Cicero (and Paul) on the cross

I’ve been trying not to go nuts posting stuff from my project. But here’s a cool contrast between Paul and Cicero that I think explains their differences when it comes to oratory.

Cicero on execution using a cross, Pro C. Rabirio Perduellionis Reo:

“Even if death be threatened, we may die free men; but the executioner, and the veiling of the head, and the mere name of the cross, should be far removed, not only from the persons of Roman citizens—from their thoughts, and eyes, and ears. For not only the actual fact and endurance of all these things, but the bare possibility of being exposed to them,—the expectation, the mere mention of them even,—is unworthy of a Roman citizen and of a free man…”

Paul on the message of the cross, First Letter to the Corinthians:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.

One of Cicero’s modern biographers, James May, said Cicero – who was martyred for his love for Republican, rather than Imperial, Rome – presented himself as.

“the patriot, true and unfailing, ready and willing to put his life on the line for the survival of the state—in fact, he is in a way the symbol, even the literal embodiment of the Republic.”

Here’s an example from on of his famous final speeches, the Orationes Philippicae:

“I defended the republic as a young man; I will not desert it as an old one. I despised the swords of Catiline; I will not fear yours. Indeed I would gladly offer my body, if by my death the liberty of the state can be immediately recovered, so that finally the suffering of the Roman People may bring to birth what it has long since labored to produce. For if twenty years ago in this very temple I said that death could not be too early for a consular, how much more truly will I now say, for an old man!”

I reckon 2 Corinthians 4 is Paul’s handbook to Christian persuasion…

Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sakeFor God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from Godand not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

13 It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.” Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. 15 All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.

 

Healings, Pentecostals, and Jesus in the public sphere

This post isn’t meant to be adversarial. And I really haven’t thought all that deeply about the issue (unless you count the time it took me to write this). One of my Facebook friends just asked if I was going to write something about this story about some Christian faith healer types, which was on the front page of Queensland’s Sunday paper, the Sunday Mail, last weekend. And my initial reaction was: “no way,” then I thought: “why not?” It’s not often one gets to use two colons in a sentence, so that’s justification enough. But this is an interesting example of some positive, or not quite negative, media coverage of a group of Christians in the media, so it probably gets as close to fitting the bill in these parts as anything else.


Image Credit: The Courier Mail

Sooner or later, if you sit in a pretty narrow segment of the Christian world, someone is going to get a guernsey in the media, as a Christian, who spouts some stuff you don’t agree with, stuff that makes you cringe a little… It happened to protestants everywhere when Cardinal George Pell announced that atheists get into heaven. But when you’re a reformed, evangelical, Presbyterian, you’re sitting in a pretty narrow branch of Australian Christian thought. While 740,000 people identified as Presbyterian in the 2001 census, the 2001 National Church Life Survey suggests (based on their own extrapolation of their data) that there are about 35,000 people in Presbyterian churches on any given Sunday (I know the data is ten years old, but it’s probably actually on the optimistic side to suggest that the number hasn’t changed too much since then). That means you’re four times more likely to own a copy of One Direction’s album, Up All Night, in Australia, than have a similar set of beliefs about Christianity to me. Now there are other comparisons I could make between my understanding of Christian theology with other denominations which might make the stats more favourable. But lets face it. Christianity in Australia is a broad church. And being a pentecostal is not something that stops you loving the Lord Jesus.

That’s a rather long preamble which should help me make this point in a way that is hopefully gracious. I’m not a pentecostal, and I believe my pentecostal brothers and sisters get many things wrong. I wouldn’t be picking this fight, and it’s not a fight, were this story not on the front page of the paper, and then on the television. I realise that my views on faith healings are, in the scheme of Australian (not to mention global) Christianity, at the very least a matter of debate, and perhaps more accurately, they’re idiosyncratic. My views, thanks to my rational, Western, sceptical epistemological framework (a fancy way for describing how I think I know stuff), and my “excluded middle” (seriously, click that link – it’s a thought provoking piece from Tamie), doesn’t leave a lot of room for “miracles” as it is, but when coupled with my theological assumptions about what the Holy Spirit actually does, and what purpose miracles serve in the Bible, and how God works through people who are medically trained (lets call this a case of natural revelation meets God’s providence), I approach claims of supernatural healings with about the same level of enthusiasm as my atheist friends. Which means I do one of those involuntary shivers when I read a story headlined “Teen God squad Culture Shifters’ miracle cure claims” in the local paper. The story is relatively tame and contains a bit of “he says/she says” “objectivity”… and this telling quote which really nails the heart of the problem that healing ministries create for the rest of us:

“Flinders University Department of Theology professor Andrew Dutney said youth could be more attracted to flamboyant religious styles than to mainline churches.

“There are issues of course … for example, if a person is drawn to this group with a promise of healing and then they are not healed,” Professor Dutney said.

“There can be situations where people blame the person themselves for not being healed and say: ‘You don’t have enough faith’ and ‘You have some secret sin’ and that can be extremely damaging.'”

These concerns raised in the paper by a learned professor, coupled with the relatively infamous “why won’t God heal amputees” meme, and the problematic prosperity theology that underpins the idea that every illness is a miracle waiting to happen (rather than a sign that the world is broken as a result of sin, and that sufferings are a part of life in this world), leave me a bit concerned when it comes to my “Jesus should be at the centre of our engagement with the world” trope. I don’t doubt that God can heal people, or that he responds to prayer, I just doubt “healing on demand” with a measurement of success metric that would be the envy of any public health department in the world. The more Christians present healing as an expectation now, in this world, the more the distinction between now, and the new creation is blurred, the greater the disjunct becomes between expectation and reality, which makes the amputee question more rhetorically powerful than it ought to be. The real answer to that question is “why should God heal amputees” – and a robust account of the effect of the fall on our experience of the world.

A word on Pentecostals

Pentecostals simultaneously represent the best and worst of Christian culture. In my humble opinion (but lets face it, posting my opinion on a blog and assuming you’re still reading, 800 words on, is indicative of a problematic definition of humble).

This realisation probably struck me most (recently) when I watched a group of hip young things, who I can only assume were Pentecostal because of how amazingly happy and cool they looked, pray together on a Toowoomba street during Easterfest last weekend. I wasn’t at Easterfest. I was at a cafe. The whole contemporary Christian music scene is something I’ve got (I suspect well documented in the archives of this blog) big problems with. These guys were so fired up for Jesus. It was great seeing them hunker down in the middle of a busy street (admittedly a street mostly filled with Christians) to pray for each other. I wish my cloistered, fuddy-duddy reformed friends would do more stuff like that. Genuine, authentic, spontaneous expressions of joy, hope and faith aren’t really something we do well. The action was inspiring. But sadly, the words were inane. I listened to these prayers babbling on with pop-psychology/spiritual babble about the Spirit anointing these people to do such odd and mundane things. I’m not suggesting that God doesn’t have an interest in the mundane, or that we shouldn’t pray about them (again, read Tamie’s excluded middle post), but rather that we shouldn’t hyper-spiritualise them, and we should potentially understand the Spirit’s primary role, in the life of the believer, has less to do with triviality, and more to do with seeing God glorified, and Christ proclaimed, through us.

The great promise of the reformed charismatic movement is the fusing of the joyful enthusiasm of these pentecostal types with a more robust, and dare I say “intellectually sound” (without sounding patronising) understanding of the work of the Spirit, and the purpose of the Christian life. I’ll still probably never be a charismatic, I’m much too narrow minded for that, but at least I’ll be able to sit on the sidelines and sneer less when my Christian brothers open their mouths.

I’ve got to say, I watched 20 minutes of random clips from Culture Shifters, as well as a couple of “healing” videos, and I was much more impressed with the stuff they do in their gatherings than with the healings. These healings could easily be explained, by the skeptical, as preying on the gullibility of the naive and employing some charm and powers of suggestion. I’m not saying that’s what’s happening – just that if I wanted to provide a non-supernatural (or natural) explanation for what’s going on in those videos, that’s where I’d turn. On the other hand, the Culture Shifters’ gatherings seemed focused on, and faithful to the gospel (though I did flick through a couple of testimonies and sermons without listening to the whole lot), and they were if not all about Jesus, they were at least in the ballpark of making Jesus the big deal, which is hard to do in any personal testimony, and encouraging when it comes to the sermons.

On the Spirit and healing and stuff

My biggest problem with this story in particular, and faith healing in general, is (as with Christian engagement with politics) that Jesus gets pushed to the sidelines as an afterthought. Both in the stories themselves, and in the actions. Now. I’m sure the Culture Shifters guys are excited about Jesus and passionate about sharing the gospel. And no doubt the reporter spent ample time hearing about how these guys are living out their faith in king Jesus, who has the power not just to heal the sick, but to forgive sins. But that’s not in this story, nor is it likely to be the take home message for your average Aussie non-Christian. I don’t want to set up binaries (though the world would be much easier if I had that power) – but wouldn’t it be better for all of us if these young, keen, fresh faced and friendly Christians were walking the aisles of our major shopping centres and talking to people about Jesus, rather than doing the Christian equivalent of a parlour trick (they would no doubt say they are doing both). Assuming it gets an equal reception, the gospel has a much better success rate than a healing, with a better long term prognosis. And as much as we’d like to read ourselves into the gospel narratives as Jesus, or even the disciples, we’re really neither. We’re the people who have the benefits of their sacrifice, their ministry, and 2,000 years of ministry from subsequent faithful brothers and sisters. The idea that we’re to run around healing people at the drop of a prayer is pretty hard to justify, and any passage that is even partly suggestive that this might be something we should pray for or attempt is pretty strongly linked to the proclamation of the gospel as the end to which our activities should be directed. This is true both for Jesus’ ministry, that of the disciples, and the version of the great commission in the disputed ending of Mark…

“15 He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

And the question to ask those people is why they aren’t handling snakes or drinking poison. And also, why these verses seem to summarise the events in Acts so perfectly – even up to Paul being bitten by a snake.

So my problem, in summary, is this. The Spirit works to unite us to Christ, to sanctify us through repentance and regeneration, to equip us with gifts for the service of the body, and to strengthen us as we proclaim the gospel. Ultimately the Spirit points people to Jesus – making us more like Jesus, helping us encourage our brothers and sisters to be more like Jesus, and helping other people meet Jesus. Sure. Sometimes that may involve a miraculous healing. But miracles are the exception rather than the norm, and suffering, not prosperity and health, is the norm for Christians. The world is broken, temporary fixes are temporary, and if you want to heal people it probably makes more sense to become a doctor, and do that faithfully and in the service of God. So I think it’s actually unhelpful to the cause of the gospel, not just to the Presbyterian understanding of the gospel, to be making waves for “healing people” if you’re not talking about the real work of healing that Jesus accomplished on the cross and getting media attention and claiming a 90% success rate. Especially when you’re promising an outcome that has no Biblical mandate – sickness and disease are the reality this side of the new creation, and it’s a category error to suggest that our job is to make the new creation happen now. It’s great to want to shift the culture now, to change the world. But that isn’t done just by miraculously healing broken hands, it’s done by introducing broken people to Jesus.

That is all.

UPDATE: The guys behind Culture Shift, or rather, the couple behind Culture Shift, has posted a video responding to the media furore surrounding their healing ministry. I find these two pretty compelling. I want to like them. But I also think this video pretty much sums up in words what I’ve tried to express above. There’s something about the emphasis on transformation being about happiness from about the three minute thirty mark that doesn’t quite mesh up with my understanding of the gospel.

Here’s what Grant, the guy in the video says…

“God’s not just healing people of sickness. He’s healing people of broken hearts. He’s healing people from depression. Really this story is about hundreds of young Australians who had lost hope in life but found the love of God and are now transformed and some of the happiest people on earth.”

Now, I don’t disagree with the sentiment, or with these things, but the work of Jesus isn’t front and centre, nor is the heart of our problem. Sin. And how Jesus deals with that. This could easily be the slogan from a self help program.

I do like that they urge people to go to the doctor and not stop taking their medication. There’s lots to like about these guys and enthusiasm they’re bringing to life and to serving Jesus, but like I said before this update, the gospel is about more than healing sickness, broken hearts, and depression – it’s first and foremost about fixing the brokenness that is a result of our rejection of God.

How to get good media coverage for your ministry: Be alarmingly loving, for the purpose of being alarmingly loving

As I continue to think through the place of PR in Christian ministry I keep trying to find a balance between Matthew 6:1-4:

” 1 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

And 1 Peter 2:12…

“12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”

… John 13:34-35…

” 34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

… Philippians 2:1-4, 12-15

“1 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others… 12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.
14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky “

I’m wary of prooftexting to justify a particular behaviour – but it seems to me that there’s a balance in the New Testament, which in some sense follows the model of “mission” I think operates in the Old, where the way Christians live, and particularly, the way they love others, is the basis of our testimony, or at least our being noticed as different, and getting a hearing for the gospel.

I think the tension in Matthew 6 is there, but as I think I’ve said elsewhere, what seems to be the focus in that passage is when you’re doing loving things just to be noticed. Just when the spotlight is on. Just for the goodwill. And just for your own reputation. It seems to me that if we’re doing loving things that are consistent with our character, and more importantly, consistent with the gospel, and consistent with considering others better than ourselves, then some sort of interaction with the media may be part of participating in the modern “public sphere.”

Part of my understanding of both the media, and the internet, is that it has in a sense supplanted the marketplace of Acts 17, where Paul took his preaching of the gospel. And participating in the media, or the marketplace, means having a story, and good public relations means this story should be something that is closely tied to the gospel.

There’s nothing more closely tied to the gospel than selfless sacrifice for the sake of others in response to the love of Jesus. It’s also very hard to criticise that sort of behaviour. This is a pretty long preamble to draw your attention to this incredible story published in the SMH’s weekend magazine, and reproduced online.

This is the kind of story that gets noticed.

 

It’s a fair bet that if Jesus Christ were around today, he’d be doing what the Owens are doing in Mount Druitt. They feed the poor and house the homeless. They lead the lost and counsel the conflicted.

Experts at unconditional love

They’re experts at unconditional love: alcoholic mums, runaway kids, petty thieves, everyone’s welcome at the Owens’ home, a four-bedroom brick house that for the past five years has been equal parts street kitchen and safe house, as well as a home for their daughters Kshama, 8, and Kiera, 7.

“The most we’ve had here is 13 people,” Jon says, showing me around the cramped, single-storey home, the floors of which are strewn with sheets and sleeping bags. “They crash on the couches, on the floor. It’s busy, but it’s fun, too, especially at dinner time.”

To make space, Kiera sleeps in Jon and Lisa’s room. Kshama is in an adjoining space, which is really just her parents’ walk-in wardrobe. Jaz, an 18-year-old girl whom the Owens unofficially adopted last year, recently got her own room, so she could study for the HSC.

Wow.

“I grew up in a family where following God was just another part of the Aussie dream, where you have a house in the suburbs, make enough money to relax, mow your lawn and cook your roast on Sunday.” As part of the theology course, however, Jon studied a section of the Bible called The Prophets, with one book, Amos, striking a chord. “At one point God says, ‘Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.’ I remember thinking, ‘That’s all I do; I go to church and sing songs.’ ”…

His father had always stressed career and professional success. “But Jesus was not about material wealth,” Jon says. “The guy was all about intentional downward mobility! And I realised that what I really wanted was to do something significant in this world, not just piss around at the edges.”These days, however, they live without all that, without fancy food or flash cars or overseas holidays. They relax by watching TV, by listening to Leonard Cohen – Jon is also partial to Sarah Blasko – by cooking or going to the park with their kids. (Monday is “family day”, when Kshama and Kiera get their undivided attention. “Monday is sacred,” Jon says. “That and eating together as a family.”)

Jon allows himself one cigarette on the back porch at night. Neither of them drinks, because they don’t want to support an industry they believe causes so much damage. And yet they are ridiculously, implausibly happy. “Life’s good,” Jon likes to say.

“We’re driven by our faith,” Lisa explains. “I believe that as I respond to people I’m responding to Jesus, because I believe that Jesus is in all of us.”

The full story is heaps bigger. I’m not sure I completely agree with some of the stuff they say, or do. But it’s pretty radical. Noticable. And incredibly hard to criticise.

Being on Message for Jesus: Mike O’Connor Interview

Mike, also known as M-Dog, O’Connor is the minister at Rockhampton Pressy Church. He’s a top bloke who’s always on the lookout for ways to love his community and point them to Jesus. This means using the media a bit, and finding quirky angles to latch on to in order to get Jesus front and centre. I interviewed him because I wanted some regional balance because I think PR is more effective and a bit easier in the less crowded regional markets. Anyway. He says some good stuff.

1. How much media stuff have you guys done?
We’ve had fair bit to do with the media during my three years in Rockhampton. I was interviewed by TV and Radio during our church’s involvement with the Rockhampton Flood recovery and also during our church’s 150th Anniversary Celebration.
I’ve also written a couple of opinion pieces for the local daily newspaper “The Rockhampton Bulletin” about same-sex marriage and about a pizza franchise called “Hell’s Pizza”.

I also use facebook for ministry, I have lots of non-christian ‘friends’ and I’ve taken up twitter again recently.

2. What benefits do you see from engaging with the media?

There are many benefits – I struggle to think of any disadvantages.
In a technological age, the media provide another platform, if not the greatest platform for the church to proclaim the gospel news about Jesus. The media access more people than I can ever reach on a Sunday with the good news about Jesus. We have a message – they have the medium. Our culture is media saturated and so the church needs to engage with the media if we still want people to take seriously the claims about the person and work of Jesus Christ.

3. What do you think stops churches engaging with the media?

It’s hard to speculate accurately, perhaps it’s a matter of not knowing how to use the media or not knowing what things might be in the public interest where the church’s voice would be welcomed into the debate or expected to be heard?

I wonder if there is still a ghetto mentality amongst christians when it comes to the media. The idea of ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’, ‘clean’ and unclean’ still shapes a lot of church thinking and the media is seen as ‘part of the problem’ in an ‘evil world’. I think a more helpful way of viewing the media is seeing it as a platform where we can reach people with the the message of Jesus. This must be done in an intelligent and respectful way, by which I mean, knowing what battles are worth fighting for and the kind of voice or tone we bring to the debate.

4. What do you think it looks like when Christians do media engagement badly?
It’s embarrassing! I think bad engagement means picking the wrong battles and speaking with the wrong voice. There have been a number of examples lately across all mediums concerning same-sex and religious education in schools where we’ve spoken with the wrong tone or picked the wrong battle. What happens is that people think the church is about rules and regulations because essentially that’s what we are telling them. This only perpetuates the stereo-type that Christianity is becoming more and more irrelevant as our culture seeks to be morally progressive. We lose our right to speak about anything intelligently, we’re no longer being invited to the discussion. Bad engagement means no-one is listening when we want to talk to them about Jesus and we’re left wondering why people want nothing to do with the church!

5. How important is it, from your perspective, for us to talk about Jesus and the cross, when we’re appearing in public?

I would see it as essential. If the message that God has given the church to tell the World is about the death and resurrection of Jesus and the forgiveness of sins, then surely that’s what the church needs to be communicating at every opportunity. If we aren’t talking about Jesus we are irrelevant and an out of touch organisation with strict and exclusive morals. Problem is we’re too busy attacking the issues demanding the world listen when really our job is to show them how Jesus is relevant. Its not the role of the church to make Jesus relevant to the world but to show the world how he is relevant.

I wonder if we’ve lost that distinction?

6. Can you tell us a little bit about the Hell Pizza thing?
Sure, an article appeared in our local newspaper about the opening of a pizza franchise in Brisbane and a local Pentecostal Pastor outraged that such demonic activity was taking place in their area. The Pentecostal Pastor was calling for a boycott of the store and for it’s closure.

I made a comment online about how the Pentecostal Pastor was over-reacting and being unhelpful. It was a Pizza shop and if they opened in Rockhampton, I would take my church youth group there. The local paper contacted me the next day and asked me if I would do an interview or write an article as a follow up to the story and if they could send a photographer around to my office.

I told the photographer that he needed to put his trust in Jesus and this was the point of the article I wrote. That while Hell is a real place – this was just a pizza shop and that church needs to be talking about Jesus and not what people can and can’t do.

Being on Message for Jesus: Guy Mason Interview

Guy Mason is the Melbourne minister (from City On A Hill) who used a discussion about a controversial piece of art on Sunrise to talk about Jesus to a national audience. I thought he did a great job, so I asked if I could interview him, mostly for the purposes of writing a story, but also because I thought he’d have good stuff to say based on his performance. So here are his answers to my questions.

Guy has some training and experience in Public Relations, and an M. Div from Ridley College in Melbourne.

1. How did the Sunrise interview come about?

They called me on a Sunday, while I was at Starbucks prepping for our evening service. I’ve done a number of spots for them before; since planting City on a Hill we have attracted a bit of press – especially recently with articles in the Age, Herald Sun, interview with Triple J. I don’t take all opportunities that come up, but am happy to serve where I can.

2. With your PR background do you proactively look for opportunities to engage the media?

I love the gospel and I want as many people as possible to hear the good news of Jesus. If opportunities open doors for the gospel than I’m happy to get involved. I don’t hunt down media (like I would in a PR consultancy) but as the Spirit leads I follow. Interestingly, I find a lot of media people (like most Australians) are curious about Jesus. However, their impression of most churches and religious groups is that they are solely interested in speaking against culture. As a Christian I believe there is much about culture to reject – but also, much to receive and then also aspects to redeem. For example, in an interview with Triple J I was given an opportunity to talk about the gospel and sexuality. The common view is that all churches teach that sex is evil. In contrast secular culture treats sex not as the devil, but a God to worship. I then shared how as Christians we believe sex is neither devil or god, but rather a gift from God to be enjoyed frequently and freely in marriage.

3. Do you think other churches need PR experience to do this?

I think we all have much to learn in this area. The very first person I met when planting a church in Melbourne was the local news editor. I asked him to tell me about the area, his perception of church, and also how we ‘the church’ could serve him. I have and continue to learn a lot from this friendship.

As I understand PR, it is the practice of understanding an audience/demographic/culture and communicating a message in a comprehensible and relevant way. As a believer we are all called to be communicators of the greatest message in Jesus. We don’t want to change the message at all – but consideration to the audience is key. We need to be grappling with questions like – who are we speaking to? what language do they speak? what is their understanding of Jesus? what obstacles exist that get in the way of them seeing Jesus for who he really is? what are the most effective and culturally relevant methods of communicating Jesus? All of this sits under the banner of God’s providence and power who is at work equipping the saints to proclaim the good news of Jesus and awaken unregenerate hearts to the majesty that is Christ.

4. What made you decide to respond to the art work the way you did?

To be honest, it was a Monday morning following a long day of preaching, prayer, and I was pretty tired. I asked people to pray for me and that God would use my words for his glory. I am aware that on shows like Sunrise you only get sound bite opportunities to speak. Thus, with a very complicated and heavily loaded segment, I wanted to be clear, concise and point people to Jesus.

5. Is there anything you regret not saying?

All the time. I always walk away from church, interviews, conversations saying “I should have said this!” Thankfully, God’s grace is made perfect in my weakness.

6. How important is it, from your perspective, for us to talk about Jesus and the cross, when we’re appearing in public?

In Paul’s letter to the corinthians he says – “whether you eat or drink, whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” Whether I’m chatting with my mates at the football, catching up with a young bloke exploring Christianity, counselling a couple going through a marriage crises, or speaking before thousands of Aussies in a channel seven studio, I want to lift up Jesus. I’m not going to do this perfectly, or even helpfully all the time – but pray that God uses everything I do for the good of our nation and the glory of his name.

7. What were the potential problems, from your perspective, with answering the Sunrise questions differently?

I didn’t give them the controversy they perhaps wanted. On other occasions I’ve rejected media spots because of the corner they wanted to put ‘christianity’ in – that churches are judgemental, divided and irrelevant. I’ve then watched as the spot was filled by someone else who fell right into their plan (either wittingly or unwittingly).

But while many media agencies like controversy, Sunrise appreciate honesty, authenticity and anything that is unexpected. These are welcome in a world of political double talk.

In any interview you will have one team wanting you to answer one way, and another team hoping you say something completely different. At the end of the day I want to live for Jesus. It’s his opinion that matters.

8. What do you think are the benefits of doing media stuff like this interview?

We are working really hard these days to get people to come to us and hear the message of Jesus. If opportunities open up for us to ‘go to the people’ than praise God. The gospel is for all people and our city is full of people whom God is calling to Jesus. In addition, we are called to be in the world. Jesus said, as the father has sent me so I send you. The gospel light is to be present in homes, the workplace, the university, the television network. Jesus said – we are a city on a hill, a light to the nations. We shouldn’t hide that light and disconnect from culture, but rather be in the world living radically counter-cultural gospel lives that both display and demonstrate the glory of Christ.

Christians in the Media: Being on message for Jesus

Well. I wrote a piece for eternity on some of the stuff I’ve posted about lately in response to Guy Mason’s piece on Sunrise, but the nature of news is that it needs to be new and it wasn’t new by the time the new Eternity came out. So rather than letting this good gear go to waste, I’m going to post it here. In three posts. Firstly, this post, is the article I sent (a slightly extended edition), and in the follow up posts I’ll share the interviews with Guy Mason from City On A Hill church in Melbourne, and Mike O’Connor from Rockhampton Pressy. Two sharp guys who are grappling with what it means to use the media as a platform for the gospel.

Here’s the article.

Being on message for Jesus in Public Relations

Religion and the church are on the nose, but Jesus is still pretty popular with the average Aussie. So said the research behind last year’s Jesus All About Life campaign. Gruen Transfer panelist Todd Sampson summed the findings up as “Jesus is cool,” but the church “is letting the brand down.”

One of the foundational principles of public relations is to stay on message, to keep answers relevant to the brand. For Christians this means talking about Jesus, and our response to moral issues should be based on our relationship with him.

Guy Mason, pastor of Melbourne’s City on a Hill church has a background in public relations, his recent appearance on Sunrise to discuss a series of sculptures depicting Jesus as a transvestite, a cross dresser, and an indigenous man, is an example of staying on message.

The segment was billed as a “religious controversy,” the artist essentially accused anybody offended by his work of bigotry, while Guy defused the situation and invited people to consider Jesus’ death in the place of sinners. He says his aim when given a media platform is to talk clearly about Jesus.

“I love the gospel and I want as many people as possible to hear the good news of Jesus. If opportunities open doors for the gospel than I’m happy to get involved,” Guy said.

“I am aware that on shows like Sunrise you only get soundbite opportunities to speak. Thus, with a very complicated and heavily loaded segment, I wanted to be clear, concise and point people to Jesus.”

Modern newsrooms are time poor and under-resourced, a 2010 study found that half the stories we consume originate with public relations, which means churches can be proactive about getting the gospel a hearing in the public sphere.

Guy Mason doesn’t pursue media coverage like he did as a public relations consultant, he picks and chooses opportunities, but he is aware of the benefits of establishing a rapport with the media.

“The first person I met when planting a church in Melbourne was the local news editor. I asked him to tell me about the area, his perception of church, and also how we ‘the church’ could serve him. I have learned, and continue to learn, a lot from this friendship.”

“Jesus said we’re a city on a hill, a light to the nations. We shouldn’t hide that light and disconnect from culture, but rather be in the world living radically counter-cultural gospel lives that both display and demonstrate the glory of Christ.”

Former Federal Treasurer Peter Costello told a recent gathering of Anglican Clergy in Melbourne to beware the false idol of positive media coverage. He urged Christian commentary on issues to stick to the gospel and expect not to be popular.

“If the Church is going to speak on the issues of the day, it should be a distinctive contribution,” he said.

“The historic message of the Church, the Gospel, is a timeless message. It’s for every age. It does not have its relevance defined by what preoccupies us for the moment.”

Public Relations can be a blessing for regional churches looking to engage with their community.

Rockhampton Presbyterian Church Minister Mike O’Connor has built a relationship with the local media in his three years in regional Queensland. He’s had media coverage across a range of issues, from pizza shops to the recent Queensland floods.

“I wonder if there is still a ghetto mentality amongst Christians when it comes to the media. I think a more helpful way of viewing the media is seeing it as a platform where we can reach people with the message of Jesus. We have the message, they have the medium.”

It was this approach that led to a feature article in the local paper after Mike scoffed at suggestions that Christians should boycott the Hell Pizza chain if it set up shop in his city.

“I made a comment on an online article saying that it was just a Pizza shop and if they opened in Rockhampton, I would take my church youth group there. The local paper contacted me the next day and asked me if I would do an interview or write an article as a follow up to the story and if they could send a photographer around to my office.”

“I told the photographer that he needed to put his trust in Jesus and this was the point of the article I wrote. That while Hell is a real place – this was just a pizza shop and that church needs to be talking about Jesus and not what people can and can’t do.”

Westboro v Mars Hill Church

Interesting times. Our favourite loopies (Westboro Baptist) have announced their intentions to picket Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church. How would you respond to such a threat? The sad thing is the media like to run stories on Westboro. I think this is especially likely because this appears to be two sheep fighting, rather than a sheep and a wooly wolf. So choosing a response is important, and an opportunity to articulate the differences and how different approaches to Christian belief are a matter of articulating a consistent message with the Bible, rather than a matter of choosing your own particular interpretation.

Here’s what the Westboro Baptists have said is their reason for targeting Mars Hill.

“WBC says the reason they’ll be at Mars Hill Church is, “To picket the false prophet and blind lemmings at Mars Hill Whore House where they teach the lies that God love [sic] everyone and Jesus died for the sins of all of mankind. You have caused the people to trust in lies to their destruction, and to your damnation. Shame on you for calling yourself the Mars Hill Church! False advertising doesn’t come close! Paul would turn over in his grave at your God-hating, Christ-rejecting lies! You have a form of godliness, but you deny the power thereof…WBC will speak the truth to you in love—as God defines ‘love’. We will tell you that, in fact, there is a standard God has set in this earth that He commands you obey. Your disobedient sin is taking you to hell, and you must repent and mourn for your sins. God does not love everyone—in fact, He hates the majority of mankind, and has purposed to send them to hell when they die. You would know these things if you would pick up a Bible and actually READ THE WORDS!””

Team Driscoll* is responding by offering Team Phelps some donuts.

Which is a brilliant display of grace and a stunning contrast between the two. Despite my reservations about some of what Driscoll does, the man is a smart engager

*”I’m on Team Driscoll” t-shirts would be an interesting product to produce, because the modern angry young contempervant church planter/fanboy is the Christian equivalent of a twi-hard. That’s a market. Right there. 10% my way please…

18 propositions on Christian Public Relations on social issues

I’ll keep flogging this dead horse for just a little bit longer. So bear with me. As I think about how I’d frame a media release regarding the Christian view of the gay marriage debate (as promised in a previous post) here are the guiding assumptions I’m bringing to the task. I’d love to know what you think.

1. The primary message of any Christian foray into the public sphere should be based on the gospel of Jesus, and his place in society

He is our interpretive key for reality. It should take into account his approach to the government of his day (he let them crucify him), his method of rule (the cross), his commands to love our neighbours (and especially the poor and the sick), the resurrection (his and ours), and its implications for life now.

2. The secondary message of any Christian foray into the public sphere should be based on our position with regards to Jesus, and our place in society.

We are sinners, saved by grace, whose ideas on morality and governance are framed by the Holy Spirit and the Bible. Ideas that Christianity should be the dominant paradigm for legislation are relatively culturally out of date, and largely unbiblical. We have an obligation to speak the truth with love. Not just speak the truth to win.

3. The first two points should function as a Media Release checklist.

Is what I’m saying consistent with these points? Have I ticked these boxes? That’s our brand guideline. Our corporate style guide. If it’s not on message. Don’t say it. You’ll clutter the brand message. If you need a new brand, start one. The church isn’t Richard Branson’s Virgin empire. We have one product. Morality is part of the user experience, not a product of its own. If we sell morality without Jesus we’re selling a cheap knock-off that will fall apart in days. And damage the brand. Marketing people talk about selling the sizzle and not the sausage. That’s one of the differences between marketing and PR. PR requires substance. If our substance is not Jesus, but a bi-product, we’re in danger of selling the health benefits of sausages rather than sausage or sizzle (ok, that analogy breaks down).

4. Jesus’ lordship of the world means we have something to say about morality based on revelation.

Both the Bible, and natural law. But especially the revelation that came in the form of the life of Jesus.

5. There’s an increasingly good chance, in our post-Christian secular context, that our message won’t win issues.

So there’s no excuse to not try to use our message to win souls. Especially if we’re getting our message in front of a national audience. This doesn’t mean not speaking on issues, it means making sure our position on issues speaks to the truths about Jesus, and about us.

6. Everything a Christian says as a Christian representative in the public sphere has implications for Christians everywhere.

Even those who disagree with particular political or theological decisions. We should exercise such a role with care. While today’s paper is tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapping, the essence of a story will last and shape public perception of the brand involved. Stories, in the Internet age, are more permanent than ever before and more linked and interwoven than ever before.

7. So we might as well talk about Jesus rather than filtering him out hoping for a more palatable message.

8. Blaming the media is too easy.

We say the media is hostile – but they’re not really any more or less hostile than the rest of society. The media is a mirror of society, sometimes like a circus mirror that distorts its source according to its natural bias. Most people consume content from outlets that confirm their existing bias. Few people take that into account. Know the bias of the outlet you’re talking to and frame your approach to take that bias into account. PR is like lawn bowls. You’ll get closer to your target message if you factor the conditions into your delivery.

9. It is overly pessimistic and paranoid to speak of a media agenda against the gospel – as though the media is different to the rest of society.

Journalists, on the whole, are pretty nice people trying to do the right thing by contributing to society. They, like all of us, have personal presuppositions and biases, but they are professionally obliged to seek objectivity.

10. This presents interesting conflicts of interest for Christian journalists.

We shouldn’t use and abuse Christians in the media, but Christians in the media conversely shouldn’t edit out their bias any more than others in the media.

11. Media coverage, positive or negative, is largely about relationships.

It’s hard to slam somebody who looks nice and behaves winsomely, even when you disagree with them. It’s even harder to slam somebody you like. Journalists are human.

12. You will get slammed in the press if you say stupid stuff.

One example of saying stuff is giving the conclusions of your position without stating your working out. It’s like a math exam. You get marks for cohesive thinking, not just the right answer.

13. Articulating your framework is the journalist’s job. So you need to make sure they understand it.

The reality of media coverage is that in the average story you’ll get two sentences of direct quotes if you’re lucky. And a whole media release verbatim if you’re very good.

14. Journalists can’t say you’ve said something you haven’t said, and are limited to saying things you have said.

So when you say something, make sure it’s on message. Don’t give fuel to the fire.

15. The bigger the media outlet the more likely it is that the journalist will be playing you off against a rival point of view in some sort of Hegelian dialectic, as though this ticks the “objectivity box.”

Bigger outlets have more resources to throw at stories. This means they’ll talk to more people. The smaller the outlet the more likely they are to run your Media Release word for word, especially if it appears balanced. And not as a graceless polemic justifying your position.

16. There is no excuse for not being on message in your Media Releases.

In conversations with the ACL they’ve suggested their approach is to provide the conclusions of a worldview and that they are motivated by the fear of not getting coverage if they’re too preachy or nice. This is not an excuse not to be preachy or nice.

17. Media Releases aren’t just a statement of your position on an issue, with some quotes.

They’re articulating the basis of your position because they are the starting point of research for the journalist. The aim of a release is to do as much of the work for your position in the argument as possible for the benefit of a journalist.

18. Media releases are also a largely public domain document.

This is especially true in the day and age of the Internet where most people put their releases online. They show where an organisation stands for anybody researching an organisation. Our audience isn’t just the media, and our purpose isn’t just securing coverage.