Archives For Communication

A social media infographic

Once the church website is up and running, I’ll be putting some more thought into how we use social media. I’m also toying with turning some old blog posts, some other bits and pieces, and my masters project, into a social media ebook.

This is a handy infographic. Because it’s a visual reminder that using the right content on the right platform is important.

framed-visualstorytelling-e1361895487860

Via Churchmag, from M Booth.

I find myself in need of some people who can give constructive feedback on something new and exciting.

If that’s not you, then feel free to go back a couple of posts for some hilarious goats.

If it is you, we’re a couple of days away from launching a new website at Creek Road – this has been a labour of love for a few of us for a month or so – including a pretty handy web developer who can do just about anything, a writer or two, and some talented graphics types, and we’re now so caught up in it that it’s very hard to be objective. If you want to check it out, and let me know what you think in the comments here – that’d be great. I’ll update this post with a link to the actual site when it goes live too… I’m hopeful it does what we wanted it to do, and I’m also hopeful that with a little bit more work we’ll be able to turn what we’ve done into something that can be used as a WordPress theme by other churches without too much trouble.

Our big aim is for the website to be something that’s aimed at people who aren’t from a church background, so we want the gospel to be the focus, and to be pretty clear. If you find any unhelpfully complex jargon I’d love to know that too.

There are a couple of things that aren’t exactly what I want them to be – when you hit the link for more posts the alignment goes funny – but that’s the nature of pinboard type sites. I’m hoping to replace some of the wordiness with videos, but words do better things with search engines…

Creek Road Website

Book Review: Saving Eutychus

Disclaimer/Disclosure statement: The authors of this book are people I know well. One is the principal of the college I study at, Queensland Theological College. The second, if the review process could be any more daunting and personal – is my father. The advice in his chapters is advice I’ve grown up hearing, and seeing applied – though I haven’t been a member of a church that Dad has preached at for 8 years. I received early chapters of this book to proof read, and I didn’t do a very good job of that. I read them. But they seemed fine to me. The book also contains the following paragraph…

Phil and Louise are the parents of four adult children— Nathan, Jo, Maddie and Susie—and they are now learning the art of grandparenting (even though they insist they’re much too young). Nathan’s popular blog www.st-eutychus.com inspired the title of this book.

Which is nice – because as Gary was keen to point out – I don’t really own the copyright on Eutychus…

You can, in the absence of the book actually being released, check out some sample chapters and stuff on savingeutychus.com.


 

The Review

The disclosure should make it obvious that I’m going to have a hard time being objective here – I’m also going to have a hard time coming at this book as though half the chapters are at all novel. This isn’t new to me. It’s bread and butter. It’s how I’ve been taught to preach from my first talk, to a youth group, when I was 16. In many senses it’s how I was taught to write. It’s also how I’ve been taught to preach at college. I think it’s a good model. It meshes with what I know about communication from my profession.

One of the first things you notice about this book, appropriately, is the number of, and caliber of, the guys endorsing the book.

I could tell you this will revolutionise your preaching – but really I have no idea what it looks like to not have some of these tips running through my head, so instead, I’ll focus on some of the bits that I really liked, and let you read it and make up your mind for yourselves when it comes out.

There’s a nice humility underpinning the approach of this book – from confessions about being naturally boring, to constant reminders that preaching isn’t about us. In fact, the very message of the book takes most of the emphasis on the preacher out of the mix, except for this fundamental responsibility at the heart of the book…

“Gary and I are not approaching this book as experts on preaching that keeps people awake. But we are convinced that when attention wanders and eyes droop, it’s more often our fault than our listeners’.”…

Saving Eutychus doesn’t just mean keeping him awake. It also means doing our best to keep him fresh and alert so he can hear the truth of the gospel and be saved. If we have done our job, we will stand up on Sunday ready to deliver a sermon on a Bible passage that we have wrestled with and that the Holy Spirit has begun to apply to our own hearts and lives.

Preaching is God’s work, and any authority the preacher wields comes from the text of the Bible. It’s a nice reminder that no matter how charismatic our personalities are, no matter how engaging and witty we can be as we speak – preaching is ultimately reveals God, points people to Jesus, and relies on the Spirit to be hammered home.

Gary’s answer to this dilemma is prayer.

“Gradually, we seem to be losing sight of the fact that God uses weak and sinful people, and that he uses them only by grace. Yes, we may sow, plant and water—but only God gives growth. That’s true in your local church and mine. It’s also true of every podcast and ebook and conference address under the sun. God doesn’t use people because they are gifted. He uses people (even preachers) because he is gracious. Do we actually believe that? If we do believe it, then we will pray— we will pray before we speak, and we will pray for others before they speak. It’s that simple.”

One of the nice things about the book is how honest both authors are about their own struggles in preaching – and their own lives in pastoral ministry that is preaching driven. There are excerpts from real, recent, sermons, to support some of the practical tips, and plenty of rubber hitting road anecdotes to illustrate how each chapter might be applied.

The chapters are relatively evenly split – Gary does the “theology” stuff, Dad does the practical, but the dichotomy isn’t carried out cleanly the whole way through – both are free to enter the other’s turf, so Dad is “theological” when it comes to how you think of the big idea, and Gary is practical when it comes to how you make real changes in the light of some theological insights.

Dad’s bits are shaped by years of trying to communicate better, driven by a gospel motivated (and personality motivated) perfectionism that I’ve inherited in certain areas – his chapters are the result of constantly assessing what you’re doing and questioning why you do it that way, and how you can make it work better, and be less painful, for your listener. Gary’s bits, are, as you’d expect if you know him, thoroughly Trinitarian, almost devotional (in a refreshing way and substantial way), reference Jonathan Edwards a few times, and are laced with really nice insights that’ll challenge the way you think about church – not just preaching, in a section on encouraging your whole church to pray for preaching he drops this Hanselesque breadcrumb:

“The growth of home groups is, I think, a really good thing, but it doesn’t come without a cost. In my experience, the cost is that the ‘prayer’ part of the home group is always weaker than the study part. The net result is that we pray more for my Aunt Nelly’s next-door neighbour’s friend’s daughter than we do for the proclamation of the message of Jesus. (And it’s not that my Aunt Nelly’s next- door neighbour’s friend’s daughter doesn’t need prayer—I’m arguing for both/and rather than either/or.) So, again, it’s just worth checking—is there a dedicated time during the week when people gather specifically to pray for our core business?”

I’ve been part of bible studies at five churches now, and I’m thankful for the way each have taught me to read the Bible and apply it to my life, but this rings a bit true – normally it’s the newest Christians who are the most passionate prayers when it comes to the core business of spreading the gospel.

Gary spends some time on the dangers of manipulation, and while it’s a really valuable reminder – I’m left wondering where “persuading” – openly, rather than underhandedly (manipulation) fits, but no matter how the cake is baked – the conclusion is worth eating…

“The key to preaching, then, is to make the message of the text obvious. Help people to see it and feel it. Help people to understand the text. Paul is talking about what I would call ‘expository preaching’, in which the message of the text is the message of the sermon.”

But this is a great way of making sure the authority of a sermon is resting in the right place – God’s revealed word.

One of my favourite bits of preaching advice from Gary is this, as a rookie preacher it has been really helpful for me thinking through what I think the “big idea” of a bit of the Bible is and how I might frame it appropriately.

“Expository preaching happens when the message of the text = the message of the sermon. Or perhaps better, expository preaching happens when the vibe of the passage = the vibe of the sermon.”

I could go through this book and keep cherry picking out the bits I like, but that might mean you won’t buy the book, and while my inheritance isn’t riding on it, you know, there’s enough self-interest there on my part to want you to buy it, as well as the belief that the book is really helpful – because it’s hard not to be if you think this is the goal of preaching:

This approach ensures that your preaching will be both predictable and unpredictable. It will be predictable in the same way that the Bible is predictable. At the core of our preaching will be the same message—what God has already done for us in the Lord Jesus Christ.

His chapter that covers doing this well from the Old Testament has been helpful for me, in lecture and chapel sermon form, and it’s nice to have it fleshed out more than I might have managed in blog post form in the past. The chapter includes a really helpful discussion of Biblical Theology and “trajectories” that link the Old Testament to Jesus, to the New Testament, to us…

The book’s format is helpful – chapters contain nice chunks of supporting material, be it passages from the Bible, passages from sermons, anecdotes, or helpful theological and pastoral reflections, and they’re rounded out with nice practical tips, lists, and summaries to help you remember and apply. The conversational tone between Gary and Dad within the chapters (they share a pulpit at Mitchelton and have had a chance to see each other in action for the last year) means the switch between voices is natural rather than jarring, they play nicely off each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

It’s interesting for me how many of Dad’s tips are very similar to how good corporate communication happens – it needs to be clear, as geared to your medium, as concise as possible, repeat your key messages, be based on some sort of authority (data in my case, the text when it comes to preaching), and for people to listen it needs to be about people.

“Take a look at the front page of a newspaper sometime. Are interest rates rising? Then you’re almost sure to see a photograph of an affected family. Graphs and statistics can come later. The journalist’s rule is this: if there are no people, there’s no story. So populate your preaching with real people. Use people-based illustrations and people-based application. Where you can, talk about real people and real situations, instead of just talking about abstract ideas. Typically, I’ll scour the newspaper, internet news sources and TV for fresh material. Incredibly, there always seems to be something useful. Of course, if the story involves a member of your congregation then you’ll need to ask permission first.”

This paragraph from Dad comes with a very important caveat in the footnotes:

“In fact, even if it’s about one of your kids make sure you ask permission first! Being a pastor’s kid carries enough baggage without growing up in church where everyone can recite the ‘cute stories’ of your childhood.”

I’ve found this has been incredibly true in the age of the Internet and a “digital shadow” – when my mother-in-law googled me when I started dating Robyn, she found a bit of one of Dad’s sermons that opened “Nathan Campbell has lost his shoes”…

The book covers stuff like pulling a text apart, spoken delivery, receiving critique, putting a talk together – which includes something like a Director’s Cut/commentary version of the sermon manuscript from one of Dad’s recent sermons on Acts. And then, to finish off nicely, there’s a sample critique from Dad, and from Gary on a each other’s real sermons.

I really liked this book, I obviously heartily endorse it, and you should buy at least three. As I was reading it I was pretty thankful – thankful that I’ve been shaped the way I have by a father who wants people to know the ultimate father, shaped to love the gospel of Jesus, and want people to hear it unhindered, and hopefully shaped to be self-aware of my myriad faults and my constant desire to make preaching all about me. This book is a useful reminder for me in that ongoing challenge. And it makes me thankful that in the last few years I’ve been taught at a college by guys of Gary’s caliber (and the caliber of the other members of faculty). I have much to be thankful for, especially the gospel, and the privilege of being a fellow worker in the ministry of the gospel, as a preacher with training wheels on. There’s that old saying about new generations standing on the shoulders and I’ve never felt that more tangibly than when I read a book that spells out so clearly what I’ve been blessed to assume as natural by guys I know. But as impressive as I think those guys are, and as thankful as I am for both of them, it’s the gospel that’s really impressive and powerful to change hearts, not them, not me – but the God who revealed himself in Jesus and his word, who changes us by his Spirit.

John Dickson on #qanda

I’m thankful Australian Christianity has spokespeople who don’t play the stupid combative game that Q&A seems to thrive on. John Dickson continued in Peter Jensen’s fine tradition (not Pell’s so much, thankfully).

science plus Jesus

Image Credit: Australian Christian News

I really appreciated his willingness to charitably cede points, and agree with others on the panel in order to make the most important point, and to push on despite being interrupted to get his key message across. This is a paraphrase, I only started typing what he was saying about halfway through… but I thought this bit was the highlight. The transcript is now available, and I’ve included some other highlights below.

“you’ve got to ask yourself the question: is there any evidence on the world stage that this God we think is maybe just a mind has touched the earth in a tangible way? And for me, if you are asking me why do I think there’s a God, it’s this philosophy of science, plus the life of Jesus.”

There were some great #qanda tweets on screen tonight too that indicated Dickson’s approach, and the substance of his answers, was appreciated by the non-Christians in the audience.

I’m sure others are going to be more or less excited about his treatment of science – but historically, there’s little doubt that science arose on the back of a Christian desire to know more about God’s creation, so there is something nice about not tossing science under the bus while acknowledging that it is a movable feast – a point Krauss made very strongly over and over again – science isn’t set in stone, it’s an ongoing discussion of the evidence, and what Dickson demonstrated is that a robust Christian faith has nothing to fear from science – because it’s all about Jesus, and understanding how the Bible relates to the God who created the world reaching out to touch it in the person, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

It’s worth pointing out that while Dickson accepted a truckload of science that some Christians might be unhappy with – including stuff about the age of the earth and evolution – he wasn’t asked about the historicity of Adam, which is where a lot of the theological weight in the debate rests – he also didn’t say anything disputable about the content of Genesis 1-2, what might be in dispute is what to do with his genre observations… and being honest about the history, intentions, usefulness, and limitations of science while being clear about who Jesus is, in a program that was trending worldwide on Twitter, is, I think, a win. The program format limits the panelists’ ability to come back and clarify or expand on the points they make – so while I’ve read a bunch of people throwing rocks at Dickson, on Twitter, in the comments here, etc – I think you’ve got to take the format into account.

Here were some bits from Dickson that I thought were just stellar…

“I agree with almost everything Lawrence just said actually except I would beg to differ about whether science can actually produce an ethic. I think human beings produce an ethic and we decide whether to use science positively or negatively according to our world view and history is littered with examples of science being used brilliantly, ethically so, and times when it’s used badly. I disagree that science has any ethical import. It’s a neutral discipline and it’s a wonderful discipline. The little quips that I heard throughout about science is all about humility and so on I love. In fact Peter Harrison of Oxford University, who is one of the world’s leading historians of science, thinks that it was a revolution in this doctrine of humility that flourished in the 14th and 15th centuries that got science going in Europe in part. It’s not a total explanation but that as Augustine philosophy developed, which basically said human beings are flawed so we need better techniques. We can’t trust our brains. We need to observe, and this Augustinian philosophy grew out of Christianity, as you know, and so Christianity probably is, in part, responsible for science in the first place. I agree that it shouldn’t stick its head in now and tell the scientists what to do. My view is let the scientists do the science. My view is let the scientists do the science and let religious believers do what they do.”

This bit (Family First can learn from this one)…

“The only thing I want to pick up Lawrence with is to say to call it child abuse, to me there are two problems with this. One, it so inflames the conversation and I think the new atheism breeds of this kind of inflamed kind of conversation. The second thing I find very uncomfortable about it is that anyone in the audience who has actually been abused finds that a very odd use of that very loaded term. I know you don’t mean it like that but it’s like someone saying “Oh, that’s a holocaust”. There is one holocaust.”

This was the absolute gold.

JOHN DICKSON: “We live in a universe that operates according to these elegant, beautiful laws and when I read your book this week I was more convinced that that’s the case. And this universe, operating according to these elegant laws, has produced minds that now understand the laws, especially this mind next to us. And so this, to me, all looks and this is not a proof for God but I’m just saying why a lot of people think the God thing has a lot going for it, the whole thing looks rational. The whole thing looks set up to be known. Now, only known in a rational, like the God of Einstein, so then you’ve got to ask yourself the question: is there any evidence on the world stage that this God we think is maybe just a mind has touched the earth in a tangible way? And for me, if you are asking me why do I think there’s a God, it’s this philosophy of science, plus the life of Jesus.

LAWRENCE KRAUSS: Well, yeah, but hold on. There was a bait and switch there that I object to and that was that…

JOHN DICKSON: Can I get to the end of the bait?

LAWRENCE KRAUSS: Well, you said Jesus and then you started going off and we were no longer – okay.

JOHN DICKSON: So what I’m saying is you ask yourself the question: is there any tangible thing in the history of the world that looks like contact from the God we suspect might be there? The overwhelming – I think overwhelming evidence points in the direction of Jesus, his life, his teaching and his healings, his death and resurrection. And when I come to believe that, this opens up the world to me. It is like CS Lewis saying “I believe in Christianity for the same reason I believe in the sun, not because I can look at it but because by it I see everything”. And, for me, Christianity explains the world I live in in such a spooky and deep way that I find I feel I have met the God I had a hunch was there based only on the beautiful elegant (indistinct)…

TONY JONES: Okay. All right. So now we’ve moved into the – I was going to say I would like Lawrence to respond to that. We have moved into the area of intuition now and perhaps…

JOHN DICKSON: And history.”

I barely watch Q&A anymore – five panelists is far too many. Tonight would have been sensational had it just been Krauss and Dickson, the others (as much as I like Tanya Plibersek) added nothing to the discussion, and there were too many times where misunderstandings were glossed over and not resolved in order for the pollies to get their bits about climate change in.

Did you catch it? What’d you think?

Continuing this little series on building a new church website I thought I’d go through a little bit of how to fill your outsider focused site, designed with the modern web consumer in mind, once you’ve found, or defined, your voice.

This takes two separate but related bits of thinking: A content strategy and a content schedule. It’s quite possible that the thinking you put into your web based content strategy and content schedule will actually double as your communication strategy and your communication plan which will cover how you communicate offline as well. This is a good, and mostly necessary, step. But I’m jumping right into the latter, because that’s what I’m working on right now, and knowing that in our case, the teaching plan for the year at church is well and truly bedded down. If you’re just starting with a web content strategy, that’s fine, but it might feel like cart before horse stuff.

The step after this, which depends on having content is your distribution strategy, and somewhat relatedly, what to do with comments and discussion about your content. That can get its own, subsequent, post, but you should read this study about the impact of comments on the web in the meantime.

Your content strategy (and a bit about information architecture)

There are a few ways to approach the question of what content you’re going to put on your site, and a few style type decisions you’re going to have to make in the process. The first is choosing whether you’re building a static site (where the content is fixed, and a schedule might involve a periodic update – this is the easiest option), a dynamic site (a site where new content is generated in a steady stream, where a schedule is really important, or the stream will stagnate – this option is the most work), or a site with a mix of static and dynamic elements.

You could, I reckon, mount an argument by analogy from the nature of God’s interactions with creation that the last is the best. If you’re familiar with deism – the idea that God set up the world and then walked away – the static site is the deistic option. Set it up. Forget it. It’ll point to the existence of your church, but won’t really help people know it beyond whatever content they can observe from a very small amount of evidence. The purely dynamic site is more like open theism – this is a simplification of open theism – but there’s nothing concrete. Everything changes. According to the whims of the webmaster. There’s not really much consistency and nobody really knows what to expect. The mixed site – which I like the best – involves a well thought out creation, that is good and purposeful, with fixed rules and structures, but a long term commitment to engaging with the world. The analogy breaks down in all sorts of ways, and isn’t really that useful… except that static sites aren’t all that great, and purely dynamic sites are dangerous).

While I’m a big fan of the static/dynamic mix – there are actually good reasons to choose a static site, if your resources are limited. If this is the case, don’t start a blog on your website and leave it with the “hello world” post that WordPress gives you as a default… That undermines the credibility your website is attempting to give your church as it proclaims an important message. It says “I’m lazy” or worse “I’m uninspired”… A static site, at the very least, should give a visitor an idea of what your church is on about, where it is, and how to contact you.

The voice you’ve developed comes into play when you’re writing the static part of your site – but so to does the content strategy. Are you going to be take a minimal approach to content, or try to give as much information as possible. Is your information architecture going to be simple – with as few pages and clicks as possible, or complex with complicated menus and trees and a huge dependance on your site’s search capabilities?

So we’re going with a mix of static pages that tell our visitors who we are and what we’re on about as a church (the gospel of Jesus), that use a mix of multimedia and carefully structured text, erring on the side of saying too much rather than not enough, and a blog where we demonstrate who we are and try to provide valuable content for visitors to our site that serves our mission as a church.

A content strategy for static pages

It’s counter-intuitive – but I think with some careful writing and layout you’re actually better off doing a relatively flat, minimal click, site structure, with a fair bit of content per page.

There are good search engine optimisation reasons for writing pages that use lots of relevant keywords together, and I think there’s huge value in producing a site that actually answers the questions people might be bringing to a search for a church in a transparent and open way. I’m also pretty convinced that long valuable content is a better long term strategy than minimal content – though it is really important to be aware that not everybody reads the web in the same way.

This means each page should have a nice clear lead paragraph that explains what you’re on about in the rest of the page – recognising that a fair percentage of your audience will stop reading and click away there – and making the opening paragraph link heavy, so you can control where people are clicking to next, I’m a big fan of anchor links that take people to specific sections of the same page too, they can be a really useful heuristic tool.

Basically my approach to content writing is based on the good old inverted pyramid that journalists use.

Image Source: Wikipedia: Inverted Pyramid

The inverted pyramid is useful for a couple of reasons – it recognises that some people want all the background stuff, but others only want the news at a glance, and it means if you’ve got limited space people don’t lose out on the real substance of what you want to communicate if they ignore the bottom two thirds.

You are more than a headline. Your website, hopefully, is occupying something more significant than the role a headline plays in a news story. There are good reasons for an exceptionally minimal approach to marketing a product – especially if the product is well known, or if you want to create some sort of buzz, or vibe. But if you’re after a user-friendly website, that will make an interaction with your church in the real world less painful for somebody who is not familiar with who you are, because they’re more informed, then just having your particular buzzword like “PRUNE” in really big text isn’t actually telling anybody about who you are or what they can expect.

And you also can’t rely on videos and multimedia to carry the can (and they certainly won’t help with how you come up on a search engine). While videos won’t play nice with search engines, the use of testimonials from real people is, I think, a really nice way to not be blowing your own trumpet, and to be authentic. That’s why people use written testimonials, but videos help carry a bit of pathos and ethos along with the written world. They’re moments of oratory captured for ongoing use.

Which means you need text. And I think more is more. Or rather, enough is enough. But you need to structure it with a mind to how people read websites – they scan, they look for links, they click away, and structure your content accordingly. So that a visitor to your site can both find what they’re looking for, and get a sense of what you’re trying to tell them about, with minimal fuss.

A content strategy for a church blog

So once you decide you want a dynamic aspect to your site, and you’ve allocated resources to the site for a certain amount of time (you can always reassess and downgrade to a static site if you can’t maintain a schedule), you need to decide what sort of stuff you’re going to post, and there’s a few factors to weigh up when you’re answering this question.

  • Who are you? Part of this is knowing what your voice will be, but a bigger deal is figuring out if you’re existing online as a particular individual within your church (the minister), as the church speaking corporately, or as individuals from your but before that you need to figure out what your “brand” is – what is your ethos that you want driving your communication? How do you want to present yourself to outsiders so that they get a feel for who you are.
  • Who is your audience? How wide are you casting your net? If your site is for newcomers are you just blogging for non-Christians? Do you also want to be providing resources for other Christians? 
  • Why are you posting? What’s the purpose of having a dynamic page – just for google links, to provide resources, etc?
  • How does your blog content relate to the real world that people will experience when they visit your church? How does it match up to your philosophy of ministry?
  • Who will write your content? Will it be a team of individuals as individuals, or a corporate mothership with multiple contributors adhering to the same style guide?
  • What are you going to write about? Are you going to generate content? Are you going to link to other resources?
  • How often will you post, and how substantial will your posts be?

Here’s a case study for how we’re thinking about our blog at church, which will then inform the schedule/plan we put together for our blog.

I’m thinking that it’s not too weird to have our static pages (to use a nice WordPress distinction) speaking in a “corporate voice” – so using a royal “we” and hopefully saying things that every member of our church family would be happy to have said on their behalf, with a personality that’s a bit representative of how we do things on a Sunday, and think about ourselves, and then to have our posts, on our blog, using particular voices – from particular individuals within our church family. So there’ll be a little less consistency in style, but we’ll also be giving people a picture of who they might meet on a Sunday, and who in our team and congregation is interested in different areas.

We’re pretty keen for our website to primarily be about the newcomer – but we also want to give the newcomer an accurate picture of what we’re on about without them having to sign up to be part of The City, our online community – so we want to be providing content for people who are part of our church to share with their non-Christian friends, content that reflects on what it means to be a Christian, and we’re also committed to using our resources, as a bigger church, to serve other churches who are, like us, trying to reach people in our world with the gospel.

We’ve got a philosophy of ministry that is pretty helpful for shaping our editorial policy – how we decide what goes up, and what doesn’t. We use a pathway for how we think about how individuals move from being a visitor to a mature, servant hearted Christian – and we use the words: Connect, Grow, and Serve. These will become the categories that we use for our blog. We also teach through books and topics in groups of ten – in line with the school term, which gives us a nice period of time to produce material related to the big idea of a Sunday service.

Connect will feature bits and pieces that help newcomers connect with the gospel, resources for people thinking about Christianity and joining us to process whatever issues the current series is raising, links to the podcast, some bits and pieces about church life, and maybe some interactions with pop-culture and current events. Grow will feature book reviews, interesting and useful articles, resources for living as a Christian, some more in-depth reactive stuff when it comes to pop-culture and current events. Serve will feature resources that we’re producing for other people, outside of Creek Road, to use for ministry – kids church material, some articles from our staff on different aspects of what we’re doing as a church, etc – and both the Grow stuff and the Serve stuff will be produced mindful that it’s being published to an audience of everyone.

The content will be produced by a number of different contributors, centralised, checked for consistency and moderated and posted by one or two people. It’ll include a mix of videos, text, links, and pictures. And the content will either support or duplicate what is happening at Church on a Sunday, so that there’s consistency in our messaging across our different distribution platforms. This means a lot of our content is generated by what we’re already doing, but appropriated for the web, and some of it will be generated to support what we’re doing, and to articulate how we’re doing it, which is a pretty useful process and hopefully won’t bog our staff and content producers down.

Your Content Schedule

This is a pretty tricky area with millions of different opinions. Here are a couple of maxims I live by:

Blogging regularly is important for keeping on going.

A blog that isn’t updated regularly dies, and stinks up the place (where the place is your website).

The problem with these maxims is that it’s impossible to know what regularly is. 6 times a day is too regular, and you should probably see a doctor. Once a week is probably at the other extreme.

The most important thing here is to have a plan, and try to stick to a minimum. The thing I like about our content strategy is that there’s a mix of proactive stuff – where we’re running the agenda, and putting out material that supports our ongoing ministry, and reactive stuff, where we’re joining existing conversations that are happening in the public and using those conversations as opportunities to express our key message – the gospel. Having that freedom is really nice, it makes sure we’re not missing anything essential, but that we have the freedom to take opportunities as they arise, without being inconsistent or piecemeal in our online presentation.

My plan, partly design driven, is to be preparing posts in triplets – one for each category – and featuring them in dedicated boxes on our home page by relying on certain WordPress processes, rather than needing to do things manually. That means getting a pool of content generated for release ahead of time, and keeping ahead – it helps that we’re planning our sermon series a long time in advance, and having most of the content sorted months in advance too. The lead time in the teaching team’s thinking means there’s time to generate supporting content before the last minute.

This also means we need to plan a slot for reactive stuff. And planning to be reactive is hard, and counter-intuitive. But there are certain events we know are going to happen ahead of time (like a Federal election), and there are pop-culture type events like movie releases, or music releases, that other things might trump, and that aren’t as time critical. Plus, there’s always something to react to.

I’m wanting to sketch out a schedule in line with the teaching plan, and have a more concrete schedule for a term, with posts produced at that point (before the term, if possible), and then a slightly more flexible weekly or fortnightly schedule for some reactive things. Steve Fogg has this cool template for church communications planning that’s worth using at this point. I’ll be putting together something like this with three different columns dedicated to blog categories.

A little while back I was posting through the process of putting together a church website (post 1, post 2). While I’ve been posting about other things, the process of actually putting together and writing content for the new website is picking up steam.

One of my big jobs before we launch the site is coming up with a content strategy and a content schedule – defining the scope of our website and thinking about what sort of things we’ll post, and putting together a calendar for posts that matches up with our church calendar, and keeps things coming along with regularity. I can’t emphasise how important these two things are if you’re going to do something other than a static website.

Content is king.

New content is, like in the history books of any exciting monarchy – more interesting than a royal who sits around and gets bloated or doesn’t really do anything different.

But before one gets to content, one needs to think about how this content is presented. It’s not that style triumphs over substance. It’s a question of one of the biggest bits of getting any sort of traction or recognition for a brand.

Your church is a brand.

Brands aren’t creepy corporate entities like they used to be – they’re something that describes the association people develop with entities. Including your church.

Your brand is not your logo.

Your brand is your story, it’s your character, it’s what people think when someone says the name of your church… your website helps create your brand because it’s where people experience your story, and your character. It’s where they hear your voice (or read it).

So the first step – assuming you’ve got a pretty realistic notion of what your brand is (hint, don’t pretend to be Apple if you’re Dodo, Dodo, the internet that flies…), is to figure out the sort of voice and tone that is going to carry your brand messages (stuff you want to say about you) to other people. The people reading your site.

This needs to match up with what people are going to experience if they move from your virtual front door to your real world front door on a Sunday. Nothing will turn people off quicker than something that isn’t authentic.

For those who’ve been following at home as I’ve unpacked the relationship between ethos, pathos, and logos when it comes to church communications – your voice, in this sense,  is mostly pathos, though it’ll influence the words that you use – but it has to come out of your ethos…

So how do you figure out what your voice sounds like.

I sat down with a few people the other day to think about how we want to sound as we write – across the board. We don’t want to be really prescriptive – there’s no blacklist when it comes to what words we will and won’t use – it’s more a descriptive thing.

And one of the things that helps is to play a little brand association game. There are plenty of big money brands out there who spend a lot of time thinking about their target market (pretty much our target market – in just about every case), and tailor their messages accordingly.

So we thought about some popular brands – Australian brands – who resonate with the kind of people who we might find in our neighbourhood. And we thought about our “product” – what a church service feels like, what the personalities of our preachers are like, and our service leaders… what the vibe is on a Sunday, and what we’d like it to be.

This will be different for every church because there are heaps of variables – but I’m not a huge fan of all churches sounding the same on their websites. I’m not a fan of churchy jargon. I’m not a fan of overly technical language. So it helps me, as I write, to write in character – what would this type of person say… maybe you should think of your church as a famous character or actor… as long as its authentic.

Hopefully if everybody jumps on board with this style it’ll drive consistency across our communications, so that the job of moderating, rewriting, and posting stuff to multiple platforms doesn’t fall to just one person. It’ll also hopefully stop anyone hitting post on anything reactive where the tone of our reaction is damaging.

Here are a couple of excerpts from the document – I hope it’s helpful.

Bear in mind – this is a draft, it isn’t anything official – it hasn’t been approved. It’s not our church policy. We’re not inauthentic Billy Connolly rip-offs, just with less swearing…

This is just something I’m doing as part of the process of launching a new website, and it’s something I think is important to that process.


This is a corporate style suggestion for guiding the approach to speaking, presenting, writing, graphic design, and recording as our church across different platforms including:

  • Online – Our website, our blogs, social media
  • Written resources – Printed material, the ministry papers, and e-books
  • Marketing Material – Announcements, Slides, handouts, advertising, and fliers
  • Videos and multimedia

It is not a prescriptive or restrictive guideline for individual personalities within the staff team, or congregation – that would be odd and decidedly inauthentic, but, instead, describes an aspirational corporate approach to communication conducted on behalf of the church community to represent our church to the community at large.

Ultimately, we don’t want our individual or corporate personality or brand getting in the way of people hearing about Jesus clearly.

Our brand personality – the “voice” we choose to speak with – can be described up through a list of the qualities we aspire to, but in summary we aim, through how we communicate, to:

  • faithfully present the good news of Jesus,
  • be persuasive to our audience – be it those we aim to reach, those connected with us, or those we serve,
  • encourage people to connect with Jesus, and with our church.

We aim to be winsome, generous, interesting, and wise in our contribution to any conversation – taking our core business (the gospel), and convictions (our philosophy of ministry), seriously, but not taking ourselves too seriously in the process.

We want stories the gospel itself, and stories about the work of the gospel in the lives of real people to drive our message – not our own corporate spin or in house jargon.

We want testimonials not advertorials.

We want authenticity, so real people with real stories will carry the communication load wherever possible – rather than simple assertions like this one.

This means we aim to present our message, and ourselves, with:

  • truth,
  • love,
  • grace,
  • humility,
  • integrity,
  • clarity,
  • good humour, including a dash of laconic “Aussie” self-deprecation.

These are essentially the traits we hope to display every time we put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard – whether we are presenting our own position on issues, or responding to criticism.

We are, ultimately, in all areas, beggars telling other beggars where to find food.

Some “golden” brands to plunder…
Ultimately we hope that our communication will be shaped by the Lord Jesus, and the cross, and that we will be guided by the Holy Spirit, and the example of the apostles and those who have gone before us – but there is also much we can learn about communication and branding from the world around us.

Augustine says we should see truth wherever we can, and “plunder the Gold of the Egyptians” to serve the communication of the gospel.

Here are some secular brands that capture something of the communications ethos behind the Creek Road “brand personality.”

The best brands to look at are those with lots of money to spend on advertising and branding – banks and beer companies…

If we were a bank, we’d be something like ING – both focusing on, and presenting ourselves as focused on, our core business with minimal distractions (for them – banking, for us – the gospel). We pursue excellence in our product rather than spending time and money talking about how good we are. Our communication is personality driven, and simple, without expensive bells and whistles (or walking ATMs). When we speak with a little self-awareness, and self-deprecating humour. The joke is never at the expense of others, but ourselves.

Like ING, we recognise that people in our audience have negative experiences or impressions of our product (Church), and industry (religion), but expect, and speak as though, our product (both the Gospel, and our church) can exceed overturn those impressions and past negative experiences.

If we were a beer – we’d be XXXX, the beer for the everyman, sold through human stories and relationships that people can relate to (think the group of guys on a camping trip), with an emphasis on our humanity and our fallibility (like the guys making bad mistakes on their camping trip), and on our desire and intention to achieve our others-centered goals (like the guys cooking dinner in a new and exciting way). We’ve got an old product – one of the oldest brands going still in existence (Jesus), but like XXXX, we’ll try new ways to make it appeal to new audiences because we believe in the product.


This is a voice I think we can pull off without having to moderate our personalities too much across our team. It’s not a perfect fit for anyone – but it’s a comfortable fit for everyone. It seems real. It seems manageable.

So what do you think?

Does this whole process seem a little artificial?

Is it really all that necessary (it’s possible we’re overthinking this)?

How important is consistency?

 

How would you describe the voice of your church? How would you describe the voice of other churches using a famous pop-culture character?

What is preaching?

I’ve been talking to my dad a little about the hubbub surrounding Hearing Her Voice, my review, and some of the stuff I’ve been suggesting is relevant to how we think about preaching from the thought world of the first century. Dad (and now Mikey) made the interesting point that there’s never really been a solid definition of preaching, as in “what we do in the pulpit in church on a Sunday,” beyond teaching, especially for those influenced by the Knox/Robinson revolution in the Australian evangelical scene.

Here, as a bit of a cheat note, is the relatively pregnant definition I’m suggesting in this post:

Preaching is the persuasive and authoritative proclamation of the good news that Jesus is the Christ, who launched God’s kingdom in his death and resurrection, it relies on the authority of God provided by his word, and the gifts supplied to his body – the church – by the Spirit, to beget and nurture the faith of those God has called.

It’s interesting that the Knox/Robinson ecclesiology, which Mark Thompson has just summed up in The Briefing, seems to influence the understanding of what happens in the pulpit on a Sunday. There is another useful factor that I’ll get to below – but I wonder if the appropriate first principle for figuring out what “preaching” is, particularly in the context of the gathered people of God, is to figure out what church is.

What is church?

I’m a young guy, I have nothing like the runs that either Knox or Robinson had on the board – but I want to humbly suggest that their focus on the internal aspect of church life, appears to have come at the cost of ignoring the simultaneous external aspect of what it means to be the church.

I’ll bold the bit that I think create an unnecessary limit on what church is.

Thus church is Christian fellowship. Like all fellowship it requires as a sine qua non ‘other-person-centredness’, that is, being genuinely interested in the other person as a person, and, in particular, as a Christian person. It will require communication, talking to each other in Christian things, in the things of faith and hope in Christ. Christian church fellowship means not only talking together, but doing together Christian things such as praising, praying, and thanking God. Our fellowship is not only directed towards God, but also towards one another, building one another up as Christians.”

What’s really interesting is what’s missing. If the reformers model of church as mother, the ordinary means of both begetting and nurturing faith, is correct – and I think it is, then an ecclesiology and understanding of what the role of the church is that excludes the process of begetting is slightly lacking.

Also, if the church is incarnational – the physical body of Christ, united to him, and the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit – it seems odd to limit its focus like the quote above does. Christ’s ministry, recorded in the gospels, seems to be directed to all people, publicly, in the service of God, with clear demonstrations that he was and is the long promised king bringing the long promised kingdom, ultimately for the benefit of those who put their trust in him, but this definition explicitly suggests the church (and its gatherings) should only really focus on God and other Christians.

It’s not just “missing” – it’s deliberately absent. Here’s how Thompson sums up how both Knox and Robinson conceive of the mission of the church…

“We might discern a slight difference of emphasis between Knox and Robinson at this point, though both consistently argued that “the visible church has no purpose or mission beyond being the church, that is, being the fellowship of Christ’s people”

Thompson says the pay off of this position for who we think church is for is one of the significant contributions Knox/Robinson make for today – and I’d say it’s part of the significant contribution to whatever confusion exists about what the difference is between “teaching” and “preaching”… I’ve heard from someone sharp, and remember, I haven’t read anything by either of these guys, that their emphasis, and thus the emphasis at Moore College is on training Bible teachers, and letting authority rest in the word of God, rather than training preachers.

Thompson sets up, or articulates, what I think is an unhelpful false dichotomy in our thinking about the orientation of our gatherings.

“Some of our contemporary confusion about what we do when we come together, it seems to me, arises from a failure to observe the important distinction between being intelligible to outsiders and being oriented towards outsiders. Paul expected that an outsider might enter the assembly at Corinth and understand what was being said. But he did not expect that all that was being done would be oriented towards the outsider, calculated to remove all that might seem strange to the outsider, or even designed so that the outsider might anonymously observe and feel more comfortable.”

I’d argue that the problem isn’t one of failing to observe an important distinction, I’d say it’s failing to grasp that the thing that both outsiders and insiders need – the one thing – is to know the gospel of Jesus.

You don’t have to choose between “seeker” and “believer” oriented – because both seekers and believers receive their mothering in the same way – the gospel. Sure. The full significance of the gospel is something that bites with time – which is why Paul can say he gives the Corinthians “milk, not solid food” (1 Cor 3:2), but I don’t think his preaching ever goes beyond “Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 1:22-24) and the wonder of being united with Christ and having our status as children of God restored in him – and the impact that has on how we understand what it means to be human (which seems to be part of the solid food he serves up in Romans).

To know how Jesus, the long awaited Christ, is foretold in the Old Testament, and to know what the kingdom he launched at the cross is, and how we can be a part of it. Clear, authoritative, gospel proclamation, based on the authority of the Scriptures (including the apostolic deposit) – aimed at persuading (both those who are already persuaded, and those who aren’t), will serve both believer and unbeliever, doing the “mother” thing the reformers saw as so key to what the church was on about.

Also, if we assume that part of being the church isn’t just wanting to have fellowship with one another and to do things together as we worship God, sacrificially, with the gifts he gave us, as the Body of Christ, under his head, but see this role extending to something like seeking to be, actively, his representatives on earth – as his ambassadors, as participants in his mission – then not letting this impact how we gather, such that our gatherings make the gospel message as clear as it possible can be (which in turn benefits the insider), is a bit odd.

While I think Knox and Robinson made some incredible contributions to how we think of the church using appropriate theological categories, I suspect their desire not to meddle with the harmful stuff the ecumenical movement was doing meant their picture of the church as an entity with some sort of outwards focus was a little weak.

Thompson says:

“Of course we should recognize the danger of alienating those who visit our churches with obscure language, unexplained rituals and general insensitivity or rudeness. However, the outsider is visiting or entering a fellowship that has a particular character that marks itself out from other gatherings. Not all ‘strangeness’ is bad, especially when we consider how distant our contemporary culture has become from gospel priorities. The desire in some circles to transform church into something which resembles other gatherings (theatres, cafes, etc.) needs a better justification than it is often given.”

And again, sets up an interesting dichotomy. Strangeness isn’t bad, unless it obscures the gospel. Unexplained rituals or obscure language is bad because it obscures the gospel. You don’t have to jump from an unexplained ritual to theatre though – a better place on the spectrum might be doing whatever it takes to make the message of the gospel, as it relates to the revealed word of God, as clear as possible – using the gifts God has given his body to make his Christ, Jesus, known.

What is “preaching”?

This definition is a bit of a work in process, it brings together the essence of a few previous posts, I’ll provide links here and you can read them, or not, at your leisure, at times I’ll assume premises that I’ve argued for in these posts:

In yesterday’s post (the last one in that list) I tried to show that when the New Testament uses the word preaching it brings with it the idea of proclaiming Jesus as the Christ, and proclaiming the kingdom of God.

I’m also assuming the legitimacy of a Biblical Theological framework that is something like Goldsworthy’s (while recognising that attempts to apply one central motif, rather than seeing many strands contributing to a rich picture of fulfilment in Jesus, is a bit reductionist). Such a framework also sits in the Reformed tradition, where it is understood that for any passage of Scripture to be appropriately understood by a Christian audience, as Christian scripture, it needs to be understood through the lens of Jesus being the Christ.

On this basis all faithful “Bible teaching” points to Jesus being the Christ. You can certainly “teach” about the Bible both the Old Testament, and narrative bits of the Gospels that occur before the cross, and its meaning for its first, pre-cross readers, but that’s not preaching.

Harking back, for a second, to the Knox/Robinson model of church – because they rightly want to place the emphasis on the authority of Scripture, they saw teaching (as I understand their position) as expositing Scripture faithfully, with the preacher and his congregation sitting under the authority of the word – rather than the office of the preacher. And there’s a real rightness to that. In this way “teaching and exercising authority” was one act – the act of standing in front of the congregation and presenting the authority of God, and it was limited, by Paul’s instruction, to men.

But in jumping on “teaching” as the vehicle for authoritative instruction in the church, without really adequately defining or emphasising what “preaching” is – such that any trained monkey can be taught to teach – they’ve robbed us a little bit, I think, when it comes to supplying a definition of what preaching is.

Here’s my working definition – hopefully tying up nicely where I’ve been heading in the last few posts:

Preaching is the persuasive and authoritative proclamation of the good news that Jesus is the Christ, who launched God’s kingdom in his death and resurrection, it relies on the authority of God provided by his word, and the gifts supplied to his body – the church – by the Spirit, to beget and nurture the faith of those God has called.

Preaching is multi-genred, as the Scriptures are, and includes, I think, exhortation, teaching, rebuking, prophecy, and anything that helps people to see who Jesus is. It’s multi-media, it is communicated through the word – primarily, as it is adorned by the character of those who speak it, the way they speak it, and through the work of the Spirit (in the gifts supplied to the speakers, and the work the Spirit is doing in conforming the speaker to the image of Jesus, and in his work in the lives of the hearers).

If I ever get up in the pulpit on a Sunday and what I’m doing isn’t achieving that end, I feel like I’m wasting my time.

It’s interesting that Broughton Knox, in this quote from the Thompson piece, appears to agree with the essence of the sermon.

“We who are members of Christ’s church should lift our thoughts to where Christ is, and remember that the purpose of Christ’s gathering us in his presence is for fellowship with him and with one another by our hearing his voice which comes to us in the preaching of the gospel within that fellowship…[34. Knox, ‘Church’, p. 22.]“

I’d just add that it’s also for the purpose of bringing other people into the fellowship that we enjoy as we participate in the task of glorifying God by declaring his good news in a clear and persuasive way.

If you haven’t been following along on the interwebs, a hornets nest has been kicked and then ignited with the release of three Zondervan e-books about women and preaching, and whether or not they should do it.

I’ve read one of these, Hearing Her Voice, by John Dickson, the following review should come with the same caveats I included when I reviewed Promoting the Gospel: the best kept secret of Christian mission - I think John Dickson is excellent, I love his published body of work, and have found him helpful at just about every step of the way on my journey from Christian kid to theological student.

In this book we get more of Dickson’s very solid hermeneutical model applied to a pretty tricky question, and particularly applied to a verse that creates quite a few difficulties for the modern church. Seriously, he is, I think, the model of what being a careful interpreter of Scripture looks like, there’s a great para in the book that outlines his approach to using history as a tool for exegesis, and I commend it to you.

I was going to include quotes from the book – but this post is already almost 6,000 words long.

The question at the heart of this book – well, there are two questions, I think – and perhaps three – is what is “teaching?” Is preaching teaching? And if not, can women preach in church?

What’s not up for grabs for Dickson is the real strength of his work – he’s big on the authority of Scripture, big on consistently reading and exegeting it with the original readers and meaning in mind, and big on the principle that while male and female are equal in God’s sight, we are different.

I feel like I should throw in a few disclaimers at the start so you know where I’m coming from…

  • I’m aware of the dangers of being a “privileged” and unoppressed class speaking out on this issue – a white, anglo-saxon, male, protestant voice in this debate needs to be pretty mindful of his cultural background and relative freedom to make proclamations that appear to come at a cost to others.
  • I love the concept of a priesthood of all believers – it goes without saying that this includes men and women – I think it’s biblical, I think we’re all called to be on mission together, and equipped by God to serve as part of the body of believers as we serve and love one another and try to reach people together.
  • I think there are lots of women who are gifted preachers, teachers, and evangelists. I don’t see any gender specific traits that make being able to show someone else that Jesus is the Christ a particularly male act. This isn’t an “innate” issue, or a “masculinity” issue, men are not innately more competent in this area than women.
  • I’m also a complementarian – I think our different genders are a good and necessary part of what it means to be human.
  • I agree that there are lots of roles open to women that we’ve essentially closed because we’re scared of transgressing in this area – including prophecy, exhortation, partnering as “gospel workers,” etc.
  • I think the gender stuff at the fall is pretty interesting, and is certainly something Paul has in mind in this verse. While this is pretty absent in Dickson’s book, it is something Mike Bird, who wrote a second book in the series, spends some time considering – but I haven’t read that yet.
  • I’m wary about tossing out 2,000 years of church tradition, particularly the interpretive traditions from people who took the Bible seriously – though I’m also aware that all interpreters are fallible, and texts, and interpretations of those texts are the product of different cultures.
  • I’ll also presuppose that how we do church – including who preaches – is part of our ethos, so that the decision about who preaches is, in part, a decision we make about our presentation of the gospel.

What is a sermon? Teaching? Exhortation? Preaching?

I have some reservations about how Dickson approaches the Greek language (and how others do too) – but this is probably because they are experts at Greek and I am not. I think word studies have some merit, but I think assume too much about the deliberation that goes into the use of particular words, rather than paying heed to the vibe of a paragraph, or whole letter. I think words often have a broad semantic range that overlaps with other words, and you kind of use those ranges together to create new concepts – Dickson thinks this happens with “teaching” and “authority” in the verse in question… So I don’t really like arguments based on word studies – and most of my response won’t really engage with the question of whether or not “teaching” or in the Greek, didaskein, is a technical word for a particular act, or a general word for the passing on of knowledge – this is where the debate is being fought out on the interwebs by Lionel Windsor, and Dickson himself (in a great model of how you can disagree with people without calling their character into question…

Like I say – I’m not an expert on Greek, and don’t pretend to be, and I’m fairly sure that words can also be used technically to mean very narrow things – but I do think literary context guides interpretation… and I think one of the concerns of Paul’s letter to Timothy is to help Timothy, and the church, think rightly about questions of pastoral leadership – including the establishment of a role that seems to be for men and includes carrying the responsibility of preaching and teaching, within the church.

I don’t think Dickson necessarily disagrees with this approach to language – though his treatment of “teaching” here is very similar to his treatment of “evangelism” in Promoting the Gospel. He allows for general  use of words, while suggesting we need to pay heed to the technical meanings that may have been in operation in the first century.

He spends significant time making the case that “teaching” isn’t directly transferrable to what we do in the pulpit of a modern church each Sunday – and his argument seems to have some merit. I don’t think preaching is the teaching, in the technical sense, that Dickson identifies. So I’m almost happy to cede his whole argument, on one level – if the Sunday sermon is exhortation, as he suggests, or prophecy as the Puritans suggest, and not teaching (as Lionel Windsor suggests it is) – then I think he’s right – women should be able to exhort, prophecy, and do all the things that Paul specifically or implicitly allows, and even all the things he doesn’t forbid.

Anyway – here’s the passage in question, with a bit of context. From 1 Timothy 2…

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. 11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

In 1 Timothy 3, when he’s establishing the qualifications of a deacon, and an overseer he gives a set of ethos heavy principles, like being “above reproach” – which presumably has something to do with not undermining his leadership of others, and “be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” It is assumed in these verses that the person in question is a man – building off his argument in chapter 2.

In 1 Timothy 5 it appears he assumes these elders will be the people doing the “preaching and teaching”…

17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”

Then, in 2 Timothy 4, he kind of spells out what Timothy is called to do, under the umbrella of “preaching”…

4 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teachingFor the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

Ultimately, I’m not convinced by the way Dickson groups “teaching” and “authority” into one command, rather than two separate but related commands based on the same Old Testament/created order principle… and I think there’s another reason, an ethos reason, when it comes to how we persuade people about the message of the gospel that means we should think carefully about how we use, or emphasise, gender and authority in church gatherings… which I’ll get to below. Somewhere. I think what is done from the pulpit is an act of authority – and listening is an act of submission.

Where I think Windsor is right to go (but slightly wrong in where he lands – I think), and where I think Dickson is wrong – is on what the sermon actually is. In sum, Windsor thinks it’s teaching, and Dickson sells teaching short, Dickson thinks the sermon is exhortation, or something analogous to that – and thus thinks women can give sermons.

What Preaching is not…

I’d argue, with Dickson, that preaching is not teaching, we’ve hastily drawn an analogous line from the Bible’s use of teaching to our modern equivalent, and that’s come at a cost.

  • Preaching is not simply teaching – though it may involve the transmission of information from someone with knowledge to someone without.
  • Preaching is not strictly exhortation though it may encourage.
  • Preaching is not simply prophecy, though it may speak God’s word to people at a particular time… though in a sense a good sermon is all of these things. 

This is one of the areas I think Dickson’s argument breaks down – you don’t have to look much past Paul to find someone who exercises more than one of the “offices” of word ministry that Dickson seems to suggest are in operation… Paul also suggests all of these things are part of Timothy’s job as a preacher (2 Tim 4).

It’s quite possible that there’ll be an overlap of different styles of speaking in any particular speech, much as there was in just about any form of first century oratory. Where Cicero, in Brutus, bags out some orators for being too specialised in one area, because the idea was that public speakers could adopt a wide range of styles, from the boring didactic history lecture, to the witty declamation of an opponent on the election trail.

What a sermon (preaching) is…

Preaching is preaching. It has a New Testament equivalent – and an Old Testament equivalent. It has a Greek word – kerusso – which had a pre-existing technical meaning, and a meaning that developed through Christian usage, and it appears to be something like being a herald and proclaiming good news, with authority.

I’d argue that if one:

then our sermons are not “teaching” in the sense identified by Dickson – but “preaching”… in the sense that the word is used throughout the New Testament.

Our sermons should point people to Jesus and the kingdom of God, attempt to persuade people to accept the message, and declare that, Jesus is Lord – This essentially does nothing for the gender question but move the goalposts, so the question is not “can women teach?” but “can women preach?” – so Dickson’s insights, while useful, are potentially irrelevant to the question.

I would say that I think preaching is an act of authority – but the ultimate authority rests in the same person it rests in when Jesus is challenged about the authority behind his preaching – God and his Christ. When we preach faithfully we are simply pointing to the authority of Jesus. The way authority is exercised over the church is ultimately in the preaching of the word (and the faithful passing on of the apostolic traditions) as they relate to Jesus, not the appointment of humans who have particular gifts in particular areas.

Here’s where I want to make the case that this isn’t a new way of thinking about what preaching is – first from the Reformers, and then, after a little ethos excursus from the New Testament (though the order should be reversed – the NT stuff is pretty long).

Preaching in the Reformed world

Both Luther and Calvin (Institutes, 4.1.5) put a pretty high value on preaching , if preaching involved the gospel – so much that preaching was more important than the sacraments in terms of constituting Christ’s presence in the gathering of the body – this was a big deal in a time where people were killed over what they thought happened at communion.

Calvin says:

“We see that God, who might perfect his people in a moment, chooses not to bring them to manhood in any other way than by the education of the Church. We see the mode of doing it expressed; the preaching of celestial doctrine is committed to pastors. We see that all without exception are brought into the same order, that they may with meek and docile spirit allow themselves to be governed by teachers appointed for this purpose… Hence it follows, that all who reject the spiritual food of the soul divinely offered to them by the hands of the Church, deserve to perish of hunger and famine. God inspires us with faith, but it is by the instrumentality of his gospel, as Paul reminds us, “Faith cometh by hearing” (Rom. 10:17). God reserves to himself the power of maintaining it, but it is by the preaching of the gospel, as Paul also declares, that he brings it forth and unfolds it.”

Both (Luther Large Catechism (PDF, p 72), Calvin Institutes 4.1.1, 4)  saw the church as the “mother” of believers – responsible, ordinarily and under God, for giving birth to new believers and nurturing the faith of existing believers – and it did this, for both groups, in the same way – by preaching the gospel of Jesus. Not legalism. Not morals. Not ethics. Not just words of encouragement. But the gospel.

The gospel will have necessary implications for our morality and ethics – and it will necessarily be encouraging as we consider that the creator of the universe sent his son to earth to buy us, for a relationship, to make us his children. But our sermons that do all these things do these things because they first declare the truths of the gospel, and these things are part of the persuasive case the gospel makes for those who hear it.

The preaching of the gospel is one of the “marks of the church” for Reformed people.

The Westminster Confession of Faith essentially follows both Calvin and Luther on this point – it says the church is responsible for the “gathering and perfecting of saints” (WCF VII, XXV), and that the preaching of the word is one of the two marks of the church (along with the administration of the sacraments).

“And particular Churches, which are members thereof [the universal, visible, church], are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.”

In XV the Confession says ministers are to preach: “Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of the gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ,” and in XXI it says faithful preaching is part of worship. This preaching is conducted by these “ministers of the gospel”…

I like this quote from Calvin that Justin Taylor shared last week:

“This is what we should in short seek in the whole of Scripture: truly to know Jesus Christ, and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Father. If one were to sift thoroughly the Law and the Prophets, he would not find a single word which would not draw and bring us to him. . . . Therefore, rightly does Saint Paul say in another passage that he would know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

Biblical, expository, sermons will point people to Jesus Christ in a way that declares his kingdom has come at the cross. It is preaching, not teaching.

An argument from “authority” – an ethos consideration

I think a case can be made that Paul’s prohibition on women exercising authority in the 1 Timothy 2 passage refers to what is going on in the gathering, and works a bit with the similar prohibition in 1 Corinthians, to establish a principle, rooted in creation and the fall, for what happens when the church meets and the gospel is preached… as an authoritative act.

But even if that case is weak – I wonder if there’s an ethos driven, cross-shaped, argument for women letting men preach, if sermons are preaching, and preaching is an act of persuasion where both pathos and ethos are as relevant as what we say… even if they are more gifted than their male counterparts, which is surely often the case.

A willingness to submit is part of the testimony of the gospel of the cross – as is a willingness to sacrificially not use our gifts for the sake of others… I’d argue Paul is essentially doing this in Corinth when he avoids using his full rhetorical prowess, that he demonstrates in Acts, in order to “know nothing but Christ and him crucified” as he teaches them, knowing what he does about their culture and context – and the sinful desires they have to place value in their abilities or flashy man made idols. I reckon its possible that gender equality is a bit of an idol in our culture – I’m not arguing that it’s a bad thing, idols are good things turned into ultimate things… but I wonder if a refusal to give in to cultural pressure on the gender front, voluntarily, might be a hugely important part of our testimony.

This is where a little bit of trepidation kicks in on my part – because I recognise that I’m a guy telling gifted women they can’t do what they’re gifted to do.

But, I think it’s possible that If we believe that:

  • genders are different, but that people are equal in value,
  • that the gospel does away with inequalities that people might establish on the basis of differences (Gal 3:28),
  • that submission isn’t a statement of inequality, this is where some smart egalitarians like Miroslav Volf depart, but it must be true because if we believe that the Trinity is made up of three parties who are equally God, we need to be able to say that Jesus can submit to the father without calling this equality into question (in academic terms this is a question of whether you can have functional subordination alongside ontological equality, I think the answer has to be yes, if the submission is voluntary, an act of love, offered without coercion),

then we should be able to sacrificially let men do the preaching… even if there are women out there who are better equipped to do the job… because this is part of our testimony, and our act of testifying – to the sacrifice of Jesus, for his church – just as it is in marriage (Ephesians 5).

The act of preaching is an act of authority – but this authority isn’t establishing an inequality – and if it does create such an inequality, then questions have to be asked about whether or not the guy is doing his job – just like in a marriage. Because a cruciform preacher who humbly uses the gifts God has given to build up the church and point people to Jesus through the persuasive preaching of the gospel won’t, if logos, pathos, and ethos stack up, be in a position to create any inequality except the inequality created by considering everybody else better than yourself…

Our value to God isn’t caught up in our ability to serve him – with the gifts that he has given us, nor is our testimony – I would argue our testimony is caught up in our ability to live cross-shaped lives where we imitate Jesus, who despite having all authority and abilities in his grasp, and being equipped to do otherwise gave himself up for us, as an example, here’s Philippians 2:

2 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, anyparticipation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselvesLet each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of othersHave this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Perhaps the way we testify to our unity, our like mindedness, and avoid promoting our gifts, interests, and selves, is to be prepared to not do things we could do, as part of our testimony to Jesus, and to the creator who sent him, and made men and women different.

Communicating why we’re doing this, and valuing, affirming, and giving avenues for gifted women to be effective members of the body and servants of the mission of God is obviously pretty tricky – and one of the great strengths of Dickson’s work is that it’s motivated by exactly this concern.

Continue Reading…

It seems we’re at a bit of a crossroads in the Australian evangelical church at the moment – once we recognise that the church isn’t really growing – do we throw our lot in with Spurgeon, or with Augustine… For many in our scene – faithful preaching from the pulpit is the ultimate panacea – and if the church isn’t growing then it doesn’t matter, so long as we’re faithful, or perhaps a lack of growth is a sign of some lack of faithfulness…

augustine spurgeon

I reckon the problem is that many of us have conflated “faithful preaching of the gospel” with “expository preaching on a Sunday” – and we’ve pretty much checked our responsibilities in at the door at that point. I’m not going to argue against expository preaching – because I think it is part of faithfully preaching the gospel – but I wonder if we’re missing two-thirds of the persuasion triangle… We seem hesitant, or suspicious, of anything other than unadorned words – be it emotive production values or anything that by itself would be manipulative, or an emphasis on the sort of life and good works we should be producing outside of the pulpit… Part of this has been from a desire to respond to the imbalance of the pentecostal movement on one hand, and the social gospel driven ecumenical movement, which focused solely on “liberating the oppressed” because nobody could agree on what the gospel actually is, on the other. But we’ll get to that when we get to the triangles below…

On the merit of “Egyptian Gold”

I read this stirring Spurgeon quote about preaching that Justin Taylor shared a couple of days ago, especially these bits:

“Are you afraid that preaching the gospel will not win souls? Are you despondent as to success in God’s way? Is this why you pine for clever oratory? Is this why you must have music, and architecture, and flowers and millinery? After all, is it by might and power, and not by the Spirit of God? It is even so in the opinion of many.”

…”I have long worked out before your very eyes the experiment of the unaided attractiveness of the gospel of Jesus. Our service is severely plain. No man ever comes hither to gratify his eye with art, or his ear with music. I have set before you, these many years, nothing but Christ crucified, and the simplicity of the gospel; yet where will you find such a crowd as this gathered together this morning? Where will you find such a multitude as this meeting Sabbath after Sabbath, for five-and-thirty years? I have shown you nothing but the cross, the cross without flowers of oratory, the cross without diamonds of ecclesiastical rank, the cross without the buttress of boastful science. It is abundantly sufficient to attract men first to itself, and afterwards to eternal life!”

…In this house we have proved successfully, these many years, this great truth, that the gospel plainly preached will gain an audience, convert sinners, and build up and sustain a church.

There is no need to go down to Egypt for help. To invite the devil to help Christ is shameful. Please God, we shall see prosperity yet, when the church of God is resolved never to seek it except in God’s own way.

There is much to like in Spurgeon’s quote – the church is God’s agent in the world and its job is to promote, proclaim, declare, whatever verb you like, the wonder of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s our mission, and arguably how we worship.

But there are a couple of things that rankle me in this quote – while I agree that the gospel requires words – because it is the story of God’s word made flesh…

  1. I still can’t help but think that the reduction of our mission to just words misses the point of both the actions that the written accounts we call gospels contain, and the strong links made between the lives we live, the good we do, and the love we give and our testimony to the world (so to provide a sample of from three different New Testament’s authors – John 13:35, 1 Cor 10:33, 1 Peter 3:8-16). Interestingly, Augustine suggests that the good we do should be to the end of seeing people come to know God
  2. I don’t understand the assumption that the Spirit can’t work through architecture, music, flowers, or even millinery – surely the Spirit doing so would be a greater testimony of his power, not lesser. Surely if there is a milliner, or flower arranger, in your congregation they can find some use for their profession as part of the body, to point people to Jesus – these things can’t replace word ministry but word ministry doesn’t need to happen in a cultural vacuum (and the right balance is important). I like Luther’s potentially pseudopigraphic “make a good shoe and sell it for a fair price” quote at this point…
  3. I can’t figure out why “word ministry” as in the promotion of the Gospel should be limited to the spoken word in a way that rules out using the “gold of the Egyptians” – or without the metaphor – the good parts of the created order that can be applied to gospel ministry and declaration of truth. Music, video, the arts – all of these can be used as “word” ministry – they just lean heavier towards pathos than logos when it comes to the persuasive act.
  4. This displays a limited doctrine of creation – one I’ve been guilty of in the past when it comes to free range eggs (and the environment) – the way we treat creation and how we use it is also part of our testimony – and this includes the way we think of the arts, and things that people make as part of our stewardship of creation and desire to bring order to it… as an aside: I don’t think the way “creation” and “redemption” are as separate as some people want to suggest (there’s a bit of a debate about this) – I now think redemption, and God’s mission, encompass creation – and how we use it – but “redeeming creation” is not an “end,” it’s a means to support the ultimate end – our mission to redeem people.

In fact – on the second point – what we do with the “gold” we find – or the goodness of creation – is an incredibly strong part of our testimony.

The “receive, redeem, reject” paradigm for culture that has been made popular by Keller, Driscoll, et al is pretty useful – and it works with the plundered gold analogy that Augustine ran with…

If the gold of Egypt is some sort of “truth” – a “created order” thing, being used in a cultural way – perhaps, for the purpose of this post, a persuasive technique, or musical style… it seems to me there are four options for this thing:

1. Leave it in Egypt – assuming the gold itself is inherently bad - because people use it to make idols.
2. Bring it with you, as is, or make it your own idol – like a golden calf, at the foot of Sinai.
3. Bring it with you, because gold is beautiful - recognise its goodness without worshipping it – music whether written to honour God – like Bach, or written as a recognition of the way ordered sounds can work together to create pleasure – captures something of the goodness of creation, as music.
4. Bring it with you, use it to glorify God – build the temple out of it, artistically, with sculptures. People will then both understand a good God made it, and understand that this Good God is Yahweh, who reveals himself in creation, and the redemption of creation.

The first seems to be Spurgeon’s approach when it comes to what happens in church, the fourth seems to be what Augustine advocates… it’s no secret that I think Augustine is right – my masters project is going to be an application of his principle to modern communication theories. Here’s the money quote…

“…all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel. Their garments, also —that is, human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life — we must take and turn to a Christian use.”

There really is no “Egyptian Gold” – but rather an Egyptian use of Gold, that may or may not be redeemable. This is demonstrably the case if we believe that every idol results from taking something good that God has made and using it in wrong ways.

On “faithful preaching” and equilateral triangles

But all this got me thinking about “faithful preaching”… and triangles.

If the following linked premises hold true:

  • Preaching must involve the faithful articulation of the gospel. I’m with the Bible, the reformers and the Westminster Confession on this – for a church to be a church, it needs to be a gathering of people united by the gospel of the Lord Jesus, who are proclaiming the gospel through preaching and the sacraments.
  • Our “preaching of the Gospel” can’t just be words. It has to include words – so Francis of Assisi is still wrong – but those words need to be backed up by action. How the church lives and loves its community is part of the package of faithful gospel preaching… because teaching is more than words.
  • Paul’s call to “imitate him, as he imitates Christ” (1 Cor 11:1) is a bit of a unifying principle delivered to a church fractured over preaching styles (the conflict he addresses earlier in the letter) – where imitation was a key part of first century oratorical competition (so, for example, Cicero bemoans poor choices about who and what young orators imitate and pushes for an imitation of substance over style).
  • Paul, in both 1-2 Corinthians, champions an approach to preaching that includes the embodiment of the cruciform (cross-shaped) life as the key aspect of this imitation (you’ll have to read my essay on Corinthians to find out why I think this)
  • Preaching is an act of persuasion (no doubt governed by the work of the Spirit – I’d argue, like Augustine, that rhetoric works because it recognises a truth about the order God has created in the world, particularly how human minds work).
  • Faithful preaching is more than what is said from the pulpit, but is how a preacher, and by extension the church, as a whole, lives as the Body of Christ in their time and place.

There’s something nice and Incarnational about all of this that I’m increasingly appreciating…

But if these points are true – then we can kind of understand “faithful preaching” using an Aristotelian framework, which includes logos, pathos, and ethos – with the type of life the preacher lives (ethos) being a decisive communicative act – serving to either emphasise or undermine the “pathos” or “logos” (ie the content of the preaching)… Which is where the triangles come in…

I’d argue that part of the mix which is limiting the growth of our branch of the church is that we’re so cerebral and logos driven in our approach that we’re relying almost entirely on our ability to persuade solely by reason (I’m not suggesting the Spirit can’t work through this – simply that it might be true that God has created us to respond to pathos and take note of ethos as well – and that we’ve been instructed to employ those aspects as part of our “preaching” more than we might at present in our gatherings and the rest of our life as a church).

It’s hard to make generalisations here… and I’m reflecting a little on my experience in some churches that were actually growing as a result of faithful and engaging Bible teaching – and some attempt to figure out how to engage with the world around us (I don’t think they’re just doing what Spurgeon says is all they need to be doing – they typically also have excellent music, well thought out architecture, and other bits and pieces) – but also on my observations of the churches that I’ve been part of that seek to imitate the logos aspect of those churches without necessarily investing heavily into pathos in a way that treats each place and people group as different…

I’m also reflecting a little on my training, the things that have been emphasised as I grew up in evangelical ministries in Australia including my churches, AFES, other groups I’ve been part of, and my experience at theological college. All of these groups require a certain threshold for “character” when it comes to involvement, but I don’t think ethos - which I’m defining as how to live in the world in a winsome and persuasive way that backs up my words - has ever been the focal point of the training I’ve received.

I’ve been pretty well equipped with the logos stuff… I think, like Spurgeon, we’ve been pretty suspicious of pathos too, because without logos it can be manipulative and lacking in substance (and we’ve seen that a little in the worship wars and the Pentecostal movement), though I think being “winsome and gracious” in how you speak is a mix of pathos and ethos.

I suspect the lack of focus on ethos is because ethos will ultimately look, without the logos, like the social gospel stuff we’re all so keen to avoid.

And now. For the visual learners and thinkers… a triangular approach to this issue.

This is a triangular picture of Aristotle’s approach to rhetoric. It’s an equilateral triangle, and represents all these aspects being held nicely in balance – I suspect this is the model for faithful preaching – because I think Aristotle has rightly recognised the way humans are persuaded of truths.

Aristotles Triangle

If this is a truth about the way people, and creation, works – then we should expect to see some fruits of it in terms of growth, assuming that the Holy Spirit works, in some way, consistently with the created order that God declared to be good. Perhaps even by helping us see that order in a way that guides our participation in the world.

This is my caricature (thus it is a little reductionistic) of the emphasis I think exists in our evangelical circles, it’s not without pathos or ethos – but logos is heavily emphasised.

The evangelical triangle

This is my caricature of the emphasis in more charismatic churches… My guess is that these churches are growing faster than those in the evangelical tradition because their triangle is a little closer to being persuasive – while they don’t necessarily place a heavy emphasis on solid teaching, they tend to, as a generalisation, be more interested in social justice type stuff, and much better at appealing to the emotions via their production quality, use of music, style of music, etc… Though their teaching is a little shallower than we might like, and occasionally just plain wrong in terms of what promises are fulfilled now for Christians, and what is still to come – it’s generally recognisable as Christian preaching, in that the Lordship of Christ is foundational.

Pentecostal triangle

And this is my caricature of the emphasis in liberal churches where the emphasis is on bringing transformation to the world, and liberating the oppressed – rather than articulating any actual definitive truth. There’s a complete lack of balance here – and depending on the churches in question, the lack of anything remotely like logos translates to a lack of moderating influence on what constitutes faithful gospel shaped pathos or ethos, which is why I think the liberal church is shrinking faster than any other variety.

Liberal triangle

So, I reckon Spurgeon is right – I think all that is required for the church to grow is faithful, Christ centred, gospel preaching – but I think that encompasses more than the delivery of a logos-heavy presentation from the pulpit, it’s got to involve using the goodness of creation to point people to the creator of that goodness, through the right use of pathos – music, art, and an understanding of how to stir the emotions, but it’s ultimately got to be matched with the type of ethos outside the pulpit that lends weight to our words when we talk about God loving people.

 

2012 in review

It’s been a big year for our family this year, a big year for me, and a big year for this little corner of the internet.

Think of this post as part Christmas Letter (where I brag about how wonderful my wife and daughter are, and you cringe), and part reflection on another year blogging).

Mostly reviews like this are an opportunity for me to think about how much I’ve got to be thankful for. Life is good. 2012 was a good year.

So in case you want to skip this post – thanks for reading, sharing, commenting, or ignoring St. Eutychus this year, and if you’ve been a part of our life in bigger and different ways in 2012, thanks for that too.

We welcomed our little girl into the world in December 2011, and I was pretty sure that parenting was going to take a toll on my blogging – my capacity and desire to write things.

This was true – my output, by post, is less than half what it was. This year’s 414 posts is a big drop from the 1,007 posts in 2011. But by any other metric this has been an exciting year to blog.

We also changed churches, moved house, saw siblings get married, and kept plowing through life at theological college. It’s been a pretty big year in the real world, and in terms of where the college/future trajectory is at – the rubber is starting to get closer to the road in terms of having to figure out what 2014 and beyond holds.

Hopefully a hoverboard.

Parenting has been an amazing joy – both watching Robyn grow as a wife and mother, and watching Soph get bigger and cuter, and more animated. I’m so blessed to have such wonderful girls in my life. I’m constantly blown away by Robyn’s gifts and love for me and others, and her patience is a big reason I’m still posting stuff here.

Robyn and Soph

Creek Road has been exciting – I really love being part of a big team of people who are passionate about Jesus, and who have been given amazing gifts that they’re willing to use to see people meet him.

College has been pretty rewarding – I’m really excited about what I’ve learned this year, the faculty and other students at QTC have been a big part of giving me a richer understanding of the Bible and the world behind the text – and hopefully that’s informed, more than most other things, some of the content here this year.

I keep reflecting, year on year, about why I blog – and who it benefits. This has been an especially big question for me to answer this year. It certainly benefits me – I love having the opportunity to get my thoughts out of my head, and also watch them develop. I hope that when things click, and my posts are appropriately free of ego, arrogance, and my own chipped shoulders – that they are useful for others, and worthy of sharing – and I especially hope that my time at college, and whatever gifts I might have will be useful for helping people think more clearly about who Jesus is. I’m also trying to find a balance between generating content that is useful to other people – but may not be all that interesting to regular readers – and stuff that excites me and hopefully entertains.

I love blogging. I love the doors it opens. The relationships it creates. The way its helped my ability to express things. And most of all when it does serve people.

It’s hard to find the right balance of writing for an audience of two (God, and me), and writing for an audience of you… but I’m trying to get there, and after 7 years of pretty concerted blogging, and 5,728 posts, I’m feeling like I’ve got a bit of a grip on my voice, the medium, and what I’m on about. Maybe I’m losing it – there’s certainly been a bit of a change in mood, content, and length in these parts this year, and in some way that must represent a change going on in my head, and heart – because I’ve always hoped that the content here in some way reflects who I am.

I’m mindful of some of the limitations of this medium – it’s black and white, it’s impersonal but personal, and the nature of the internet means some people aren’t here for the whole ride but get a hold of a post that’s been shared because it’s part of something controversial – and I’m mindful of some of my own limitations – my desire to argue, my arrogance and desire to be right, my inability to cope well with criticism, and my pride and tendency to spend too much time measuring myself by stupid standards (which is similar to arrogance, but slightly different), so this year I made my “about” page a little more robust, updated my disclaimer and added a comment policy.

So again, thanks heaps for reading, for commenting, and for sharing in 2012. Here are some numbers and stuff for people who like that sort of thing.

St. Eutychus by the Numbers

  • Posts: 414
  • Unique Visitors: 81,979
  • Visits: 111,601
  • Pageviews: 151,093

Some things people liked… (in order)

Where people came from

This table makes for some interesting viewing – special thanks to Simone, David, and Gary for sending people my way – and for all of you who like and share stuff from here on Facebook.

facebook.com

15,119

m.facebook.com

5,003

google.com

4,613

t.co

1,510

google.com.au

1,091

simone1975.blogspot.com.au

653

google.co.uk

464

davidould.net

403

google.ca

277

garyware.me

212

The importance of carefully scripting a sermon is something that has been pretty genetically drilled into me since before I can remember. The importance of writing the way you speak – rather than reading an essay – even more so.

I’m not ready to throw that under the bus just yet. There’s something nice about the security of having a script in front of you – both in terms of the discipline it brings – where you can’t just wander about on a whim, and there’s something reassuring about knowing that even if you completely fall apart mid delivery, you’ve just got to get to the end of your stack of paper.

But I like a challenge – and I think it’s axiomatic that the most engaging preachers around can hold an audience without using a script (I’m not so sure about a causal link there – it’s possible they’re just gifted and engaging people), and it’s certainly true that writing a script that isn’t dry and boring – and is active, full of verve, and engaging, is incredibly difficult and probably a combination of gift, art, and learned skill.

So this week I preached at our 11pm Christmas Eve service, and at all three services today. And I thought I’d, for the first time ever, give a talk from something other than a full script.

It was scary…

I’m not claiming to be an expert – but I’m drawing on a couple of experts – perhaps the world’s foremost expert on oratory – Cicero, and a couple of more modern people, as I think this through, and try to decide whether the method is a keeper…

We’ve been using this book, Preaching Without Notes, by Joseph Webb, at church this year. Because though I stirred the pot a few years ago with this post – eye contact does indeed make for more engaging communication. And being engaged is the first step towards being persuaded (all caveats about persuasion being the work of a sovereign God, by the Spirit, aside).

Webb draws on the work of a guy writing in the late 19th century… A guy named Broadus, who wasn’t a big fan of the old read sermon…

“As to delivery itself, reading is of necessity less effective, and in most cases immensely less effective, for all the great purposes of oratory, than speaking. Greater coldness of manner is almost inevitable. If one attempts to be very animated or pathetic, it will look unnatural. The tones of voice are monotonous, or have a forced variety The gestures are almost always unnatural, because it is not natural to gesticulate much in reading; and they scarcely ever raise us higher than to feel that really this man [or woman] reads almost like speaking… As to the delivery itself, it is only in extemporaneous speaking, of one or another variety, that [the sermon] can ever be perfectly natural, and achieve the highest effect. The ideal of speaking, it has been justly said, cannot be reached in any other way. Only thus will the voice, the action, the eye, be just what nature dictates, and attain their full power. And while painstaking culture vainly strives to read or recite precisely like speaking, the extemporaneous speaker may with comparative ease rise to the best delivery of which he [or she] is capable”

Preaching from a script, so that it doesn’t come across like you’re reading, is, I think, potentially more difficult than preaching without notes and being disciplined. But when you fail on the discipline point – or you’re tired – the script is incredibly useful.

Webb makes the distinction that extemporary preaching isn’t “off the cuff” or ad libbed – but the result of a fairly meticulous planning regime.

“What we are emphasizing is that the sermon preached without script or notes is a well-developed, meticulously crafted sermon, open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but prepared under the same constraints of procedure, time, and energy that guide every preacher week in and week out.”

Generally I find I’m much more comfortable, and more natural, and thus, arguably more engaging, when I tell a story naturally, rather than from a bit of paper – that’s partly because I’ve not yet mastered writing naturally (my writing is much more likely to sound like a news story – thanks to my journalism degree, than a conversation – the upside is that news stories don’t sound like essays…).

Cicero on preaching without notes

One of the reasons I really like the idea of preaching without notes is because I really like Cicero. You might have noticed. He said some great stuff in De Oratore which reaffirms the need for preachers to write. Constantly. In order to master language and develop their voice – and to improve their oratory. But also reaffirms the need for preachers to engage, and sound natural.

“This is why, in those exercises of your own, though there is a value in plenty of extempore speaking, it is still more serviceable to take time for consideration, and to speak better prepared and more carefully. But the chief thing is what, to tell the truth, we do least (for it needs great pains which most of us shirk), — to write as much as possible. The pen is the best and most eminent author and teacher of eloquence, and rightly so. For if an extempore and casual speech is easily beaten by one prepared and thought-out, this latter in turn will assuredly be surpassed by what has been written with care and diligence.”

In these two talks I started with a full script, and cut it back to what I thought was the minimum I needed to deliver a careful, and diligent, and prepared, piece of persuasive speech.

I reckon Cicero nails the sermon writing process in this quote. Even if some of the language is a little archaic. But give the guy a break – this was written in Latin, about 2070 years ago.

“The truth is that all the commonplaces, whether furnished by art or by individual talent and wisdom, at any rate such as appertain to the subject of our writing, appear and rush forward as we are searching out and surveying the matter with all our natural acuteness; and all the thoughts and expressions, which are the most brilliant in their several kinds, must needs flow up in succession to the point of our pen ; then too the actual marshalling and arrangement of words is made perfect in the course of writing, in a rhythm and measure proper to oratory as distinct from poetry.”

It’s part art, part skill, part gift – and mostly hard work. Thinking. Expressing. Scripting.

The written word was, unless you lived in Corinth and wanted Paul to be a flashier preacher, a longer lasting contribution to debate, and the shifting of ideas, in Rome – so sounding like you were delivering a tight piece of written persuasion was pretty important in Cicero’s day – but he suggests the goal of the relationship between spoken and written conversation is that people not notice the difference when you’re speaking…

“… he too who approaches oratory by way of long practice in writing, brings this advantage to his task, that even if he is extemporizing, whatever he may say bears a likeness to the written word; and moreover if ever, during a speech, he has introduced a written note, the rest of his discourse, when he turns away from the writing, will proceed in unchanging style.”

I love this little picture Cicero uses – I’d love for my sermons to feel like this. Rather than like an inverted proverbial duck’s feet churning around above the water, while I drown.

“Just as when a boat is moving at high speed, if the crew rest upon their oars, the craft herself still keeps her way and her run, though the driving force of the oars has ceased, so in an unbroken discourse, when written notes are exhausted, the rest of the speech still maintains a like progress, under the impulse given by the similarity and energy of the written word.”

Some actual reflections on preaching without notes

Anyway. Here are some of my actual reflections on the four sermons I preached, without a script, this week.

All preaching is hard – this is harder.
I’m not scared about standing in front of people and talking. But preaching – especially trying to say something that doesn’t just feel obvious, or vacuous – is hard work. I used to be able to knock out a script for a sermon in about 2 hours. But every time I go back to re-preach one of the 20 sermons in my archives, I’m bemused at its lack of quality – so sorry to the people who had to sit through those the first time around… The process of refining a sermon down to memorable chunks, and figuring out how you’re going to remember to logically link the chunks, is really hard work.

Familiarity with your material breeds contempt…
This isn’t just a reflection on preaching without notes – but I think the process I went through in the last two weeks, with two old sermons, gutted, and renovated, left me pretty bored with my content – I spent hours writing, rewriting, editing stuff down to dot point size, making powerpoint slides, and thinking about how this was all going to work. And because I’d gone over it so many times by the time I got up to share it, it just felt bleeding obvious. And boring. Even though I was talking about a dragon at Christmas, and the great news that we are called to be part of the work of the gospel. I certainly felt this more than I ever have when the last few days before a talk have just involved tweaking a written script.

If you bomb it – you really bomb it
I haven’t had a lot of sleep in the last two days – because of our adventurous turtle – so I was ridiculously without energy at our first morning service this morning. And I sucked. I fell apart. I lost the plot. I plodded. I made stupid mistakes. I said some things too early for them to contribute to the logic of my talk, and some things too late. I got the order of a couple of points in a list wrong – and then repeated myself the second time. It stank. Between services I was wondering if I could miraculously restore my full script, and preach from it the second time around. Part of the problem was that I was really tired, but I’m not sure what else contributed. It was the worst I’ve ever preached. Horrible. I felt so deflated.

You can’t do this when you’re really, really, ridiculously tired
This point is related. There is no doubt that talk wouldn’t have been so horrible if I had it all written out. The logic would have worked. And I wouldn’t have been thinking on my feet. My Christmas Eve service, at 11pm, was similarly muted. It was late at night – I think it would’ve been significantly better a little earlier. And my second and third talks today – one after a strong coffee, and with the benefit of hindsight, and the other after a long afternoon nap – really helped. By tonight I’d really figured out what bits to keep, and what bits to ditch – and the flow between points.

Some bits are going to get forgotten – so make sure you have a powerpoint slide that covers the really important points
Each time I spoke today I missed some of the really nice phrasing I’d worked up, and some really nice connections across the passage I was looking at (Matt 9:35-10:22). Some of these bits were more important than other – none were really pivotal. We’re talking stuff that added a bit of richness to what I was saying.

The adrenalin rush is bigger
The stress is bigger. The stakes are higher. But it’s also more fun to think on your feet a little. Each of these elements (though the first two seem closely related) add a chunk of adrenalin to the process.

When it works – people seem more engaged
Tonight felt really good. Better than the two morning services – and better than times I’ve preached with full text. People afterwards seemed to have followed what I’d been trying to say, and picked up bits of application that I was most excited about.

The capacity of the memory is huge – especially with tricks, and powerpoint

By the third time around today – at our 6:30pm service – I didn’t even look down at my dot points, I did look up at my powerpoint slides – projected on the back wall – but I knew where I was going. I knew how it fit together – and I remembered the important stuff I’d forgotten and left out in the earlier services (I did leave out some of the stuff that was actually really good – that I wish I’d said.

Powerpoint slides – not filled with comprehensive karaoke styled renditions of your entire sermon – but that are actually useful and memorable – work for your audience and for you. They take a lot of the guess work out of the memorisation process.

In all, it was a pretty interesting experience – and I’m going to give it a few more goes before I decide on its value.

The memory stuff is key – that’s one of the take home ideas in Webb – and it’s also one of Cicero’s pillars of successful oratory. Here’s some Cicero, to finish…

Cicero on remembering stuff (and on powerpoint)

Cicero had some cool tricks for memorising stuff that he goes through in De Oratore – using a mnemonic technique where you take visual cues from your surroundings – assigning certain points in the space you’re in to certain points in your argument, and glancing at them as you go… slides make that a lot easier.

He says the guy who invented mnemonics did so after his memory of where people at a dinner party were sitting helped identify their bodies after a roof collapsed.

“…this circumstance suggested to him the discovery of the truth that the best aid to clearness of memory consists in orderly arrangement. He inferred that persons desiring to train this faculty must select localities and form mental images of the facts they wish to remember and store those images in the localities, with the result that the arrangement of the localities will preserve the order of the facts, and the images of the facts will designate the facts themselves, and we shall employ the localities and images respectively as a wax writing tablet and the letters written on it…”

Memory, when you’re preaching without notes, is important because you need to remember where you’re going – and how a point relates to what comes before, and what follows.

“Consequently only people with a powerful memory know what they are going to say and for how long they are going to speak and in what style, what points they have already answered and what still remains…”

He thinks memory is a gift you’re born with – but that hard work can help the gifted, and the ungifted…

And consequently for my own part I confess that the chief source of this endowment, as of all the things I have spoken of before, is nature ; but the efficacy of the whole of this science, or perhaps I should say pseudo-science, of rhetoric, is not that it wholly originates and engenders something no part of which is already present in our minds, but that it fosters and strengthens things that have already sprung to birth within us ; though nevertheless hardly anybody exists who has so keen a memory that he can retain the order of all the words or sentences without having arranged and noted his facts, nor yet is anybody so dull-witted that habitual practice in this will not give him some assistance. “

Powerpoint – used alongside the memory, rather than instead of it, is a really useful way to put all your visual cues in one physical space – a screen. With a picture. Or a couple of words. Or a couple of verses.

Here are some anachronistic principles from Cicero, bolded in this quote, for putting together a powerpoint…

“It has been sagaciously discerned by Simonides or else discovered by some other person, that the most complete pictures are formed in our minds of the things that have been conveyed to them and imprinted on them by the senses, but that the keenest of all our senses is the sense of sight, and that consequently perceptions received by the ears or by reflexion can be most easily retained in the mind if they are also conveyed to our minds by the mediation of the eyes, with the result that things not seen and not lying in the field of visual discernment are earmarked by a sort of out-line and image and shape so that we keep hold of as it were by an act of sight things that we can scarcely embrace by an act of thought.

But these forms and bodies, like all the things that come under our view require an abode, inasmuch as a material object without a locality is inconceivable.

Consequently (in order that I may not be prolix and tedious on a subject that is well known and familiar) one must employ a large number of localities which must be clear and defined and at moderate intervals apart, and image that are effective and sharply outlined and distinctive, with the capacity of encountering and speedily penetrating the mind ; the ability to use these will be supplied by practice, which engenders habit, and by marking off similar words with an inversion and alteration of their cases or a transference from species to genus, and by representing a whole concept by the image of a single word, on the system and method of a consummate painter distinguishing the positions of objects by modifying their shapes.

But a memory for words, which for us is less essential, is given distinctness by a greater variety of images ; for there are many words which serve as joints connecting the limbs of the sentence, and these cannot be formed by any use of simile — of these we have to model images for constant employment ; but a memory for things is the special property of the orator — this we can imprint on our minds by a skilful arrangement of the several masks that represent them, so that we may grasp ideas by means of images and their order by means of localities.

1. Use images that play off your senses – visuals are powerful.
2. Use images to represent the key words or ideas.
3. Good planning prevents you from boring your audience.
4. Space them well – so that you can move smoothly between ideas.
5. Picking good visual clues develops with practice.
6. If you’re going to use a word, or words, on your slides, less is more.
7. Connect those images and words in a sequence that makes your talk make sense, and keeps you disciplined and structured.

What are your thoughts – as a listener or preacher? Are notes the bees knees? Are power points useful or distracting? Where’s the trade-off between accuracy and being engaging?

This is a great piece from Mumbrella.

Remember Dumb Ways To Die? If not, take a moment to familiarise yourself with it.

John Mescall, who made the ad, loaded up this piece with a bunch of really handy, and easily transferable, bits of advice for communicating with the YouTube generation.

A couple of samples.

Not many advertisers allow themselves to be that honest about things, but Metro did and that’s a great starting point. In a world dominated by spin, honesty in itself can be disarming and refreshing. I think the title helps. I’m a big believer in titles, and as advertising moves from paid interruptions to a storytelling model, it’s something we all should pay much more attention to. Titles sell books, and they sell movies. Your campaign needs a good title.

Dumb Ways to Die is a good title because it’s succinct, evocative and very suggestive of reward-for-effort. Who wouldn’t click on ‘dumb ways to die’? If we titled this piece ‘Be safe around trains’ would it have worked as well? Not a chance.

And the clincher – it’s about telling a story, and doing it with authenticity.

Ultimately, it’s an ad that doesn’t feel anything like an ad. It’s happy and silly and joyful and clever and more than a little odd; the intangible things that are so hard to rationalise, but so very important.

And finally, but very importantly, we made sure the campaign was easy to share and discuss. That meant turning the whole thing into animated gifs for tumblr. Making the song downloadable via iTunes, soundcloud and our website. Not disabling comments on youtube. That kind of thing.

If everybody leaves there will be less pictures of cats, and food I don’t care about.

Leaving more room for my photos of coffee…

… and my daughter…

 

…and my wife.

But mostly of coffee…

But seriously. I like Instagram.

Its social networking meets fauxtography nature is perfect for producing the picture content for my coffee blog. Its hashtagability means it’s perfect for pulling together real time user-generated picture content at an event.

Liking Instagram means I want Instagram to survive. Especially now they have great web profiles. Instagram surviving means they have to make money.

How did people think they were going to do that if not through the content that we produce using their app, and store on their databases, with all sorts of great metadata and user generated responses to brands and places. That’s where the value in their service is, so it makes sense that that’s where they’ll try to become profitable.

Instagram says things aren’t as bad as the interwebs made out anyway, and The Verge has a great piece showing what they can and can’t do, legally speaking.

This Funny or Die response is probably my favourite.

Church Communication is something I’m pretty keen on. So a book on Church Communication, with contributors from churches all around the world, is something I’m also pretty keen on.

Enter Outspoken: Conversations on Church Communication a nice little primer on church communications in the digital age.

outspoken

What I liked about this book is how digestible the chunks are. Each chapter is an idea. A page or two – basically a blog post. From a different person. Each chapter ends with contact details for that person. It’s very conversational. It’s a nice format – and this is, increasingly, the way this sort of “how to” book is going to work, I think.

I loved that each contributor is passionate about seeing the church communicate its message well, and in a way that removes barriers for people while finding new opportunities. There’s much to like here. And not much to dislike. You should get a copy.

Some chapters resonated more with me than others, each is the product of a time, place, and culture, a little bit removed from the here and now. But it’s possible to mind that gap and get something from just about everybody who contributed.

Here are some of my favourite tips, tidbits, and communication tricks from the book.

“The early church didn’t have the modern technologies we have today. There were no billboards or direct mail campaigns to announce Jesus was coming. The disciples didn’t tweet or blog the Sermon on the Mount or other messages Jesus gave during his ministry. The one thing the early church did have, however, was captivating stories worth telling.” – Introduction, Tim Schraeder

This para is a nice summary of what my Masters project is going to cover next year.

“Church historians have noted that with every major cultural revolution that has taken place in modern times, there’s been an accompanying movement of God’s Spirit as the church has found new ways to reach more people. Our message has never changed but the way we communicate it has found new forms and new mediums throughout the generations.”

Those who caught my “multimedia is word ministry” post a while back will understand why I appreciated this

“Every time you communicate anything in any medium as a church, it is preaching. I’m not suggesting you start tweeting, “God reads knee-mail,” from your church’s account. What I am suggesting is that no matter what you’re saying, it is a sermon being preached.” – Media is Preaching, Jeremy Sexton

This collection of four tips for communication from a chapter by Curtis Simmons called A Failure to Communicate is timeless (the first three are the same sort of tips Cicero might give):

1. What The first step is to fully understand what you are being asked to communicate. Find out the story that is driving the communication. For example, don’t simply announce that Vacation Bible School is next month and assume everyone understands the benefits. Instead, explain the positive impact that it will have on the lives of the children and volunteers. Include testimonials from those involved in prior years.

2. Who Next, consider the audience. Tailor your message to the specific audience that truly needs to hear it. If your church is conducting a class specifically for new parents, then customize the message so it speaks directly to their needs.

3. How When developing your message keep it simple. Don’t use the cryptic language only some Christians may understand. Explain in simple, every day terms how one can come to know and trust in Jesus rather than inviting them to be “washed in the sanctifying blood of the Lamb.” Your message should also be crystal clear. Reduce the effort to get involved with an event or ministry to no more than three or four easy to under- stand steps and direct them to the first step.

4. Where Now that you know the story you need to determine which channels should be used to best reach your intended audience. In some instances an email to a small group is sufficient. In other instances, you may need to spread the word on your website, Twitter, Facebook and in the worship announcements.

There are a couple of really important points in there – I think – the first is to make all your communication about people – both in who communicates it, the content of the communication (stories), and the benefits you spruik (the “what’s in it for your audience” factor), and the second is the emphasis on multichannel communication. There’s a solid theory that suggests a message needs to be heard somewhere between 6-10 times (which means it probably needs to be said more than that) to be communicated effectively.

Simmons has a helpful warning emphasising the corollary of that – everybody else is trying to communicate to the same people multiple times.

“Keep in mind that the members of your congregation are bombarded with hundreds of messages each day. Don’t add to the noise by communicating every idea, event or program to everyone.”

This means being careful and creative with how we get messages to the ears or eyes of our hearers.

Another really helpful point, which I think leads back to ethos being more important than well put together pathos or logos (another part of my project), comes in a chapter by Phil Bowdle called Authenticity > Excellence. He says:

“There’s a word that has generated lots of momentum in the church world in recent years. It’s a word that gets thrown around frequently in conferences, workshops, staff teams and blogs. We’ve become obsessed with it. The word? Excellence.

Excellence has become a mantra behind much of the work we do. We’ve attempted to prove wrong the world’s assumption that if it’s Christian, it’s sub-par. Excellence is a value that has often been overlooked in the church, and it’s as important as ever to keep it at the core of everything we do.

In an effort to demand excellence in all that we do, a more important principle has been overlooked. That principle is authenticity.

I’ll be the first to put my hand up to say that I’ve bought into the excellence idea – because I don’t think being excellent in how we do things stands apart from being real and excellent in who we are – I actually think excellence and authenticity are incredibly related – so long as excellence is aspirational, and room is given for the humanity of the communicator and their audience.

Bowdle makes an interesting point, depending on how you measure excellence, that authentic communication produces better outcomes.

“Interestingly, we generated a much higher response out of the secondary communication strategies we implemented. Things like webcam videos, simple blog posts and in-service testimonies seemed to be more effective than the polished video and print pieces. The difference? The more the authenticity of the person, message or story shined, the more effective the result.”

I would’ve thought that rather than authenticity being better than excellence, authenticity=excellence.

I’d say, given that I have a bent towards judging communication by its character, and its fruits (and hey, so does Cicero), that authentic communication is the most excellent kind – especially if it’s driven by love (ala Paul in 1 Cor 12:31-13:1 – which seems to be one of his fundamental principles for church communication).

If you’ve come across marketing doyen Seth Godin, you’ll recognise the notion of “tribes” – if not, the idea is that the most successful to build something to the point of being successful is to build a tribe. His definition of a tribe: “A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea,” essentially describes a church. Whether the leader is Jesus or the senior pastor (or both), is a question of one’s ecclesiology. Anyway. Jon Dale applies this model to church communication to suggest we should be working harder at equipping the members of our tribe to talk to other people – which is, I think, the essential secret to doing social media well as a church. He says:

“There are four types of tribal communication:
1. Leader to tribe member.
2. Tribe member to leader.
3. Tribe member to tribe member.
4. Tribe member to outsider.

We spend most of our energy in the church (and business) world on #1. Think about it. We get up on stage on Sunday and do #1. We send out eblasts and do #1. We write books and do #1. Then we upgrade to the latest craze and do a podcast (more of #1). And for kicks we send out a survey and think we’re doing #2 well. But the reality is that #3 and #4 are what change the world.”

Another idea that resonated with me came from Danielle Hartland in Fresh and Light, which basically called for your organisational infrastructure and pathways should be seen, and experienced – rather than heard. And when you’re talking about these important things you should talk about them as they relate to Jesus and in a human way.

“No one is motivated when they feel like a tiny cog in a big machine. Instead of telling people how they fit in your church’s grand plan, tell them how/why things will help them connect to and grow in Jesus.”

This leads nicely back to the importance of the story – and Matt Knisely’s Your Church, the Storyteller, is, I think, the most important chapter for communicating with the post-modern, and post-post-modern world.

“One of the most powerful tools any church has to reach people is a first-person story of a changed life.”

And the best part is, no matter what size church you have, telling stories doesn’t require expensive equipment or complicated multimedia. You really need just one thing: People whose lives are being changed by the gospel message. Ask them for their stories. Ask in emails. Ask them to write their stories down. Ask them in person. Then, tell those stories. Video them if you want. Print them (with permission).

There are a few good practical chapters in the mix, none more important than the chapters on church websites. These make the point that the church website is, if not just for outsiders, the primary tool outsiders are using to investigate you. I’ve argued that the result of this is that your website should be geared to the outsider.

These contributors agree – Jeremy Scheller writes Your Website Needs to Be a Billboard, and suggests the following principles (I’ve summarised them):

1. Keep it simple.
2. Say something about you.
3. Get to the point.
4. Point people to take action.

Paul Steinbrueck in Your Website: your first, and only, impression, says 80% of people who are looking for a church start on the web. And they start with google. So search engine optimisation is really important, as is what people see if they arrive.

He gives seven tips with these points in mind. (Again, I’ve summarised them, buy the book).

1. Optimize your website for search engines.
2. Give your website a nice design.
3. Prominently feature a “New Visitor” section.
4. Include a welcome message.
5. Include pictures or video services.
6. Answer all the questions you would want answered before you visit a church.
7. Publish stories.

The last, and perhaps most important point comes from Scott McClellan – who, in a chapter called Never Trust a Skinny Chef urges people involved in communication to put themselves in the shoes, seat, or ears, of their audience – to make sure it’s hitting the target.

“Read your writing. Watch your films. Listen to your sermons. Browse your website. Navigate the church building using your signage. Subscribe to your email newsletter.”

This is a really useful book, and one I’m sure I’ll be coming back to, both in its initial form – and by continuing the conversation, where necessary, with its contributors. Most of whom are on Twitter.

I’m expanding my presence on Twitter. Which involves getting more followers. This happened by accident. Deliberate accident.

Lots of expert Twitter types have a policy of following back the people who follow them. And I’ve spent the last couple of days tracking down, and following (like a good stalker), people who do church communications stuff. So when I followed 100 new people, I scored about 25 new followers.

One of the questions I’m trying to figure out when it comes to social media in general, and Twitter in particular, is how you be present on these platforms in a way that points people to Jesus. How do you use these platforms with humility shaped by the cross? This is true for St. Eutychus too, and for Facebook (though I have some thoughts on ways to use Facebook in a gospel-promoting way (linked, for ironic self-promotional purposes)).

twitter crown of thorns

 

Reading through a few thousand Twitter biographies has been an interesting exercise.

Incidentally, one of the reasons I’m doing this is that I’m drinking some of the social media kool-aid (also this Kottke piece) that says Facebook is a weird mish-mash of relationships largely made up by incidental people in your life – former colleagues, school friends, and random acquaintances – which is true, with all the caveats about how I love you very much if you are one of those people… while Twitter is fresh and exciting, and you can follow people you share interests with. So I follow the coffee industry, and its various parts, and personalities, and people keen to see the good news of Jesus presented to as many people as possible, in the best ways possible.

I’ve followed lots of people in the last few days, and there are some pretty useful people saying some pretty useful things out there.

But there are some people who I’ll never follow, because their 160 letter bio – which is what Twitter gives you – is too cringeworthy. I have limits.

I should make a slight qualification at this point – I’m particularly interested in what people choose to feature as “individuals” rather than as “professionals” – professional accounts need to be professional. They’ll have a different set of standards – and a different set of communication priorities. And that’s fine. I’m really interested in what individuals, especially Christian individuals, choose to feature in their bio. Because most of the people I’m following are running what essentially amount to mixed accounts – which deal with their professional interests from a personal perspective, or are in vocational ministry – so professionally Christian – some of these quibbles I’m making in this post will apply more or less directly on a case by case basis.

160 letters isn’t a lot. I’d prefer to err on the side of not using all the characters (you can see my profile here). But here is what my blurb said before I started thinking about this:

Christian. Husband. Father. Blogger. Coffee Blogger. Theological Student. PR Mercenary. Coffee snob. http://thebeanstalker.com  | http://st-eutychus.com

Here’s what I’ve changed it to.

A broken human. Bought by God. Following king Jesus. Trying to love people.
Relentlessly curious | Fixated by words | Pursuing coffee perfection

There’s a long and rambling post I’m writing and editing, and writing and editing, about the perils of being a Christian on social media – with its built in tendencies towards default narcism. I’ll post it, somewhat ironically, when I can finally get it to a point where it doesn’t seem to all be about me.

The biography is an interesting, and fixed, part of who you are on Twitter – even if, as Kottke suggests, you are your last six tweets, the bio provides an interpretive framework for how your tweets are read and understood. It’s a big part of your personal brand – in that it shapes how people who don’t know you outside of Twitter perceive you.

So the Twitter bio presents the best, and worst, of this part of social media. This isn’t a post about the content of your feed – but the bio both frames how people perceive you, and provides some indication of what you’re going to post. You can make everything you post about Jesus, and ruin it with a bio that’s all about how great thou art – not how great he is.

Biographies and about pages are the distilled essence of your presence on social media, more than each individual tweet, or post. They’re designed for self-promotion. They’re the billboard that wins you new followers. Your sales pitch. If there’s ever a time to talk about yourself, in a flattering way, it’s the Twitter bio… and maybe this is a cultural thing – maybe my good, old-fashioned, Australian, tall poppy syndrome kicks in here – but if you have to blow your own trumpet, and beat your own drum, it’s not really a tune I’m all that interested in listening to, or a rhythm that gets me tapping my feet along…

It’s hard to be simultaneously “self-promoting,” in line with the expectations of the medium, and self-effacing, in line with the cross-shaped approach to self that Christians are called to adopt.

How do we take up our cross and follow Jesus in this space? How do we imitate Paul, who resolved to know nothing but Christ, getting rid of the eloquence that would focus attention on himself when his Corinthian audience, who couldn’t separate style from substance, forced him to… as he imitates Jesus?

This is one area where I think Mark Driscoll, channeling Luther, does a stellar job. Here’s his bio:

“A nobody trying to tell everybody about Somebody”

What I’ve found is that there are certain common elements to Twitter bios that I’d argue are essentially redundant. And a few elements, when individualised and freshened, that I find really appealing, and I’ll be trying to fit into my bio. I’ll do those first.

5 Elements of a Christian Twitter profile that I like

  1. It starts with Jesus. If Jesus isn’t defining who you are, and one of the things you want people to know about you – then why do I want to read about you?
  2. It humanises. It doesn’t just end with Jesus. That’d be boring – and the sort of pietism that, if reflected in your tweets, is a real turn off (I’m looking at you Piper). I like the idea that Twitter isn’t just about being in a Christian-to-Christian love-in. I like Twitter profiles that show me something of a person’s humanity (I’ll get to some short cut ways of doing this that annoy me below) – and acknowledges human limitations.
  3. It’s humble. This is related to the first two, and it’s a genre subverter. And I love people who pull this off in a bio, it often requires a bit of well thought out self-deprecation. It’s part of the reason I like Driscoll’s bio so much (even if the content of his social media presence can occasionally run counter to that).
  4. It uses humour appropriately. Generally this follows being humble, but it can also be a matter of what you choose to focus on, other than yourself.
  5. It gives some idea what sort of content you’ll be tweeting. This goes two ways – it’s a great tool for you, the tweeter, to give you some sort of editorial policy, but it also means if I follow you on the basis of a common interest you highlight in your bio, I’m not going to be inundated by pictures of your cat.

5 Elements of a Twitter Profile that scare me off

Those are the good. Here are the things that irk me…

  1. It’s all about you. Even if you’re sufficiently self-effacing, if you’re a Christian, and you’re not using this 160 characters to give some account of the hope that you have (even using the label “Christian” is better than nothing), then you’re wasting letters.
  2. It’s all about your idea of your qualities. Calling yourself a “leader” or a “genius,” or a “creative,” or anything better demonstrated than claimed – this stuff always reads, to me, a bit like the lame person who tries to give themselves a nickname to fit in somewhere. Nicknames come when you demonstrate that you fit in, or as part of the process. Leaders lead. They can’t just say “I’m a leader”… Creative people demonstrate creativity.
  3. You waste letters on disclaimers. There’s nothing more boring than reading “ideas my own” or “retweets are not endorsements” in your bio. Boring.
  4. You put faux-interesting expressions of humanity in your bio. It’s not ground breaking to tell people you love coffee, or your family (which is why I cut those bits). Nor, I would argue, is being “into coffee” all that interesting – especially because being “into coffee” is so relative. Do you drink instant four times an hour? (I’m guilty of this one – though I’d argue having a coffee blog means referring to coffee in my profile is indicative of the content I’m going to tweet). It’s another shortcut to interestingness to tell me that you like sports, and you support a particular team – I can’t believe how many people put that in their bio (I’m a Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles fan by the way… and a Man Utd fan). If that’s the tribe you want to claim some sort of allegiance to, then that’s fine.
  5. It’s full of doublespeak/weasel words. I read a bio about optimising such and such through creating synergies and blah blah blah. That’s exactly what I thought. Why would you waste 160 characters on words that either mean nothing, or could be explained in less letters in a way that isn’t just designed to make you look smarter than the other guys.

So. Are these the worst? Or am I missing something? And perhaps more importantly – how do you navigate the minefield that is the narcissism inherent in the system, and the humility inherent in recognising that you’re a broken human following the crucified king? Even posting something like this is fraught with the possibility of being a little self-indulgent, so what’s been helpful?