Steve Jobs and the Goal of Preaching

Article
08.28.2014

The grind of preparing and delivering weekly sermons is a challenge for me in many ways, but the struggle to apply the text stands at the top of the list. At this point I’ve got more book learning than life experience. So, to borrow an image from Tim Keller, my preaching tends towards words that too rarely take on flesh. And the more obscure the passage, the more acute the problem.

About a year ago I was in the early weeks of a series on Hebrews, barreling towards those Melchizedek passages. And it was then that I received some help—at least on a conceptual level—from an unexpected source.

HOMILETICS CLASS WITH STEVE JOBS

A friend had loaned me a copy of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, a captivating read. I was especially struck by a passage where Jobs describes his product development strategy and its relationship to market research:

Some people say, ‘Give the customers what they want.’ But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, ‘If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, “A faster horse!”’ People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page. (567)

Job’s point is that it’s not enough to offer customers what they already think they need. He wanted Apple to be a transformational influence, which meant his goal was to expose and then meet needs and desires that customers didn’t realize they had. He was aiming at things that, in the minds and hearts of his customers, were “not yet on the page.”

With a little tweaking, I’ve found this Jobsian insight to be really helpful for pushing myself out of the realm of Bible trivia and into the realm of life transformation.

THE BIBLE DOESN’T JUST ADDRESS OUR NEEDS—IT DEFINES THEM

What makes Scripture glorious is the time-tested truth that it’s not only God-breathed but “profitable” (2 Tim. 3:16). Surely one step in helping our people see its profitability is to know our people well. We need to get in their lives and in their minds so we internalize their questions, empathize with their struggles, and then apply the gospel where they need to hear it in our time and place.

But there’s a danger here if we limit the goal of our preaching to so-called felt needs, those desires already “on the page.” If we limit our aim to these, we’ll be in trouble when we get to Melchizedek. In fact we’re not likely to get to Melchizedek at all. Not many of us serve people who wake up thinking that what they really need to get through the day is a dependable high priest, preferably one in the order of Melchizedek.

But if the Bible is God-breathed and profitable, a covenant document preserved in total for our good, then all of it stands over us with authority to define our true condition and diagnose our deepest needs. And if this is true, preaching that submits to the Bible’s priorities and seeks to meet the deepest needs of our hearers will address needs that are not yet on the page. Part of our job as bridge-builders is to help people get a taste of their needs as the Bible defines and meets them.

Ford knew his customers wanted faster horses, but what they “needed” was the Model T. Jobs knew customers wanted thinner flip phones to leave more room for carrying around their Palm Pilots, but they “needed” pocket-sized computers that make phone calls.

We know our people want advice on how to make relationships more stable, peaceful, and fulfilling—certainly an important need which the Bible richly addresses. But we know our people truly need something even more fundamental. We have broken the relationship at the core of our lives. So we need a priest, a mediator to bridge the gap and make peace. And what we really need is a priest like Melchizedek. We need one who not only knows us inside and out but one who won’t die and pass our case on to someone else.

To faithfully communicate the whole counsel of Scripture in all its diversity, we must labor to free our people from the tyranny of felt needs so they can see beauty and life-giving goodness even in textual obscurity. It will mean looking at every text and trusting that it meets a real need of your people, and that your goal is to explain it to them. This kind of application takes work and gets nowhere without the illuminating power of the Spirit in us and in our people. But this is our target. Guided by Scripture, we go after what’s not yet on the page.

By:
Matt McCullough

Matt McCullough is the pastor of Trinity Church in Nashville, Tennessee.