Doing Facebook better...


Firstly - Time Management
One of the most important rules to understand is that the philosophy of any social media website is to get you and keep you there. All well designed websites are constantly trying to keep your eyes on their page reading their content. Serving you content that is relevant and interesting to you. This is for a a lot of reasons not least being they can serve you advertising from their advertisers. It’s great for the viewer because it becomes a potentially endless supply of meaningful interesting content. The downside to this is that it’s very easy to spend LOTS of time on sites without realising.

My advice for newbies is to be careful about how much time you spend on social media. It’s better to be deliberate in setting aside time to spend on Facebook. Perhaps setting aside blocks of time is one way of controlling this. It’s also important to reflect on the experience to see if it’s even something you enjoy. Many people find Facebook depressing, boring and upsetting. It’s important to bear this in mind before signing up.

Second - Privacy Settings
Understanding which parts of Facebook are “public” and “private”. I remember a good friend of mine being publicly castigated on Facebook by his mother for the way he spent money. This was embarrassing not only for the mother but also my friend. By default most settings are set to broadcast what you say and upload publicly, so either learn how to control your privacy or be very careful what you put up.

Third - Self Education
Following on from above it’s also important to understand or seek to educate yourself about how Facebook works. This empowers you to be better and to make sure that you control the technology not that the technology controls you. This is especially important because Facebook is constantly in a state of flux and development from Graph search, Timeline and Newsfeed all of these things. Facebook is aggressive in adopting changes from other platforms. There are lots of sites that regularly report on changes to Facebook and write simple how-to posts. One of my favorites is Mashable.

Fourth - Edgerank
Ever wondered why you don’t see anything from that old University mate you connected with a year ago? Or perhaps you’re wondering why you don’t see anything from people who you used to work with? Well this is Edgerank at work. Edgerank is affected by who you interact with and who interacts with you. In other words Edgerank decides who it thinks you are most interested in (based on your input eg. likes, comments, and chats) and feeds you more of that meaningful information. This means that as your interest wanes in your old University mates exploits Facebook notices this and eventually drops him off your Newsfeed.

No-one knows exactly how Edgerank works, Facebook keeps it secret. The algorithm itself is in a constant state of flux being updated and changed to try and keep you on the site for longer (see point one). The important thing to remember is that what appears for you on your Newsfeed in Facebook is controlled. It is controlled by an algorithm that you don’t really have much control over. I'll post some more about this in the future.

Fifth - Be Interesting
To do Facebook well you need to be thoughtful and intentional. Facebook generally isn’t a place where people with an axe to grind flourish. When people do this more or less exclusively, they run the risk of becoming boring and uninteresting. Consequently people switch off, unsubscribe and un-friend. With social media the key is to be fresh, interesting, engaging and intentional. This is of course, much more challenging.

Personally speaking, I aim to welcome a variety or viewpoints on my wall. I consciously try to help people (non-believers for example) feel comfortable to post links and feel welcome to contribute their points of view. This also helps me to be careful with what I say and not hold proudly to my own opinions and ideas.

Sixth - Be Real
My philosophy is that Facebook should reflect who I am as a person in real life. This means that I’ll talk about things that I’m passionate about... but it won’t be *all* I post about. I’ll also post about some of the more trivial but interesting aspects of my life, when I crash my car, eat a nice meal or my children do something amazing. Authenticity is key, otherwise we run the risk that people will perceive us as nothing more than the sum total of one issue. Finally try to temper what I write and post, so that it is loving and serving the interests of others, not myself.

Seventh - Be Humble
I’m the first to admit I don’t get this right. It’s easy to sound authoritative about subjects that you know nothing about. The internet is full of self important people with un-thought through opinions to share. Be prepared to say sorry, back down when you’re wrong. Don’t let your pride and emotions control cloud thinking and judgement. The internet like any good society it requires thoughtful articulate polite people to express views and opinions. But it also requires humility to admit when you're wrong and empathy to understand where others are coming from.

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Skydive!



The breeze is warm and dry. Typical Californian weather. Perfect blue sky not a cloud in sight. The sail cloth flaps loosely in the breeze above me. Ordinarily I’d be thinking about how I could fix this problem but I’m too nervous.

I’m sitting in a the waiting area having forked over two hundred bucks to jump out of a perfectly good aeroplane. This sounds slightly crazy because it is. Just minutes earlier I’d signed my life away. Five A4 pages of double sided legal disclaimers. “If you have any questions speak to your lawyer”. Yeah like I brought my lawyer with me to America. After everything was signed, I then had to read a disclaimer while looking into a video camera. I figure if I die it won’t be me suing them anyway.

Across from where I’m sitting there’s huge bar. The area is surrounded by camper trailers. It occurs to me that here is the ideal place to get drunk after a hard days diving before crawling back to your van.

Most of the people here are young … apart from the geriatric freestyle skydiving team rehearsing their moves. A mix of people. A few accents. Behind me are some egos. Cool clothes wearing baseball caps. They look like the extreme sport guys you see on TV and exude confidence. Just nearby some young French guys converse in sexy dulcet tones drawing heavily on cigarettes. Another guy meticulously packs his parachute. He is fit and tanned. Just behind me a group lying on what look like skateboards practicing free falling. It looks silly.

A shadow falls over the assembly area and all eyes are drawn upwards. One guy comes over low and fast seeming to skim the tops of the trees. He makes a perfect landing. It looks dangerous. If I wasn’t scared after watching all the videos and signing the disclaimers I am now. I visualise what it would be like to do this myself. A lump comes to my throat.

Mike is my instructor. He’s American, short and stocky in build, served in the Army. The kind of guy who inspires confidence. He explains he's jumped about 14,000 times. My mind starts to do the the calculations on that. How many years how many jumps per day. In the end I give up. I’m too nervous.

There’s another guy sitting beside me, we get chatting. Aaron is from the area and he’s decided to do a jump while waiting for his car to be serviced. One way to kill some time I guess. He seems distracted and I can see he’s eying off one of the female instructors.

We suit up and the call comes through to walk to staging area. I climb the stairs into the plane hot exhaust from the engine whooshes into my face. It’s hot and smells like a combination of aviation fuel and burnt metal. Inside the aircraft is Spartan, even the oldest Metro bus in Hobart seems positively luxurious by comparison.


The pilot doesn’t waste anytime and takes off immediately. The aircraft climbing steeply. I watch the altimeter strapped to my wrist. 1000 feet  2000, 3000. Mike leans over to me shouting over the engine noise. “ten minutes till we jump!”. I’m still very nervous.

With five minutes to go we clip up. I try to relax. Mike does everything up so tight I can feel each breath he takes. We edge down the grey benches down toward the back of the plane. We get to the door and I resolve to look at the horizon and not at the 12,000 foot drop. To be honest I'm pretty scared. He counts to three. I close my eyes and we’re falling.

I open my mouth to scream but the shear force of air pushes any scream I had back into my gut. My mouth is instantly dry and my cheeks ripple in the wind. I close my mouth quickly. The fall itself is frenetic. My brain is overloaded with a thousand sensations at once. It’s hard to think clearly, everything happens so fast. Mike yells something in my ear and I manage to smile and wave to my camera guy. I give the thumbs up.

Mike again yells in my ear that he’s going to open the chute. For the second time I close my eyes. The chute opens bringing our 180km/h free fall to an end. The harness violently tightens across my body. It feels like my arms and legs are going to be ripped off.

I open my eyes and everything is eerily quiet and totally still. The contrast to the frantic free fall just moments earlier couldn’t be greater. I look down and we’re very very high up. It feels a bit like looking out the window of a plane but without the plane part.


We glide and loop downwards toward the landing area. It’s not a bad sensation which only starts to get scary as we near the bottom of the decent. Trees and roof-tops loom just a little too close for comfort. We zoom over the top, landing smoothly.

Post jump I’m sitting once again in the bar area gradually removing my jump suit. Aaron rolls up to the female instructor with a post jump confidence high. I can just overhear their conversation. He asks her on a date. She says no. It’s absorbingly awkward. I’ve got my value for money. So much more entertaining than just a jump.

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Downfall. Why Chickenfeed failed.


I worked at Chickenfeed on and off for a period of about five years back in the nineties. I can remember my first job was jumping on piles of rubbish including broken glass in the bin before the days of OHS. A few years later I was told that if I ever did this I’d be instantly sacked, but I digress.

Here's a picture of some actual Chickenfeed I found on the internet...


I’ve given a lot of though over the years to how Chickenfeed worked and why it was successful for such a long period of time. As someone who has worked in marketing and design I have also observed it’s downfall from this perspective. The following reflections are part experience, part observation, part inference and part extrapolation.

China and Early Success
Chickenfeed sprang into existence at a time when China and Chinese made goods were on the rise. Clever people discovered that you could buy cheap low quality high volume product by negotiating directly with suppliers and business in China. Products would be then imported to Australia marked up and sold. This combined with relatively low overhead costs and a “stack it high and watch them fly” attitude meant it was very successful. Shop fit out and product presentation was low budget, warehouse like, using wire baskets and piles of cut boxes. This didn’t matter because the product was cheap. Customers wanted cheap disposability over quality, and that’s what they got. They didn’t mind if things broke because they knew they were getting it cheap... and they came in droves. In marketing terms Chickenfeed’s point of difference was price.

Brand Awareness
However creating a business requires very different skill set to maintaining a business. Enthusiasm and newness can only work as a strategy for so long. Something is needed to maintain an established brand. Enter brand maintenance, process and strategy. You don’t have to look far to see this idea. Nearly every medium to large company or corporation do this. Corporate brands engage in refreshing their image on a regular basis; MacDonalds, KFC, Ford, Holden, Woolworths, Coles the list goes on. A brand refresh usually  involves conducting a brand audit. This reviews how successfully the brand is engaging with the public. This will include all aspects of marketing, changing tag-lines, logos, fonts and points of engagement. I can’t prove it but I suspect this wasn’t ever done for Chickenfeed. The high point in Chickenfeed marketing was tag line “Bargains with a Smile” and a man dressed up as a chicken... But then nothing changed. At all. For years.

After the business was sold in 2001, things got worse. The company culture became focused on the bottom line, valuing it above long term investment and staff development. They began to run the business down. I experienced some of this in the later years of my time there. Infrastructure was run down, the cheap fittings and fixtures became damaged and old. The blue carpet squares on the floor began to look old, tired, and stained... a bit like the Chickenfeed jingle. The smiles weren’t so happy.

Enter Competition
Competitors discounted heavily to match Chickenfeed. Supermarkets used their power to cut prices. This took away Chickenfeed’s point of difference. Customers now had a choice of where to buy the same product... and the customers began choosing the larger Supermarkets. The reason for this was threefold. Firstly customers returned to Supermarkets because they could buy the same cheap products with superior product presentation and layout. Neat shelves trump piles of boxes on the floor. Secondly large Supermarkets are able to give a perception of quality, because most of their product is high quality, even if some of their products are cheap rubbish (eg. kettles and toasters). Thirdly there is a security that comes with buying from a recognised national brand, knowing that Coles or Woolies will look after you. In short Chickenfeed had lost their point of difference.

In more recent times Shiploads and The Reject Shop also emerged as competitors further fragmenting the market. These new stores had essentially the same mix of products but with superior product presentation. This combined with the advantage of being “new” and “fresh” meant they were instantly successful. They also realised that a better price wasn’t just what customers wanted. Customers now needed a better buying experience and to have an awareness of the company brand. For the customer these new brands felt more akin to a small supermarkets rather than a dingy discount warehouses. There were neat rows of product and bright shiny new fittings. A look and feel far superior to Chickenfeed.

And so customers went elsewhere. Chickenfeed started closing shops. Lots of them.

Now I’m not suggesting that I could personally saved Chickenfeed but in the wash up it’s hard not to wonder as to why Chickenfeed didn’t take serious time (and money) out to think about their brand and relaunch. I’m talking about a whole new look, better product range, nicer presentation and new shop fit-outs, not just the Purple Chicken Club. I understand that brand management isn’t an easy or cheap thing to do, the latest mess with Dominos Pizza in Australia is a good example.

I don’t doubt other reasons contributed to Chickenfeed's downfall, (I’ve only mentioned a few) but in my observation for such a large company to neglect the challenge of brand maintenance is unforgivable. When a company neglects to maintain brand, customers consequently neglect to shop in their stores, and buy their products. This in turn puts at risk their long term viability. It's not really surprising Chickenfeed failed.

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Doctor Pepper and the Non Sequitur

I’m standing outside the locked classroom. I lift my can of drink to my mouth. The cold brushed aluminum can feels baby bottom smooth across my lips. The carbonated fizz makes my mouth tingle, almost burning the back of my throat.

“Why do you always drink Doctor Pepper?” asks the greasy grade seven.
“Have you ever tried it?” I counter
“No I’ve never heard of it before”
“It’s nice you should try it some time.”
“Why? It looks like it would taste horrible. I mean it’s not even for sale in Australia. Yuck!”

What I’m trying to illustrate (perhaps badly) is this;

Just because something is unfamiliar or new doesn't necessarily mean it is bad.

In logic this is what is called a non sequitur. A Non sequitur is an argument in which the conclusion does not follow from its premises. In the example of the grade seven the non sequitur is, “If something is new or unknown it is therefore it is bad”.

The problem is that when things are labelled as “bad” they are rejected out of hand. This occurs without first experiencing, thinking or being open persuasion. I’ve noticed this in myself and others as I’ve grown older. When new products, pieces of technology and forms of popular culture come out I instinctively assume they aren’t worthwhile.

Back to my Doctor Pepper. In Australia it can only be found in specialty shops and low rent bargain stores. It’s quirky and it’s different. But it’s not bad. Different doesn’t equal bad. Sure to try it for the first time did require some effort. The idea of Cherry Cola is not too far removed from us in Australia.

When I tried it I loved it. I loved it’s fake cherry smell. Often tastes and or smells remind you of a particular life event or location. For me Doctor Pepper reminds me of America... the good bits of America. In conclusion if you’re open to something new you might just enjoy a Doctor Pepper too.

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I don't like Tony but...

I didn’t vote for Tony Abbott. I’m not really a fan, but with this in mind there is something that’s got my goat.

Since the recent elections I’ve noticed large amount of outrage and disappointment. The problem is that it’s not just outrage and disappointment at the result (these are perfectly rational reactions if you don’t like the result) but rather smugness, vitriol and even hatred. School yard kind of stuff, the things I try to educate my school age students not to do every day. I’ve seen friends talking about the end of the world, Facebook groups comparing the Abbott government to Nazi Germany. People from the North of Tasmania labeled as ignorant and stupid for voting conservatively.

Now of course people are free to post, share and say what they like. We live in a democracy and are free to express views even if they aren’t widely shared, however there are a few things that disappointed me about this form of engagement.

Firstly the tone of discussion is reduced to people shouting slogans at each other across the room. We no longer work towards consensus, rather intrench ourselves in preconceived ideas, with presuppositions never questioned. We also risk sounding like a bunch of whinging school children who just had their favourite toy taken away.

It’s ironic that just a few short weeks ago those same people criticised others for joining Facebook groups like “Election NOW” and “Julia Gillard is the worst Prime Minister” now endorse “Tony Abbott is the worst Prime minster ever”. It’s mindless hypocrisy. Is this really the level of engagement we seek? Personally I find comments on these type of pages equally abhorrent. I’m also not sure what these sort of pages achieve?

Commentator Paul Sheehan makes the poignant observation

“Social media, has created the architecture for fundamentalism, where echo chambers of like-minded zealots affirm their righteous indignation at the cultural stupidity of the unbelievers. The ugliness of the fundamentalism is confined to neither right nor left. It sits at both extremes of the political pendulum.”
Secondly some people would also seek to tell you that the difference between the two major party ideologies, is a more like a chasm. In reality it’s more like a ditch. One example is the Liberal party’s parental leave scheme which would sit more comfortably with a “left wing” ideology. On the flip side Labor’s position on asylum seekers was widely labelled as a “lurch to the right.” What I want to illustrate is that there are many things both parties have in common. I don’t want you to hear me wrong. I’m not saying that issues like climate change, asylum seekers and gay marriage, are unimportant. These are very important issues but they should be discussed rationally, carefully and with a degree of nuance with the goal consensus and bi-partisanship.

Thirdly we seem to forget that we have a democratic country. We have the opportunity to vote people out of office every three years... this is a privilege that many in the world simply don’t have. Years have come and gone and governments have come and gone. Naysayers and doomsdayers have come and gone. Left and right sides of politics have come and gone and people have continued on and done ok.

There is a saying “Not all right wing people are stupid, but many stupid people are right wing”. It’s much safer to say, neither the left nor the right have monopoly on stupidity. Dumb augments and ad hominem attacks exist on both sides of politics.

I want to challenge my friends on both sides of politics, to be people that work towards solutions with reasoned discussion and thoughtfulness, not loud shouty slogans and nasty attacks. At the end of the day when all is said and done it’s not the end of the world. We’ll all be just fine whoever gets into government.

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Passionate about Jesus but not on Facebook

In my various lines of work I’ve often heard talk about the problems caused by Facebook. Some are quick to denounce it. Mostly this is by people who aren’t on Facebook, or who are older... or both. Now as I write this, I’m conscious that a number of people won’t agree with me. If it’s you I’d like you to be patient and hear me out. I have spent a good deal of time understanding how Facebook actually works. I’m generally cautious and conservative when it comes to recommending it to people. I also like to be frank, and there are many pitfalls and downsides to using it... poorly.

My purpose here is to outline why I think it should play a major role in the life of a Christian who seeks to evangelise others, or more specifically is passionate about evangelism. Now if you’re new here or perhaps don’t speak Christianese I should define what  mean by “evangelism”. It’s a Christian jargon word for talking to people about Jesus. My central thesis is this, if you’re interested in evangelism (telling people about Jesus), then you’re interested in people. If you’re interested in people you’ll use (or consider using) Facebook and other forms of social media to do this. It would be a mistake to think that I want people on mass to sign up blindly. Honestly there are enough thoughtless Facebookers and idiot trolls out there already. I’m arguing for using Facebook thoughtfully and intentionally.

Firstly I use Facebook because it’s practical. It allows me to keep track of large numbers of friends, connections that I have all over the world. As an early adopter of technology I have always sort to utilise things that enrich and extend my relationships both online and face to face. Practically speaking, it’s a case of using technology to help in task of relationships and relationship building... the context in which a Christian seeks to speak about what they believe.

Secondly it helps me to lead a life of love. Facebook means I know if one of my friends suffers loss or pain. I can send them a message of support whether publicly or privately. Sure more traditional forms of communication can still do this... but really when was the last time you hand wrote a letter to someone... about anything? With social media I can upscale my love. I can show my friends I care about them even the small things. I can celebrate great triumphs in the good times... and relate with empathy and compassion in the bad. The potential to live a life of love on Facebook is almost boundless.

Thirdly it allows me to my live life alongside other people authentically. My friends know about my successes, failures, embarrassments and struggles. While this takes boldness, perhaps even courage, it gives authenticity to relationships and to a Christians identity. Too often I think we censor our lives online to the detriment of authenticity. Christians are no different to unbelievers. We have messy lives, we don’t always have all the answers, we stuff up. Christians must be better at modelling a warts and all life where Jesus’ loves me and forgives me. Sure all posts have some form of self censorship imposed on them. There are lots of things I don’t post about. There is a tension between honesty and defamation, being interesting and thought provoking, being whingy and annoying. As I said before, it’s a mistake of authenticity when we censor all our failures and mistakes from others.

In conclusion if you’re not a Facebook person that’s fine. If you haven’t found what I’ve written here persuasive, feel free to walk away. Better to have thought about the issue and walked away, than to do it badly, or be someone who rants aimlessly against something they don’t understand. If I have persuaded you, Great! Get involved! For Christians and non believers alike it has the potential to enrich and deepen your relationships. If you already have Facebook perhaps it’s time to put some more thought into how you use it, or could use it more intentionally. Christian or not, let’s face it you already spend a lot of time there.

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Scene Change

I went walking down South West Tassie on the weekend. It was a beautiful day, one of the best days I've ever walked on. Pictured is the 1390m Nevada Peak.



I don't own a dedicated digital camera so all my photos are taken with my iPhone 4. The snow and sun made for high contrast photos. Most of the photos I took were pretty rubbish. This one was probably the best one I took.

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Church MC and being number one on Google

The internet is a strange place. One of the most constantly hit on posts on my blog has to do with being Church Master of Ceremonies or “Church MC”. You can read the full text of the original post here. It’s not a particularly great post. In fact the comments on the post flesh out more fully, what good MCing looks like. Bernie also recently posted some thoughts as well

Even if MCing a church isn’t something you think you’ll ever do, many of the tips in my original post apply universally to any form of public speaking. So for all the people Googleing “church mc” and “ getting my blog take note. Here is another shot at advice on being an awesome MC.

Confidence - This would be one of the things that I notice the most. A confident MC will make the people in the audience feel comfortable. The MC needs to bear in mind that leading confidently allows the audience to consciously or unconsciously relax, and begin to feel at home. Confidence involves what you wear, how to speak and your body language. Often one will follow the other. If you dress well, the general rule is that  behavior also lifts up a few notches. Part of being confident is to start strong.

What you wear - I always dress smartly if I’m MCing. This has an affect on how you are perceived. Ever wondered why most newsreaders always wear ties? Wondered why there aren’t many young men who read news... it’s all about perception and trust. As a minimum I recommend a shirt and shoes. If you’re going to wear a tee shirt make sure it’s a nice one. If you don’t know what “nice” is then a collared shirt is your home base.

How you speak - Speak clearly. Don’t use slang especially Christian slang. Make sure you can be heard at the back of the room. Practice before hand if necessary. Speaking with confidence sometimes involves “acting” the part. If you make a mistake it’s better to make it a big bold one. Don’t use words that visitors might not understand. Christian MCs are particularly guilty of this throwing round big words that are unnecessary.

Body Language - Use open not closed body language. Closed body language is defensive. Arms crossed is a key example. Use gestures. The bigger the space the stronger and bigger the gestures will need to be. Own the space it’s yours. You are the one steering the ship. 

Clarity - One of the things that I get most annoyed about is “fill” language. For example “So ummm errrr yeah we’re going to pray now so let’s ummmm talk to God...”. Nearly everyone does it often out of nervousness. It’s much better if you’re praying just say “Let’s Pray” then pause for a moment then start. It’s not necessary to explain why we pray, or what we’re praying for. Ninety nine percent of the time it is completely self evident. If you have planned beforehand what you want to say this can easily be avioded. Have it written down if necessary.

You will always speak for longer than you think you do. People will always get bored before you notice they bored. Don’t talk for too long. Practice what you are going to say in front of the mirror or on location if possible. I said it before don’t use Christian jargon. Always remember the outsider or person who might be new needs to understand what you’re talking about.

Feedback - Feedback is important. A good MC should ask for and welcome feedback. No-one MCs perfectly. We’re all in the business of getting better. It can be helpful to provide a short pro-forma to someone listening can access your MCing and suggest improvements (while also telling what you’re good at).

Feel free to add more in the comments to be forever immortalised on the internet.

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You’re a whinging old person, you just don’t know it yet

“Music just isn’t the same as it used to be,” moans Facebook.
“Back in my day the music was so much better... I don’t know what the world is coming to.”

I disagree. My central thesis is that personal music taste has to move, adapt, and evolve, reflecting that music, and musical taste is fluid, changing over time. This means what is “good” or worth listening to changes over time, as new music is released. To close your mind to this is to risk being an old bore, who moans after “the classics” not realising this is exactly what their parents and grandparents did before them.

Behind this moan, is the danger of each new generation seeing its interpretation of the world and music as superior to what has gone before, and what will come in the future. Therefore, what I think is best... is best... Not realising that what is “best” is more likely to be centered around a particular point in time, most likely during the late formative teenage years and early adulthood.

Now I’m not saying there isn’t a place for classic and enduring songs (I strongly believe there is) rather that this list is ever growing as new musical styles etc are discovered. As listeners we need to be open to hearing new music, and dare I say learning to like what is new. Quick pop quiz when was the last time you “liked” a new song or band that was released in the last 12 months? (I’m not talking about U2 and Coldplay. They are bands for old people). When did you last find a new piece of music to buy?

I’m not suggesting you run out and buy the latest number one hit far from it. History teaches us that what is and what is good don’t always go hand in hand. Far better to seek to educate yourself especially if you don’t have good taste (which I don’t). Ask people around you especially if they’re younger, ask them why they like what they do. Be open to listening to things that you don’t like, seem childish, feel uncomfortable or stupid. Be open minded to being persuaded, suspend judgement until you’ve heard a song a number of times. Even be prepared to read lyrics and bios on Wikipedia and the like before making a conclusion. Read music reviews from people who know about these kind of things there’s truckloads of them on the internet. Expand. Your. Mind.

You need to do this, otherwise you risk sounding like another old person who sits in judgement over all generations before and after you. The danger is you could end up being a whinging old person without knowing it.

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Church Together 2013 the reluctant review

There are two reasons if you’re a Christian why you won’t like this post. So I thought before I begin I’d try and address each of them.

Firstly I believe that discernment plays an important part in being a healthy Christian. As I reflected on my experience at Church Together and heard many people heap unqualified praise on the event, I couldn’t help but think there is lack of “biblical” discernment in many church circles. To be fair I think this is for good reason. Generally we don’t like to disagree with other Christians. People don’t like to rock the boat. People don’t like to look “judgmental” and harsh. The message that many Christians are taught about Jesus and the Bible is often an overly positive one which leaves little space for discernment, criticism, hell, and other less palatable doctrines.

The problem is that the Bible speaks of all these very things. Testing things (1 Thessalonians 5) holding on to what is good, encouraging others and refuting those who oppose (Titus 1). In 2 Timothy 4 church leaders are called to correct rebuke and encourage. Rebuking is mentioned in Titus 1 and 2.  In 1 Tim 4 we are also encouraged to watch life and doctrine closely. Discernment is commended in Philippians 1:10.

It’s often lost on Christians just how many of Paul’s letters were written to correct false teaching. You can see this in 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, and Philippians, Colossians. That’s before we get to the many serious warnings about false teaching that are also peppered through the Old Testament and biographies of Jesus.

It’s in this spirit and context that I want you to hear what I have to say. It’s ok to say a particular doctrine is wrong, it’s ok to disagree with other Christians, it’s ok to say something is false teaching, it’s ok to say something isn’t clear or unhelpful. It’s important to be open, honest and upfront about differences. As I have argued before this is what true tolerance is. I believe this can be done well and in the right spirit, thoughtfully and lovingly. It’s for this reason that I believe that criticism of Church Together is ok*.

The second thing you might not agree with me on, is how a “sermon” is defined. You can substitute the word “message” or “homily”` if you’re old school. I think generally in most church circles this is rarely defined and often an assumed definition. In the circles I move in usually a passage from the Bible is expounded and taught. The emphasis is on teaching people and helping them understand the text and seeing how to apply it to their lives. Locate, explain, illustrate, apply is a helpful summary. In other words the text itself drives the sermon. For brevity's sake I’ll leave the definition at that

The more Pentecostal understanding of a sermon is different. In my experience, focus is not on a particular verse or passage but usually a theme. Often these are themes that come up in the Bible. Almost all Pentecostal sermons I’ve heard don’t really seem to follow a set formula or structure and some are better with their use of the Bible than others. Now my point here is not to define what a sermon is, but for you to understand that what was “preached” at Church Together, would not fit either my, or a Pentecostal definition of a sermon. In fact I wouldn't even call it a good motivational talk but I’ll get to that later.

The Good
My purpose for visiting Church Together wasn’t to write a review. Those who know me personally, will know that I’m passionate about improving the music and the “church gathering” experience for our church on a Sunday. It was in this spirit that I went along, hoping to learn how to run tighter music and have MCing that rocked. Many of the non-Pentecostal churches I have attended are very sloppy with this kind of stuff. Conversely many of the Pentecostal churches I have visited do this very well. And boy, they delivered.

The music was excellent. All the music was live, no room for lip syncing here. I hadn’t heard most of the songs, but the lyrics were more thoughtful, dare I say theological, most unlike the Hillsong music of old. The tunes were catchy and musicians built up tension skillfully, pulling back quietly in other parts. It was very, very well done. The musicians were well dressed and the stage was free of mess and clutter. The musicians were confident and the music was loud, something I think in my circles we could certainly do with more of. There wasn’t too much clapping and jumping around, and the vibe was energetic rather than frenzied. While I’m sure this is not everyone's cup of tea, it was overall, very well done.

The Sermon
Just before 6pm the main speaker Lisa McInnes-Smith bounded on stage. “Shake hands with he person next to you!” she exclaimed. “Are you fun to live with?” “Interactions are important, smile! Treat people well! Smile look someone in the eye!”

Lisa according to the bio on the event site boasts “Lisa is recognised among the top inspirational speakers in the church and in the corporate world.” and been inducted “International Speaker Hall of Fame, the first person living outside of North America to achieve this recognition”. The promise was of a “real and relevant message”.

Glancing over the page and half of typed notes I took, it is very hard to work out what her message actually was. I think the main point of her “sermon” was “words”. “Words have the ability to bring life but also cut people down... I have been a victim of those words my eye was born closed... people called me ugly, people teased me with words... Life's not fair”. “We need to use labels that lift people up... You're smart. I'm smart. Look at the words you speak over your life.” All of these things she spoke clearly and with passion and conviction.

She also spoke about bad words, that go out of you coming back around to hurt you “like a boomerang”. Someone beside me mentioned that sounded a lot more like Karma than Christianity. In passing she encouraged us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, I think alluding to Romans 12, but didn’t really apply or explain this verse properly. Many of the things she talked about were good and helpful in and of themselves...  and while some of her ideas and concepts could be found in the Bible, she only ever really referred to it in passing. Many things she said would have been more at home in a psychology lecture.

Drawing on her background as a sports psychologist she said we ought remove all criticism from our speech. She told us how when she addressed sporting teams they weren’t permitted to be critical for a whole week. We should instead focus on what is good about people. I have some sympathy for this. At times I know I’m too critical (Don’t worry the irony of this critique is not lost on me). The impact and authority of this was then lost as she failed to tie the idea to any Biblical passage.

As she continued, my mind started going haywire trying to find categories to understand what she was talking about. I tried really hard to understand what she was saying and how it related to Jesus. Maybe this was just a motivational speech with words like Jesus, God and the Bible thrown in? Only I didn’t feel motivated. I just felt confused. Maybe she felt it too because she got everyone to their feet then asking them to squat till they felt pain in their thighs. I’m not sure how this fitted with message maybe something about pain and agony. I’m honestly not sure.

It would reactive to label what she said “false teaching”. To the best of my knowledge I don’t think she said anything that was blatantly “false”, but then I couldn’t say she explained the gospel either. It seemed ironic, that for all the talk of “words” she had little regard for clear communication and structure in her "sermon".

After around fifty minutes she stepped down. The MC, iPad in hand, then proceeded to read Romans 8 at length. He spoke of Jesus death and it’s role and function. At this point in the evening it was most welcome. It was the clearest explanation of the Christian message I heard all evening, however I wondered if the MC was tying to make for the lack of exposition and clear articulation of the Christian message in the sermon. The evening finally concluded with the inevitable alter-call to which fifty or so people responded.

Reflecting on the experience, by every measure I can think of her “message” failed. I’ve heard much better messages from other Pentecostal preachers here in Hobart. In fact I couldn’t even describe what I heard as a good motivational speech, I’ve heard better at local footy matches. If the gospel was there in her message, it wasn’t clear, at least not to me and one other person.

There were other minor things that I didn’t like about the evening, but I’ll leave them to one side for now as my original intent wasn’t to critique the event. I can’t help but think, if the preaching had been as clear, and engaging as the singing, my assessment wouldn’t have needed qualification... and my review turn into a critique.

*For the sake of brevity an eloquent and extended argument on why I agree public criticism is over here.

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