Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Avoiding the Microsoft Mistake

  • Dr. James Emery White

    James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theologyand culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he…

  • 2013 Aug 29

By now you may have heard that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer announced he will retire within the next year.  News of the pending resignation sent Microsoft stock soaring.

Why up instead of down?

The reason is simple: in September 2000, nine months after Bill Gates named Ballmer chief executive, Microsoft was worth $642 billion, a figure that wouldn’t be topped until Apple eclipsed it in August of last year.  But as the NASDAQ imploded, Microsoft fell hard, and leveled out.

And then stayed at that level.

As Derek Thompson observed in The Atlantic, Ballmer didn’t fail because of an obvious product flop or some famous design snafu.  Instead, he failed because he inherited a company whose success relied on desktop computers.

And what’s wrong with that?

Nothing, except he failed to anticipate “the simplest and most important shift in his business, which is that people were taking computers off their desks.”  Or as Jacobs summarizes his analysis, Ballmer’s tenure “will probably be judged by the things he didn’t make and the big picture he didn’t see.  Microsoft used to be huge, and then the computers got small.”

As Steve Henn at NPR has reported, others have been less kind:

“People roll their eyes when you say Microsoft’s name.”

“It’s the last century’s tech company.”

“Your grandmother’s tech firm.”

Microsoft is still a rich company.  And a huge company.  And a well-run company.  It’s just becoming an increasingly irrelevant company.

Today, Ballmer’s would-be competitors, such as Google and Apple, hardly even consider him worthy competition.  As Google Chairman Eric Schmidt remarked, “they haven’t been able to bring state-of-the-art products into the fields we’re talking about.”

Translation: they aren’t really players anymore.

To my thinking, the parallels to the churches and their leaders are compelling.  Any church, no matter how successful during a particular era of ministry, can make the Microsoft mistake.

And when I say “the Microsoft mistake,” I don’t mean resting on your laurels, though Microsoft obviously did just that.  And I don’t mean a habit of being a late adapter, though Henn observes that Microsoft “missed the boat on search.  It missed mobile.  Its core business model of selling software is being attacked by companies that offer much cheaper services that run in the cloud.”

No, the biggest mistake of all is more foundational.

Microsoft forgot what business it was in.

For the last ten years, Microsoft has acted as if its business is PCs and Windows operating software.  It’s not.  Those are products.  Their business was what the personal computer revolution promised: more convenience, more information, and a better life through what technology can afford, whether it’s the internet or the microchip.

I’ll say it again:  They didn’t understand what business they were in.

Churches can make the same mistake.

Are you in the Sunday School business, or the discipleship business?

Are you in the door-to-door visitation business, or the evangelism business?

Are you in the hymnbook and organ business, or the worship business?

Are you in the small group business, or the “one-anothers” community business?

Are you in the multi-site business, or the Great Commission business?

Please, don’t get sidetracked by my use of the word “business,” much less the business analogies.  I know the weakness and fallacy of wooden “church to business” analogies and applications.

Just let the larger point sink in.

The church is not about programs, but a purpose.

The church is not about methods, but a mission.

The church is not about a particular strategy, but a very particular Savior.

So don’t get seduced into thinking that avoiding the Microsoft mistake is to jump on the latest bandwagon.  It’s not about going multi-site, ditching the choir for drums, using an iPad for your message notes, or losing the tie for a tee.

It’s not even skinny jeans and a tattoo.

It’s about knowing your foundational mission, vision and values, and holding all tactics and strategies, programs and methods, loosely.  It’s about liberating yourself to think outside of the box, bound only to the values and teachings of Scripture and the moon-shot of the Great Commission.

So no wonder that Microsoft stock soared.

It’s one purpose-clear leader away from being Microsoft


James Emery White



“Why Steve Ballmer Failed,” Derek Thompson, The Atlantic, August 23, 2013, read online.

“Three Tips For Microsoft's Next CEO,” Steve Henn, National Public Radio, August 23, 2013, read online.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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