Putting a price on social networking

An article for the Big Bible Project in which I argue that Facebook puts a price tag on your profile.

London, N19 —

This week, Facebook floated on the stock exchange at a value of $104bn. Allow me to put that number in perspective. If you were to stack that many dollar bills in a pile it would stretch nearly 7,000 miles into the sky. If you laid them out on the ground, it would cover 400 square miles, well over half of Greater London. End-to-end, they would stretch around the world nearly 400 times.

When we use big websites like Facebook and Google, we rarely consider that they exist in order to make money from us. People have invested in developing the sites because they believe we will turn a profit for them, usually through sales or advertising revenue. Under the #digidisciple tag we’ve often discussed how important social networks are to us, but perhaps we should be discussing how important we are to social networks?

With some rough rounding, the basic answer to that is easy enough to calculate. We know that Facebook had about 900 million active users last month and a value of roughly $100bn. Assuming that my amateur mathematics is correct and the exchange rate hasn’t tanked overnight, that makes each ‘active’ user worth about £70 of Facebook’s value.

While the headlines scream about the value of Facebook, then, don’t forget that you, the user, are its most valuable asset.

It’s almost six years since Time Magazine named ‘You’ the person of the year, but the title is now more deserved than ever. Individuals, their friendships, their interests, likes, passions and views are now recognised financial commodities. And while you might be squeamish at the thought of your personal profile being traded on the stock market, understand that the tech industry is only just beginning to cash in on your social life.

Beneath the finances, there is an important lesson here for Christians living out lives of faith online. This industry allows us an unprecedented platform for connecting with people and we are well placed to make the most of it. We can build relationships and communities more easily than ever, reaching out across every conceivable divide. We can discover common ground and debate our differences with people who are half way across the globe or sitting in the adjacent room. How many opportunities do you have online to love your neighbour? To act mercifully? To advocate justice? To witness to Christ? The potential for our social networks is hugely valuable.

It shouldn’t take a flotation on the stock market to show us how valuable our social networks are, but I suspect that many of us need reminding once in a while. Digital networking can seem so frivolous, so easy, pointless even. Take heart and recommit – if you are worth £70 to Facebook, how much more valuable is your digital profile to your discipleship?

This article was originally written for the Big Bible Project.


Ambassadors for Christ, not gatekeepers of the gospel

An article for the Big Bible Project in which I argue that we should have a childlike faith that looks outward, not a Pharisaical one that looks inward.

London, N19 —

I recently found myself speaking with an elderly gentleman after a church service. He has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and is beginning to prepare for such a time as he is unable to make decisions for or take care of himself. At one point in the conversation, he said ‘it seems strange talking about this with someone like you!’ Well it might: he is close to 50 years my senior. He was born as Europe still smouldered from the Second World War; I was born weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I have rarely felt so young, safe, and carefree as I did during that conversation.
For all our obvious differences, though, I was actually struck that evening by how topsy-turvy our mindsets seemed to be. Here was a man of considerably more life experience than me describing his simple trust in the goodness of God. God has been so good to him, he explained, for so many years that he is confident of his faithfulness in the years to come, come what may. He put me to shame! Despite having few cares in the world, I have a small library of books and a fairly well developed theodicy to protect me (BA [hons], don’t you know). But he has the kind of ‘childlike’ faith, to put it like Mark does in today’s Lectionary reading, which Jesus welcomes with open arms.

Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it. (Mark 10:14b-15)

The self-righteous Pharisees

I would be the last person to criticise theology or Bible study, but whatever we learn of God must be shaped by Jesus’appeal to childlike faith. If you are reading Tom Wright’s Lent for Everyone reflections as part of the Big Read, you will know that he dealt excellently with Jesus’ teaching on divorce in today’s passage. That teaching arose because the Pharisees sought to test Jesus and trip him up. They knew the law of Moses inside, but they used that knowledge to puff themselves up in order to bolster their own self-righteousness. They wanted to trick Jesus into impeaching himself, when they should have been humbly eager to hear his life-giving words of grace and truth.

The self-righteous disciples

It’s easy to pick on the Pharisees: they can sometimes seem a bit like 1st century Palestinian pantomime villains. But the disciples come across little better in today’s passage, literally preventing the children from reaching Jesus. They presumed that Jesus would have more important people to give his blessing to.

How often do we find ourselves assuming that God would have no interest in the people we meet? We, with our knowledge and our great standing before God, cannot imagine God’s grace reaching the socially undervalued or ostracised. I could list the ‘usual suspects’ of neglected demographics in our culture: the homeless; asylum seekers; the inner-city poor; prostitutes; violent criminals; those people who hang around the bookies like it’s a social club; etc. But what of the fashionable, popular guy who seems to have everything? What of the millionaire? The opinion-formers? The sportspeople and pundits? It is the sick who need a doctor, after all.

Ambassadors for Christ, not gatekeepers of the gospel

In this season of repentance and meditation on the work of Jesus on the Cross, let’s approach him with childlike humility and childlike enthusiasm in equal measure. Inasmuch as we are ambassadors for Christ, let’s not act as gatekeepers of the gospel to those around us like the disciples did to the children, but rather let’s consider how to share his blessings with all those we come into contact with. And let’s enjoy those blessings of love and grace and salvation on his merits, not ours, with the childlike faith of children of God.

This article was originally written for the Big Bible Project as a reflection on the Lectionary reading for Tuesday of Week 4 of Lent.


Digital ambassadors for Christ in the public sphere

An article for the Big Bible Project in which I argue that we all have our own public squares in which we are ambassadors for Christ.

London, N19 —

In the past week, the age-old debate about the role of Christianity in public life has come alive again. The heavily-reported findings of a survey by the Richard Dawkins Foundation suggest that Christianity is increasingly unimportant to those who self-identify as Christian. Baroness Warsi’s speech to the Vatican bemoaned the social dominance of ‘secular fundamentalism’: ‘I see it in United Kingdom and I see it in Europe. Spirituality, suppressed. Divinity, downgraded’. But while we are busy sounding the trumpets of secularisation, God has a much bigger plan to bring all things together under Christ which he has entrusted to you and me.

Dawkins and Warsi want to build a narrative of secularisation – one in triumph, the other in despair – but the reality is far less bleak for Christianity. In fact, this shift in social influences provides a great opportunity for Christians live out lives of faith and to witness to the gospel.

Our digital ministry of reconciliation

I am not distressed by the alarmism of secularisation theory because as I read the New Testament I don’t get the impression that Jesus or Paul or John or Peter or anyone ever expected Christianity to have a sacred soapbox in the public square. Instead, they gave us universal guidance for Christian witness in any season of society and culture. ‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations’ (Mt 28:19). ‘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 Pet 3:15-16). ‘Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God’ (1 Jn 4:7).

The status of Christianity in the UK does not depend on the number of bishops in the House of Lords or the number of vicars portrayed on prime-time TV. It depends on the health of Christian ministry. And as Paul so gloriously put it in 2 Corinthians 5, all Christians share in this ministry: the ministry of reconciliation. We are introducing enemies of God and those distant from him to his saving love which adopts them into his family.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

If we are Christ’s ambassadors, where is our ‘embassy’? Perhaps it used to be the parish church, where communities met in fellowship, but that is no longer the norm. I propose that our ‘embassies’ are those places we interact with others. We are ambassadors for Christ in the workplace. We are his ambassadors in the pub. And significantly for us #digidisciples, we are his digital ambassadors.

Gospel opportunities for digital ambassadors

‘The ordinary person has more power to be believed than any politician or CEO’, said Patrick Dixon at #CNMAC11. He observed that Internet users trust crowd-sourced reviews more than official testimonials. This is nothing new. In fact, it is precisely how the Bible writers suppose people will view Christianity: not through the public pontifications of the clergy but through the witness of every-day sorts of Christians like you and me. A bishop can speak on the subject of forgiveness, but the act of being forgiven speaks far louder.

We, ordinary people, have more power to witness effectively to the gospel than anyone in what was traditionally known as the public square. We are each in our own ways a more reputable authority figure than household names or recognized institutions. The cultural milieu that has given rise to the theory of secularisation has also placed us, ordinary Christians, as the living authentications of the faith we profess. And we have countless opportunities to fulfil our calling as ambassadors for Christ, not least in the digital space where the people really do hold the greatest authority.

How many opportunities do you have to exhibit the love, integrity, peace, generosity and grace, of Christ, to name but a few virtues, each day? The state of Christianity in public life in Britain is precisely as healthy as the discipleship of British Christians. Let’s pray, then, and help each other to be better ambassadors for Christ in our little public squares, and ask God by his spirit to continue his ministry of reconciliation, reconciling whole world to himself in Christ.

This article was originally written for the Big Bible Project.


Shining like stars: Lessons from #Wikipediablackout

An article for the Big Bible Project in which I argue that contemporary Christians have an unrivalled opportunity for engaging with one another and with the world.

London, N19 —

The web was abuzz earlier this week with the almost apocalyptic Wikipedia blackout. This was a political protest to protect life as we know it – ready access to a near-infinite supply of potentially spurious information. The folks at Wikipedia (along with everyone else who believes in the open Web) object to two Bills in the US Congress which, if made law, would have far-reaching implications for access to data online. It is quite conceivable that Wikipedia could be taken down as a result of these measures, so to protest they flipped the switch for the day and went quiet. (Bex blogged about it on Wednesday.)

Panic ensued. A whole generation of people was suddenly unable to retrieve information of any sort, having become thoroughly dependent on the wonder of Wikipedia. The blackout showed just how reliant on the open web we have become. In the wise words of Joni Mitchell, ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’!

We have unrivalled power to communicate

In a tongue-in-cheek liveblog of the event, the Guardian sought to fill the void left by Wikipedia. They used the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Who’s Who to answer a range of oddball questions posed by readers. Along the way, they demonstrated just how useful the Internet is:

If you’re wondering why this is all taking so long, it’s because this research lark is a nightmare. There are no hyperlinks, no searchboxes – and what the devil’s an “index”? Bloody unhelpful, that’s what… What a rumpus.

What a rumpus, indeed. If nothing else, this exercise proves just how much easier it is to process information digitally. We can find it (with search boxes) and index it (with hyperlinks) in a far more intuitive way than ever before. The Wikipedia blackout demonstrated that we, today, have more power to communicate than at any time since Babel. We can disseminate, engage with with, challenge and learn from information with an ease and accuracy that was barely a dream mere decades ago.

Making the most of every opportunity

The question is, what are we going to do with that power? How can we use it in lives of worship to the glory of God?

There are countless answers, of course, as we #digidisciple(s) are continually discovering. This blog is a fantastic forum for asking these kinds of questions and starting these kinds of conversations. So far this month we’ve had great posts on integrity; using wise words; and trends and opportunities for the year ahead to name just a few.

There is so much more to do, though, if we are to make the most of every opportunity we have in the digital era. We have a glorious God to get to know better, love more, and take more joy in. We have the wonderful gospel of Jesus Christ to proclaim winsomely. We have the Holy Spirit living in us growing us in spiritual maturity.

There has never been a better time to ask these questions have these conversations.

  • In a world where we have immediate access to a range of opinions and practices, we need to ask what it means to serve in the church. Is it OK to attend a church for its worship style despite finding its teaching lacklustre while downloading podcasted sermons to fill the void? What are the benefits and dangers of pick’n’mix involvement in Christian communities? Is there a limit to the number of Christian communities can you serve effectively?
  • In a week in which American pastor Mark Driscoll’s comments about the British church sparked a transatlantic war of words, we need to ask what it means to be a worldwide body of believers. What role do brothers and sisters abroad play in challenging and encouraging us, building one another up in love? How does the onset of instant digital communication change that role?
  • In a Web of user-generated content, we need to ask what it means to practice biblical discernment in what we find online. How do we respond to ideas we disagree with on the Internet? Should we check the authenticity of new ideas shared in the digital space with the same care as if they were shared from the pulpit of our church? Should we check blog posts against what the Bible says? Do we have the same responsibilities to refute false teaching we find on our social networks as we would in our church?

There are so, so many more questions we can and must ask if we are to make the most of every opportunity by using the unrivalled power we have to communicate. Let’s learn the lessons of the Wikipedia blackout so we can shine like stars online, holding out the word of life.

This article was originally written for the Big Bible Project.


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.