A personal history in books 3: According to Plan

Dan, a guy who became a Christian around the same time I did is now the pastor of my church. His dad used to work for a Christian bookshop and has remained a big reader of Christian books. He was also the elder of the church where I became a Christian.

He gave me a book, within 12 months of me becoming a Christian from a non-Christian family. Maybe for Christmas? I'm not sure. I didn't know anything about it. Never heard of it or its author. The cover was a bit childish but kind of approachable in a late 90s book cover sort of way.

Anyway I read it because I read pretty much anything anyone gave me at this point in those eager early days. And it blew. My. Mind.

It gave the Old Testament to me as a book I could read.

I'd read the whole Bible as a young convert, and been amazed, sometimes bored, always intrigued by it. But I wasn't super sure how to make sense of it. The Israelites gave up their piercings when they left Egypt... should Christians not have noserings?

But According to Plan by Graeme Goldsworthy told me that 'all I had to do' was place whatever bit of the Bible I was reading into a phase of salvation history... and then see how it contributed to my understanding of the Kingdom of God.

So I remember trying it out on all the baffling bits I had encountered as I'd read through the Bible. And it really helped me see through the confusing details to the big picture. 

So awesome.

Now since then I've learned lots more and become a better Bible reader in lots of different ways. But this book is still a formative one for how I think about, read, and preach the Word of God.

And for what it's worth, although longer, its opening chapters and closing examples provide a way more accessible entry point than Goldsworthy's shorter but denser Gospel And Kingdom.

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Encouraging words: Ministry

A couple of months ago Stuart Heath published a post that appeared on the Gospel Coalition Australia site: 'Discouraging Words: Ministry'.

He claimed that the use of the word 'ministry' to desribe 'Christian things' — like working for a church or stacking chairs at church — is unhelpful. More: it is discouraging.

The reason, he argued, is twofold:

  1. It 'reinforces a false division between the sacred and the secular': so that stacking chairs at church is more spiritual than stacking chairs in the break room at work.
  2. It 'reinforces a false division between clergy and laity': so that those paid to lead churches are 'ministers'. 

Better, Stuart says, to avoid the word 'ministry' altogether and instead opt for other terms like 'Christian leadership' and 'serving and loving others'.

Discouraging culture vs discouraging word

Now in this post I don't intend to address Stuart's argument point by point. It seems that a larger Christian culture that creates a sharp division between the sacred and the secular and the 'clergy' and the 'laity' might be discouraging... but I don't think such a culture is as universal as he seems to suggest. Nor do I think that the alleged misuse of the word 'ministry' is all that significant in creating such a culture.

Moreover, I detect a particular theological emphasis in Stuart's post that leads him to be 'discouraged' where others might not be. For example, what if you thought there was something of a distinction (although not a sharp dualistic one) between the sacred and the secular, unlike Stuart? In this case you might see a difference of sorts between stacking chairs at church as opposed to stacking chairs in the break room. In this case you wouldn't be 'discouraged' by a word highlighting that difference.

Stuart's article is his read of the culture, plus his proposed solution, all informed possibly by a particular theological slant, and I don't really want to wade through that. 

Instead I want to paint a different picture of 'ministry', by going back and doing a word study on the 'diakonia' word groups (diakonia, diakoneo, diakonos).

Ministry just means 'serving'?

Well it's not that simple. The words often translated ministry, like most words, has a spread of meanings:

1. To wait on tables: often carrying with it the idea of bringing hospitality from the hosts to the guests (like Acts 6 for example).

2. To be an emissary: bringing a message or other work from a sender to a recipient. See 2Corinthians 8–9, where the delivery of the financial collection from the Gentile churches to Jerusalem is called 'ministry'. This also an important theological usage: the 'ministry of the gospel' is the bringing of the gospel message from God to the world. See the end of Colossians 1 for example.

3. To have an official role: sometimes this 'bringing from one to another' emphasis is lost in some usages. Then a 'minister' or a 'ministry' is simple a formal role. So the governors are ministers of God in their administration of justice, for example. Likewise perhaps this is the sense of 'ministry' in the New Testament letters: the job given to the apostles and others.

4. To fulfill some other benefit or help or duty: in a less formal way, we may bring help, or other assistance, or submit in duty to another, and so 'minister' to someone above us (in dutiful service) or below us (in charitable help). Think about the women who 'minister' to Jesus' practical needs in Matthew 8, or Jesus teaching about how those who are great should be the 'ministers of all'.

So ministry has a range of meanings, most of them more narrow than 'just serving people in love'. It is important to check to see in the context of a particular biblical usage whether a stronger meaning is meant: one that connotes something of the 'emissary' overtone, for example.

What kind of service depends on context

Even where it seems that 'ministry means serving', this does not necessarily mean that the broadest of possible definitions is called for: if I am 'just serving' you in a restaurant setting that is different to 'just serving' you in a hospital context.

So in the context of church, it seems that many of the times the 'ministry' word group appears, it is in contexts where the kind of serving is 'serving by building up in the gospel'. Romans 12, 1Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4 and 1Peter 4 are like this.

So there is a range of possible uses for 'ministry' from narrow and formal, to broad and general.

Where is gets muddy: giving general ministry the theological weight of specific ministry

There is probably need for another post on a particular kind of equivocation that sometimes happens around the word ministry. This is where we call a general act of serving 'ministry' in order to give it extra theological weight. So 'my job as a school teacher is my ministry',means 'it is as much my ministry as leading a Bible study is your ministry'.

Now on one level this is true. We all serve the Lord in whatever we put our hand to, it is good and pleasing to him, and so it is sacred work: whether stacking chairs at church or in the break room at work.

Only the word 'ministry' is not the best word for this purpose. Because 'ministry' does have a narrower and more 'loaded' definition. In this sense my 'Ministry-to-the-church' is a different KIND of ministry, a different USAGE of the word ministry to my 'service of the Lord' in another area of life.

By blurring the terms we lose sight of how church ministry, whether through teaching the word, or supporting the ministry of the word, is part of the ad-minister-ing of God's gospel.

Maybe it would be easier, as Stuart suggests, to avoid the word 'ministry' altogether? After all, it is an word not that much used in modern English anyway, outside of church and government settings. Apart from the fact that it would be almost impossible to stop the general use of the word 'ministry', I want to suggest that provided we are careful, there are some great things about this word, with its connotations, that make it an Encouraging Word:

Why is ministry an encouraging word?

1. 'Ministry' is an encouraging word because it ties together our duty to God and our service to our neighbour in the way we think about the work of gospel preaching.

2. 'Ministry' is an encouraging word because it groups the larger set of Christian activities that support and facilitate and accompany gospel preaching together in the this larger entreprise of 'gospel ministry'.

3. 'Ministry' is an encouraging word because it nests unique 'sacred' gospel service within a larger 'secular' duty to serve others in love.

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‘Family’ is a slippery word!

Family has high cultural currency. And for Christians is has high theological currency as well. So it's not suprising that the correct application of the word gets used, claimed and argued about.

It's also not suprising that more metaphorical uses abound.

But it's a slippery one to tie down. And sometimes we slide from one usage to another without noticing that we are doing it.

Here are just a few quick observations:

1. Family as biological relation

  • In the biggest sense, the common brotherhood and sisterhood of the human race makes us responsible to one another: a duty to love and a duty to treat one another equally.
  • In the more narrow sense, most people think it right that biological relations have some claim upon our loyalty, care and identification.
  • This bond might be broken, denied, replaced, but it is a starting point of human relationships.

2. Family as legal relation

  • Of course for families to continue, there needs to be procreation — and so there comes an indirect relationship of the 'in-law' for example.
  • And families open themselves up to others as well, through things like adoption, to legally bringing someone into their biological lineage.

3. Family as home

  • But none of these immediatley require the establishment or recognition of a home. For home is another concept of family, and one that is most commonly talked about in the West.
  • What makes a legitimate 'family'? What alternative forms of 'family' must be accept or recognise? In these conversations we are talking about what makes a 'home' (or pattern of alternating homes) 
  • And the definition of 'family' and 'home' here is an expectation of stability and contiuity — despite mobility.  This kind of family establishes a legal entity. 
  • So a share house, or a friendship is not a 'home' in this sense. These temporary 'homes' are not 'homes' in the sense that we talk about when we call them 'families'. 
  • But more things can and should be a 'home' than simply a nuclear, biological family. Single parents, Uncles and Aunts who become primary carers, gay parents, single bachelor brother and spinster sister committed to support each other in a long-term way, extraordinarily devoted platonic friendships and so on. Some of these might be legally protected and recognised, others not.
  • And these 'homes' can bring into them people who are legitimate, if temporary, participants in the family: live-in family empoloyees (including servants), foster children, boarders, extended families members studying abroard and so on.

4. Family as the people of God

  • Now then Christians are also adopted into God's family. God the Father is our Father, God the Son is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters, and so we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.
  • There is a new priority and duty to this heavenly father, and these spiritual siblings, that in certain contexts overrules our loyalty and commitment to our biological and legal family. There is a protection and accepatance here that might substitute for reject from our famliy home.
  • But this relationship is not a full replacement or nullifying of our biological families, whether Christian or not. In many respects the loyalties and duties of our biological family remain and should meet certain needs rather than the church.
  • Indeed, clearly I can't give the same intensive and lifelong devotion to all my millions of Christian siblings around the world that I can and should give to my biological siblings. So clearly I need to be careful with how I think through the application of this spiritual relaitonship.

5. Family as the local church

  • The local church is called the 'household of God', so in some ways this provides a much more bounded sphere of responsibility, than all the people of God around the world. It is easier to love them as 'family' in a way that gets closer to a normal family.
  • Although even then, even a smallish church of 50 people is larger than a nuclear family: very few families have 25 brothers!
  • Moreover, the mobility of Christians means that we leave local churches and cleave to other local churches, in a way that we never do from our biological or immediate families.
  • Once again, this means we must be careful about carelessly and recklessly importing all sorts of expectations into the local church simply because we think we know what we mean by 'family'.

6. Organisational or community family

  • Lastly, sometimes Christian organisations speak of the relationships within the organisation as 'family': 'the Geneva Push family', 'the St Mark's staff team family'.
  • This is not exclusive to Christians, the metaphor is a natural one, and so can be adopted by subcultures (the rollerblading family) and businesses (the Vodafone family).
  • But there is extra weight to this concept in a Christian organisation: for we ARE brothers and sisters in Christ, and so it seems to be at first hearing a very legitimate concept.
  • The important distinction, however, is that in these contexts, the bond that is being described is the bond created by the organistion. The peculiar affection or loyalty is a loyalty created by both being in the organisation, not fundamentally by our faith in Christ.
  • So properly speaking, this use of family is really closer to the secular usage—the Vodafone family—than it is the spiritual usage. To fudge this one is to impose onto organisational relationships certain levels of spiritual and relational depth that are not required simply by virtue of being part of the organisation.

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Getting from the Old Testament to the New Part 2: resolving contradictions

Part 1: Putting things in historical order

It is sometimes hard to read and understand the Old Testament as Christians. Which means it is also hard to preach and teach the Old Testament, and difficult to answer questions from sceptics about the Old Testament.

The overall idea of biblical theology is very help in this: seeing how the Bible is one book, with one great theme; one big story, with a climax in Christ, his work and its fulfillment. Books like According to Plan by Graeme Goldsworthy, and teaching content like Strand 2 at National Training Event is so brilliant.

But the details of working from particular passages from the Old Testament remains obscure even to those who have mastered the basics of biblical theology. And so we can fall into two errors:

Every passage gets forced into a simplistic mold, sapped of any unique insight, flattened out. Preaching on the Old Testament becomes an odd exercise in expounding the text and then ignoring it in a clumsy jump to the gospel.
The overall framework is used to justify the move to the New Testament, without taking the time to see how this movement is implicit in the Old Testament texts themselves. As a result to sceptical hearers this move appears strained or even irresponsible.

This little series is my attempt to give more detail to this move, in a way that can be concretely applied to particular texts.

Part 2: Resolving Contradictions

Some apparent contradictions in the Old Testament text are not bound up with biblical theology, and so are not relevant here:

  1. Mysterious aspects of God's nature and his interaction with space and time
  2. Apprent factual discrepancies

But a bunch of others are created by the fact that the Old Testament is preparatory and incomplete: it is slowly revealing the full nature of God's saving plans. In fact God sets up 'imperfect shadows' of the things to come, and so there is a kind of 'contradiction' between commands related to these shadows and the ultimate reality.

So another unfortunate acronym: PRIORITIES

Is the Paradox Resolvable?

This first step is to check whether the kind of apparent contradiction we are dealing with is actually a 'contradiction' cause by biblical theology. That is, it an unresolveable mystery of God's nature? Or simply a matter for harmonisation? Then that's different. But if it's not those, then we might be dealing with a biblical theology matter.

Is something Ineffective because of sin?

Some things put forward in the Old Testament fade away due to their inadequacy, because of sin: the specialness of Israel, the kingship of Israel, righteousness by the law. This suggests to us that they are not the 'full story'.

Is something merely Outward?

Another kind of ineffectiveness is beacuse of weakness. So the law is external: it doesn't change the heart. The temple is too small: not even the highest heavens can contain God. Geneological Israel is just about human descent, not genuine faith.

What thing is more Recent (and so clarifying) or more Intial (and so fundamental)?

There are two ways the New Testament shows us that something passes away: sometimes a former thing is superceded by something that comes later. And sometimes an earlier thing 'trumps' later, lesser additions. And sometimes it's both. So in Hebews 7 we are told both:

  1. The Melchizedek priesthood is announced in Psalm 110 in a way that supercedes the Levitical priesthood AND
  2. The Melchizedek priesthood comes before the Levitical priesthood and is paid tribute by the Levitical priesthood

A similar argument is found in Galatians 3, about how the promise is an initial priority, being given 430 years before the law.

Is the Termination announced?

The  flow of biblical theology is seen especially clearly when the God prophetically announces the termination of Old Testament shadows and types. The prophets are full of declarations that the 'time is coming' when things will 'no longer' be the same. These texts make it especially clear how 'apparent contradictions' will be resolved in the gospel.

Is an Improvement announced?

Sometimes the way in which a 'contradiction' is resolved is by God promising to 'improve' the Old Testament shadow: offering a divine king, for example; or writing the law on our hearts.

Is something Established?

So then, we need to ask how it is that God decisively establishes one aspect of his Old Testament revelation in a way that abolishes/improves/fulfills the partial Old Testament revelation. So in establishing the promise to Abraham which is received by faith, the law of Moses — as a distinct covenant — is abolished. Or by declaring all foods clean, the reality that all of the Creator's world is to be received with thanksgiving is established.

What Solution is offered?

And finally, where the 'contradiction' in the Old Testament presents us with a problem of sin, then the gospel provides a 'solution' in pardoning sin and transforming human beings.

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Polished preaching vs raw preaching

There’s no one way to deliver a good sermon. The strengths of one preacher mean that they lack the strengths of another. A short sermon has weaknesses, but then so does a longer sermon.

Another area where preachers differ and advice on preaching diverges is how polished the sermon is. 

Some advice speaks of massive amounts of rehearsal and drafting, seeking feedback in the composition process, careful systems of illustration filing and so on. So we might be pointed to the carefully crafted political address and carefully composed speechwriting skill.

And yet there are other forms of effective public communication, and analagous preaching styles, which are less crafted. Think, for example, of some stand up comedians, who speak with a great degree of thought and planning, but not from a teleprompter. So also I have heard preachers who are more ‘free’ in the precise form and content of their sermon, and yet equally effective in a different way. I’d hate to lose the benefits of that kind of preaching by conforming them to the polished approach.

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Getting from the Old Testament to the New Part 1: putting things in historical order

It is sometimes hard to read and understand the Old Testament as Christians. Which means it is also hard to preach and teach the Old Testament, and difficult to answer questions from sceptics about the Old Testament.

The overall idea of biblical theology is very help in this: seeing how the Bible is one book, with one great theme; one big story, with a climax in Christ, his work and its fulfillment. Books like According to Plan by Graeme Goldsworthy, and teaching content like Strand 2 at National Training Event is so brilliant.

But the details of working from particular passages from the Old Testament remains obscure even to those who have mastered the basics of biblical theology. And so we can fall into two errors:

  1. Every passage gets forced into a simplistic mold, sapped of any unique insight, flattened out. Preaching on the Old Testament becomes an odd exercise in expounding the text and then ignoring it in a clumsy jump to the gospel.
  2. The overall framework is used to justify the move to the New Testament, without taking the time to see how this movement is implicit in the Old Testament texts themselves. As a result to sceptical hearers this move appears strained or even irresponsible.

This little series is my attempt to give more detail to this move, in a way that can be concretely applied to particular texts.

Part 1: Putting things in their historical order

The first and most obvious way to move from the Old Testament to the New Testament can be found in narrative texts, especially those that are clearly part of the larger narrative that begins particularly with Abraham and ends in the New Creation.

In this way of moving from Old Testament to New Testament, we are not working with complex things like ‘typology’, but simply plugging the small story into the larger story, showing how the small story contributes to the flow of the larger story and then giving the ultimate ‘spoiler’ of the gospel.

A clums]y acronym of 3 pairs and 1 triplet gives some ways this works: STORY’S END:


1. What Sting is Taken away?

Some Old Testament stories end in tragedy or judgment or failure. The end of the book of Judges, or the exile to Babylon, for example.

These ‘cliffhangers’ in the Old Testament text drive the narrative forward into the next step in God’s dealings with Israel, and never find ultimate resolution until the Christ returns at the second coming.


2. What Obedience does only Christ’s Righteousness perfect?

Although the Old Testament is more than a series of moral lessons, some stories are told in a way that clearly celebrates or condemns the behvaiour of the characters: Joseph showed integrity in his sexual morality, while David failed disastrously in this same area. in addition to this, there are also explicit laws and commands given of a general nature: such as that first command to Adam, or the law to Israel.

These stories and commands give us an opportunity to praise virtues and decry vices. But they also give a legitimate opportunity to speak more widely on the Bible’s teaching about God’s perfect standard, our universal human inability to meet that standard, and Christ’s active righteousness of life, passive righteousness in his atoning death, imputed righteousness to those who trust in him and transforming righteousness by the Spirit both now in part and in full when he returns.


3. What Yearning does the gospel Satisfy?

The Old Testament also presents us with ‘problems’ that are not quite tragedies or judgments or failures, but rather godly desires for something more.]

For example, when Moses longs that all God’s people would be prophets, he is yearning for a good, additional thing, which ultimately God does grant in the pouring out of the Spirit on all those in Christ.


4. What Explicit promise find its Normal fulfillment or Deeper fulfillment in Christ?

The LORD often makes explicit promises about what he will do in the future. And occasionally these promises find their immediate and explicit (‘normal’) fulfillment in Christ Jesus himself. This is the easiest kind of passage to apply to Christians today. The promise that the seed of the woman will one day crush the head of the serpent, in Genesis 3:16 is perhaps one such promise.

But at other times, the promise has more immediate fulfillments in the Old Testament history itself, while its ultimate, ‘deeper’ fulfillment is in Christ. The promise to Abraham is a promise like this.

I will unpack this more in a coming post.

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When do you accept an invitation to speak on a ministry you don’t agree with?

It can be a luxury to be an unknown pastor: you don't get too entangled with ministry politics, you don't get invited to speak at things, so you don't have to make too many tricky decisions in this area.

But if you happen to be even a little bit networked in your local area, every now and then there will be invitations for you or your ministry to share in the ministry work or stand on the ministry platform with others, where you might have concerns.

This is not an exhaustive post, but rather just raises a few notes:

1. Doctrine matters

Kind of simple point. But it's worth saying again and again and again. Christiannity is a confessional religion. Your bond of fellowship with others is a fellowship in the truth. Doctrine outlines truth. It's not about shared interest in sociology, spirituality or some kind of emotional devotion to Jesus or the Bible or Christian heritage. 

Don't link arms with people on the assumption that you are fellow believers...if you don't share a common faith!

In fact, I urge you to be cautious about endorsing ministries whose doctrine on secondary (or perhpas even tertiary) matters is problematic. There's not a hard and fast rule here, but it is a matter that should concern us greatly.

I've noticed that sadly people can become loose on theology when they find another point of agreement they are passionate about:

  • Church growth people suddenly grow fuzzy on theology when they find others who share their 'how to's,
  • Political-engagement people link arms with quite extreme theonomists or Roman Catholics when they share agreement on certain social issues,
  • Charismatic-worship-style people draw close to people from properity theology churches because of shared taste of musical style and emotional expression
  • Denominational sentimentalists tolerate liberalism becuase of a shared love of ceremony and heritage


2. Philosophy of ministry matters

Doctrine and practice are intertwined. Good doctrine can lead to reformation in practice. But poor practice dishonours good doctrine, and over time can have a corrosive effect upon doctrine itself.

Being generous and flexible on matters of indifference, or even tertiary matters is good and right. 

At the same time, when it comes to what ministries we throw our time and energy behind, what ministries we support with our presence: sure these should be ones that we believe are good for the Christian community in a deep way — in their sound doctrine and practice.

And while there are a few contexts where a very broad base of very loose and general agreement might be wise and godly... in most cases I believe that smaller fellowships with closer agreement of doctrine and practice are better. By investing too much, too often in fellowships of 'lowests common denominator' theology and practice, you are actually pursuing and supporting a philosophy of ministry in and of itself: broad interndenominationalism.


3. Speaking at a ministry event usually says something about that event: endorsement 

Don't be naive: in most cases, your generous, flexible, open-handed partnership with other ministries will be perceived as an endorsement of those ministries. By speaking on their platform you are usually implying support for their platform. If you happen to be something of 'well-known' speaker, then you might be helping advertise that ministry, or even give it credibility among those who value your ministry.

You might have a very qualified support of this or that ministry or event. But think of others who might think: Oh well Pastor So And So supports it so it must be good. In fact they might even perceive you as endorsing other events, speakers or resources from this ministry.


4. Speaking at a ministry event usually says something about your ministry: alignment

The reverse might also be true. Not only might you be communicating something about the event, by agreeing to speak at it, you might begin to convey something about your own ministry.

An overly suspicious and paranoid spirit is nasty. It's true that sometimes Christian networks can be 'tribal' in a bad way, that draws all sorts of unwarranted conclusions about someone based on flimsy evidence.

And yet, there is also a degree to which such conclusions, if thoughtful, measured and cautious are totally justifiable. 


5. Is it understood that I am free to publicly critique this ministry?

A great test is to ask how free will you be to publicly critique the ministry or event you are invited to speak on.

Let me give an extreme example from the world of politics. Remember when Bill Shorten was invited to speak at an Australian Christian Lobby event? Certain groups complained that by doing so he was somehow endorsing them. Not at all! Everyone was clear that he was not a supporter of the ACL. And everyone was clear that he was free to share his disagreements with them. That's not complicity: that's civil discussion.

In the same way, there are some platforms where you are invited as a partner, fellow-worker, co-religionist, likeminded friend. In these settings, to be overly negative about minor points of difference would be 'bad form'. To use an event intended to celebrate your major points of agreement as a platform to talk at length about points of contention is out of order.

However, there are other situations where you are being invited in as something of an 'outsider'. In those situations it might be worth talking about the points of difference and your freedom to name them, whether at the event, or in your other public communications.

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Do you have the character that can resist once-in-a-lifetime opportunities?

In his Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf gives a chilling, but believable quote from Hitler's architect, Albert Speer, talking to his daughterabout the temptations of ambition:

You must realise that at the age of 32, in my capacity as an architect, I had the most splendid assignments of which I could dream. Hitler said to your mother one day that her husband could design buildings the like of which had not been seen for 2000 years. One would have had to be morally very stoical to reject the proposal. But I was not at all like that

(S. Hauerwas, Truthfulness and Tragedy, 1997: Notre Dame cited in Exclusion and Embrace, p 255-56)

In later excerpts, Speers says:

I was above all an architect

...fear of discovering somehting which might have made me turn from my course...

... I had closed my eyes...

... [unable] to see any moral ground outside the system where I should have taken my stand.

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Startup: such a good podcast for church planters

By Alex Blumberg, original from This American Life, comes a podcast on starting a business.

The first season documents Alex starting his own media company — Gimlet Media. And then subsequent seasons follow other businesses.

What I found enthralling was how close his experiences (and others on the show) were to some elements of starting a new Christian ministry: the awkward interactions with major donors who give mixed messages about what they think you should do and make you feel small and silly; the seaons of profound self-doubt; the peculiar dynamics between you and your partner; the need to make complex inuitive ethical decisions about what you stand for and so on.

It's well worth subscribing I reckon: http://ift.tt/1MHZ7mm

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UTAS O Week Mission 2016 — Part 7: Phonecalls, SMS and email

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On each day we made all our contacts we aimed to enter the data in 'live' and then make contact that afternoon with everybody we had met that day.

We began on the assumption that phonecalls were more personal and effective for personal connection than SMS or email. So the plan was to try to call, and then if that didn't work, send SMS and email. If they didn't give a number, then obviously email was it.

But what we soon found is that phonecall is not just more awkward for those staff and students making the call. For students today, receiving a phonecall from someone they don't know is not welcome. It's invasive, akward and largely unwelcome.

So our project manager, Laura, made the 'call' (;-P) to stop calling, and rely only on SMS and email. Not only was this more efficient for us, it was also more effective, we believe.

[Dave Moore's blog 'Ministry Principles and Pragmatics' has a good blog post on this topic here.]

What we are still thinking about is the role of automation in this process. After all, we could do a lot of our email and SMS stuff in bulk through Elvanto, and still have auto-fill fields that personalise the address.

For next year, we will do all our emailing through the automated system. However, since we don't want to give the job of field all replies to SMS to one person, we will probably keep the SMSing from individual phones, so that there can be a whole spread of people who interact. But we might change our mind on this: watch this space!

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UTAS O Week Mission 2016 — Part 6: Social connection opportunities

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A singificant factor in students 'sticking' with a Christian union is whether or not they establish good social connection. This is a massive challenge when you are dealing with hundred of new names at the start of every year and you are competing with all sorts of social activities and groups.

Part of our O Week Mission was to increase the amount of opportunity for social connection early on in the year. I think we did ok. But I think we could actually do more still.

Pizza Parties

We offered free pizza from Monday to Wednesday of O Week in the same venue where we hold our Thursday night Citywide Gatherings. This gave us a same-day place for new students we met to come and meet us.

We had not idea how successful these would be. In the end we had 56 people attend these events, of whom 20 were new contacts. So not great, but still ok. And of these 20 people, two of them were non-Christians who have since become Christians... so that's awesome!

Follow Up Coffees

It a massive feat to chase up all the almost 400 contacts and invite them one by one to meet for coffee. To contact them 3 times on both SMS and email was a huge feat, and then to arrange all these meetings was huge. We ended up meeting 70 people for coffee. And this was really worthwhile.

This kind of face to face, sharing stories, explaining things that were in brochures and emails and Facebook directly to somebody is great. Answering their questions and objections, helping them take a next step to church, to the FOCUS ministry or whatever.

Even then, however, lots of the people you end up meeting for coffee don't stick. So far about 15 cold contacts have joined small groups, 5 have attended evangelistic courses and 20 have attended public meetings. That's not including contacts made through youth group and school visits and members inviting friends along.

We have seen people trickle in and connect continually across the whole semester. In fact I met with another student just today who only just responded to an invitaton to meet for coffee.

Faculty Events

We had our faculty clusters organise social events to engage new people as well as bring together existing people. These have remained small so far: about 10-15 people per cluster. But even then, about 20 new people have come to at least one of these.

These are still not the size that we'd like. But they provide another contact point.

Public Events

We have worked at making sure food and socialising is a part of all our events. We have a simple breakfast at our 'Breakfast Session' monthly sermonn at 7:30am on Tuesday. We bought sushi and Subway for our evangelistic Lunchtime Session. We always have lots of unhealthy snack food, nicely presented, at our Citywide Gatherings. 

Making our public meetings places where social connection can happen is really great. The night time slot for Citywide Gathering is especially powerful for this: we can build community in this slot in a way that a lunchtime Bible talk would never allow.

Still more to do

But as I said... there's still more we could have done, I think.

Some campuses set up a social space on campus for O Week: a lunch bar / cafe / lunch on the lawns sort of thing. I think this could work... but I also worry that it could absorb a lot of staff and student time hanging out with the pre-existing core, rather than really connecting with new people. Keen to hear what others have found. There's a balance between proactive and deliberately social connection events for NEW people... and just running hangout stuff for existing people.

I wonder if we actually need more social events AND Bible teaching events into Week 2 and even Week 3. We were steadily connecting with new people over those first few weeks, so that the first week of pizza parties and Citywide Gathering were over and done with before we connected. This is especially a problem with our monthly pattern of meetings.

So I'm thinking we might need some pizza party type things and some kind of public Bible teaching stuff in Week 2 as well.

Pacing yourself vs going hard 

A challenge with figuring this all out, however, is managing the energy of your staff and student team. Creating more points of contact comes at the cost of the staff and student leaders. The more you add, the more you drain them.

This is a delicate balance, and we will have to think about this carefully, but boldly, as we look into 2017.

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UTAS O Week Mission 2016 — Part 5: Data Entry and Volunteer Support

Previous Posts

This year, we recruited a team of people to help us do data entry in 'real time' for a couple of reasons:

  1. So that people would hear back from us as soon as possible after we had first met them.
  2. So that we could invite people to our free pizza parties that were happening each evening of O Week.
  3. So that we didn't have a huge backlog of hundreds of names at the end of the day.

This was a huge challenge logistically for us. But it is one of the things we will definitely repeat from now on.

Advantages to recruiting a data entry team

  • Gave an avenue for students and local church volunteers to serve the campus mission, if they didn't have the time flexibility, gifts or confidence to help out in public promotional stuff.
  • Freed up staff time and energy from doing administration.
  • Many hands make light work!
  • Forced us to write very detailed, step by step 'how to use Elvanto' guidelines for both adding people and putting them into People Flows. This will help us in future training of people to use our database.

Challenges of training and overseeing a data entry team

  • Volunteer recruitment, communication and training takes a lot of time and effort.
  • You need advice to people on deciphering handwriting:
    • hold it far away, or drop on the floor and look while standing up above it — it helps your brain do its pattern recog thing
    • look for other examples of unclear letters to get clues to what it might be
    • different ways of writings 7s and 1s
    • beware of difference between a dash and an underscore
    • '.' in the name bit of gmail addresses don't matter — fake.name@gmail.com and fakename@gmail.com go to the same place
    • tell them about qq.com — a common Chinese email site. It's NOT gg.com :-)
    • especially if you have older people: common email endings — to avoid them writing 'gmail.net' or whatever by mistake
    • be aware that some nationalities list surname FIRST followed by first name.
  • We found a lot of data entry errors and a lot of failures to follow the steps that were carefully laid out in the guidelines of adding people into Elvanto:
    • this demonstrates how people find it hard to follow step by step instructions consistently over time 
    • really stress the need to be accurate with data, when training
    • really stress the need to follow every step on the guidelines, when training.
    • remind people regularly to follow each step on the guidelines
  • We tried on one day to have the person traveling between campuses and collecting forms to also be training and overseeing data entry. This didn't work at all: both roles are almost full time.
  • You need a really clear system for managing all the piles of completed surveys for EACH PERSON doing the surveys:
    • different campuses and locations
    • each day
    • not sorted
    • people's responses added to Survey Monkey
    • 'No' to further contact?
    • 'No' to further contact but then give contact details — do you send them a once off email with links to an explanation of the gospel and answers to common questions
    • 'Yes' to furter contact
    • 'Maybe to furter contact
    • Fully processed

Advice on helping this really work

  • You need spaces where internet is available (or have people do WiFi hotspots over their phones). Since there will be people travelling between different sites on campus anyway, I recommend setting up a headquarters, even if it's not on campus — perhaps a local church that is happy for you to camp there for a few days and steal their WiFi?
  • Have a staff or student leader who is really clear on the process set aside to oversee this, or at least available nearby.
  • You will need to be ready to regularly: remind of process, check process, encourage and boost morale, solve technology problems, keep space tidy, offer food and drink, encourage breaks to stretch.
  • Make sure you give good and clear privacy policy training to those who are doing this.
  • Make the space they will work in be pleasant and fun.
  • Provide free food and drink and snacks for them.
  • Make sure there are enough chairs, tables, power cords, power boards and spare laptops/tablets if possible
  • We didn't keep track of who processed which people. That would've been helpful.
  • We didn't keep track in Elvanto of who said Yes and Maybe... so we will have to trawl back through our paper surveys to see how many of the Maybes ended up connecting with us — set up a field for next year.

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UTAS O Week Mission 2016 — Part 4: Incentives and the ethics of promotions

Previous Posts

One of the key things we picked up from Cru in the US was the crazy idea of providing substantial incentives for people doing our O Week surveys. 

Here was the St Louis Cru advice:

  • The “giveaway” is what will motivate people to fill out your survey
  • Community College: Raffle for a $25 gas card or gift card to Walmart
  • 4-Year University: Raffle for something Larger, like an iPod or a bike
  • If you have the option, giving away free stuff (like water bottles, highlighters, Bibles, etc) to freshmen is a great idea!

Like many things American there is a bizarre ministry culture shock. Raffle for an iPad? Are you kidding?!

So we ruled out some of these more extreme ideas, espcially those that involve some kind of quasi-gambling, and instead went for: 

  • free KeepCup from local hipster cafe (owned by Christians, they donated 100 and gave the rest at cost)
  • free coffee voucher from same cafe
  • when these ran out, we were given free large pizza vouchers by Dominos (!!) so we used those.

We wanted something easy and portable and non-perishable. And we wanted something with enough WOW factor. In O Week, there is so much free stuff, that students can get entitled and almost ignore some stuff as just part of being at uni. We wanted to stand out.

Not this meant it cost a lot of money. But then, spending money on making new contacts is about as good an expense as any, right? We were able to afford this, because of the grant we received. But having seen its power, we will raise support to make this possible in the future. 

1. The power of incentives

  • We weren't prepared for quite how powerful this would be. We were literally swamped with interest, especially on the first few days (everywhere, that is, except for the hyper-suspsicious School of Fine Art).
  • What the incentive did, was enable us to 'go viral'. Once word got around that we were giving away free KeepCups, people began telling their friends, and people were lining up to do the survey.
  • This meant we were able to make contact with more people in an hour than if we were approaching people, without incentive, one by one.
  • I know that some unis have enjoyed a similar efficient this when they have had large give away BBQs at key central hubs: if the line gets long enough to be able to do the surveys in the queue. Others used to do this while students lined up to get student cards... before being stopped from doing this by mollycoddling uni admin.
  • The incentive also this made us memorable. We made an impact by giving away something with a Wow factor.
  • Free food at campus events are another example of incentives: come for free lunch and short sermon etc. Having been reminded about the power of incentives through this project, we have also renewed our resolve to plan to budget for free food at our mission events.
    • We provided Subway and Sushi at a lunchtime event and it was a real hit.
    • Likewise, those attendeding our evangelistic course could order a hot drink on the Facebook Event and our staff would buy drinks for everyone from the campus cafe that woudl be ready as they arrived.

2. The problem with incentives

  • Something feels icky about this. At what point are we compromising or corrupting our ministry through free stuff?
  • There are a bunch of potential risks:
  • Creating 'rice Christians': people who only come to our stuff, or even claim to be Christian, because of what they get out of it.
  • Creating a consumeristic culture: what you convert people WITH is what you convert people TO. If people join our group with the expectation of free stuff, will they then bring that kind of entitlement to their whole invovlemenet with our group? 'What free stuff do I get if I come to MYC?' 'What free stuff do I get if I become a student leader?' etc
  • Giving the impression we are tricking people into religion.
  • Wasing money.
  • Giving things which actually compromise our values: supporting a corrupt business, giving away things that are associated with immorality (free beer!) and so on.
  • We might also be careful about encouraging consumerism, materialism and so on.
  • Of course we don't feel icky about all sorts of free stuff. Somehow giving away sausages is fine. Why not keep cups? Providing free hot drinks and snacks after church... but not sushi for a lunchtime meeting perhaps. What's the difference?

3. The ethics of incentives and the ethics of evangelism

  • From the very beginning of this plan, we talked a lot and thought a lot as a staff team about the ethics involved.
  • Here are some of the things we realised:

1. We realised that there is a difference between the ethics of EVANGELISM proper and the ethics of PROMOTION. What you can and can't do as you hand out fliers or do surveys is different to what you can and can't do as you actually evangelise someone. We don't necessarily have to be as 'pure' in broader promotion as we do in evangelism.

  • We had a similar converation around our radio ad. Some of our students were concerned that we didn't explain theologically sound reasons and motivations for why we exist and why people should come. But we suggested that you don't need to unpack the atonement in a radio ad. Your obligation for detailed clarity is different in an advert than in a sermon.
  • I am not witholding the free thing on the provision that someone responds or converts. It would be one thing to only give the keep cup if someone sais 'YES' to finding out more. Another thing if everyone receives the gift, whether they say yes or no.
  • So although there are ethical issues raised in, for example, 1Thessalonians 2 or 2Corinthians 4, these are not all directly applicable to all our promotion.

2. We need to be honest about who we are and what we are wanting to promote. No advertising 'free pizza' events, that hide the fact that there will be prayers or God-talk.

3. Some free stuff is associated directly with hospitality. It is incentive-in-relationship. So free dinners at FOCUS events, or free lunches at mission events are not cheap, 'come and we'll feed you' scams, but rather expressions of hospitality to our guests.

4. However, lavish free hospitality can create patron-client obligations. So if the free hospitality we offer is too impressive, it creates a complicated power dynamic with our guests. So dial it back a bit!

5. The dynamics of the giveaways need to be ethical: so we ruled raffles out, for example.

6. The things being given our need to be ethical: so think carefully about what you are promoting with your incentive. Are you feeding materialism or entitlement or drunkenness or sexual immorality (!)?

7. Sponsorship relationships with businesses need to also be approached with care. Are you simply receiving a donation from the business? Or are you partly helping them advertise? Or are you endorsing them? All three of these MIGHT be fine, but it needs to be thought out clearly. Likewise the degree of exposure the business' logo might get needs thinking through. 


That's just a beginning list. You might be able to think of others?!

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UTAS O Week Mission 2016 — Part 3: Promotional methods

Previous Posts:

We used the grant money for this mission to explore a range of promotional methods, to test and see what worked and what didn't, what we'd invest in and what we wouldn't bother:

1. Radio

1.1 Things we learned

  • We didn't have a good enough assessment plan in place to really judge its effectiveness. I suspect if we were to really explore its effectiveness we'd have to put a lot more money into it, to try a whole range of different approaches, durations etc.

  • The biggest benefit was building a relationship with the Christian radio station. This has opened up all sorts of opportunities for us: they are keen to have us share testimonies on the show, to provide freebie merch for our 2017 O Week showbags, and they helped us gain free stuff from Dominos and Woolworths.
  • We didn't meet anyone who first hear about us from the radio. About 50% of our first Citywide Gathering said they had heard the advert.
  • Some new students came to our event, excited that they had just heard our ad on the radio.
  • I suspect for radio advertising to really make an impact we'd need a longer campaign time than one week.
  • I suspect that the best way to really test it would be to tie it to a very concrete action: like a 'deal' they can cash in on if they quote a key word from the ad, maybe?
  • We only mentioned the name of our ministry at the start of the ad. If we ever did it again, we'd make sure there was a callback at the end of the ad.
  • I drove around during O Week with the two radio stations on my car the whole time and only heard them once. So it's a low likelihood that people will heard it.

1.2 What we'd do next time?

  • We wouldn't go for paid advertising again, but instead seek to get interview slots on the radio stations, preferably multiple shows. This is free and probably as effective. It just takes more time.
  • We would also explore the uni magazine 'Togatus' and be more proactive there.

2. Facebook

  • We set aside a budget of $300 for Facebook advertising and tried a whole bunch of things. This included asking questions, boost pre-existing posts, paying for adverts.
  • We also did other things: like posting key Facebook Events on the Facebook Pages of local churches and youth ministries.
  • We already had a very active and effective Facebook presence, with lots of 'Likes' and a rich approach to promotions.

2.1 Things we learned

  • We got lots of new Likes on the Page, lots of Message enquiries sent to the Page, and lots of people telling us that this is how they first found us. 
  • It's important to understand and use Facebook well, to maximise your reach. 
  • Videos and photos perform well: especially if you can tag people in them.
  • Wait for a post to start performing well 'organically' before 'boosting' it.'
  • Develop multiple audiences: target parents and pastors in Australia, or uni students at UTAS. Use things like 'AFES', and 'John Piper' and 'Hillsong' to target to Christians.
  • You can target everyone EXCEPT people who already like your Page to reach new people and not waste your advertising on people who already know you.
  • Spending more on a short-time frame is better than spreading it out over weeks and weeks. That gets a bigger impact quicker.
  • We got a good return even just from $20 stints.
  • If you pay for a radio ad you get free Instagram advertising.
  • Paid adverts (as opposed to boosted posts) get little interaction so these are more for raising awareness.
  • To Boost events, you need to make sure there is a minimal amount of text in the Facebook Event's cover image. This might require extra design to satisfy this.

2.2 What we'd do next time?

  • I have been telling everyone who will listen that Facebook paid advertising is a really cost effective way of raising awareness. I was indifferent to it before this experiment, because we did well enough orgaincally. But now I'm sold.

3. Corflute signage

  • For about $250 we bought two thick cardboard corflute picket signs to promote our public events.
  • Because we use a church building for our Citywide Gathering, right beside the university, it made sense to stick these signs out the front and the Parish Council gave us permission.
  • We designed signs that would work for each event for the entire Semester to save money.
  • ​This is a pretty low-cost ongoing awareness raiser that we will continue with.

4. Bulk SMS

  • We have been using SMS Global for 6 years as a way to communicate with our group members, along with our bulk email lists and Facebook. I'm not sure if they are the best or cheapest on the market but they have served us just fine.
  • Uni students respond really positively to SMS promotions, which surprised me.
  • We end all messages with [unsub@ufcutas.org] so that there is an easy way to unsubscribe. We haven't paid for a fixed mobile number up to this point.
  • This dovetailed naturally with our larger promotional needs for this O Week Misison.
  • We had also moved to Elvanto from Church Community Builder at the end of last year and this has given us convenient integration with SMS Global - so that we don't have to enter the data in two places and we can SMS people straight out of 'People Flows' and stuff.
  • In our experience (more of this in future posts), cold phone calling students, even if they have given us their number, is not just unusual, it is actually unwelcome now. So that method of follow up is over. Better to use SMS and Facebook, along with email.

5. Postcard fliers

  • We asked a very talented graphic designer to design really attractive postcard fliers for us and we used these throughout O Week, along with a more comprehensive prospectus that we make available at our events and in our O Week showbag for those who want to find out more.
  • A local business has recently offered to do extremely cheap, professional-quality colour printing for Not For Profits, so we have seen our printing costs really shrink.
  • We did fliering at all the orientation classes, the week before Semester began, but otherwise have done very little fliering or postering.
  • We make sure these fliers link to our website and Facebook Page on the reverse side.


Perfect example in action

This year we were delighted to meet two girls who received fliers at an orientation event, then looked us up on Facebook, found out about our Pizza Parties and came along. There they heard about our Tuesday morning 'Breakfast Sessions' sermon and our 'Christianity 1A' course and came to those. One of them has now professed faith in Christ and the other is really interested!

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UTAS O Week Mission 2016 — Part 2: Survey and Results

Previous Posts:

The big front door of our O Week Mission was a very brief 30 second, A6 survey:

1. Advantages of the survey

  • Previous approaches to contacting focussed on filtering out the Christians. We would ask 'Are you Christian? Would you like to be on our mailing list?' or something like that.
  • This approach got us focussing on just making contact with as many people as possible... and then getting a really large group of people who MIGHT be interested to find out more.
  • Giving a gift in return for people filling out the survey helped guarantee that we got a good cross-section of people. We didn't just get those who were inclined to approach a Christian stall. We got anyone who wanted something free for 30 seconds' work.
  • Getting people to fill out the surveys themselves again protected the integrity of the data... they didn't feel like they had to 'please' us. But it made for a lot of bad handwriting!
  • Our commitment to do as many as possible (we aimed for 700 people, we got 1100)... meant that the proportion of actual good contact was of a decent scale. Some kinds of promotion and contact-making are only worth doing if you do it on a large scale.
  • We got the idea of MAYBE as an option from Cru. I suspect they got it from Facebook? Either way, it enabled us to get a pool of people who didn't feel ready to definitely commit on the spot, but were at least happy to give their contact details. We didn't treat the YES and MAYBE people differently... but it was helpful survey data, a helpful indicator as we contacted them, and a way to take pressure off people.


2. Results of the survey

The 1096 surveys we completed has given us a massive sample size to get a snapshot of the 18000 students at UTAS Hobart, especially the 13 000 undergraduates:

  • 70.81% rate their spiritual life as between 3-7 on a scale of 1-7 

  • In answer to the question 'In your opinion, who is Jesus Christ?' 11.68% said A Prophet, 20.16% said Myth/Legend, 33.21% said God and 34.03% said A Good Man.

55.38% were open to hearing more about us: 17.88% said Yes and 37.5% said Maybe. Of the 55.38% who were open to hear more (606 people), 32% (350 people) gave any legible and correct contact details.

This surprised as, as it demonstrated much higher degree of spiritual value and warmth to Christianity than we would have guessed. It does, however, correlate to a broader nationalsurvey conducted by McCrindle Research.  It also gives us a great mission field of people to follow up.

What does this mean?

  • When surveyed anonymously, a majority of UTAS student express some kind of spiritual value, almost 50% believe that Jesus was spiritually important (30% that he was God!) and at over 50% are 'warm' towards Christianity (as indicated by some openness to hear more about our group).
  • But how does this fit with our anecdotal experience about apathy and resistant to spirituality in the everyday experience of our students and staff?
  • Does this anonymous survey demonstrate their genuine beliefs, that they might be less confident to share in public discussion? Does it demonstrate their 'performance' beliefs: the answers they'd like to think they should say when surveyed? Does it demonstrate their 'nominal' beliefs as opposed to their actually devout and lived beliefs?
  • It's not as simple to say: "UTAS is heaps more spiritually open than we think". But it is a helpful balance to the assumed fear that "UTAS is super spiritually hostile".

3. Changes to the survey

  • In a future blog post I'll comment more on the broader promotion process in how we conducted the surveys, how we tied the survey stalls to other events and how we conducted data entry and follow up.
  • Next time we would have another option for Question 2: 'Historical  figure': for those who believe Jesus existed, but don't think he was a good man or a prophet.
  • Question 1 was unclear as to whether 'Not Important' and 'Very important' were options (creating 7 options in total) or simply a legend for the 1-5 scale.
  • We had lots of illegible responses... but we don't know how to avoid that given how swift and busy the survey stalls were. We'd make sure stall supervisors are constantly saying 'Please print legibly and carefully'.
  • We had a lot of people say 'YES' or 'MAYBE' to Question 3 but not leave their contact details. And a few people say 'NO' to this question but leave their contact details. We'd make sure stall supervisors are constantly saying 'Leave your details if YES and MAYBE, don't leave them if NO'.

4. Other observations

  • The Fine Arts School was very noticeably more suspicious of the stalls than any other campus! It's like they were worried that even doing our anonymous survey was somehow being complicit with Christianity or endorsing us.
  • The Fine Arts School also took a lot longer to answer both Question 1 and Question 2.
  • We are going to draft a one-off email to all those who said NO to Question 3 but left their contact details, pointining them to online gospel-explanation resources.

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The transgender rights question beg?

Leaving aside the genuine difficulties and struggles of those who experience some kind of gender dysphoria.

I would like to consider the theoretical and political position of present day transgender rights, and those who speak out against 'transexism'.

It seems to me there are a few question-begging steps in the theory put forward.

1. Neurological biology trumps reproductive biology

  • A first major assertion is that there is a biological source for gender dysphoria. And this neurological grounding should therefore be determinant in someone's gender.
  • It seems that a possible 'question begging' happens here: that neurology trumps reproductive biology. That priority is not inherently obvious, but rather needs to be established.
  • Underlying it, I suppose, is the assumption that psychological experience is more powerful and determinative of well being than physical genitalia. 
  • Maybe that is so. But maybe it is not. After all reproductive biology produces all sorts of experiential (and even neurological) experiences in life, as well as being a significant factor in human experience and relationships across a lifetime.
  • Either way, it seems to me as a layman that this it is not conclusively and obviously the case that 'feeling' or 'brain chemistry' trumps reproductive biology.

2. Gender fluidity of the transgender should determine how we see gender of the 'cisgender'

  • It is true that some feel discomfort or distress with their biological sex. They identify more with the opposite sex and so wish to change their identifying gender to the gender normally applied of the opposite sex.
  • But it does not follow from this that the gender thus adopted actually matches the gender of those of the opposite sex.
    • In other words, does a biological man who becomes a trasngeder woman actually end up with the same gender as a biological woman who identifies as a woman? Or are 'transgender womanhood' and 'cisgender womanhood' actually two separate genders
    •  That's where the '51 Facebook Genders' might actually be a very helpful thing. Except that it strikes me that the term 'cisgender' might seem to relativise the matching of sex and gender, rather than making it foundational and primary (see next point).
  • Nor does it follow therefore gender for those whose gender matches that of their biological sex (so-called 'cisgender') is equally fluid or self-identified.
    • In other words the unusual cases of gender dysphoria (or congential intersex conditions) do not establish anything about the fixity or fluidity of all gender as such... simply that there are some 'fuzzy edges' to the boundaries of gender.


But these are very much musings of an amateur... I'd be keen to hear from others if I have misunderestood something.

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UTAS O Week Mission 2016 — Part 1: Overview of Process

Late last year I posted a bunch of ideas and resources from Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) that we used for inspiration for a bunch of new ideas for O Week that we trialled this year, made possible by a grant from the Tasmanian Christian Fund.

In the next few posts I want to share our experience, results, and lessons learned for next time.

Three preliminary comments

1. Not really that different: just bigger and more focussed

We weren't doing a whole heaps different to what lots of AFES groups and other campus ministries already do. Heavy broadcast promotion, attempts at gathering large numbers of contacts, providing a mix of social and ministry events to connect with, and personal follow up.

For that reason we probably haven't learned much that a larger campus group hasn't already figured out. But perhaps we can provide some pointers to other medium sized groups we want to stretch their reach.

But maybe one or two of our ideas will be fresh, or maybe the overall 'spirit of the project' will be inspiring to other groups.

2. Not directly applicable to church ministry, but plenty of things will be

Campus ministry is unique in its sprint-lull rhythm, its demographic focus and its concentrated seasons where a large proportion of the target group will all be in a few locations with an interest to joining new things. In that sense what we have discovered won't easily translate to church ministry.

However, I think there are lots of things that will translate well, perhaps with thoughtful adjustments. The principles around large scale promotion and connection and personal follow up will definitely have their place in church ministry. And speeding up the pace and drive of a local church could well be a good challenge.

I'm keen to hear from those who are doing some of these things in church ministry, or who have stolen and adjusted some of our ideas.

3. Spending money on mission

A lot of the scale and quality of what we did was made possible by the grant, that we spent a lot of time applying for and keping records to report against. But since we feel the O Week Mission was a success, we are resolved to spend money on this next year.

And I want to say it's worth it. If spending money helps connecting with more people more meaningfully, why be a cheapskate at this point? That's a big mindset shift though. Rather than running a campus group on a shoestring budget, to proactively plan to raise and spend more money to reach more people.

Also we have more staff than the equivalent sized local church (1:25 ratio is pretty common in campus groups in USA; these stats are similar in Australia): so we are 'spending money' at this point too. There's a bunch of reasons for this ratio... but one point is to say: to do mission really effectively and broadly 'costs' in people time too. There will be a limit to what we can attempt in outreach and promotion if it depends on one 'generalist' pastor and a bunch of volunteers.

Purpose of O Week Mission

1. Provide face to face opportunities to discuss the gospel with hundreds of university students

We wanted to stretch and push ourselves to be more present and 'ubiquitous' on the campuses of UTAS, so that there were heaps of opportunities for that connection to take place. The 'gospel opportunities' would be light touch: but a face to face invitation to find out more.

The spirit of the mission was to do more. How could we logistically stretch our group, that normally only had one 'contact table' or point of presence? How could we instead be present on multiple campuses or multiple sites on the campus at the one time?

2. Connect interested non-Christians with multiple formal and informal opportunities to investigate the gospel of Jesus Christ 

3. Connect committed Christians and nominal Christians coming to uni with a vibrant and robust Christian community to help them grasp the spiritual, personal, intellectual and lifestyle implications of the gospel 

4. Train Christian students in public marketplace evangelism, formal event evangelism and informal personal evangelism, for their ministry at university and church, both now and into the future 

5. Test effectiveness of mass promotion

For us, this O Week Mission experiment was an opportuntiy to test a couple of things. First of all, we had noticed over the last 6 years that by far the most effective way for us to connect with new people is:

  • Facebook promotion
  • A really good Pre-O-Week Conference (our Pre-Season Conference)
  • Informal word of mouth advertising

We decreased our amount of fliering and cold contacting, and yet saw an increase in the size of the group. we 

6. Test saturation of the campus

Short of revival, most ministries will reach a point of saturation, where any further growth will be slower. This is because you have engaged most of the Christians who will ever be engaged by your particular ministry and you have connected with the 'low-hanging fruit' in evangelism. All other growth will be the slow but worthwhile trickle of evangelistic growth and maturity-leading-to-more-regular-attendance growth.

I was curious to know what the saturation point for our Hobart campuses of around 14 000 undergraduates. At what point will your group reach a 'cap' on its growth, short of significant spiritual, sociological and ecclesiological changes?


The O Week Mission Strategy

Basically the whole thing was one massive funnel:

1. Broadcast Promotion

We threw money at a whole bunch of things to see what would work:

  • Radio advertisements on the Christian radio station and on the community radio station that broadcasts from the uni,
  • Corflute signage out the front of the building where we hold our main evening 'Citywide Gatherings'
  • Paid Facebook advertising and 'boosts'
  • Fliering at orientation lectures
  • Giveaway BBQs in Week 2 (so not competing with all the other free stuff in Week 1)

2. Brief surveys on all campuses of UTAS with gift incentive

  • We positioned ourselves at contact ables at multiple points at the largest campus of UTAS Hobart, as well as the other satellite campuses and residential colleges
  • Invite any and every passerby to complete a short, 3 question survey and in return we will give them a gift bag with a KeepCup and free coffee voucher from an awesome boutique cafe.
  • The third questions was: "Would you like to find out more about the Uni Fellowship of Christians' events and activities? YES/MAYBE/NO

3. Live data entry and afternoon follow up

  • Previously we had left data entry and follow up calls to the evenings of each day of O Week.
  • But this year, because we were inviting people to things that very day (see 4, below), we sped up this process.
  • We had people rostered on to do data entry at the same time that new contacts were being made.
  • We recorded the raw survey data in Survey Monkey and plugged all the Yes and Maybe data into our Elvanto database.
  • All the Yes and Maybe answers then received a generic 'Welcome from Uni Fellowship' email, as well as a personal call/SMS/email inviting them to the pizza parties:

4. Pizza Parties Monday-Wednesday of O Week

  • We invited new contacts to come to free pizza parties (or dessert on Wednesday) each night of O Week.
  • This was meant to be an opportunity to connect with people personally and socially straight away, rather than just inviting them to a public ministry event (Bible talk, for example).
  • At this event we gave a brief explanation about our group and encouraged people to sign up to evangelistic courses or Fellowship Groups.

5. Personal follow up coffees

  • Staff and student leaders contact each person who said Yes or Maybe, to invite them for coffee (our shout) to find out more about the Uni Fellowship and ask any questions.
  • We extend this invitation 3 times before giving up.

6. Invitiation to Public Meetings Faculty Cluster social events, Fellowship Groups and Chrsitianity 1A

  • Our pattern of regular meetings also became part of our follow up: inviting people to plug into our small groups, evangleistic course and public meetings.
  • We also gave money to our Faculty Cluster groups to organise social events on a faculty basis.

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Ways to love the ‘abnormal’, ‘different’ or ‘minority’

In my previous two posts:

  1. Normal isn't necessarily good; but denying abnormality isn't good either and
  2. Jesus was fully human but that doesn't mean he was totally normal

I have made the case that practically and theologically we need a spectrum of conceptual categories for something like 'normal', 'natural', 'common', 'usual', 'expected'. 

Some have pointed out how complex it is to pin down such concept and have said 'I am never going to use the word normal again!'. I don't think that will do. Some ideas are complex and hard to understand. Refusing to think about it doesn't make the issue go away!

Others have objected to the word 'normal' in particular, considering it something of an oppressive label. I'm not particularly committed to the word 'normal', I just started using it because the jump-off point for the original blog post was the unhelpful new term 'heteronormativity'. I do wonder whether there is any word that will cover the spectrum of meanings I'm trying to capture, that won't in the end sound oppressive to some.

But in this post, rather than arguing the case for a rich concept of 'normal'/'abnormal', 'usual'/'unusual', 'common'/'uncommon'... I would like to sketch out some of the ways to guard against some 'normal' group becoming harmful in their privilege... and some areas that need to be considered in caring for those who might be considered 'abnormal' in some way or another.

1. Acknowledge and name the fact of difference and diversity

It's awful to feel invisible. And it will be very unlikely that individuals and organisations will do the right thing by others, if they are thoughtless assuming everyone is the same as them.

2. Champion respect and celebrate the value of all people

I've pulled this out as a separate thing from a later point about celebrating DIFFERENCE itself. We don't need to celebrate someone in their points of difference in order to celebrate and respect all people as people. Do we think, pray, talk and behave as if all people are worthy of respect and honour as made in God's image? Not just the white, male, rich, healthy, members of nuclear families?

Now it's tricky, because to some extent our identity is interwoven with our characteristics, lifestyle and circumstances. How can you refuse to acknowledge anything distinct about what makes me, me... and yet claim to respect me? Yet there is a happy medium between these extremes.

This point stops us from dehumanising those whose points of difference we dislike in some way: I must also respect and celebrate the inherent worth, as well as any notable achievements of a prison inmate, terrorist, extreme right wing (or left wing) politician. I must honour my enemy as my equal.

3. Decry bullying and unjust discrimination

Violence, cruetly, oppression, name-calling and unjust discrimination is bad. You don't have to agree with someone's lifestyle to seek to defend them from violence or injustice.

Of course, I believe very strongly that not all disagreeable speech is actually bullying, nor are all forms of distinguishing treatment necessarily unjust discrimination.

4. Acknowledge and name the negative experiences of difference 

Some experiences of difference or unusualness or 'abnormality' are inherently negative: such as a physical disability or a chosen immoral lifestyle. Others are not an immoral thing or a disability and yet are possibly a kind of 'loss': such as unwanted singleness. Still others aren't inherently negative, but bring with them negative experiences because they make us 'different': being an ethnic minority or an introvert might be like this for some.

It can be a help to name the brute fact of difference. This doesn't solve much. But it is definitely unhelpful to ignore or deny these experiences. Sometimes naming something can give a permission to grieve the negative experience or the loss. Sometimes naming the fact can give you a vocabulary to explain your needs to others.

Now it's important to note that sometimes labels can become suffocating and limiting. A person can be 'reduced to a label' or 'defined by their disability'. So that's an important extreme to avoid!

5. Structure to give a voice to and provide support for the different

We as individuals and as organisations need to keep working at finding ways to give a voice to those who are not the 'normal' or 'common'. This can't be as simple as 'equal opportunity' or even 'proportional representation', because sometimes the disadvantages of the different person makes them 'handicapped' against taking advantage of such neutral fairness. We might have to help them speak louder and more often to be heard over the majority buzz that silences them.

So also structures of care and support might be required to fully involve different groups fully in community life. What structures are needed to involve the less-literate, the less-mobile, the intellectually or physically impaired, the cultural or ethnic minority, the poor, women, single people, the infertile, the divorced and so on? Again we might need to put more effort than simply 'equal access' to fully convey our welcome.

Such structures and voices may even be needed for those whose difference is considered a 'positive difference'. For example, the extremely intelligent child can become delinquent in the classroom if not stretched. Likewise, the elite athlete in our church will be disconnected from normal patterns of community life. 

6. Expose the privilege and biases of the 'normal'

I was listening to Hack last night on Triple J, and they were talking about the underrepresentation of women in the music industry. Two people called in and said that they didn't care about gender, awesome music was what mattered. But the radio host noted that both of these callers were men! I don't doubt their sincerity and lack of sexism. And yet they failed to grasp the social and instiutional factors that made it difficult for women in the music industry. A man has the luxury of saying 'gender doesn't matter', but a woman is reminded of her gender in sublte and not-so-subtle ways all the time.

Now we can throw the "objective truth" baby out with the "subjective bias" bathwater: it's not as if men (or white people or able-bodied people or extroverts or whatever) cannot see and speak true things. It's not as if 'different' people always accurately interpret their situation or discover the best 'solutions' to their plight.

But it is super important for those in power, and even just those who enjoy the privilege of 'normality' to recognise their blind spots and privileges and seek all sorts of ways to correct against these.

7. Celebrate some forms of difference and diversity

I don't think all forms of difference or diversity should properly be 'celebrated'. It is very misguided that some people are pushing for solutions to discrimination and bullying that basically assume that to respect people requires us to celebrate people. Some arguments I have heard for Gay Marriage, for example, argue that there will not be equality until gay relationships enjoy the same culturally celebrated value as straight ones: as if there is a "right to be celebrated".

Still, there are lots of forms of difference and diversity that can and should be celebrated. We should seek out opportunities to do just that. 

So for example, singleness is in some ways an unusual and often unwanted lifestyle. And yet the New Testament speaks very highly of the positive aspects of single life. Indeed the Lord Jesus himself was single. So while singleness may remain a different lifestyle, it is one that can and should be celebrated.

8. Find the good in the midst of undesirable difference 

There can be good things in the midst of bad, unwanted, immoral or negative experiences and circumstances. It can be helpful to highlight these.

God can bring all sorts of goods out of bad things, growth in character, empahty and unique new opportunities for love and learning. This should rightly be celebreated.

Certain things get highlighted by limitations: when someone is restricted, their perseverence and patience might shine all the brighter, or the few good deeds they are able to do can be glorified as a power in weakness. Consider how Jesus celebrates the widow's meager gift, while also denouncing the Pharisees who oppress widows, making them financially destitute!

Bad situations usually have lots of good in them. While I don't want to celebrate single parenting as a desirable norm for family life, I do want to celebrate the hardworking, love and devotion of single parents.

Indeed even sinful lifestyles usually contain in them lots of good. Two gay parents can be celebrated for their love and devotion.

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Jesus was fully human but that doesn’t mean he was totally normal

I have been fascinated with the conversation saprked by my last post, both with those who have commented on the blog, on Facebook or in email and SMS.

I'm going to post a few of my comments from that thread, because I think they're worth highlighting

1. Detailed and multi-faceted definition of the normal

It has been interesting to realise how slippery a word 'normal' is... but also how helpful it therefore is to force really careful

2. Jesus is fully human, but that doesn't make him totally normal

We are rightly Jesus-focussed in our thinking and our theology. But I don't think that should make us follow Karl Barth is someone make us Jesus-centred in some absolute sense. God was Father Son and Holy Spirit before God the Son took on a human nature. The Creation was a very good creation, with a meaning or a purpose of its own — in one sense before the story of salvation (yes I'm infralapsarian).

And so although it's right to 'think Jesus' when discussing theological questions, sometimes that can lead to a certain kind of theological clumsiness or simplicity, in my view.

Some of those I've been discussing with have fixated on the need to make Jesus the measure of what is normal. While a noble instinct, I think it is actually very problematic. 

Because our Christology must uphold both his divinity and his humanity. And even in our reflection on his humanity, we must recnognise his unique and distinct vocation among all humans. 

Jesus was fully human, but he was also abnormal in lots of ways:

1) He was abnormal in his divine-human personhood
2) He was abnormal in his virgin birth
3) He was abnormal in choosing a path of extreme self-sacrifice, with no place to lay his head.
4) He was abnormal in being part of the special, peculiar people, Israel
5) He was abnormal in being born of the tribe of Judah in the line of David
6) He was abnormal in having a unique prophetic call placed on his life
7) He was abnormal in his poverty and unremarkableness.
8) He was abnormal in his supernatural abilities, empowered by the spirit.
9) He was abnormal in his relationship to the Mosaic law, with his unique prerogatives, as Lord of the Sabbath and the one who makes things clean...
10) He was abnormal in being both a son of Adam and a the Second Adam... etc etc etc

Jesus had to be fully and truly and genuinely human. Jesus had to be sinlessly human. But that doesn't mean he had to be the typical or normal human.

In fact his unique role in God's redemptive history means that he had 

Abnormality is not evil or sinful or incomplete. To say that Jesus is abnormal is not to say that he was evil or sinful or incomplete.

3) We are not conformed to Christ in every single way, even in the New Creation

Nor, for that matter, is our conformity to Christ so absolute that we are completely like Christ in the new creation in every respect:

1) He will remain the firstborn and we his many brothers.
2) He will remain the Lord and we his servants and worshippers
3) He will remain our saviour and we remain the saved

 ... and probably many others.

We are conformed to the likeness of Christ in particular ways, and we follow the example of Christ in particular ways. But that doesn't mean we can take this conformity absolutely.

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Normal isn’t necessarily good; but denying abnormality isn’t good either

One of the expressions I'm hearing more and more, that I find really troubling is 'heteronormativity'. Not only should homosexuality be legal and not discriminated against. Not only should it be celebrated. But it should be equally 'normal'. Anything else is 'heterosexism'.

You don't have to believe that homosexual practice is immoral to object to this bundle of assumptions. There's just so many quetsions being begged here:

  • Statistically: homosexual attraction (especially exclusively homosexual attraction) is rare. It's statistically abnormal in that simple sense.
  • Sexologically: homsexual sexual activity is not reproductive sexual activity. Even when the similar sexual acts are performed by a hetersexual copule they are unable to be procreative. That's not to say that all sex must be procreative. But it is to say that there is something essentially unique about heterosexual sex. Indeed the sex of an infertile heterosexual couple is abnormal, in a way that often causes a great deal of grief for that very reason.

Nevertheless, to call homosexual orientation abnormal in any sense amounts to some kind of discrimination or hate speech. In the first place, we need to be clear: normal does not necessarily mean good and abnormal does not necessarily mean bad. Just observing that something is unusual doesn't necessarily bring with some big Natural Law argument that it is therefore good and right.

But having said that, something normal is desirable and abnormal is undesirable. And that's ok too. It's ok to want to have the 'normal experience' of marriage and 2 kids. That's a noble and understandable desire. And it might be very sad for someone to miss out on this. 'Normal' can help us explain things that are generally expected, even generally valued, without implying they are necessary in some moral or experiential sense.

Often we think that calling someone abnormal would be hurtful and oppressive. We need to affirm everyone's equal normality, it is argued. Or get rid of the category altogether. But not only is denying abnormality not the path to reality (as argued above), it is also not a path to emotional resilience. Part of the growth process of dealing with any abnormality (in physical or mental disability, infertility, unwanted singleness or whatever else) is some measure of grief about that abnormality. To deny that grieving process can't be ultimately healthy. 

Even those things that are abnormal but not seen as a bad thing or a loss in and of themselves (extreme physical or mental, being a demographic minority etc) can still cause some degree of grief for being different. And that's ok. That has to be allowed and mustn't be muted by denial. Indeed that was my experience of the Queer movement of the 1990s: a celebration of difference, Otherness, Queer-ness.

Because, whether an abnormaltiy is desirable or undesirable, recognising its unusualness can lead to a special kind of redemptive celebration: delighting in the quirky and unique experiences afforded by that 'special–ness': whether wanted or unwanted, desirable or undesirable.

I suspect what really lies behind many thoughtful gay rights activist is still something pretty similar to the Queer Theory I studied at uni: by deconstructing and removing privilege from normality, we ultimately cause the whole concept to decay. In the end we don't want Gay to be 'as normal' as Straight... but rather lose the concept of normal altogether, and blur the continuum between Gay and Straight as well! In other words, in denouncing 'heteronormativity', I wonder if many people really want to denounce is normativity.

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