the baby and the bathwater

Gay Sex Education for 11 year olds?
April 28, 2009, 8:39 pm
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Apparently some organisations believe that if parents of 11 year old children decide not to allow their children to attend sex education classes where they are taught about gay sex, it is an infringement of their children’s rights.

But what about the parent’s rights to make decisions about their children’s upbringings? What about their responsibility to govern what their children watch, see, look at, read, and engage with as they go through their informative years?

In fact, there is probably more of a case to say that a child has a greater right to have parents who take such responsibilities seriously, than to have some well-meaning organisation dictate the pace of their loss of innocence. And sadly, this lack of parental wisdom is more often than not the ‘right’ that is denied them.

Most 11 year olds are still innocent enough to giggle at the word ‘boobie’. Let’s not deny them their fun too early on.


The Myths
April 26, 2009, 7:42 pm
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A brand is not a logo. A logo is part of your brand. Your brand is the totality of people’s perception about you, you organisation, your church, your faith. Take RBS for example. The logo hasn’t changed in the last few months, but the brand has changed enormously.

The world thinks in terms of brand. This doesn’t necessarily make ‘branding’ inherently good, or inherently evil. It is just the way the world thinks these days. If we say the church engages with culture, then it needs to engage with the issues of brand.

Every church has a brand. There is no such thing as a ‘brand-less’ church. People perceive things about you, and so you automatically have a brand. The question we need to ask is not ‘should we have a brand?’ but ‘what is our brand?’.

A church should never create a brand (a perception) that conceals the truth or conceals reality or creates a false impression. In fact, the church should be the model brand organisation – creating a brand (a perception) that is totally true, and totally real.

In this culture, ‘brand’ is mission. We should never say ‘we don’t care what the world thinks of us, provided we are being our selves’. Such statements are the marks of a church that has lost it’s mission focus, and is on the road to death.

The Message
April 23, 2009, 5:25 pm
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We Christians are the worst at assuming that people will hear what we think we have communicated. We just can’t get our heads around the fact that ‘the message’ is what is heard, not what is spoken. What people perceive to have been spoken is just as important as the truth of what actually was spoken, maybe more so.

Can you remember the Edwina Curry affair? Not the John Major thing, but the egg thing. What she communicated (‘most egg production is contaminated with Salmonella’) was factual and it was actually something not to be worried about. But what was heard was very different. What was heard was that people were about to get ill or die because they ate eggs. The message heard was very different to the message spoken. It was a disaster. Perception was more powerful than the truth.

We Christians may believe we have the truth (which of course we do). But that is not enough. To communicate that truth effectively we also need to understand what people perceive about us.

When a church produces a cheap photocopied magazine full of clip art, it may contain the truth, it may have been prepared with integrity and honesty, it may even be very real to those who produced it. But, whilst all those things are important, the question we need to ask ourselves is this: ‘when people look at it, what is the message they are getting?’ And in my mind, the message they will be getting will probably be something like: out of touch; uncreative; old-fashioned; detached from reality; irrelevant.

When a church pastor stands up to speak and uses the King James version of the bible, preaches for an hour in a monotone voice, and uses language that Wesley would have used, whilst the people listening sit on pews that would make even the most ample bottom start to ache, he may be preaching awesome truths, life changing realities, with utmost diligence and theological soundness. But the question that he or she needs to ask is not so much what is being said, but what is being heard. And in my mind, the message being heard may well be: become a Christian and you too could become a boring old windbag with a sore rear end. OK, once again I’m being harsh. But only to prove a point.

No-one is suggesting that the truth isn’t important. Of course it is. We just need to be people that make that truth accessible. And that means we need to understand not only the truth that is spoken, but the perception of those who listen.

The Meaning
April 22, 2009, 8:48 am
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So, if culture has changed since our grandparents or parents generation, what are the biggest cultural changes that are happening around us at the moment?  What is the culture that we need to be relevant to?

Well firstly, at least in the west, we are largely living in a post-Christian society. We are, as many people have put it before, aliens in a foreign land. At one time this was a Christian land, where the language of the Bible was common place. It’s not any more. We can’t assume that people know what the 10 commandments are any more. And we can’t assume that people have heard of the sermon on the mount (except maybe because they watched the Vicar of Dibley). People probably don’t understand what it means to be ‘born again’ (they are probably more likely to think it has something to do with stem cell research). They don’t understand what it means to have ‘a ministry’ (they are more likely to think it is something to do with Government).

And whilst we’re on that – just think about it. Can you imagine a youth pastor going into a school and saying to the young people that he is there because he ‘has a ministry to youth’. They would  be laughed out of the school gates. The word ‘ministry’ is such a condescending, irrelevant word for those outside the church. Please stop using it.

Secondly, we are in a culture that looks for meaning more than information. People are unimpressed when we quote bits of the Bible to them but they may be impressed when we stop and talk to a beggar on the street. They are unimpressed when we spout our creeds, but are likely to take notice when we perform our deeds. We can see this emphasis on meaning rather than information in the very fact that branding is such a big part of our culture. People relate to brands – the story around a product – more than anything else – especially more than the facts about the product. Take Nike for example. My daughters would love to wear Nike things, but would not be seen dead in M&S. If I had a discussion with them about the standards of manufacture for each, they would not care two hoots. It would have to be Nike, because it means something different, they believe the story of Nike, and it is far more powerful to them than M&S. Facts just don’t come into it.

I may not like it. My wallet certainly doesn’t like it. But it is a part of life now. Meaning is more important to them than information.

When Paul went on his missionary journeys, have you noticed that he started by going to villages and towns and teaching in the synagogs? He didn’t go into the towns and set up a big tent and try and attract people. He just went to where they were and started there (read Acts 17 for example). He engaged with people where they were. Eventually, they moved on and set up churches. But that came later. He never compromised the truth, never lessened the blow. But he did start where the people were. And in our day, in our time, people live in a Post-Christian culture where they don’t understand our Christian jargon, where they are unimpressed by our creeds and are looking, above all, for meaning.

Wake up church, and take note.

The culturally relevant Christ
April 18, 2009, 10:11 am
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The truths at the heart of our faith, revealed in the person and activity of Jesus Christ and recorded in the scriptures, are eternal, never changing and life giving. Whenever we seek ways of communicating these truths to the world we should never be tempted to water them down, tell only part, soften the blows for the sake of being perceived in a better light, because that will lead people into error. We should never be ashamed to speak of Christ crucified and all that means.

But we should always do our utmost to make sure that our own personal preferences, even our own humanity and desires, are not confused with these eternal truths. I may like radio 2 music in church: but that is a preference, not an eternal truth. I may like ‘Prayer Book’ liturgy, but that is a preference, not an eternal truth. I may like to dress up in a suit or wear a fancy hat on a Sunday morning, but that is a preference, not an eternal truth.

There is a phrase that is commonly used in churches – and has been for many years – that goes something like this: ‘When I go to church, I should just be myself’. So when I sing, I sing in a way that reflects where I am. When I talk to people about my faith, I use language that I understand the best. When I design a website, I use graphics that I like. Christians like this sort of language because it feels sort of ‘honest’ or ‘real’.

The trouble is that it is also mainly ‘wrong’.

OK, so I’m being deliberately controversial here – possibly too much so – but it is to make a point, and the point is this: our journey in faith is not so much about ‘being what we are’ but ‘becoming like Jesus’ as much as we possibly can. And if we focus our life and mission around ‘what we are like’ rather than ‘What Jesus is like (i.e. what we are supposed to become)’ then we will be in extreme danger of becoming too inward focused and ineffectual.

There are many churches up and down the country not-so-full-anymore of people who have confused their own preferences and likes for the identity of Jesus Christ. They keep trying to be ‘themselves’ and stop being transformed into the likeness of Christ. The status quo is maintained, but the life drains away. They keep using the language, design, music, liturgy that they love, but the people stop coming through the door. They have become ‘themselves’ but in doing so they have become ‘irrelevant’.

Jesus came into the world. He was the Son of God. He had complete intimacy with the Father. He knew almost everything that the Father knew. He had the whole power and knowledge and authority of the universe at his disposal. And yet when He started talking about the Kingdom he started to use stories and pictures and sayings.

Here is the King of Glory. His moment has arrived. His ministry on Earth starts. He has three years to change the face of the planet, and He chooses to tell a few stories.

Why was that?

Maybe it was because it was His preference. Maybe it was the thing that made His own boat float the most. I don’t know about that. But I do believe it was because He understood his culture, and the language they understood and He realised this would be the best way of making the Kingdom accessible. The culture of the day was a story-telling culture, and because of this, Jesus taught in stories. The window that He put up so that people could look into the Kingdom life was a series of stories.

Our culture today is very different to what it was in Jesus day. It is very different to what it was 100 years ago, 50 years ago, even 20 years ago when I was part of the ‘youth’ in the church. And so the language we have to use and the methods we have to employ to reach our culture have to be constantly refreshed. We can’t set up a board in the town centre with the words ‘Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners’ and preach and expect the same results that our grandfathers achieved. We can’t use ‘Comic Sans’ font all the time and expect people to be engaged in the same was as our parents were. We can’t produce a photocopied A5 magazine and expect the world to sit up and take notice any more.

The truths of our faith will never change. But because our culture changes, the window we need to provide for people to see those truths, that faith, is changing all the time. If we ignore that, we become irrelevant. And whether you like the word ‘brand’ or not, if we say we are ‘Christ centred’ as a church, then we also need to be ‘culturally relevant’ as a church.

Because He is.

Brand : Telling our Story
April 17, 2009, 9:46 am
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We live in a culture dominated by the media, by celebrity and by brand. We may not like it. But it is true. If the church ignores it and hopes it will go away, it will stop being salt and light in the world and it will probably fail in it’s great commission.

Many people, especially Christians, are very disparaging of brands. For many people, they represent the fluffy exterior of a very poor product or service, something that manipulates rather than informs, something that draws in the weak-willed to pay for something that they not only don’t need, but something that could also cause them serious harm.

Some may point to particular markets: to cigarette brands that used to tell you that you would become cool and sexy if you smoked them, covering up the possibility that they may lead to lung cancer; to fast foods that promise children fun and tasty eating, covering up the possibility that it could lead to obesity; even to political party brands that purposefully produce smoke screens to cover up the truth. Such distortions of course are so wrong, and possibly even evil.

Some also point to brands that are created to provide distinction or identity within a crowded market place. Whether that’s the coffee you drink, the computer you use or the clothes you buy. But in my mind, there is nothing inherently wrong with any of this – it is just life. And I am happy drinking Costa, Using a MAC, and wearing M&S clothes. But some people think such brands can be manipulative, and I can appreciate that view. (Although I drink Costa because it is the best coffee, I use a MAC because it works, and I wear M&S because it deals effectively with my middle age spread).

And so when people like me start talking about the branding of our faith, they naturally become very concerned.

So let me tell you what I think brand, used well, should be.

A brand, at it’s heart, is a story. It is a story built around a product, service or ideology that is being presented to the world. It is not the product, service, or ideology itself, just the window that let’s the world see, appreciate and understand what is on offer. Branding becomes corrupt – as in the examples above – when the story presented leads to mis-information being absorbed by the consumer. But brand can be life-giving and edifying if it is a story that represents the product truthfully.

And that is where our journey into brand starts. We need to be a church that faithfully and truthfully tells the story of our faith to our culture. We need to be a church that provides a clear and visible window onto our faith, onto our God, that this culture can find accessible.

You see, I believe that the reason that the church in many areas is in decline is not because we haven’t got a great product. In fact I think we have the best product the world has ever had. The reason we are in decline is because the window we ask the world to look through to see that product has become so clouded, stained, dirty and irrelevant that they can’t see through it. The reason that they are not listening to us is because the story we are telling of our faith is in a language that they just can’t understand.

You see, the branding of our faith isn’t about a few creative types having fun, demanding big salaries, or getting lost in their own little creative worlds. It is about the mission of the church.

Coming Soon
April 16, 2009, 12:58 pm
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After a lent series on proverbs where I stopped being harsh and opinionated on worship and design, and you all stopped reading my blog, I am pleased to anounce that I will be returning to my favourite subjects very soon.

I will continue to give thoughts and insights into the worship scene, but maybe a little more than that I will be devoting time to my other great passion at the moment: the branding of our faith.

I look forward to the discussion.