What the Church Can Learn from the U2/Apple Mistake

Two days ago, Apple and U2 came together to upload U2’s new album free to its 500 million users. It magically showed up in our iTunes libraries, where all one had to do was download it from the Cloud. Despite the fact that I’m what easily could be called U2’s core audience, even I found this to be invasive. So I wasn’t surprised when it got immediate pushback. My brother and I laughed this morning about how this entire debacle is an indication of how old we are, because most people who tweeted about the matter had absolutely no idea who U2 was, and certainly didn’t want their album in their iTunes folders. (You can get an idea of the overall reaction from this New York Magazine article.) I wondered how U2 must feel about this: they just spent all this time and effort and gave 500 million people a free gift. How can that backfire?

I’ll tell you why. Because they didn’t stop to ask themselves if this was a gift anyone actually wanted. They simply assumed that people did. And they. were. wrong.

Churches are often guilty of making the same mistake. Well-intentioned, even generous acts are just plain misguided…especially with young people. Here’s why, and what churches can do instead:

Don’t assume you know what people want or need. Look, if this is true in healthy relationships, it’s definitely true in relation to total strangers. I can’t think of any one artist/band that literally everyone likes. I certainly know plenty of people who vehemently dislike U2. Those young people on Twitter don’t even know who U2 is, and they certainly didn’t want some gray-haired white guy deciding they should listen to them. If you’re a gray-haired white guy and you find that unfair, consider how you’d have felt if Apple decided to upload the new One Direction or Nicki Minaj album onto your phone without asking. Who knows, maybe you’d be tickled pink about that. AND THAT’S THE POINT. I don’t know you. I have no idea what music you want on your phone. You should be able to decide that yourself. Who died and made Tim Cook or Bono king?

Churches make this mistake so often. They assume they know what people want or need without ever taking the time to ask, or get to know them. They think that because what they’re offering is something they love and care about, something they believe everyone should have, it follows that everyone will then want to have it. It doesn’t work that way. It never has, and it never will. You can disagree with people for disregarding your message, but that still doesn’t change the fact that they have a right to do just that.

Don’t be patronizing. Apple/U2 not only assumed that everyone wanted U2’s new album. They also assumed that 500 million people weren’t capable of deciding how to get the album if they wanted it. What, we all of a sudden don’t know how iTunes works? We aren’t capable of downloading this ourselves? That is unbelievably offensive.

I actually think this might be one of the biggest turnoffs the church does. Time and again, we waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay underestimate the people in the pews. We don’t give them enough credit for being bright enough to follow what we’re saying, or know what to do with the information, or have input into what the church’s response to something should be. We are all too often helicopter pastors, rushing behind our congregants on the playground because we don’t think they can climb the steps by themselves. They absolutely can. And if they can’t yet, they sure won’t learn how if we’re doing all the work for them all the time or assuming they’re incapable. TRUST your people. Don’t coddle them.

Invite, don’t impose. In today’s society, you have to let your audience determine how much connection they want with you. Every last one of us is overwhelmed with requests for our attention and our time. If someone keeps shoving themselves in our faces unwarranted, we’re going to start shutting that person out, even if we originally were interested in what they had to say. When I first moved to Texas, we would get these multi-color, glossy/flashy big postcards in the mail all the time from this one church. I could not believe how much bulk mail they sent out. In addition to the fact that I found it to be terrible stewardship, it was also pushy. Even if I originally might have considered attending, the onslaught of in-your-face postcards was a turnoff. Today’s equivalent of that is the person on Twitter who tweets and retweets and retweets again until  you think you might punch them if they show up in your feed one. more. time.  I unfollow those people. I don’t want to be forced to hear from them every hour. In my estimation, young people have a much lower tolerance level for that kind of thing than people 35+. But all of us have a threshold.

There’s a fine line between letting people know what you’re doing, giving people an opportunity to stay connected and stay up to date, and spamming them with unwanted advances. Nobody wants to visit a church and get singled out as a guest. Literally. Nobody. I have never once run into someone who said they liked or appreciated that. And nobody wants to get called or emailed a bazillion times after they visit, either. This is an awkward analogy, but perhaps a good rule of thumb is to consider how you’d treat someone you’ve just started dating. Do you call or text them a million times? Uh, not if you don’t want to come across as desperate and/or pushy. Check in with people. Share far and wide what it is you’re up to and how people can get involved. Communicate who you are and what you care about and invite people to join in. And then leave them be. Let people decide for themselves IF they want to connect, and if they do, let them decide how often they want to hear from you.

I can tell you this much: very few people want you to show up uninvited. U2 is learning that lesson the hard way, and I fear it’ll tarnish their chances with the fans they hoped to gain.




  1. Great insights Danielle. Lots to think about here

  2. Thanks Christine! Hope you are well.

  3. Interesting article. I must admit I was surprised by this and that everyone seemed to have it but me. Turns out you need an iCloud account, and due to the small print I disagreed with it I never downloaded iCloud, so the music never got downloaded onto my phone or my computer. Feels kind of like the twilight zone, your suddenly the only one aware that a change has happened differently from the masses. Kinda scary. Question is now, do I regret it or not. This article is interesting just due to the forced upon items aspect. It wasn’t forced, everyone agreed to it when they signed the contract and made an account. Do people actually read the small print to see what they are getting into or are we just blindly accepting everything and then when something simple like this happens people react. Why would they be reacting and surprised if they read the small print that said this could happen. It was all right there… Perhaps we have gotten so use to people pushing us up the stairs, we have forgotten how to walk all together. It’s not till someone let’s go and something happens that you may or may not like that we react. My question then is… Why did you allow them to start pushing you up the stairs in the first place without asking where they were going? Most people when they are checking out a church try and read the details of each church and find out what they are really about. If we are so dutiful in trying to find the truth from the church, why would we not spend as much time finding out where these company’s are going with their plan to have access to our private information. Just a thought.

  4. Sarah, I really appreciated your insight. There’s a whole lot of pushing and patronizing going in the world – and sometimes we sign up for it unwittingly.

    I too, am one of the few who didn’t take the iCloud offer. I have too many clouds already.

  5. Unusual comparison

  6. Did I just wasted 5 minutes of my life? Wow, what a poor article not to mention it completely misses what the author is trying to say, or not to say? Good try though. I do have to say Sarah hit the mark, PEOPLE READ THE FINE PRINT, it will save you from having to write this complaints/need attention/leave me alone/i know how people feel about it/….

  7. Not to mention Apple spends millions in advertising, -send then your resume, I bet they will double sales with this insight- on the other hand churches do not spend millions in advertising campaigns, most of them base their advertising on personal relationship’s, yes maybe a little weird for people used to looking at the screen of a smartphone, bit it really have good reasons for it. I can cone up with many situations in which that same people we sometimes call annoying lend a helping hand.

  8. I think you’re right on track. Though I was glad to get the new U2 album! But then, I’m old!

  9. I think the mistake here is villainizing U2 for giving the album away. They did not give their product away. Apple bought their product for $100,000,000, and Apple gave it away. Also I would like to see how many humanitarian efforts they support with the proceeds. I don’t think there is a band in the world would turn down a deal like that, and very few that would even do anything good with the money. On a side note, I think its completely agrarius of Apple to do something like this. it’s wrong to invent negativity in a seemingly well meant gesture such as this. We have enough real things to be offended by like beheadings in Iraq and Syria, without making things up to be offended by. If you don’t like the gift, don’t take the gift. Besides as Doug said, they didn’t download it to your account, they put it in the cloud. It’s there if you want it. If not leave it alone.

  10. Wind you neck in ffs

  11. Very very true. Great insight and something for all of to think about. Now we need to find out WHAT THEY DO NEED AND WANT.

  12. Engaging comparison and analysis Danielle! This past week Fox premiered a new reality show called “Utopia.” It featured a diverse collection of subjects challenged with establishing an agrarian community over the coming year. One participant is a pastor who struggles profoundly with the habits of many of the others and who observes at one point “where I live everyone is a Christian.” I think many churches entertain an illusory confidence that they know what those in their community want…or at least what the forms fulfilling those wants ought to look like. Being disabused of those assumptions might not only open new relationships between church and community but within the church community itself.

  13. Nothing is for free, even salvation.

  14. Hello,

    Interesting POV. I had not thought of receiving a gift as an intrusion. I for one am glad to have the new album. I’m enjoying it and like most of U2’s music.


  15. Jedidiah SlabodaSeptember 13, 2014 at 12:56 pm

    The American church is also often guilty of rejecting, then watering down dangerous pop culture icons but way after the fact (cf. U2 invoking Joey Ramone) and looking really stupid.

  16. I disagree with your analogy. I think it’s more like the church you mentioned mailing you a bible. You didn’t ask for it, and if you don’t want it – toss it. It’s not like Apple/U2 are downloading tons of new songs every day/week, or contacting you to see if you like it, or want more, etc. It (like the aforementioned bible) is a one-time deal. Free if you want it. Reject it if you don’t.
    Personally, I was glad to get it (the album, not the bible :)

  17. I presume that the people who DON’T want the album in the I-Cloud or on their phones also know how to delete it.

  18. Pastor Leo CunninghamSeptember 14, 2014 at 6:25 am

    Parenting in the Digital Age:

    Alyssa: Dad, who is U2?
    Me: One of the greatest bands in history. Why?
    Alyssa: Dad, I think I bought an album in my sleep.
    Dad: What?!?!
    Alyssa: I went to bed it wasn’t on my iPhone. I woke up this morning and it was. I mean they are pretty good. I’ll keep the album. I just don’t think I heard of them.
    Me: (Singing a variety of U2) You know. The Edge? Bono?
    Alyssa: Bono?!? You mean the Irish guy trying to help people?
    Me: Yes.
    Alyssa: I guess I will keep it.
    Me: Google “U2” (I exit room sing more U2 songs)

  19. Poor article.

    Why are some people never happy about what apple does or doesn’t do? If you don’t want the album then delete it. Very simple.

    I’m pretty sure this act of random kindness wasn’t done to cause all the distress and upset, to people who write rubbish like this.

    Write about something that has a bit more meaning in life….. Or better still ….. Get a life!!!!

  20. This is so silly. I don’t understand the correlation or the complaints. Get over it!

  21. I really appreciate the insights about the church, but I gotta admit I do not understand the ire about the U2 album. I don’t think that they assumed that people all wanted the album, or that they didn’t know how to use iTunes. They just wanted to put it out there. If you don’t like it, don’t listen to it. If you don’t like how it looks in your music folder, delete it. We’ve all received gifts we don’t want before, I’m really not sure it qualifies as an insult. I fail to see how having a digital download that you might not want constitutes some huge offensive imposition, or that the time it takes to click “Delete” is some kind of hardship.

    And this is, of course, a minor point, because much of what you have to say about how the church conducts itself is very on point. I guess I’m just spewing this comment out there because the rage over a free album just perplexes me.

  22. Thanks for all of the comments, everyone. Some good points made. Tina, Ant and Carlos: I welcome your opinion and your disagreement, but I bet if you had taken 30 more seconds to write your comments, you could have done them in a far more charitable way. FYI I usually block all comments that don’t hold to a level of courtesy.

    To clarify, I’m not overly angry myself about getting their album. I was just pointing out that many, many people were, and I can see why. Let me try to use another analogy: if you came home, and there was a gift you didn’t expect or ask for sitting on your bed, would you not feel creeped out and a little violated? This isn’t your roommate or spouse or best friend we’re talking about. It’s from someone you may or may not know, and you may or may not like. Apple/U2 put an album on our personal phones. A GIFT would have been to leave it on our doorstep and let us open it and bring it inside if we so chose. I’m not sure having something foisted upon us can really constitute a gift. That was the point.

    However, I think Sarah made a great point: this is what the Cloud can do. We gave permission for this, and we (wrongly) assumed Apple would honor our privacy, because it always has been pretty stalwart about that. I, for one, will admit that I didn’t read the fine print, partly because I do have such trust in Apple. It’s unfortunate that they’ve lost some customer trust over this. You can argue about that if you want, but I didn’t create this backlash. I just commented on what I was seeing in the reaction. It’s fair. We own our phones. We don’t want anyone forcing things upon us. Forcing isn’t generous. It’s the difference between, “Hey, want a bite of my dessert?” and cramming a fork of cake in our mouths without asking us. I think it’s fair to be annoyed about that. I really do.

  23. wonderfully put–I am sharing this if you do not mind

  24. Interesting thoughts but I disagree with it being forced down our throats or intruding into our homes, unless iTunes is where you spend your life. I liken it more to a hospitality gift, I travel quite a bit and many times checking into hotels I walk into my room and find a welcome basket full of goodies. There are somethings in the basket I enjoy and others I give away sometimes to the Housekeeping along with a generous TIP. As it pertains to the church i have visited quite a few and the gesture of a starbucks card to visitors is nice even though many don’t drink coffee. They say thanks and give it away to someone who does. My parents always taught me that it is the gift that counts. And as for U2’s music having a house full of teens who appreciate a legendary band like them there were four downloads. It could have been worse it could have been a KANYE album hmmmmmm.

  25. That’s an interesting thought, Adam. I think you may have hit on something. Is your phone a bedroom or a hotel room? Maybe that determines whether you felt violated or not. Most young people who have a very symbiotic relationship with their phones. And those who don’t consider our phones an extension of ourselves (or, at least, haven’t for quite as long) didn’t feel as violated by it. IE, phones are some people’s bedrooms while they’re other people’s hotel rooms? (Of course, I still would put mine in the bedroom category. If it shares space with my contacts and emails and photos and calendar, that’s MY home. It’s not a generic hotel room that I’m just visiting.)

    Still, it’s a norm of behavior to have a gift in your hotel room, right? It’s not seen to be invasive. What Apple/U2 did crossed what many people perceived to be a line of privacy or permission. Maybe the issue is that we’ve got competing ideas of what’s allowed? Anyway, thanks for your thoughts. (And we can all be glad we didn’t get a Kanye album!)

  26. “Nobody wants to visit a church and get singled out as a guest. Literally. Nobody. ”

    I’m pretty sure that you used a word here that doesn’t mean what you think it means.

    “Literally” – in this case – seems to mean that there is absolutely, no, not one!, person who likes to be singled out as a guest when visiting a church.

    However, I’ve fielded annoyed – and some downright irate – emails and voicemails that criticized my church for doing exactly that. Not welcoming a guest as a guest by pointing out to the rest of the congregation that they were a guest.

    I think that the underlying key to this whole analogy is to “know your people.” Develop a relationship with people. Then you will know how to gift them, share with them a gift, and present a loving message to them.

  27. Michael MooreSeptember 16, 2014 at 3:10 pm

    Thanks for the insightful article. Heard about it via someone from my old Presbytery. You make some very good points. And for the record, I am listening to my newest album on iTunes as I type ;-)

  28. Great insight. I heard about the free album and thought–oh, that’s great. And then I saw it was already on my laptop and thought, “Yikes–that’s a little presumptuous.” I think a lot of churches have similar challenges in making assumptions about why my family is there, who were are, etc. without actually journeying with us or getting to know us.

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