Month: September 2011

Social Design for mission and ministry (3): utilise community

According to the guidelines at Facebook Developers, the first imperative of good social design — which, of course, works from the outside in — is to utilise community. In the virtual world this means:

  • Personalising your content for the people engaging with your product or service — so that it’s obviously relevant to them.
  • Connecting people with those of their friends who are already engaging with you — so they can see that people they know (or, taking a step down, people like them) trust and benefit from what you’re offering.
  • Highlighting social context — ie. the real names, faces, and stories/testimonies — since “associating content to people that users care about naturally draws them in”.
  • And working on being teflon-coated in how you gain, handle and use any information people share with you.

Basically, it’s about starting where people already are and helping them ground whatever you’re offering them in their existing relationships and experiences. Rather than asking them to put blind faith in you and then taking control, you continually give them social “proof” and put them in the position of power.

My sense is that where this leaves those of us wanting to apply social design principles to Christian mission and ministry is at the intersection of a three trajectories:

  1. Tim Keller’s helpful approach to missional community in terms of a primarily affirming and appreciative relationship (within which there is scope for criticism — although this shouldn’t be the first foot we put forward) to the existing culture of the neighbourhood, workplace, community, etc.
  2. An emphasis on building bridges of love and relationship so we can welcome people into the distinctive community we’ve discovered in Christ as well as maintaining a faithful presence within our wider community context.
  3. A properly Christian practice of leadership and power that follows the grain of an Asset Based Community Development-type approach.

More on what this might look like in practice next post.

who doesn’t want a slice of freedom pie?

God doesn’t. And as it turns out, neither should you.

At least that’s what Michael Horton, doyen of contemporary Reformed theology, recently suggested at the Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference (h/t Brad Littlejohn).

Horton apparently slammed the idea that “Like a pie divided unequally between the host and guests, free agency is something to be negotiated or rationed between God and human persons”. In contrast he argued:

God is qualitatively distinct from creation, and so too is our agency distinct from though dependent upon God’s. There is no freedom pie to divide… God alone is sovereign, but that is the source of rather than threat to creaturely liberty. God does not make space for us by restricting his agency, but rather gives us our own creaturely space precisely by creating, governing, sustaining, and saving us. Unlike the tyrants of history who stalk the earth extinguishing the voice and power of subjects, God’s sovereign presence animates and liberates human agency.

This kind of conception is one I’ve been drawn to for quite a while.

An appropriate emphasis on the freedom and majesty of God may well cut across our rebellious longing for autonomy (ie. independent self-governance) — and the sinful distortions of human desire wrapped up with it.

But we can drive this so hard that we end up an awful long way away from the picture the New Testament paints of human life redeemed, liberated and ultimately perfected in ‘sonship’.

Worse, we can start imagining God as a cosmic tyrant — and then wonder why people run a mile in the opposite direction as soon as we try to start a conversation with them about a good and sovereign God.

So let’s stop arguing over how much pie we get and how much we have to leave for God!

Social Design for mission and ministry (2): outside-in ministry

I thought that this series on Social Design should try to integrate theory and application — or at least alternate between my typical up-in-the-clouds musings and something a little more practical and down-to-earth.

Which leads me to the question of how to apply what I’ve said about why Christian mission and ministry needs to work from the outside in.

What will outside-in ministry look like?

I have a few suggestions — adapted from the (strong) criticisms Mike W has levelled against a The Trellis and the Vine-style approach. Outside-in ministry:

  • Takes seriously the call to disciple-making as an activity of the whole Christian community — or, perhaps better, as the outcome of the combination of its activities — rather than as an activity chiefly or soley engaged in by individuals.
  • Is positive about systems and institutions as ways of relating to one another in dependence on Jesus and in response to his call to love, rather than disparaging them as ‘mere’ structures that are as likely to hinder relationships as to help them.
  • Delights in the many and varied ways God gives his people to know, love, and serve the Lord Jesus, his church and his world in ways that both learn from past ways of doing it (tradition) and work hard to ‘translate’ it into contemporary contexts.

This, in broad brushstrokes, is my provisional ‘charter’ for outside-in ministry. Let’s try and add flesh to these bones — in conversation with one another — as we proceed through this series…

Social Design for mission and ministry (1): work from the outside in

According to Facebook Developers’ Social Design guidelines, there are two main ways to model a social product:

  1. Work from the inside out — ie. “allow people to create an identity, let them share it and build a community over time”. They claim this is how Facebook began (although as the story’s told in The Social Network, its origins owe more to the elitist in-group dynamics of Ivy League campus life).
  2. Work from the outside in — ie. “utilize the existing community users have built, define new conversations and let them continue to build their identities further”.

I want to suggest that it’s this second strategy that holds most promise for Christian mission and ministry.

On the face of it, this claim may seem odd. After all, isn’t Christianity fundamentally about being given a new identity? And doesn’t it all begin as we’re united with Christ by faith? Then doesn’t it go from there as we learn how to faithfully remember and consistently live this out?

But I find the outside in approach promising because it directs our attention to two closely related but often overlooked things about becoming Christian and living the Christian life.

On the one hand, it helpfully acknowledges the community and relational contexts we’re all always embedded in.

No-one ever simply ‘creates’ a new identity for themselves ex nihilo. This certainly holds for those with whom we would share the gospel. Jesus won’t so much obliterate their existing identities as straighten out whatever is bent and twisted about them.

His grace is an alien invader. But its arrival somehow makes profound sense, ‘decoding’ our diverse identities, journeys and senses of vocation as Andrew Cameron puts it (Joined-up Life, page 97).

It’s the same with those who’ve been united with Jesus. We continue to inhabit our existing networks of relationships — families, neighbourhoods, workplaces, communities, etc. We may disturb and even subvert established patterns within these networks because of our allegiance to Jesus. But I take it that being salt and light requires our ongoing presence within them rather disengaging to form a new separatist community or whatever.

On the other hand, the outside in approach helpfully points us to the fact that the new identity we’re given in Christ necessarily joins us together with others. The network of relationships called ‘church’ both arises from our new identity in Christ and leads us ever deeper into it — giving others a tantalising glimpse of what Jesus offers them.

That‘s why Christian mission and ministry should learn to work from the outside in.

Social Design for mission and ministry (series intro)

I want to open up a conversation about what the Social Design guidelines from Facebook Developers can teach us about Christian mission and ministry.

According to the byline, “Social Design is a way of thinking about product design that puts social experiences at the core”. (As such, it’s a version of the kind of ‘human-centered design’ you can watch David Kelley discuss at a TED conference from 2005.)

The question I would like us to explore is thus, What would it look like to put social experiences at the core of our approach to Christian mission and ministry?

I propose we organise our discussion under the following headings:

  1. Working from the outside in.
  2. Utilising community.
  3. Building meaningful conversations.
  4. Recognising the importance of identity.

Before I launch into it, it’s probably worth mopping up a couple of potential misconceptions about where we’re heading.

First up, I don’t really want to talk about how to harness a social media platform like Facebook for the purposes of mission and ministry — or whether we should.

This issues strike me as pretty overdone. Not to mention perpetually deadlocked between the nay-sayers (‘Social networking is the end of relationships as we know them!’) and the cheerleaders (‘It changes everything!’). I’ve commented on this before.

I’m much more interested in how the thinking embodied in Facebook’s Social Design guidelines can sharpen what we do — and maybe even untangle some knotty problems (like the whole Believing vs Belonging thing).

Second, I don’t want us to treat the source material as anything more or less than ‘codified common sense’.

I envisage culling wisdom from the cultural stockpile of observation and experience. Just as the biblical wisdom writers often seem to have done with non-biblical sources.

My sense is that paying attention to Facebook’s Social Design guidelines can alert us to aspects of our God-given ‘sociality’ so we can resist the drift Andrew Cameron identifies (Joined-up Life, pages 56-57):

Oddly … this constant element of our lives usually drifts into unawareness. We imagine ourselves to be ruggedly individual, choosing and planning our destinies as if we’re not materially and mentally dependent on those who surround us.

In short, I want our discussion to help us remember our creatureliness and factor it in to our approach to mission and ministry.

That’s where we’re heading. Onward!

newborn dreaming

Yesterday Natalie and I welcomed a new addition to our family — Benjamin John Hugh Swann:

Born at 5.09pm, weighing 3.8kg and measuring 50cm — for those who’re interested.

Lots of Christian fathers pontificate about life and the insights having a child can provide into God or whatever. And I’m sure I won’t be immune (although I’m intent on not making every sermon illustration for the next 18 months revolve around our new child).

At this point, my most pressing question is: What do newborns dream about?

Ben seems to dream a lot. At least that’s how I’d interpreted the random twitching and crying out he does while sleeping. And my suspicion has been confirmed by the information pack provided at hospital.

But without a mass of accumulated life experiences, what is it that runs through his somnolent mind?

could there be an evolutionary argument for faith?

Some years ago, Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga produced a famous evolutionary argument against naturalism (it’s famous enough to make it to the Wikipedia page dedicated to him).

Very roughly, it goes something like this:

  • If evolution and naturalism are both true, as the New Atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens assert, we have no good grounds to expect our brains to reliably form true beliefs about the world. For within a naturalistic framework, evolution tells us our belief-generating and -testing mechanisms are wired to promote survival not necessarily truth.
  • Hence this poisons the well of both evolution and naturalism. For why should we think these beliefs are exempted from the general conditions they themselves entail all beliefs are subject to?

I have to admit that ever since I stumbled across this argument, it’s left me cold. Mostly because it feels like a parlour trick — I’m left wondering what the logician is going to pull out of his hat next.

But the other day I came across something in Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel In A Pluralist Society (page 28) that might just breath life into Plantinga’s argument:

Why should we rule out the possibility that things are such that human life is intended to require the taking of risks? It seems, in fact, that both human and animal life requires taking risks. What grounds are there for thinking that [the] idea of total certainty is anything other than illusion, a piece of wishful thinking that has no relation to reality?

To be fair, Newbigin’s target here is the kind of rationalism that goes back to Descartes, which looks to human reason to deliver ironclad certainty — a kind of transcendence when it comes to knowing. Yet when you hear Dawkins or Hitchens compare their hard-nosed scientific approach to faith’s wilful (and destructive) ‘blindness’, it doesn’t feel too wide of the mark.

What I find interesting is how it’s Newbigin’s observation of the natural world — the very thing evolution is supposed to be par excellence — that cuts against the rationalist hankering for transcendence.

Of course, it also resonates with the Christian conviction that we’re creatures and so all our attempts to know unfold within creaturely limitations.

But perhaps there’s an evolutionary argument for faith waiting to be made here. Or if not for faith, then perhaps simply againstDitchkinsian‘ rationalism.

let’s not be too quick to write off evangelical self-promotion

Bullhorn from September 14, 2001

A bunch of friends have recently alerted me to this post over on Justin Taylor’s blog, Between Two Worlds. It quotes Dane Ortlund’s bracing critique of lots of the ugliness that Christian leaders often buy into on social media.

The storm of blogs and tweets in which pastors pedal their own wares or trumpet which famous leader or theologian they’re having coffee with can get pretty distasteful.

But I’m wondering if maybe we’re a little too quick to write off self-promotion.

I’m struck by the number of times the Apostle Paul says things like ‘imitate me’ or points people to the example of leaders he’s sending to represent him. (Although, the Corinthian correspondence indicates that he needed delicacy and finesse not to be drawn into the game of Compare The Leader that the church was playing.)

And I’m fascinated by the way Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield harnessed the power of celebrity (ie. self-promotion) to extend the reach of gospel ministry.

Is it possible that there is such a thing as genuinely evangelical self-promotion?

Can self-promotion be pure-hearted, gospel-shaped, God-honouring, Christ-centred and Spirit-empowered?

Obviously, I think it can (and not just because I’m planning a series on what Christian leaders can learn from Facebook’s ‘Social Design’ principles).

But in order to get there I’m convinced we need to pull the rug out from under the assumption that for God to be glorified, humans must be diminished.

The God who meets us in the Lord Jesus — in his free and sovereign grace, achieving his purposes first and foremost… He doesn’t diminish us. No! He redeems and enables us to be truly and fully human.

And so delighting in and foregrounding that doesn’t have to mean that God is banished to the wings.

anything but a reason not to pray

“God knows what you need before you ask him (because he knows everything). So why bother asking?”

It’s a fairly common thought. Perhaps you’ve entertained it yourself.

I definitely have.

Which is why I was blown away when I read this in preparation for a talk I was giving last week:

‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.’

It’s from Matthew 6.7-8 — and these are the words with which Jesus introduces the distinctively Christian framework for prayer that we know as the Lord’s Prayer.

But isn’t it fascinating? The idea that our heavenly Father knows what we need before we ask him is actually the reason we should pray in a particular way.

Christians don’t pray because we feel they need to hit on just the right ‘magic words’ to get God’s attention — or badger him into doing what we want him to do. Or at least we shouldn’t.

We don’t have to be like Bart and Lisa in that classic Simpsons episode where they totally wear their parents down by endless repeating: “Can you take us to Mount Splashmore?”

No. Our prayers express our relationship with God. Better, they put it into action.

And the relationship they enact is one in which God, our perfect parent, knows what will be best for us — and is able to supply it.

So far from being a reason not to pray, God’s knowing what we need before we ask him is excellent motivation to turn to our heavenly Father with our needs!

traces of humanity in popular culture

'Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion' (1944) by Francis Bacon

The artist Francis Bacon once described his own paintings as looking “as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events”.

I love that description! And if you’ve ever seen much of his work, I’m sure you’ll agree it rings true.

Although often evoking violence and feature abject ‘bodiliness’ (recalling severed limbs, excrement, etc), somehow Bacon’s art manages to testify eloquently to our humanity.

Brutal, almost forensic honesty somehow yields a celebration of what makes us human — or at least the mess left over at the end of this wild party we call being human.

That’s how the classic gothic novel, Frankenstein, works too.

Even though the monster is gruesomely assembled from bits and pieces of the dead, you find yourself sympathising with him. He’s just far more human than the other characters — especially his maker.

But it’s not just in high culture where this dynamic is in play.

I’m increasingly draw to pop-culture artefacts — especially TV shows — that foreground themes of what it means to be human by backlighting it with violent and distorted perversions of humanity.

Here are my top 3 picks for TV shows that employ ‘traces’ of humanity to explore this territory:

  • Dollhouse — another glorious monster from the creator of Buffy and Angel, Joss Whedon: what appears to be a misogynistic premise (a woman who has her memory wiped and reprogrammed on the whim of an elite, mostly male clientele) turns out to be so much more!
  • The Wire — OK, so maybe it doesn’t explicitly foreground an exploration of what it means to be human; but it’s way cool, and does highlight the way institutions (whether the police force, the gangs, or the unions) enable even as they constrain and imprison.
  • Being Human — Natalie and I are only just getting into this show; I can’t decide yet whether it’s more subtle or more ham-fisted than the others in handling these themes.

Do you have any tips for other TV shows (or movies) that might do a similar job?