Thursday, October 29, 2009

Free is Good!

Who doesn’t like to get things for free? With so much good content out there it is wonderful when groups like Desiring God make their stuff available at no cost. Visit their website sometime and click on the Resource Library tab and you will see what I mean. So why do they just give their stuff away? I’m glad you asked.

Matt Perman suggests three reasons. 1) It reduces ‘friction’ (i.e. it removes the obstacles to spreading the message, 2) The gospel is free (cf. Romans 6:23; 1 Corinthians 9:18), and 3) We exist first to serve, not be served (cf. Mark 10:45).

book coverCoincidently, I recently have been reading a book entitled Free: The Future of a Radical Price by Chris Anderson (which by the way I acquired for FREE courtesy of @MichaelHyatt). Anderson’s book is about why companies like Google and bands like Radiohead are ‘reducing friction’ (to use Perman’s term) in order to better market their product.

I have yet to finish reading and hope to post a more complete review in the near future.

HT: Justin Taylor

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Celebrating Community

Trick or Treating 2007

Image by twofivethreetwo via Flickr

The decision to participate in Halloween activities for many Christians can be a troublesome one. While I want to respect the variety of convictions that are represented among Christian believers, I have to agree with the following quote from an article entitled, Christians Should Reverse Their Thinking and Embrace Halloween Says Evangelical House Church Leader.

“Ken Eastburn, a leader within the house-church movement, thinks instead of resisting Halloween celebrations, Christians should embrace them, "Christians have every reason to take part in a holiday that brings communities together."

"There are not many days throughout the year where there is such widespread community engagement," comments Eastburn, "As Christians, we should embrace such opportunities to build community with our neighbors and show them the love of Christ in practical ways.”

Not to ‘toot my own horn’ but here is what we as a church are planning for this Friday in our community. For the 5th year in a row now we are hosting our Halloween Safety Checkpoint in the town square park. We will be giving away goodie bags filled with candy and prizes to the first 200 kids that stop by our tables. For parents and other trick-or-treat chaperones we will have hot chocolate and hot apple cider available and will offer a place to stop and take a break from chasing after the ravenous tykes. We will also have games available for the kids to play.

The whole idea behind this event is to get out and be a part of our community. Halloween is an unusual holiday in that for one day many of the barriers we erect in our communities are taken down. On any other night of the year it would be considered rude to ring doorbell after doorbell down the block. But on ‘beggars night’ the porch lights are left on and there is actually a sense of anticipation for the doorbell to ring.

So here is at least one day of the year where the community comes together. If we the church want to be a part of our communities, why wouldn’t we want to take part in this? This doesn’t mean that we are required to embrace all that comes with Halloween. Nor do I think it means that we need to do everything we can to redeem the day by stuffing kids’ bags with gospel tracts. Instead, let’s participate in as much of the community event as we can without compromising our convictions or the gospel. I can pretty much guarantee that you will connect with people that wouldn’t normally set foot in your church, let alone come to some kind of sanitized ‘fall festival’ or ‘harvest party’.

So happy Halloween. Go and be a part of your community this weekend our whenever your town participates. And if you can, save some candy for me. I’ll take a Twix please.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Take a NEW Forgiveness Quiz and Win a Book or a Flip Video Recorder

Free Stuff

Image via Wikipedia

Hurry, you’ve got until December 4th to participate and be entered in the drawing.

(I heart chances for free stuff)

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Two Things

I’ve got two reasons for this post.

1) I’m testing out Windows Live Writer for the first time. I’ve been 20px|Windows Live Logo Windows Live Writerlooking for a desktop based blog editor and have decided to try this one out for a bit. Other suggestions are welcome.

2) I just came across a new blog called Devotional Christian. If you are looking for devotional suggestions, check it out. (You might also want to enter their giveaway for 22 books that make up their “Ultimate Reading List for Devotional Christians”.)

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Book Review - SimChurch

SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World is a new book written by Douglas Estes and published by Zondervan. Estes, an adjunct professor of New Testament at Western Seminary-San Jose and lead pastor at Berryessa Valley Church in San Jose, CA, is taking his new book on a blog tour today (for a list of tour sites see below). It is my privilege to host one of the stops along today's blog tour here at Returned Sheep.

Before reading this book I had no real awareness of the virtual church world that exists online. My assumption was that the virtual church was made up of various church websites and presence on social media sites. Estes provides this helpful statement and definition of what is and what is not a virtual church.
"A virtual church is not a website (building or place), a podcast (ritualized institution), or a blog (fellowship or activity). A virtual church is a place where people professing to have faith in Jesus Christ gather regularly to be in meaningful community appointed to build up the kingdom -- or more specifically, a virtual church is the confessing people gathering in a synthetic world."
The key words in Estes' definition are "meaningful community". Can Christians gather in an online, virtual world and truly find meaningful community in such a way that it not only mirrors the real-world church, but that it actually possess all of the necessary marks of a healthy church.

Estes says about his book that in writing it he expects that it will raise more questions than it will answer. In reading this book I found myself pondering some of those questions, trying to arrive at what I would consider to be a helpful answer. Fortunately for me I had an opportunity as a part of this blog tour to ask the author a question about his work.


“In your chapter entitled WikiWorship you mention that the church in the virtual world is in some sense still a ‘beta version’ methodologically speaking. In the software world developers and programmers have to prioritize which concerns must be addressed for their next release. What would you say are the top priorities for the health and development of the virtual church that are needed for it to move from a ‘beta version’ to say a more stable SimChurch 2.0?”



Thanks for the insightful question. You are touching on one of the areas of the book that I wrestled with: How to write it with vision but without trying to predict the future. But your question is a good one, because instead of saying what it should or will look like in the future, we can just suggest what bugs need the most attention. I’ll answer from a top-down perspective, since I’m not a virtual church pastor myself.
Here are my personal top three:
#1 Increase Interactivity and Community. This is the most important fix that needs to take place, although to a large degree, virtual churches are at the mercy of current technological limitations. This is also #1 because ‘lack of community’ seems to be the biggest argument mustered against virtual churches (although elsewhere on the blogtour I have argued why this is a straw-man argument). The problem with this argument is that we have to remember how little community was possible on the internet just ten years ago—and how much more community will be possible in just ten years from now (not to mention twenty or thirty). Having stated the issue, let’s talk about how this can work. First, churches need to have an honest assessment of whether the thing they call their ‘internet campus’ really even is that. As I mention in SimChurch, just because a church podcasts and calls it an internet campus doesn’t mean it is an online church (or anything close). So there are going to be some churches that, for a variety of reasons, will provide little or no community. This won’t work for any biblical/church-historical definition of church. Beyond this, churches that have community and meet online (in synthetic space) need to work diligently to build community in all areas of church life. This includes: making corporate worship times fully interactive, developing a strong small groups system, and connecting folks that are geographically close in the physical world when possible. Finally, let me say that one of the problems here is that a normal brick and mortar church can have very poor community (meet only once a week, impersonally) and still be considered a church with community, whereas a virtual church can meet every day and still have critics call it ‘fake’ just because of its ‘building’ (synthetic space).
#2 Better Proclamation of the Word (aka Preaching). My experience is that there are several weaknesses with the teaching aspect that is currently offered in online churches. This is due to several factors: technological limitations, expectations/assumptions about the virtual attendee, and style of the virtual church, to name three. It may also have to do with changing church culture; and I recognize that some of the virtual church folks I know wouldn’t agree with me on this one. Still, shorter messages with more dramatic video content is not, overall, a good thing. To become more effective, virtual churches must not simply reach people—they must disciple people, and a stronger emphasis in that direction is needed. This doesn’t mean four hour-long sermons, but it does mean a more growth-oriented content that could include: short-but-more-focused teaching time, teaching break-out and discussion time (much more possible online than in real-life), or greater frequency of teaching throughout the week (here an average virtual church could one day be more successful in many areas of discipleship than an average brick and mortar church).
#3 Much Greater Involvement & Membership Transparency. This is another issue that critics of virtual churches like to mention (anonymity of attendees), but it’s both a straw-man argument and a result of current technological limitations/internet culture. No virtual church wants unbridled anonymity. What needs to happen is three things: First, a virtual church needs to create some type platform for validation of membership just like eBay, Facebook, or other popular website. This validation can be optional, but it allows people to choose whether to interact with validated members or not. Second, the pastors and leaders need to be fully validated, fully viewable, and fully accessible. The current (negative) trend of megachurches not listing their staff info and emails on their websites is not going to cut it in the virtual world if you want people to become validated. Third, virtual churches need to encourage their people to validate. This would involve several levels: maybe some will only want to have a real name, nothing else; others may want to have photos, city location, pets’ names, and much more. Especially in 3D platforms of today and tomorrow, when we can see, hear, and talk to people who may have a toaster-oven avatar but we know really is a real person named John who is a 40 year old single lawyer with a Boston Terrier residing in Modesto, CA, then any issues of the ‘reality’ of virtual church community will evaporate (for non-Luddites). In fact, virtual churches can one day have more validated people than most/all brick and mortar churches—which will lead to deeper levels of interaction and community.
Douglas Estes

Intrigued? I hope so. Even for those of us who have yet to stick our toe into the virtual church waters this book was well worth reading. Look for SimChurch at your local Christian bookstore or buy it online at your favorite online book retailer.
Be sure to visit the other blog sites participating today in the tour.

Happy reading!
[Note: My copy of SimChurch was provided to me for review by Zondervan]

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Don't Worry, Be Happy

The other night (October 14, 2009) on The Daily Show, John Stewart interviewed Barbara Ehrenreich about her book Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

In this clip from the interview, Stewart tries to get at the intent behind the 'power of positive thinking' message, made popular in books such as The Secret, especially as it relates to suffering and disease (in this case breast cancer). He suggests that while the encouragement offered to Ms. Ehrenreich to 'think positive' might not have been helpful in her experience, perhaps for others it would be "in the same way that if Jesus makes you stop drinking, isn't that okay...isn't it the result that matters?"

Is the answer to dealing with suffering something that is ultimately subjective? Is any solution as viable as the next as long as it gets results?

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Intellectual Blind Spots

Nets Legend Julius Erving - Dr. JImage by NBANets via Flickr

In a recent post to The Thomas Society blog site Dr. Matt Jordan identifies Five False Assumptions "that atheistic and skeptical commentators...routinely make...[and] that run so deep that they aren’t even noticed."

Dr. J says,
"I’ve got three goals: (1) Identify these assumptions, these intellectual blind spots; (2) show that these assumptions are contentious claims that need to be defended–they shouldn’t be treated as obvious truths that all rational persons must acknowledge; and (3) show that these assumptions are false.

I’m confident I can do (1) and pretty sure I can do (2). I doubt I can pull off (3) here, but I’ll take a stab."

Check out his post and see if you agree.
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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Don't believe everything you read

Just the other day I received an email forward with this picture and the following text:

"I took this picture on I-20, traveling to Leeds , AL. It has given me strength in the times of trouble. I feel I should share it with the rest of the world. I hope it is an inspiration to you. It just goes to show what we already know...We have a God, and he's watching over us.I e-mailed this picture to News Channel Fox6. I was contacted by Meteorologist James Spann. He said that this picture of the sky is showing up in all states and around the world. He wanted to know where I was from and where I took it. He saw a similar picture taken in Texas . He said this is amazing to him.

Would you look at this picture? It reminds me of that song 'He's got the whole world in his hands.' He is definitely in control. I needed this today more than ever. Enjoy and pass it along!"

I don't mean to put a damper on those who find inspiration from these kinds of things. The problem I have is that when we pass these things on we give further support to the non-believing world that Christians are undiscerning, superstitious people who see only what they want to see.

A quick search on reveals that this is obviously just a photoshoped picture and a fictitious event. Even the text of the email has been changed from the original (different location, different spotter).

Again, I don't mean to offend anyone here. But if you're looking for inspiration or for evidence of God's "hand" at work in this world, please, read what God has already revealed about himself in Scripture. It's a much more reliable source of information.

So when someone sends you a forward like this just delete it. You might think that by forwarding it on you might brighten someone's day, but what are you really offering them? If you want to share something, share truth.

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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Book Review - The Immigration Crisis

It has been almost a year now since one of the most high profile elections of recent history. With all the news in recent months about the economy and the debates over climate change, we forget that eleven months ago one of the hottest topics in the news was immigration reform. Many of us Midwesterners may have moved on to other debates, but I imagine that for many of our fellow Americans to the south immigration is still a daily concern.

Concerned citizens have listened to the arguments from both the conservative and liberal points of view. But how should we who hold to a Biblical worldview look at this debate? Dr. James K. Hoffmeier, professor of Old Testament and Near Eastern archaeology at Trinity International University has recently added an under-represented perspective in his book The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible.

In this very helpful book Hoffmeier surveys the practices of Ancient Near Eastern peoples as well as relevant Old Testament texts as a guide to how 'immigration' was handled in those days. One of the themes that recurs throughout Hoffmeier's discussion is the distinction that is made between legal and illegal immigrants in the Bible. The laws and traditions of the Ancient Israelites and their neighbors reveal that immigration was as a complex issue then as it remains to be today.

Not only does Hoffmeier offer a comprehensive overview from both ancient texts and archaeology, he also presents his conclusions with great wisdom in how they might be applied today. Obviously nations such as our own would be unwise to adopt every law and practice of these ancient theocratic systems. Yet it is hard not to see how adopting some of these principles might move this country forward in finding a solution for the current crisis.

Pick up a copy of The Immigration Crisis at your local Christian bookstore or order it from your favorite online retailer.
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