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.