I will let my words be few

An article for the Big Bible Project in which I argue that we can say a lot in very few words.

London, N19 —

One of the great merits of Twitter is the brevity of communication it demands. When you only have 140 characters at your disposal, you have little option but to consider your choice of words wisely. Twitter forces you to write just what you need in order to get your message across, no more, no less.

“It is sentences that change my life, not books”

This kind of communication is surprisingly similar in style to the biblical wisdom literature. The Proverbs and Psalms contain countless pithy epithets which are memorable for saying much in few words. Jesus’ sayings, the letter of James, the prophets – the Bible is full of snappy one-liners as well as longer narrative sections. Short sayings can strike a chord and reach us with a particular edge, as anyone who has learned “memory verses” will testify! John Piper aptly describes this phenomenon:

What I have learned from about twenty-years of serious reading is this. It is sentences that change my life, not books… I do not remember 99% of what I read, but if the 1% of each book or article I do remember is a life-changing insight, then I don’t begrudge the 99%.

This kind of attitude informs Piper’s view of Twitter:

Tweets for me are a kind of poetry. I make no claim to be good at it. But that’s the way I think about it. I want it to sound and look good. I will never use 2 for to. Or Shd for should. Why? It’s not a telegram. It’s a poem.

Tweeting forces you to compress you thoughts into sharp, insightful, piercing phrases which will more readily resonate with the reader. I certainly wouldn’t condone Piper’s infamous “Farewell Rob Bell” tweet; I would simply note, however, that he said more in three words than most of the reviews and rebuttals of Love Wins combined.

An example from Jesus

I am often struck by how few words Jesus says. At about 500 words in English, the parable of the prodigal son is easily the richest short story in literature. The parable of the hidden treasure has just 35 words. His sayings are equally as pithy: the Sermon on the Mount reads more like a quick-fire list headlines, and Mark’s Gospel essentially forms a narrative exposition of Mark 1:15. Even the Lord’s Prayer is disarmingly brief by our standards. I have never heard a shorter prayer which covers any more ground!

Two examples from politics

Our culture increasingly values such clarity and tidiness in communication. We digest our news so quickly that politicians now speak almost exclusively in sound-bites. As Christians who are engaged in the contemporary world of quick-fix journalism and social sharing, we have to adapt our style of communication according to the medium we are using. That means writing at length in books and with economy on Twitter.

Of course, Christians will gain nothing by simply barking out rehearsed lines in the hope of catching someone’s imagination. Ed Miliband recently discovered the folly of this approach when he relentlessly repeated a single sound-bite throughout an entire interview, regardless of the questions asked.

That clip is so embarrassing because it betrays Miliband’s desire to be heard but total failure to listen. We have a wonderful message to share, but we must always communicate with integrity. As Peter writes, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…” (1 Peter 3:15)

There are examples of excellent communication in politics, however. Take the winner of last week’s Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year Award for Best Speech. In what is one of the shortest ever speeches in the House of Commons, during the recent EU referendum debate, Charles Walker MP stood up simply to ask, “If not now, when?” His four-word speech cut to the heart of the issue unlike many much longer offerings. Imagine if Christians could be as succinct in the pulpit!

Cutting through the noise

Sometimes it seems as if Twitter is 90 % Justin Bieber, 9% movie title memes and 1% photos of acquaintances’ dinner. Sometimes it seems as if you are fighting against an overwhelming Twitterfall of mindless trivia. Sometimes it seems as if your words of comfort, love, friendship or challenge are one auto-refresh away from losing all relevance. Don’t lose heart, though. In the one-line, Twitter-friendly, take-home message I have been spent 750 words getting to: “Never underestimate the power of truth spoken in a single sentence.” (John Piper)

This article was originally written for the Big Bible Project.

#Digidisciple(ship) is nothing new

An article for the Big Bible Project in which I argue that there is nothing ontologically different about new media as compared with the old.

London, N19 —

Have you ever thought about how you could use internet innovations in discipleship, church and outreach? If that conjures up a horrible mental image of some church ‘Foresight and Planning Committee Towards the Implementation of a Digital Media Strategy’ formulating a series of action points, I want to bring things back to basics for you. Planning church digital media strategy is increasingly important work – please don’t misunderstand me – but I have a feeling that we #digidisciples might be guilty of over-thinking our engagement in the digital sphere because we don’t understand it in context.

Now: Social Networking

Social networking, of course, is one of the great buzzwords of the last decade. Facebook now has 750 million users worldwide: within a year its members will outnumber the citizens of China. Google+ has just launched to great acclaim, introducing brand new ways of organising social groups online. This seems new and dangerous to the outsider, mainly because the landscape changes so quickly. For those who don’t know their Retweet from their LinkedIn, the digital sphere is not just a new language but a whole new alphabet.

In reality, it is all much simpler than it looks. The Web 2.0 (or 3.0, or whatever.0 we are up to now) is all about social interaction. With that, the Internet shares the same fundamental elements as every medium since civilisation began.

How can Christians use internet innovations in discipleship, church and outreach? The answer is not found in some Holy Grail of Internet-Christianity (or, I tentatively suggest, #digidiscipleship). Instead, it is found in the long history of Christians using innovations in communications techniques in their discipleship, church and outreach.

Then: Biblical Stories to Guttenberg

In Old Testament times, community identity was found in narratives which were passed from generation to generation. The people of Israel shared stories of God’s work through their ancestors: promising a nation to Abraham; wrestling with Jacob; using Joseph to save Egypt from famine. As well as sharing stories, they shared rituals which pointed to God’s work amongst them: in the Passover; in the sacrifices; in their Day of Jubilee.

The gospels suggest that Jesus communicated largely in parables and short sayings. Those concise messages were easy to remember and quick to challenge those who heard them. His disciples, after Pentecost, preached sermons and explained the scriptures to anyone who would listen. Paul went to the synagogues and forums to debate and reason with Jewish rabbis and Greek philosophers.

The church has communicated through song, from the early hymns hinted at in the New Testament to the modern worship songs we sing today. It has communicated through the written word in the Bible and in works of theology. Guttenberg was revolutionary for his day – perhaps the scribes got their heads together to plan how to use his printing press in discipleship, church and outreach? The outcome was an explosion in theological tracts, pamphlets, books and wholehearted tomes which turned the world upside down.

#Digidisciple(s) continue the stories

#digidiscipleship is a new concept, and it is fantastic that we can meet together at the Big Bible Project to think through the nature of our Christian witness online. But in a profound way, there is nothing new about #digidiscipleship whatsoever. The gospel is the same as it has always been, we are to live out our faith and share it with others just as we always have; only now we have the wonderful tool of the Internet with which to do so.

Paul wrote to the church in Thessaloniki to defend the authenticity of his witness, and that of Silas and Timothy who ministered there with him. His evidence for genuine, authentic, Jesus-centred love includes this striking verse: ‘Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.’ (1 Thessalonians 2:8)

As we think through how to live in the digital sphere, let’s not get bogged down or distracted by fads and trends. Instead, let’s use this wonderful gift of the Internet to communicate just as Paul did. Let’s communicate because we love. Let’s communicate the gospel, in love. And let’s share our lives with others, in love.

The methods of communication have changed over the centuries, and in this last decade a genuinely incomparable wealth of opportunities has opened up to us as a church. It is absolutely right that we should think through how to engage in the digital sphere as Christian believers. But let’s not forget that although the media changes the message of the gospel does not, and the church is called to share the gospel and our lives in the same way and for the same reason as it always has: because we love.

This article was originally written for the Big Bible Project.