where do your ideas come from?

Surely no-one is surprised at the latest revelation that Facebook conducted a psychological experiment on 689,003 of its users, without breaking the terms of use that you agreed to when you signed up for facebook. If you’re curious, they found that reading a bunch of negative, or positive posts is somewhat contagious, and will affect the emotional terms you use in your own posting. Ethically concerning? Probably, but someone signed off on it.

It makes me reflect: to whom have I outsourced the media input, the stimuli that I take in, that in turn helps shape what I’m thinking about, and how my opinions evolve?

Logos is where I go to read the bible (and try to keep my Koine Greek language skills alive). I’ve been starting my day with the app for most of this year, and it’s been a helpful spiritual connection.

Feedly, which I use to keep up with 300 RSS feeds is something of a special case: at least for the most part I’m delegating to actual people who run websites for the content I’m reading. In case you’re curious, some of the Feedly content I push onto a stack to read later – either their “saved for later” content, or sometimes to Instapaper, which I read occasionally, but mostly don’t get back to.

Gmail seems a necessary evil at the moment, and its rules and spam handling keep a lid on how many different sources of information have the chance to interrupt me.

Twitter is more about when I choose to dip in, and which chaotic run of tweets will scroll past my eyes at a given time.

With Instagram, I’m still looking (at least briefly) at every photo, as I don’t follow enough people for it to become something I just dip into.

But other sources of information and entertainment include Facebooklinked in (which continues to copy Facebook in its approach to being a source of reading matter) iView player, YouTube, Vimeo and some movies, that I generally find via Apple TV).

For these, the content is curated by algorithms from a series of companies (who I trust with varying amounts of personal data) – it’s these sites that decide where my inputs come from. They present enough of a range of choices as to give the illusion that you have a well-rounded selection, but in fact, this is classic filter bubble

Even when I asked my friends (via Facebook) for suggestions on new podcasts to listen to (I use a combination of the Downcast app for iOS and a website called HuffDuffer for one-off MP3’s), I find them already closely aligned with the kind of generic-interest-with-a-touch-of-comedy that I had already stumbled upon. Does this mean that podcasts outside 5by5, the NPR family, and Ear Wolf don’t exist, or am I not well-connected enough to people who have more diverse interests?

What’s the call-to-action for this post? Think through how much time you’re spending soaking up ideas from sources where you should be more critical of their origins.

hot air about a balloon

Today and yesterday there was a lot of media coverage (e.g. Fitz, ABC news in the US, Herald Sun, SMH, Daily Mail) of the hot air balloon that an Australian gambling company sent flying over Melbourne. Based on the Christ the Redeemer statue that overlooks Rio de Janeiro

It looked like this:

Depending on who you ask, it was some harmless fun, just promoting the World Cup and trying to encourage the Australian supporters not to give up on their team. That is was not actually promoting gambling (surely that’s a bit of a stretch with the company logo so prominent on the balloon). At the other end of the response spectrum it was an incredibly insensitive thing, associating Jesus with gambling.

The social media response to the balloon was certainly mixed, as it ever is. For what it’s worth, the hashtag chosen seems to have a broad variety of comments, not just those related to the campaign, so perhaps it needed a little more work.

There were plenty of prominent Christians quoted, but the sound-bites that made it through were about the Jesus who turned over the tables of the money changers, and that Jesus would be against gambling as it was exploiting the poor. It seemed a bit of a missed opportunity to talk about the Christian message more broadly, so I thought I’d have a quick go.

The reason Christians make such a fuss about Jesus is tied to those things that we believe about him. That he is God’s Son, that he came to earth to die on a cross (the iconic gesture of outstretched arms we see on the hot air balloon), and be raised back to life.

Why? People were not living lives that were up to God’s standard, and so God intervened so that the relationship between God and people could be restored. Someone who wants to become a Christian asks God for forgiveness through Jesus’ death, and then, having been forgiven by God, seeks to demonstrate gratitude to God by living a life in keeping with the teachings of Jesus.

It’s at this point that the anti-gambling message would come in: gambling would be among the less sensible things that can be done with money, and promoting gambling tends to encourage the people who can afford it the least to allocate more of their money than they can afford, with a hope of getting a giant windfall.

There was a lot of hot air spent on the balloon, but on the positive side, a giant Jesus in the sky is surely an excuse to talk a little about the Christian message.

#sydneychallies: How to use emerging media for the gospel

Even though I read much of what Challies writes on his blog, I didn’t realise he was coming to Sydney until I saw it on Dave Meiers’ blog. I was able to get a free night, and so I went along to the “social media for pastors” evening, despite not particularly identifying as a “pastor” as such.

Challies has been blogging every day for the past 7-8 years, has written books on technology and the gospel, and transitioned in his career from web developer to associate pastor at his local church (Grace fellowship church in Toronto). He has made blogging a part of his thinking process, helping him work out what he thinks about a particular topic.

Here is an edited version of my notes from his talk at Toongabbie Anglican on May 14th, 2014.

Starting out with a range of stats on the subject of how many hours children (8-18 years old) spend online – 7 hours 38 minutes on average, and how many text messages that teenagers send (on average 3364 per month). 

First exposure to internet pornography is age 12 (and falling). The pace of change is very fast. The author of Little House on the PrairieLaura Ingles Wiler – was born 1867, and died in 1957. In her lifetime, she went from being amazed by steam locomotives to seeing the dawn of jet travel. Imagine the changes a child born in the age of the iPhone will see!

Challies placed “born in 1980” as the cut-off between digital immigrant and digital native (though I’ve heard elsewhere that this is more a  convention than anything approaching a strict rule).

An eight year old today will assume that it’s completely normal that everyone has a cellphone (and looks at it all the time). Your age frames how you understand and relate to technology. For pastors, this leads to a different kind of challenge depending on whether you have an older or younger congregation, and challenges in getting different groups to talk to one another.

Three points on a continuum for our relationship with technology: 1. Enthusiastic embrace 2. Strict separation 3. Disciplined discernment. We should be looking to embrace the virtuous, reject the unwholesome; live with God’s word as our guide (cf Titus 2 – live self-controlled, godly, upright lives.)

Even though there are societal commentators like Malcolm Gladwell (who in Blink says you look at something, and immediately, intuitively know about it), there’s not much from a Christian perspective: our theology about technology is poor. Challies has been trying to bridge this gap a little: we want both to think and to live as Christians, in a distinctly biblical way.

Every technology brings risk and opportunity. The charge in Genesis 2:18 and Genesis 3:8 is to fill the earth and subdue it: this means creating things (technologies). Harness the world. Plant crops, build bridges, design computers, compose music. What is the oldest technology in your house? The PlayStation One? How about your cutlery, or even the wheel on your car!

Subduing the earth involves the creative activity of using tools to shape God’s creation for practical purposes. But the kinds of technology we have to create are impacted by living in a sinful world. For example, in a perfect world, you have no need for military technology.

It’s not the technology itself that is good or evil, but the human application of that technology.

Be careful that the technology does not become an idol in itself: an idol is something that gets your allegiance in the place of god.Promises satisfaction, fulfilment. Pleasure. (cf Romans 1:22-23 – Worshipping and serving the creature instead of the creator.)

John Calvin: “We gather that man’s nature,so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.”
Science is the new religion

For most of us, our hope is in Jesus, not in technology. But wherever our loyalty lies, our digital technologies can enhance the power of that idol. Possible idols: Power. Money. Popularity. Pleasure.

Some teenagers need power so they turn to cyber-bullying.

Digital technology allows the idols to take root and enhance the hold they have on our lives.

Romans 12:2 Have your mind renewed day by day

Technology brings risk and opportunity.

Some things are revolutionary, others are evolutionary.
Eg Segway. Amazing thing, but just an evolution of walking.

Often you’re using a device and it brings good and bad.

Television: good for broadcasting information, bad for changing morals. Destroyed community – people stopped talking to one another outside family units, and then within families.

We tend to believe that new technologies are primarily beneficial. (This, perhaps) is a tribute to the effectiveness of technology marketing)

The risks of a technology only become apparent over time.

If you have kids, you need to get them a computer so they won’t be left behind. But what changes to the experience of childhood have come along with the technology?

The Pastor’s response
Be an example: 1 Peter 5:12-13 equip the saints for the work of ministry until we attain maturity.
With regard to technology, the pastor is to be an example in their

  1. Thought
  2. Use
  3. Dedication

The people in church are learning from you: you’re modelling technology use to them.

Teach and model maturity. Are you teaching and modelling spiritual maturity in all things?

Closing thought:

Model thoughtful engagement with devices and online.

1 Corinthians 10 – you can use any social media or devices to the glory of God. Honouring and serving the Lord and carrying out His mission in the world.

Q&A Session

After the initial presentation, there was a brief break, and then we had a lengthy Q&A session. Here’s some of what was discussed:

Q: 90-95% of the posts (on Facebook) are nonsense. How to make it more helpful?

Is Facebook like standing in the town square, yelling, or is it like listening to people speaking quietly in their lounge room? A bit of both. It can he a helpful measure of what’s happening in the life of a congregation, but much of Facebook content is going to be unhelpful. Challies doesn’t really use it.

Q: Recommended books/authors for further reading?

McLuhan, Postman – Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (affil link)

Leading the way from their material.
More recent books: Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

There are few Christian books about living in the social media world: there’s a gap for a book from a Christian thinker over the top of this social media world.

Part of a pastor caring for people is to teach them how to live with the technology. You need to be well thought out in this area so you’re teaching them from a theological framework.

Q: What about technology within the church gathering?

The last corporate technology to make its way into church was PowerPoint, and we took it in willingly, and uncritically. But what’s the difference between congregation members holding, even owning their own hymn books (to sing at home), and reading the ethereal lyrics on the screen? A great deal. Similarly with bible reading on a PowerPoint screen.

Q: Is it possible to have a serious discussion on fb?

No. Too much chatter, not enough thought.

Groothius: As the voice extends, the person recedes.
As society becomes more digital, the face-to-face interaction of church will be more appealing.
Coffee shops tap into a need for people to be together, even as they’re together alone.

Q: Computers may be altering our concentration spans. Is this okay?

Even as a kid, Tim was taught to skim, as the initial overview of a work. But now, looking at the website stats, few people make it to the bottom of an article.

Skimming, and distraction, are the dominant forms of reading. Make sure you’re training yourself to focus and read the things in depth that you need to be dwelling on.

Q: Youth groups are building increasingly shallow friendships – how to encourage people to invest in the relationships?

Give them a chance to talk face to face. Build activities where people will be forced to speak face to face for longer periods of time.

Q: What about video games: good? bad? indifferent?

What is in your heart that is drawing you to that game? Games, reading. Playing sport, playing with friends. How many hours should kids do something? Hard to tell – look at the wider context of their lives – aim for balance.

Q: How to engage kids with the bible?

God’s word has conquered every medium, but we are still figuring it out. At Tim’s church, the kids are loving flannel graph.

Q: North American reformed church scene. Where are the pressure points there?

It’s just a tiny fragment of a wider “Evangelical” prosperity gospel. Egalitarianism and implementing that.  Do we spend to much energy making church attractive to outsiders?

Q: Is PowerPoint appropriate for a sermon?

Tim’s preference is not much ppt, but not a biblical argument. Preaching is declarative. You want to take people to the bible. Tim preaches from a printed bible, and printed notes. Culture of honour / shame.

Q: Can social media be used to reconcile, or only to “take someone out”?

Christians tend to eat their own when a big name messes up.  In some ways, we have a “print mind” – we assume something printed has been vetted and approved. Let’s be cautious: soothing printed in social media does not have the same weight as something that has been reviewed by an editor in anticipation of publication.

Better than hearing Challies talk was getting to meet him and chat briefly. He takes his faith seriously, but he’s a warm, gracious man with a strong work ethic. I look forward to continuing to read what he puts out.

It was also great to meet Dave Miers, whose work I’ve been enjoying for quite a while.

on the eve of big school


I don’t often blog here about parenting things, but this seemed an appropriate milestone. Tomorrow, my eldest goes to school. Over the weekend we visited my parents, and looked through the old family photos of my own first day at school. In these photos, my parents – now around retirement age – are my age, and I’m tiny. It’s hard to believe that when the call goes around for “an old shirt to use as a paint smock”, that the giant garment he uses will be one of my regular work shirts!

I have no clear memory of my first day at school – there is a vague sense of entering a particular classroom, and getting started on some activity or other, but apart from regular games of “dead soldiers” after lunch – where all the kids had to lie perfectly still until spotted as moving by the teacher, or deputised students who had been caught moving – and getting a question about the relative weights of a couple of objects wrong, kindergarten is a bit of a blur.

So I’m not sure how much my son is going to remember of the day itself. I’m hoping he has an overall memory of the continued effort at sustaining a relationship I’ve invested. I’m taking the day off tomorrow to make sure I’m around to drop him off, pick him up, and be around for the family during the day should anyone need me.

In the lead up to becoming a Dad, and for most of the time of being a parent, I’ve been studying theology, hoping to understand how best to impart some wisdom to my son. Sometimes it works – it’s nice to know Greek and fumble my way through some Hebrew, and to have a better understanding of the Christian worldview. Mostly, it’s a balancing act – avoiding simple moralising, not going deeper than he’s ready for in terms of assumed knowledge.

The main problem is saying anything about it at all. far easier to engage him on his own chosen topics of TV shows an video games. Of things he sees around him and wants to comment on. 

We caught up with friends, even today, and there were plenty of opportunities to talk about Christian things – how many times did I just drift back to amusing anecdotes about the kids, when I could have taken some more “risks” and asked some questions whose answers will last long after everything else has faded away? 

But I pick myself up, dust myself off, and keep going.  It was good to pray with my eldest the night before he’s about to embark on his biggest adventure yet.

Big changes ahead for the whole family; as ever, it’s impossible to tell what the future will hold, but we presume that God will continue to be faithful to us. 

Bring on the next step.

domains and content for church websites

A friend posted this question on facebook

Thinking about Church websites, any one got an opinion as to what suffix to use. eg. should it be .com .com.au, .org, .org.au. Also what features do you reckon a good church website should have. thanks

If you’re a church, I think you should have a dot-org domain name. If you’re a church in Australia, I think you should have a dot-au kind of domain name. So I would say dot-org-dot-au would be the domain name.

Further, keep in mind the way you’ll use the URL. It’s going to go on printed material, it’s going to be part of a lot of email addresses, so think about ambiguous spelling, and how hard it’s going to be to spell out over the phone. They simpler the better. If your denomination is hard to spell (like Presbyterian), think about an abbreviation instead (if it’s still available).

In terms of features to include on a website, it’s better to think in terms of content than features. What are you trying to achieve with your church website? I would say that a church website is the modern-day equivalent to the sign out the front of your church. If you have a lot of resourcing, time and effort, it can be more than that, but at a basic level it should have

  • Name of the church (so people know whose website they are on)
  • Picture of the church building (so people know which building in physical space they’re talking about)
  • Sunday Service times (so people can come and see your service)
  • Picture of a Sunday service (so people know what to expect, what to wear, what kind of people go to your church)
  • Map of where your service is 
  • Contact form / Email address where people can ask questions

And all of these things should be easily viewable on a smart phone. If you feel you need to explain a lot of denomination-specific things to your church website visitors, why not link back to the denomination’s state or federal website, instead of re-inventing the wheel on your website?

I would say that the primary audience for a church website should be people who haven’t been to your church before – you can tell regulars what they need to do via email, or on a member-facing part of the site: there’s no need to fill up your website with content for multiple of audiences.

If you have more resources to keep a website up to date, then by all means start doing something more complicated, but this would be where I’d start.

Any further questions? I’d love to write more on this topic if it’s of any use to people.

life, the universe and nothing – part two

Life, the universe and nothing

City Bible Forum paid to bring both Lawrence Krauss and William Lane Craig from their respective universities for a three-part series of conversations called “Life, the Universe and Nothing”. The series is a little hard for the average person to attend – the first session was in Brisbane, the second in Sydney, and the third will be in Melbourne.

Having read a summary of the first session, I had fairly low hopes of a meeting of the minds taking place before me.

Here are a few of the tweets and other items from the night:

The event was more civil than I was fearing, but Krauss still spent a little too long playing the man, rather than engaging with the arguments. There was a palpable calming down over time, and by the end they seemed to be talking to each other rather than over each other. Kudos to the moderator: though she had problems keeping her questions on track, and I would have liked to see her pose more questions from the floor, she tried to give each speaker the floor in an appropriate way.

I found it much more productive talking with a skeptical friend afterward than listening to much of the debate, though I’m interested to read further on the topic of consciousness (and of the soul using the brain as an instrument to control the body), and of quantum gravity, where physics is trying to reach right back to the big bang and explain what happened.

I’m not sure I am any closer to understanding the topic at hand after attending the debate, but it was a good way to start a discussion going, and the two speakers were lively and thought-provoking.

Thanks to CBF for organising the event.

bible software and the commercialisation of spirituality

Last week I read the NYT article on the YouVersion bible app – it talks about YouVersion – an ad-free Bible on your phone, tablet and computer. The very notion of an ad-free bible took me by surprise a little, but that’s the direction that the majority of bible apps seem to be taking. When I was still using a Windows computer with floppy drives in it, I had a copy of a program called QuickVerse (now up to version 10) – it was very much a program (this was before everything was an app) that emphasised the uniqueness of the bible apart from other works.

I tried QuickVerse in later versions, but it had fallen into a common trap: thinking you’re as likely to search other books as search the bible in a piece of software you’ve bought to study the bible: a subtle, but significant problem started to creep in. As I started to do further language study, I moved across to Accordance for Mac and bought the Greek New Testament with it so I could try and read that. It was a perfectly workable program, but when it came time to learn Hebrew as well, the upgrade path looked like it would cost just as much as to buy Logos outright, and I thought I’d test it out as well.

I think I prefer Logos over Accordance for actual ease of use, but Logos is relentless in trying to sell you additional books, and to upgrade the software you have and the collection of books you have. It has reached the point now where I was using it for some vaguely spiritual purpose, and there was a pop-up window, encouraging me to buy the paid upgrade at a limited-time discount price. 

Knowing what I do about digital marketing, they’re just trying to pull out all the stops to sell more of their product in the most effective way possible, but what it feels like is that people-who-buy-Christian-books are a particular target market, and that every tactic possible is fair game. It has reached the point where even as a paid user of their app, I feel like I’m getting ads presented to me in ways that are too intrusive.

As much as the NYT article above talks about printed bibles sitting on the shelf gathering dust, the blaring, commercialised software that we’re heading towards seems too great a contrast from the still small voice of God that we’re trying to listen to in these apps.

Is it just me?


Matthew 6:21 ὅπου γάρ ἐστιν ὁ θησαυρός σου, ἐκεῖ ἔσται καὶ ἡ καρδία σου.

For where your treasure is, there will be your heart.

I’ve been trying to do my regular bible readings in the gospels, and in Greek this year. Partly to improve / not lose my ability to read Greek, and partly to slow down and read carefully. This verse stood out to me this morning. If you’re familiar with the sermon on the mount, you’ll recognise it from its context: Jesus is telling people to store up their treasures in heaven (“ie in Christian/spiritual things), not on earth.

But the simplicity of this one verse: this concept from nearly 2000 years ago, stood out to me and I thought I’d share it. Much easier said than done. We’re in birthday season with the kids at the moment, starting to see the difference in the relationship with presents as the kids grow up: the lure of “stuff”, of treasure, is strong. But none of it will last. If, as Christians believe, people live forever, then investing in them is of much more lasting value than in the latest thing.

And yes, I’m aware of the problem of using any number of pieces of technology to put this post together. Like everything Jesus said, it’s not straightforward to live out.