liberal media is probably not going to change anytime soon. So what can we as Christians do (other than pray, of course, always the first and last resort)?

Two things spring to mind. The first should be basic, but sadly is far too uncommon. We need to read the instruction manual! That is, we need to know what it is our Church teaches. There are a lot of well-meaning Christians out there who either disagree with Church teaching through a lack of understanding, or merely find it impossible to articulate why they believe as they do.

We need not all become canon lawyers, but we should at least be able to explain and understand the main tenets of our belief. And when we hit upon something that we can’t explain (what is the point in intercession? why does God allow suffering?) we shouldn’t give up. You can certainly find the answer with just a little searching.

That’s something we can all work on individually. But in addition, I feel that those of us who have the ability have an obligation to work to promote the truth of the Church in a way that befits the times.

A Particular Niche

I can’t take credit for that as a new idea. But I think that there are many different levels at which this communication strategy needs to be revamped and revitalized.

If you look at Apple, a big impetus or drive behind the success of their online fanbase has been a loose collection of sites which have consistently repackaged the Apple brand in a way that’s even more palatable to their readers. It’s more palatable because these writers aren’t paid marketing firms, or Apple employees, they’re ostensibly just regular guys like you who love Apple. This is a particular niche of online writing that I’d enjoy seeing replicated in the Christian sphere, and that I’d like to be a part of, if I can. Like Goldilocks, I have quite specific requirements.

  • Not too corporate. Often an overweening drive to appear completely put-together, homogenous and professional can actually turn people off. There are lots of great Christian media campaigns and resources. This isn’t that.
  • Not too boring. Yes, there is a need to proclaim the truth clearly and comprehensively, but I don’t think that many people can engage for a very long time with the bare facts of doctrine. Where are the Christian sites with a bit of bite to them? (They’re out there, but passing sparse.) Far too many of the most trustworthy sites are ponderously academic in nature.
  • Not too insular. If you look at, for example, Catholic Twitter, you’ll notice that even on such a devolved medium it’s unnecessarily hard to break into. It’s a subculture! Even the slightest hint of mutual back-slapping will be antithetical to those new to the scene. (And seriously, it’s just great that you live in DC, but most of us don’t. Try and remember that.)

I realize that a list of things that I don’t like might not be the most helpful foundation, but here we are.

An Unofficial Imprimatur And Other Ideas

Perhaps this niche already exists, but it’s hard to find. The biggest issue that I’ve found in my quest to find solid Catholic writers online is that self-identification isn’t worth very much. Too often I find supposedly orthodox writers suddenly espousing some awkward belief in direct opposition to the Magisterium of the Church. It’s off-putting.

I’ve wondered for a while whether there might be some value to a kind of small visual imprimatur-like code which would allow people to very quickly determine the lines along which a writer’s beliefs lie. One small footer logo for someone 100% faithful to Church teaching. And a linked website that explains the symbol and has a list of writers displaying it. I’ve seen things like this in other spheres.

Or perhaps some kind of guild, or association of online writers. A Slack team with certain criteria for membership?

Color-coordinated jumpsuits?

I’d love to connect with other Christian writers, and I’m always in the market for good recommendations of sites to read. These are just some ideas. But if anything strikes your fancy, please drop me a line.

There’s a gap between the product and the customer, and maybe we can do better at filling it.