Tag Archives: PR for Jesus

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Book Review: Outspoken: Conversations on Church Communication

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.

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Things that kill: smoking, sin, being boring

I once bagged vaguely funny (or not funny at all) church signs for very rarely being “on message” or at all related to what goes on if the people the signs are for (passers by) choose to come through the doors of a church building. I was, perhaps, too dismissive, and my discussion with a guy from Outreach Media on that post presents a bit of a middle way… But my position hasn’t really changed all that much – most church signs are used poorly, and if they make Christians cringe, must be worse for outsiders.

I’m also not generally a fan of outdoor advertising – partly because it’s visual clutter, partly because in my opinion, unless you’re saturating a city with a very clear proposition to the people of the city, they’re a fleeting reminder of something people don’t care about – they’re intrusion marketing personified. Or boardsonified. They work for Coke – because Coke is in every shop you walk past after seeing the billboard, they work for people promoting longer lasting satisfaction in the bedroom – because they get media coverage for being shocking – and generally, they haven’t worked all that well for Christianity (thanks Harold Campling and the ACL). They do work if they’re attention grabbing and controversial, and an attempt to be part of a conversation that is actually happening – not the conversation you think is happening that people cared about 30 years ago.

Many churches have the capacity for outdoor advertising – be it a small sign, a letterboard, or a big space. It does not follow that all churches should use them. But if you’ve got the time and resources to think carefully about what you’re going to say, it’s the low hanging fruit of communicating with the people around you.

If you’re going to do them, you may as well do them well… While my preference would just be for clear brand information and a clear, and related call to action, something like: “This week here at church we’ll be looking at X – will you join us at TIMES” – but in a much more engaging, non-boring, non-templated way. The rationale for this approach is – statistically speaking the same people are passing by your church on their way to school, work, home, etc, so the sign outside your building is a long term visual presence for them, and if you can, over time, build the expectation that you’re not a weird cult, but are a church that tackles interesting issues in an interesting way, that will make their decision to come through your doors a little more informed.

I wonder if there’s something like the equivalent of a lectionary for church signs – where the whole gospel is communicated in a year, and if that could be made more winsome and engaging – maybe something like a catechism for church sign writers… but I digress.

This has, indeed, been a rather long digression. A setting of the scene, if you will…

 
A Sydney Church has cracked the pages of the Sydney Morning Herald for using this poster from Outreach Media.


Image Credit: Outreach Media

I have mixed feelings about this – I’m not sure, following the unfortunate issues of a few weeks back, that I want smoking and sin being associated so closely together. It’s a bit like Tony Abbott using the words “die of shame” – there’s going to be an immediate association drawn, especially when part of the argument is essentially the same, just with an explicit, rather than implicit, reference to the theological underpinnings.

But the story is pretty brilliant and engaging – and doesn’t draw the comparison.

St. Peters Anglican Church is on a highway. The sign is getting plenty of attention. I’m not sure how big it is, and how legible it is from the road – someone from Outreach Media might care to comment on that… but the “warning from the Bible” box is pretty gold.

Ignoring the response from the anti-smoking lobby – who used this as an opportunity to stay on message for themselves – this article is pretty brilliant, Andrew Bruce, the man on the ground at St. Peters, got a great opportunity to get some good quotes in, and he took it.

“Better to be a smoker that goes to heaven than a person who doesn’t smoke and falls under the judgment of God,” the Reverend Andrew Bruce said.

The billboard outside his St Peters Anglican Church, on the Princes Highway, is seen by about 40,000 cars a day, he said.
“Jesus is good news for smokers and non-smokers alike.”

The health risks for smokers are not a patch on the prospect of eternal damnation, he suggested.

“One is eternal and one is only for this life; I think that’s the point.”

Love it. I love this endorsement of Outreach Media too – at first read I had a problem, but I’ll explain why I don’t think it’s a problem after the quote…

“Mr Bruce said the organisation’s posters and billboards, which some churches pay to use each month, were deliberately designed to attract attention.

“I think the biggest sin of the lot is being boring. If we put up a sign saying ‘Jesus loves you’ that’s what people expect us to say. You need to strike deeper than that and engage people or it’s here today, gone tomorrow.””

Yes. Being boring kills. You won’t get an argument against that in these parts… I’d rather see churches put up signs about Jesus love than signs that aren’t about Jesus at all – but this quote isn’t saying “we’ll engage by not talking about Jesus” but “we’ll talk about Jesus in an engaging way”… the first is a possible interpretation of that quote, but the idea that we’re to “strike deeper” not “strike elsewhere” is pretty critical, and a point well made.

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A concrete example of talking winsomely about the relationship between homosexuality and Christianity

So. I’ve written before about how wonderfully my friend Mike O’Connor in Rockhampton models using the local media to share the gospel with his community. Here is another example, and another.

I posted a picture of a story the Rockhampton Daily Bulletin ran on the back of an interview with Mike following the ACL’s unfortunate comments the other day. The headline was slightly misleading, and the story truncated one of his statements – but it was a great example of speaking lovingly about Jesus.

Mike decided to clear up some of the misconceptions with a follow up letter to the editor, written with grace, and dripping with gospel. I told him it was too long, so we put together a shorter version – but the paper went with the extended edition. Though with a similarly unfortunate heading (that Mike didn’t write)…

Mike O'Connor Facebook 2

Here’s the text:

Gays welcome, but not homosexuality

On Saturday September 8th, the Morning Bulletin ran a small article titled “Gay couples are welcome at Church”. In that article, I was briefly interviewed and extensively quoted. 


I’d like to take this opportunity to clear any ambiguity surrounding my comments. 

The church’s point of engagement with culture on every issue needs to be Jesus Christ. Our message to the world is a person, his name is Jesus. This is a message the church has at times, failed to make clear, opting instead to moralize and to dictate to the lifestyle choices of other people. Hypocrisy is a fair criticism of Christians when morality is the prevailing message heard rather than the good news of Jesus and the new life he gives.

The church needs to stay on message and not be misunderstood or open to misunderstanding when it comes the cultural issues of the day. I’m sorry if I’ve added to this confusion.

So let me be clear: smokers, homosexuals and all of Rockhampton need Jesus Christ. 

Rockhampton Presbyterian Church wants people to accept or reject Christianity on the merits of who Jesus is, on the things Jesus has done and over the things Jesus actually said. Our church welcomes all people, as Jesus welcomes all people – Jesus was regularly eating with tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners. 

We want members of every community to come and find a place in the new community God is gathering around Jesus – one that is not based on sexual preference, gender, race or religion but based on a personal acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Saviour.

When people enter Jesus’ new community and put their faith in him many old things will need to be left behind; for some people, homosexuality is one of those things because Jesus makes us new. Again, this way of life is for those who confess to be followers of Jesus, they are not a prerequisite for investigating Christ’s claims nor an insistence to change for those who choose to have nothing to do with Jesus.

“Welcome” doesn’t mean ‘condone’, ‘tolerate’ or even ‘turn a blind eye’. ‘Welcome’ simply means that: welcome. We want everyone to come and hear about the Saviour we talk about at church every week as we open the Bible and consider together what it says about him.

Like all other sins, homosexuality is not consistent with the lifestyle of those who confess to be followers of Jesus Christ. However, we want all people to hear about Jesus and put their faith in him and we would invite you to come and do that with us this Sunday, or any other at 9am.

Mike O’Connor

Senior Pastor
Rockhampton Presbyterian Church

So, for anybody who says it’s not possible to be clear, winsome, speak against homosexuality (or at least call it sinful), and for Jesus – here’s a bit of published evidence to the contrary.

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Plundering “gold” from “public relations”

Tying up some loose ends around here before I return to serving up YouTube videos which is just about the limit of what my mental capacity can handle for the next few weeks, I just wanted to lay out some of my thinking about what the relationship between my last career (which I still do a bit of) in Public Relations, and my future vocation – gospel ministry.

I’m increasingly aware not just that there’s a gap in the market for thinking about how churches engage with the public via the media (a subset of PR), and not a huge number of resources out there for thinking about what Christianity looks like in the Media. CPX does a great job, the Sydney Anglicans, and especially Peter Jensen, have some resources, which we saw come into play on Q&A this week, and Communicate Jesus is a great first step for thinking about how to communicate timeless truths in a timely way.

I’m also aware that for many people “PR” is synonymous with “Spin” and deliberate deception, or providing inane sound bites so that you’ll get picked up in the news cycle. These are essentially antithetical to Christian ethics, and the message of the gospel. Though clarity and being succinct is important.

I also mentioned in my post about what college is teaching me that I’m increasingly reflecting on how proclaiming the gospel benefits from understanding culture. I want to flesh that out a little in this post – particularly as it relates to how I think about public relations and whatever skills I might have there.

So – in a nutshell – I think Paul, in his rejection of Corinthian sophistry (see B.W.W Winter, Paul and Philo amongst the Sophists) turned to Cicero, who in De Oratore had rejected flashy, substanceless, but impressive oratory that majored in pathos, for an approach to oratory that focused as much on ethos (the character of the speaker), and logos (the substance), as pathos (the ability to stir an emotional response). I think Paul was a highly trained, though non-professional rhetorician who became a Pharisee because he couldn’t professionally advance as a Jewish orator, and this explains the rhetorical power of his letters, and his impressive presentations to councils, kings, and court rooms in Acts.

I think his appearance in the marketplace, and then the Areopagus, in Athens is, by analogy, the first century equivalent of blogging, media engagement, speaking to parliament, and going on a TV talk show.

I think he benefited from recognising a truth in Cicero, also present in the work of the prophets etc – where value was placed on character and developed this to emphasise a Christ like suffering character (and I think that explains his words in 2 Cor 10-13 – you can read more in my essay here). I’d argue that in some sense he has “plundered the gold of the Egyptians.” Which is a concept that Augustine pushes pretty hard when he tells Christians to get a good “classical” education in De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching – again, you can read more of my essay here).

“…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.”

Luther followed suit a little bit, he was particularly keen to communicate in forms that worked, and part of the nature of their “working” was their popularity. He even liked fonts. He sent a letter to one of his rich friends that said:

“have some boy collect all the German pictures, rimes,songs, books, lays of the Meistersinger, which have this year been painted, composed,made, and printed by your German poets, publishers, and printers. I have a reason forwanting them. We can make Latin books for ourselves, but we wish to learn how tomake German ones, as we have hitherto made none that please anybody.”

He didn’t just use pop culture, he also played the media relations game, or its equivalent.

Here are some stats about his use of the printing press during the reformation (read more in my essay here).

It is estimated in the first three years, 300,000 of Luther’s 30 popular pamphlets were circulating,and by the tenth year, two million copies of Luther’s 400 plus pamphlets were circulating, not just in Germany, but throughout Europe. The Reformation led to a sixfold increase in output from German printers.

These were published in the vernacular, and aimed at the public, not the elite.

The case for making PR, which is a modern form of “communication” and an academic discipline an example of this “gold” means establishing that it is actually a redeemable thing… and not just saying whatever it takes to get people to believe whatever you want.

First off, it’s worth making the distinction between “media relations” and “public relations” – media relations is a subset, an important subset, of PR, and its really where my expertise lies. But media relations will be a bit piecemeal, and disconnected from an organisation’s priorities – or in this case the mission of the church – if it isn’t part of a bigger communications plan that considers what your message is, and what its implications are for the public, and how you’re going to communicate your message so that the public understands it.

I was a Christian before I started working – so my approach to PR, and my PR ethics (and before that, my approach to journalistic ethics which I thought about while at Uni) were shaped by my faith. I think this actually made me better at my job, because I think the murky side of PR which is caricatured as “spin” and prides itself on not answering questions with anything but a repeated “key message” or not engaging with criticism is a communications cul de sac, which will hopefully eventually die out when people realise what sort of politics and public discourse it produces, and that it erodes the very trust that PR should be seeking to build. I think that’s starting to happen. I was more interested in full, and pre-emptive, disclosure of stuff that went wrong, never lying by commission, or omission, showing how key messages related to issues, questions, and real life for real people, and maintaining a relationship with journalists and the public by generally being trustworthy. This didn’t always happen, and it may be that I’m incredibly naive.

Conforming to the type of PR that involves essentially selling one’s soul and becoming a robotic sound bite speaker driven by self interest, or the desire to win, or conforming our message to whatever medium we’re speaking to – so, for example, going on Q&A to score cheap points by insulting the views of the people next to you, rather than listening to what’s being said and offering a gentle opinion – would be a case of turning the gold we plunder into a golden calf (see this Matthias Media piece on being mindful of how we use “gold”).

So when I talk about PR I’m essentially assuming this worldview, and this definition. Which isn’t always what other people are operating with.

But what are the implications for this? I’d say we need to think about how we do the media relations part (and you can read my thinking about how to do that here), but that needs to be a subset of thinking about communication, of our key message (the gospel, how king Jesus changes lives through his death and resurrection and the launch of his not yet fully realised Kingdom), how it relates to our audience (everybody), and the manner in which we’ll communicate this (I’d suggest Paul’s “all things to all men” 1 Cor 9:19-23). I think we need to think about what theoretical frameworks or disciplines we can use – like Augustine – and what mediums we can adapt – like Luther.

The media engagement stuff is useful, in a sense, without this sort of thought and planning. If you have an event you want to promote, or something. Which is why I write how to posts. But it gets supercharged when you plug it into some strategic thinking about how you’re going to communicate to the same person in an attempt to build, or nurture, a relationship with them. A relationship doesn’t have to mean you know their name, or have their phone number, that would be nice – but a “brand” type relationship means they don’t just know who you are, but have some idea of what you stand for, and how that is relevant to them. This is what “public relations” is about.

Public relations ultimately isn’t so much about knowing how to say what you want to say. It’s about knowing why you’re saying something, and who you’re saying it to. This is where having some sort of Public Relations or Communications Strategy for your brand – in this case, your church, which is essentially a subset of a much bigger franchise – is essential. We’re never going to be able to sit down and get a universal “Communication Strategy” for the church beyond the Great Commission – so I’d argue each church has a responsibility to think about how it communicates the gospel as part of its call to participate in the Mission of God.

A Public Relations strategy starts with identifying what it is that you, as an entity, want to communicate, and why. I’d say that’s relatively easy for us in the first instance. It’s the gospel. But then it should probably include what you want to communicate as your church’s distinctives – what’s your point of difference from other churches, on the basis of your context, or theological convictions. What do you “do” that you want people to know about before they come into your doors? What do you do that you want people to know about when they come through your doors (at Creek Road we have some really helpful “Plumb Lines” that describe our approach to church).

Then it identifies “who” you want to relate to – and should include internal stakeholders – our members, leadership teams, elders, staff, as well as our external stakeholders – the people in our community, non-Christian friends and family members with some association with the church, the people of our state and nation… and what sort of channels we’d use to talk to them in the most authentic and relational way possible.

Then it moves to “how” best to relate to these groups – you’re probably best off relating to as many of the internal stakeholders face to face, or as “authentically” as possible. Your communication should be a reflection of your relationship. So it’s ok to communicate to people you don’t know in the pages of your local paper, but it’s probably not a good idea if your elders are finding out about changes at church when they sit down with the paper for a cuppa. This means, for external people, knowing the demographics of your area, and knowing what sort of channels those demographics use to learn stuff – so to caricature a couple of generations – talk back radio for the oldies, Facebook for anyone under 25…

Once you’ve got the strategy sorted out – you can produce a communications plan – so that what you’re doing integrates with what you’ve decided you should be doing. Steve Kryger at Communicate Jesus posted up one week of his Communications Plan for Church By The Bridge. It’s a really useful example of what applying some thought looks like, and once you get to that stage having some idea how to do things like putting together an email newsletter, or writing a media release, or doing stuff on social media, is really useful. You’ve also got to figure out how often you want to be communicating with people – both those who are on your team so that they stay on the same page – and those outside so that they develop a picture of who you are and what you stand for.

This is what I think when I use the words “Public Relations” – this sort of strategy, planning, and doing – not just the doing. I don’t mean the shadowy stuff where you’re sort of pulling the strings to create opportunities to be heard, or coaching your spokespeople to stay on message and not look silly doing it, or cleaning up the mess in a crisis – though these are all aspects of what PR is.

Public Relations – like this – is useful for getting the members of your church family working together and knowing what you’re on about when they’re out being ambassadors for Christ in your community, it’s useful for managing changes – large or small – in your congregation and the way you do stuff, and it’s useful for presenting the gospel in a way that people have information communicated to them in your community. That’s why I think this is gold worth plundering.

I guess part of the reason I’ve written this post is because I realise that I’ve focused on the “how” more than the “why”… and that’s potentially unhelpful.

Here are some of the things I’ve written about why we should do PR, and the substance of our “message” from my Public Relations resources page

Here are some “how to” posts 

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Close but no cigarette: why the ACL needs to get out of debating about homosexuality right now

UPDATE 2 (update 1 is at the bottom of the post) – I have edited the post for clarity in a couple of places. The original paragraphs are at the bottom of the post.

It’s been a while since I last felt the need to write anything about how disappointed I am in the way the Australian Christian Lobby claims to represent Christians, and Jesus, in the Australian public square. This should be understood as a sign that they were being less offensive than usual – because it’s not as if I didn’t keep checking their media releases… But today’s clanger will take some undoing.

Jim Wallace, in a public debate with Greens leader Christine Milne, in question time, compared the health burden caused by the homosexual lifestyle with the health burden caused by cigarette smoking to essentially suggest that the government should be treating homosexuality like it treats smoking. He didn’t say that specifically. But read this:

“I think we’re going to owe smokers a big apology when the homosexual community’s own statistics for its health – which it presents when it wants more money for health – are that is has higher rates of drug-taking, of suicide, it has the life of a male reduced by up to 20 years.”

“The life of smokers is reduced by something like seven to 10 years and yet we tell all our kids at school they shouldn’t smoke.”

Even if this is true – and the health stats are pretty popular with organisations like the ACL, and he attributes them to the homosexual community’s own research, so one expects they’re based on some sort of research, and at least alluding to the spectre of HIV/AIDS – even if this is absolute fact – it’s incredibly wrong headed and harmful for three reasons.

First. Smoking is a behavioural choice in a way that homosexual orientation is not – it is either environmentally (probably) or biologically (possibly) wired into the psyche. Comparisons between the two simply because they come with a health cost are a bit misleading on that front.

EDIT: This is not to say that those who experience unwanted same sex attraction as an orientation are unable to move towards heterosexuality, nor to say that homosexuality is never a choice. Sexual orientation is best understood on a sliding scale and is, to a degree, malleable – with the amount of change possible an individual issue END EDIT.

Second. The health issues associated with homosexuality are, at least in part (EDIT: neither as big a part as public perception suggests, nor so small as to be statistically meaningless END EDIT), the result of the posture and approach that members of the church, aspects of Christian doctrine, and unnuanced statements by people like Jim Wallace (in this instance), and those claiming to speak for all Christians have assumed with regards to this issue.

These health issues are not necessarily linked to homosexuality. But I would suggest that homosexuality is involved in a causal chain – both internatlly and externally driven – that can lead to situational depression, which can lead to drug use and suicide, I suspect the way the church has at times pushed guaranteed “solutions” to unwanted same sex attraction” in the form of conversion to heterosexuality can probably lead to an unhealthy amount of guilt associated with temptation – not even with homosexual practice. While these are possible for some individuals – at times an end point of a celibate struggle with natural orientation may be the more realistic, and Biblical, goal – see my Eunuchs for the Kingdom essay for more of my thinking, and research, in this area.
Want to make someone feel bad for what they are naturally inclined to do – tell the world that schools should be educating kids not to do it. I’m not interested in arguing that homosexual practice is good for one’s health, or for one’s standing before God – but the mental health issues associated with homosexuality are, so far as public perception and the accounts of members of the gay community, related to the way homosexuality is spoken about and treated, and the church has had a role in this by not carefully and pastorally dealing with the issue and by perpetuating, or not speaking out against bigotry conducted in the name of Jesus.

Third. Where is Jesus in all of this? This is my perennial criticism of the ACL. It’s possible to talk about Jesus when you’re talking about homosexuality. Look. Other people managed it on national television here. I did it here. And here. Before you get to defending marriage. If the ACL is more interested in banging on about the traditional definition of marriage at every turn, especially in the midst of a conversation about the tragedy of shortened life spans through drugs and suicide in the homosexual community, then it needs to CHANGE ITS NAME. Call yourself the Australian Traditional Marriage Lobby. Or the Traditional Relationships And Marriage Party (TRAMP). Get the word “Christian” out of articles like this.

It didn’t get any better outside the heat of debate, when Wallace had a chance to nuance his statements.

“But what I’m saying is we need to be aware that the homosexual lifestyle carries these problems and … normalising the lifestyle by the attribution of marriage, for instance, has to be considered in what it does encouraging people into it.”

He’s perpetuating the idea that people will suddenly want to be gay – that’s such a small percentage of people in studies of the etiology (origins) of homosexuality that it’s practically an outlier. Then. He gets worse…

“I am very sorry for that. My heart goes out to those people. But it is a fact.”

Those people? I can’t help but interpret this as a bit of otherising. They aren’t “those” people, as though a new category. We are people. It seems to me that it’s only possible to capitalise on tragedy like this if you’re prepared to make some sort of distinction between you and them.

Here’s how the ACL promoted the debate on its website:

“Only in cutting through claim and counter claim to truth, can the rights of not just the loudest or the most powerful be guaranteed but the disenfranchised, the most marginalised, those without a voice. In this debate on same sex marriage there is such a voice – it is the voice of the child.”

They could call themselves the Australian Children’s Lobby without even changing their web address.

You don’t re-enfranchise the disenfranchised and marginalised by marginalising others, and once again, you don’t get yardage in the public debate by capitalising on human tragedy. This is a lesson the ACL needs to learn. Suicide is not a pawn in the chess game of Australian marriage legislation. You don’t offer hope with a defence of traditional marriage – you offer hope with Jesus and the opportunity of a long term identity defining relationship with him.

UPDATE – Jim Wallace’s actual speech from the debate is here. It’s marginally better – because it doesn’t you know, suggest that we should apologise to smokers for not taking the health risk of homosexuality seriously… But it’s still bad. The only time he mentions Jesus is to establish the value of children…

And not just that, but a mother and father that as much as the law is able to encourage, will love that child and sacrifice for its best interests as willingly as it biological parents should or would have.

Now unfortunately even with the best intent we have done this imperfectly – to the great detriment of children. Those who Jesus put on His knee and said it would be better for you to be cast into the sea with a stone around your neck than to harm one of these.

But this gay activists’ agenda now means that we do it imperfectly intentionally.”

The implicit take home message – though clearly unintentional – is that Jesus, like the ACL, only cares about children – there’s nothing said about how a relationship with Jesus might help anybody else.

He mentions God once too.

“But thanks to politics, the support of parties scrambling in this unholy game we’ve turned the great idea of democracy into, politicians have decided to play God and deny a child its natural right and succumb to this selfish and increasingly vitriolic voice of gay activism.”

Perhaps the worst part is that he starts, in his opening gambit, with the fall. And its impact on human society.

“Of course though we don’t live in a perfect world – it’s what Christians instead call a fallen world.  It’s this imperfect state that the Church has wrestled with against tyranny and injustice, man’s inhumanity to man in slavery and the civil rights movement, abuse of power even within the Church and today daily on its streets and overseas against poverty and injustice.”

 AND THEN SAYS NOTHING ABOUT JESUS AS THE ANSWER TO THE PROBLEM OF THE FALLEN WORLD.

Let me say that again. He talks about the problem of sin – and offers no solution – except to make sure children live with their parents.

The only answer he provides is completely secular.

“In a secular world we have to ensure that everyone has justice and particularly that everyone’s human rights are protected.”

What’s the point of being a “Christian” Lobby if all you’re doing is claiming to protect human rights?

UPDATE 2 – the original paragraphs that have been edited above so that the comments below make sense…

First. Smoking is a behavioural choice in a way that homosexual orientation is not…

“The health issues associated with homosexuality are, at least in part, the result of the posture and approach people like Jim Wallace have assumed with regards to this issue. Want to make someone feel bad for what they are naturally inclined to do – tell the world that schools should be educating kids not to do it. I’m not interested in arguing that homosexual practice is good for one’s health, or for one’s standing before God – but the mental health issues associated with homosexuality are demonstrably related to the way homosexuality is spoken about and treated, and the church has had a role in this by not carefully and pastorally dealing with the issue and by perpetuating, or not speaking out against bigotry conducted in the name of Jesus.”

“Those people? How’s that for a bit of otherising. They’re not a special category of people. They are people. We are people. It’s only possible to capitalise on tragedy like this if you’re prepared to make some sort of distinction between you and them.”

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.

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Easter, Q&A, Dawkins, and Jesus

Did you hear the one about the Cardinal and the Evolutionary biologist? Or at least watch Australia’s highest ranking Catholic, George Pell, take on Richard Dawkins on the ABC’s flagship “new media” panel program Q&A, on Monday night in an Easter extravaganza?

You can watch it in full here…

It was a train wreck. Talking too much about where Pell went wrong wouldn’t be conducive to keeping my promise not to debate atheists online, at least atheists I don’t know personally. But Pell was awful. In my humble opinion. The only saving grace of the night was that Dawkins wasn’t much better, and my conversations with non-Christian friends afterwards, both on Facebook and in the real world, confirm that his brand of intolerant fundamentalism is every bit as on the nose as Christianity.

Despite giving up visiting atheist blogs and forums to engage in what I would like to call “winsome trolling” – where you keep a conversation going, but as pleasantly as possible, as “tolerant” as possible, as genuinely inquisitive as possible, and as focused on Jesus as possible – I have some experience arguing with people who adhere closely to Mr Dawkins views, with a more than liberal smattering of those advocated by the late Mr Hitchens, and messers Dennett and Harris. By my calculation I’ve spend hundreds of hours engaged in such debates, either at the keyboard, posting here, speaking to others in person, or ruminating about the conversation I’m currently engaged in while I go about my daily business. I’m a fairly experienced amateur. But I’m an amateur no less. Pell. Arguably. Is a professional. At least that’s why he was presented to us on Monday night. And yet. Almost immediately. He became tangled in several follies of, well, any form of argument/debate, let alone an argument or debate that is televised to a national audience.

In some moments he was sneering, in others pompous, in others snide, in others confused, in others doddery, in others he danced around a question without going near providing an answer, and every five minutes he trotted out a reference to Hitler. In short he was neither convincing or winsome. His theology was jelly-nailed-to-mast stuff. One minute he said he hoped hell existed because Hitler’s evil required it, on the other hand he said he hoped nobody was there, then he said that atheists would end up in heaven if they did good – thus defeating himself. Why would one sign up for a life of self denial if the outcome is unchanged. Pell said himself (and I agree) that an atheist can do good. What he didn’t say was that any “good” act is the result of humanity being created in the image of God, and that none of it has any merit so far as our relationship with God is concerned (the former is consistent with a Catholic understanding of human nature, the latter is pretty much the root cause of the Reformation and non-Catholic Christianity).

I wasn’t expecting to agree with much of what Pell said theologically – but I was hoping that as a guy wearing our colours, and claiming to own Christ, he’d at the very least be loving and winsome, and treat his opponent with respect. Instead, he spend time strawmanning Dawkins, engaging in logical fallacies, playing the man not the argument, misunderstanding the science he was claiming to promote, and generally not talking about Jesus – except after he’d confused everybody by talking about ancient Greek metaphysics (particularly Platonism), while trying to explain what goes on with the wafers when Catholics take communion (transubstantiation).

At one point, when Tony Jones asked him where he’d draw a line on what is “myth” and what is “truth” in the Bible, or rather historical truth, citing the example of God writing the Ten Commandments on stone tablets, Pell flat out denied that the Bible says God wrote the commandments down.

Here’s a little bit from the transcript:

“TONY JONES: So are you talking about a kind of Garden of Eden scenario with an actual Adam and Eve?

GEORGE PELL: Well, Adam and Eve are terms – what do they mean: life and earth. It’s like every man. That’s a beautiful, sophisticated, mythological account. It’s not science but it’s there to tell us two or three things. First of all that God created the world and the universe. Secondly, that the key to the whole of universe, the really significant thing, are humans and, thirdly, it is a very sophisticated mythology to try to explain the evil and suffering in the world.

TONY JONES: But it isn’t a literal truth. You shouldn’t see it in any way as being an historical or literal truth?

GEORGE PELL: It’s certainly not a scientific truth and it’s a religious story told for religious purposes.

TONY JONES: Just quickly, because the Old Testament in particular is full of these kind of stories, I mean is there a point where you distinguish between metaphor and reality? For example, Moses receiving the Ten Commandments inscribed directly by God on a mountain?

GEORGE PELL: I’m not sure that the Old Testament says that God inscribed the Ten Commandments but leaving that aside it’s difficult to know how exactly that worked but Moses was a great man. There was a great encounter with the divine. Actually, with Moses we get the key that enables us to come together with the Greeks with reason because Moses said who will I tell the Egyptians and he tell that my name is “I am who I am”.”

Perhaps he’s not familiar with chapters 31-34 of Exodus…

Exodus 31:18 When the LORD finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant law, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God…

32:15 Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back. 16 The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.”

The other thing he kept doing, that really irked me, was presenting the Catholic theological position as the “Christian” position, rather than the position of his own tradition.

MATTHEW THOMPSON: I am an atheist. What do you think will happen when I die and how do you know?

TONY JONES: George Pell, we’ll start with you? You ought to be an authority on this, I imagine?

GEORGE PELL: Well, I know from the Christian point of view, God loves everybody but every genuine motion towards the truth is a motion towards God and when an atheist dies, like everybody else, they will be judged on the extent to which they have moved towards goodness and truth and beauty but in the Christian view, God loves everyone except those who turn his back turn their back on him through evil acts.

Sadly that is not the “Christian” point of view, but a disputed point where Catholics and Protestants disagree.

It was. In short. A train wreck.

Here are some of my favourite tweets from/in response to the night that pretty much sum up what I’m thinking…

Jesus got 8 mentions in the program, by name, he was obliquely referred to in a couple of Pell’s quotes. One was from a questioner, one was from Tony Jones, three were from Dawkins.

Here’s the best description of the gospel from the night.

“…the fundamental idea of New Testament Christianity, which is that Jesus is the son of God who is redeeming humanity from original sin, the idea that we are born in sin and the only way we can be redeemed from sin is through the death of Jesus…”

And it’s from Richard Dawkins. Who is dismissing it. Dawkins is clearer on the gospel he’s rejecting than Pell is on the gospel he’s promoting.

Two mentions were in a segment where Pell suggested that the Jews were culturally inferior to the other civilisations of their time.

“TONY JONES: I’m sorry, can I just interrupt? Are you including Jesus in that, who was obviously Jewish and was of that community?

GEORGE PELL: Exactly.

TONY JONES: So intellectually not up to it?

GEORGE PELL: Well, that’s a nice try, Tony. The people, in terms of sophistication, the psalms are remarkable in terms of their buildings and that sort of thing. They don’t compare with the great powers. But Jesus came not as a philosopher to the elite. He came to the poor and the battlers and for some reason he choose a very difficult but actually they are now an intellectually elite because over the centuries they have been pushed out of every other form of work. They’re a – I mean Jesus, I think, is the greatest the son of God but, leaving that aside, the greatest man that ever live so I’ve got a great admiration for the Jews but we don’t need to exaggerate their contribution in their early days.”

Pell finally got on message at the last gasp, in his best answer of the night, answering the last question which essentially suggested a modified Pascal’s Wager, where people should become Christians because life is better for Christians, particularly health wise. Pell thought that was a bad idea.

GEORGE PELL: So am I. It’s a question of truth. Christians don’t present God as, like Santa Claus, something that a myth that’s useful for children and believing in God and being a Christian cuts both ways. More people were killed for their Christian belief in the last century than any other century, probably than all the other centuries combined. They died on principle to be faithful to Jesus so we might get some benefits. You know we mightn’t get ulcers, we might live a bit longer, that might have much more to do with our heredity but we follow Christ because we believe it’s the truth. I think it does bring a peace of mind. It does help us but sometimes it gets us into my life would be much simpler and much easier if I didn’t have to go to bat for a number of Christian principles.

The one thing the transcript doesn’t capture is tone. Pell was snarling. Sarcastic. Snide. He didn’t miss an opportunity to take a cheap shot. Dawkins wasn’t any better. But the tone of this discussion was what really disappointed me. I am overjoyed that we live in a country where the national broadcaster hosts discussions like this, without any fear of repercussions or persecution from the government, or any fear of censorship. But surely Christian spokespeople should be using these opportunities to talk about Jesus, not get cheap laughs and applause from a crowd for mocking their opponents.

So that was Q&A’s Easter special. It made me angry. Why couldn’t someone like Peter Jensen have been invited onto the panel instead. He’s so much more winsome, and able to stay on message about what Christianity is really about (hint – Jesus). Check out the raw footage from this interview he did with SBS.

That’s heaps better than the turkeys who used their Easter media opportunities to slam the banks (though they may deserve it), and even those who try to turn the attention onto the upper middle class (which was social justice champion Father Bob Macguire’s approach). I was pretty thrilled that the ministers asked to comment on the meaning of Good Friday in the Townsville Bulletin all talked about Jesus (with varying degrees of clarity and plain english).

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A compendium of St. Eutychus posts on Christians engaging in the Public Sphere

When I choose to tackle some Christians who I think are doing it wrong when it comes to speaking out as Christians in the public sphere people often ask me good questions. They usually start with “did you think about X?” My answer is usually “I was responding to a particular issue, but I have posted about X before.” Other people say nice things about how it would be useful to have all my posts on this issue collected somewhere (thanks mum).

So here’s my attempt to do that. A mega list, though probably not an exhaustive list, of my posts about PR, social issues, and political lobbying.

When things go wrong:

Doing it right

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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.