Gerardo Marti: Steve Jobs, patron saint of entrepreneurial church leaders

How Apple’s founder and products inspired a generation of church leaders who value creativity, technology and vision.

When the media announced the passing of Steve Jobs, my twitter feed quickly filled with condolences from fans and admirers to the man they all revered as an icon. Hashtags like “#iSad” and “#thankyousteve” -- even a tiny graphic of the Apple logo -- choked the network’s stream with a flood of posts coming in at nearly 10,000 tweets per second.

Among the tributes were those from evangelical church leaders who I have come to know over the years, and who spend a lot of time keeping in touch with consumer culture. For them, the gospel involves a missionary imperative to reach people in their everyday lives. They actively orient their ministries to “connect” with rhythms of mainstream culture. It was no surprise that within an hour of the announcement, these pastors and parachurch leaders had also posted their own brief, solemn tributes.

Over time I have seen how Steve Jobs became the patron saint of non-denominational church leaders who value creativity, technology and persistent vision. Jobs accomplished what few are able to do: connect with everyday lives, enrich people's aesthetics with evidence of beauty, and offer tools for exercising personal gifts and talent. Jobs had a single-minded vision for the varied media he designed, making complicated technology supremely accessible and -- more importantly -- desirable. People wanted what he had to sell. He promoted his own genius while striving to bring out the genius of others. And his dedication to his vision was a testimony to unrelenting pursuit of promoting personal standards in the service of others.

Many years ago a church leader showed me a business card from an Apple employee; the job title simply read, “Evangelist.” The card was produced at the beginning of the tech-boom. Visionary entrepreneurs and venture capitalists were fueling a gaggle of start-ups, all attempting to re-craft the world by re-engineering software and hardware. The era of the microcomputer, combined with the ubiquity of the internet and the spread of the smartphone, stimulated adventurous ideas and aggressive experimentation with alternative forms of organization. Cubicles came down and flat organizations with intense dedication to design reigned. Companies like Apple lived on passion and sacrifice. Yes, finances were always in the picture (everything worthwhile needs capital). These companies were not intended, however, to be greed-enhancing money-machines, but prophetic attempts to make the world a better place.

So, Apple employed “evangelists” to promote its aesthetically-enriching products, and many evangelical leaders gobbled them up, embraced the values that emanated from them (“I'm up to date!” “Aesthetics matters!”), using them to keep in touch with parishioners through email, text, websites, and soon, Facebook and Twitter. They used Apple products to form whole spiritual environments through carefully crafted worship playlists, nicely designed sermon slides, and visually attractive visitor materials. With no secretaries, paid staff or established facilities, Apple products allowed risk-taking, entrepreneurial church planters to pack up their messenger bags and go into the field. The MacBook became a mobile office. The iPod a backup worship band. Any coffee shop, any rented facility, or even a modest living room could transform into a site for making the ministry “happen.”

Apple was not a religious company, and Steve Jobs was not a Christian. But Jobs and the company he created inspired and equipped much of the entrepreneurial work done by seminary students and starting pastors who took their passion and channeled it through the sophisticated, yet supremely handy tools available to them, tools that largely came from one man accountable to no one, but himself and his public.

Gerardo Marti is L. Richardson King Associate Professor of Sociology at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina, and is author of "Hollywood Faith: Holiness, Prosperity, and Ambition in a Los Angeles Church,"  "A Mosaic of Believers: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic Church" and "Worship across the Racial Divide: Religious Music and the Multiracial Church" (forthcoming).