A Social Experiment

In April of 2009 a young entrepreneur from Grand Rapids, Rick DeVos, announced what he called a “social experiment.”  He was going to sponsor a public art show that fall with the world’s largest prize of $250,000.  This social experiment was radically different, however, in that the 3 week show was open to anyone in the world who wanted to enter, any property owner in downtown Grand Rapids could volunteer to become a venue for the art, and there were no professional jurors.  Anyone could register online to vote for their top 10 favorite works and then the winner.

The third ArtPrizeended yesterday.  146 venues hosted 1,586 artists.  33,858 people cast 383,106 votes in 2 rounds, with the top prize going to Mia Tavonatti’s stained glass mosaic, Crucifixion.  Having lived in Grand Rapids for the past 18 years, I was amazed and gratified to see the packed downtown streets alive with energy and enthusiasm. 

What caught my attention in this year’s ArtPrize, however, was the firestorm of criticism unleashed when the top 10 vote getters were announced.  Some in the art world claimed that the public was selecting works of art that appealed to the masses but were amateurish and without aesthetic merit.  Following last Thursday’s announcement of the winner Rick DeVos said, “ArtPrize is not about who wins.  It’s about organizing an event that gets people talking and thinking about art.” 

I suspect that the average ArtPrize voter is like me, untrained as an artist, unaware of the nuances of style and quality, and attracted to works that touch my heart more than my mind.  The social experiment, then, becomes the creative interface between the professional art establishment and the general public as we dialogue together about what constitutes legitimate art. 

The day before the ArtPrize winner was announced Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, died of pancreatic cancer at age 56.  It is impossible to describe the impact that this innovator, outlier, and extraordinary leader had on our world.  In 1976 21 year old Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and 2 other men started Apple Computer Inc., with Jobs and Wozniak building the first commercial Apple computer in Jobs’ parents’ garage.  The next year Apple II was introduced, becoming an immediate hit, and the computer age for the common person was inaugurated.   

After having been fired from Apple in 1985, Jobs came back 11 years later, and one social experiment after another experienced phenomenal success   Jobs’ genius produced the iMac (1998), iPod (2001), iTunes (2003), iPhone (2007), App Store (2008), and iPad (2010).  I finally bit the bullet this summer, bought an iPad, and am going to put The United Methodist Book of Discipline 2008 on it.  Some of our pastors are now using iPads during worship for reading scripture and sermon notes.  Did you know that this summer Apple listed more cash reserves than the U.S. Treasury? 

Steve Jobs was revered the world over because he had the courage and vision to begin Apple as a social experiment.  Jobs always started with customer experience, asking where he could take the customer and then moving backward to technology.  He envisioned technology that people didn’t even know they needed, and after purchasing an Apple product, they didn’t know how they survived without it. 

Jobs exemplified the creative interface between the personal and relational power of technology.  Apple products not only fed our thirst for information but opened the door to the possibility of a truly global community.  Our ability to immediately connect with anyone around the world has revolutionized every aspect of our 21st century lives.  Jobs once said, “Creativity is just connecting things.  When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.  It seemed obvious to them after a while.”

At the same time as Art Prize attracted several hundred thousand people to downtown Grand Rapids and the world was celebrating Steve Jobs’ legacy, yet another less noticed social experiment called Hands Across the City was taking place.   On a gorgeous October Saturday 130 children, youth, and adults from 14 United Methodist churches in the metropolitan Grand Rapids area converged on one of our grand old church buildings to transform it into a community center.  10 months ago historic Olivet UMC closed its doors because the aging congregation was unable to connect with the changing neighborhood.  Metropolitan United Methodist Ministries of Grand Rapids took ownership of the building and renamed it Hope Center, which includes our Hispanic/Latino congregation, La Nueva Esperanza (New Hope) UMC, a home repair ministry called GRASP, and numerous other outreach ministries. 

130 people literally became hands across the city as they gave up 5 hours of their day to bring hope and beauty to an impoverished area of inner city Grand Rapids.

  • Joe and Jeanine patched cracks in the parking lot.  Joe needed community service hours for high school, and Jeanine said, “I believe in the mission of Hands Across the City.”
  • Terry said that he and his wife enjoy volunteering and serving the community.  They pulled stumps, cleared weeds, planted flowers, watered and mulched, and dumped a load of crushed stone on the driveway.
  • Dan and Tamara are active at La Nueva Esperanza UMC as well as their home church 15 miles away.  They are committed to a shared ministry among area United Methodist churches and remarked, “It’s great to be a connectional church, and we want others to experience how alive La Nueva Esperanza UMC is.”
  • Lea, Maria, Gabby, Bunny cleaned the kitchen.  Bunny was part of the original congregation that closed.  With tears in her eyes, Bunny remembered what used to be but expressed joy that the building and La Nueva Esperanza UMC were finally becoming a creative interface with the neighborhood.
  • Fiona, Joy, Greg, and Holly painted the walls of the church nursery by using bold blue and green colors and will eventually add waves, clouds, and rainbows. 
  • Dean used a pick-up truck to remove trash from alleys around the neighborhood of the church.  He found mattresses, knives, cow skulls, and other yucky, smelly stuff.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Dean’s experience found its way into his sermon the next day. 
  • Teens Annette, Heather, Zach, and Tiffany painted handicapped parking spots and used crack filler with the artistic flare of an ArtPrize entry.  They’d never been in this part of the city but remember when the pastor of La Nueva Esperanza and his son came to their church to sing. 
  • Robin, Ernie, Alex, and Brad came from 4 different churches and were perched on scaffolding as they painted the chancel area of the sanctuary. 
  • Don, who served as parking host, crew leader, and dishwasher, perhaps said it best, “It was a marvelous experience in so many ways – projects completed, a great lunch, good worship.  But it was the way that the folks came together that fed my soul.”

3 social experiments: ArtPrize, Apple, and Hands Across the City, conceived by visionary leaders who see what others don’t and strive to bring beauty, hope, understanding, and positive change to our world and its people.  Of course, the ultimate social experiment was conceived when God decided that the only way that we humans would know that the heart of God lies with the poor, the disenfranchised, the oppressed, and the lonely is by sending God’s own son to the earth to become one of us.  Jesus saved us not only by dying on a cross for our sins but by teaching us that we save our lives by losing them; that we lead by becoming servants; that we gain wisdom by being fools for Christ; that we witness by choosing not to conform to the ways of the world; that love conquers all; and that without a passion for social experiments and a vision for creating a world of shalom, we cannot bring in God’s kingdom on this earth.

Do you remember the original Apple “Think Different” commercial of 1997? 

Here’s to the crazy ones.  The misfits.  The rebels.  The troublemakers.
The round pegs in the square holes.  The ones who see things differently.
They’re not fond of rules.  And they have no respect for the status quo.
You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them.
About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them.
Because they change things.  They push the human race forward.
And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.
Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world,
are the ones who do.

Steve Jobs was talking about Apple.  But he could just as well have been talking about Rick DeVos of ArtPrize, those who planned Hands Across the City, or all those who call themselves disciples of Jesus Christ, for that matter.  God calls us to be crazy enough to think that we can change the world.  Because if we think we can, we will.


6 thoughts on “A Social Experiment

  1. The call of Christ on our lives is to some extent a call to be a visionary, and that takes courage and faith. It is heartening to see other examples and the fruit that came from those leaders. And we have the freedom (and some would say mandate) to lead inside our churches by the way we teach and grow disciples, as well as to lead in our communities by the way we interact with other churches, community leaders and the un-churched. It will only remain a lost and dying world if we miss our opportunity to bring Christ into it, alive and full of exciting ideas!

  2. OK, I get it… visionary, think outside the box, creative leadership, etc. On the other hand, Jobs was the consummate capitalist. Some have called him brash, arrogant and uncompromising. He’s filthy rich, well, he was, now he is just dead. In our society we revere the filthy rich, especially if they attain that wealth starting out in their own garage or basement. The Wall Street Journal ran a story just before Jobs’ death about the latest iteration of the IPhone and the challenge it presents for Apple. Their marketing division has to come up with a way to convince people to buy another phone that is really nothing new and barely an upgrade. In one sense Jobs, Gates, Wozniak, et al, made computing available to us all. In another sense they make a lot of money selling us the latest thing that we probably don’t really need or an operating system that works properly 80% of the time. I think a case can be made for them all being pretty cut throat in their practice of capitalism, too. They brought us into the computer age and defined us as consumers. Now as consumers we are in a hopelessly co-dependent relationship with them.

  3. To add to Bill’s comment, I think also we fail to see the negative impact of Apple’s production of these gadgets. On the domestic side, we laud Steve Jobs as if he single-handedly invented these objects. All the while I’m sure that many hands were involved, many of which will die without a mention or a multi-million dollar bonus check. We seem “ok” with this, because like Thomas Edison, we view the idea-gatherers as something to laud… not even as a necessary evil, because that would imply that there was wrongdoing. Take Thomas Edison, who exploited many many inventors, and our historic view of him. He is a hero. We never talk about how he stole ideas.

    If we take the view to a worldview, we quickly can find evidence that tech companies like Apple (and certainly others) have longstanding records of violating human rights in their manufacturing plants. Suicide rates at companies that make parts for iPhones are obscenely high. iPhone buyers are never made aware that Apple actually forces employees in their sweatshops to sign anti-suicide pledges in order to keep their jobs… that was Apple’s solution… not better conditions, or creating jobs in the US… nope, force a demoralized worker to promise not to off themselves.

    Apple also is lauded for having an incredibly large cash reserve. This is yet another example of a corporation hoarding vast amounts of capital in a country that is desperate for paying jobs (the US). I’m not a fan of capitalism, but in an economic system that relies on corporations to hire and employ domestic persons to succeed, companies like Apple put a halt to that system by hoarding resources and keeping it separate from the working class. This isn’t particularly a gold star for them either…

    So, that is my way of saying that, as Bill suggested, we should be careful how high we hold up these examples of greatness, because sometimes we ignore the more complex consequences of our heroes.

  4. Yes, I get it. I could not enter any of the examples of creativity that you mentioned, Laurie. I did enter another venue which keeps me away from the main stream of creativity ( and I do miss that arena).
    Now I am reminded that my attitude and criticism of myself, because I cannot reach the perfection I would set for myself, could use a tweak now and then. May the Artwork that I produce, the Caregiving that I create, the Love that I dispense enlarge my passion for Shalom in my neighborhood.

  5. Bill and Zach, thank you for your insightful comments about the shadow side of vision and leadership in relationship to Steve Jobs. I have never revered Jobs, yet I have admired his ability to think outside the box, push the limits of technology, and create works of a certain beauty and elegance.

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