Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Fort Worth Unseen

There’s a whole city out there that most people have never seen. I moved to Fort Worth in 1997. Having grown up in rural Missouri, my impression of Fort Worth was that it was a big city that wanted to call itself country. This was Cowtown and I went looking for cows on numerous occasions, without much success. What I did find was traffic. Lots and lots of traffic. Being the country boy that I am, I’m not a fan of this thing called rush hour. In the country, when you want to go somewhere, you go. It may take you an hour to get anywhere, but you go and the only thing that might slow you down farm equipment moving from one field to another. I learned to plan my life around traffic and discovered that the city folk did too. But what does that have to do with this unseen city?

Traffic in cities tends to flow in these channels that we call freeways. In Fort Worth, we also have these six lane streets that handle large amounts of traffic. Neighborhoods are connected to these major streets, so the typical person will drive a few blocks from their house to a major street, which will take them to the freeway, which takes them to another major street, which takes them to a lesser street on which they find their destination. People who navigate these channels and visit many of the venues around the city are said to have seen the city. These well-traveled channels will take you downtown, or the stockyards, or to the zoo, or to see the museums. They will take you to restaurants, to church, to school, and to work. Many destinations, but few routes to get there.

Most people, see the sites in Fort Worth as being these little pockets of beauty at the end of a concrete channel. So did I. My will to visit these places was tested by my desire to avoid heavy traffic and look for a parking space. But things changed one day when I picked a point on the map and asked the question, “What would it take to ride my bicycle to there?” Since I have even more of an aversion to riding a bicycle in traffic than I do to driving a pickup truck in traffic, the roads I would normally take became the ones that I sought to avoid. I found myself winding through one neighborhood and then another. I found myself seeing a Fort Worth that was very different from what I thought. This city wasn’t a bunch of venues connected by concrete chains. This city was much more beautiful than that. This city was quiet streets, filled with people out walking their dogs. This city had big houses with beautiful gardens. This city had parks that stretch for miles. This city had a river. This city had wildlife. Lots of wildlife. This city had tree-lined streets. This city had horses. This city had people in canoes. And yes, this city even had a few cows. It was there, mixed in among the beauty, that I found those venues that sit at the end of those concrete channels.

But here’s the thing. Without a bicycle, you won’t see it. If you walk, you’ll never get out of your own neighborhood. If you drive, your view is obscured by sheet metal and glass. I’ve tried. I’ve driven some of those same streets and there are things you miss. If people knew what they were missing, more people would stop saying, “I’d like to ride a bicycle,” and they’d go for a ride.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

What Desire Paths Say About Websites

I’m fascinated by desire paths. In the video below, Tom Hulme discusses designing based on desire paths in dirt. But desire paths aren’t always paths that we can see from satellite photos. Since I do quite a bit or work with websites, I spend a significant amount of time looking at website statistics. In particular, I look at the phrases people type into search engines. There are a number of search phrases that I have targeted. When I see these show up, this tells me that what I’m doing is working. But things get more interesting when I begin looking at the other phrases.

Not long ago, on a church website, I saw that someone had visited the site after typing the phrase, “hanging of the greens service ideas.” On one hand, this is of little importance. At some point, the church had positioned itself on this desire path by holding a “hanging of the greens service” and someone posting something about it on the website. You can be sure that the person following this path isn’t going to visit the church and probably won’t even send an e-mail. What makes it interesting is that they typed this search in July. Someone is thinking about Christmas early.

The same site gets several searches for something like “procedure for someone joining a church.” It also gets something like, “what to say to the pastor when you want to join a church.” Again, I don’t know that these people will have any other interaction with the church, since the search doesn’t include the name of the church or the town. What this desire line tells me is some of what people need from a church website. What people want from a church website are answers to the questions they are afraid to ask. Sure, it’s great for them to know about the pot luck coming up, or the camp for their children, or the senior citizen trip. It’s great for them to have inspirational messages and encouragement to read their Bibles. It’s great for them to have easy access to service times and information on how to contact staff members and ministry leaders. But those aren’t the questions people are asking. I have never seen the search phrase, “when does worship start”.

But it’s not just how to do stuff. They’re also asking questions about doctrine. One list of keyphrases includes “when God ignores you”, “Baptist fasting rules”, and “does time exist in eternity”. As a small group leader at my church, I like to think that we can address questions in our small groups that wouldn’t be addressed during preaching. People don’t ask questions during preaching. But some questions won’t be asked of a Sunday school teacher either. It pains me when I see that phrase “when God ignores you.” I have no doubt that there is someone is suffering through something and they don’t feel comfortable asking their pastor or their Sunday school teacher, but they typed it into a search engine, because they knew they didn’t have to worry about what the machine thought of them. I don’t know who this person is or where they are from, and I may never know, but I may have helped them, because something I wrote happened to be on their desire path.

When I can, I try to pave over desire paths. Sometimes, I’ll see a phrase pop up that hasn’t been addressed very well. The search might take them to an event notice, or a quote from a song, or the title of a sermon, but that’s all there is. While we can’t do anything to help the person who typed in that phrase the first time, I figure that if one person typed it, there will be others. To pave over this path, I like to post an answer to their question. That may mean reposting information that’s already on the website, but optimized for the question they asked, but often that means doing the research to find a good answer. And it doesn’t hurt to put a link from the page they found the first time to the page that addresses the question more completely. In time, more and more people will find the information they need, because the website is along their desire path.




Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Apostle #Paul and Hashtags

For the past couple of weeks, our Sunday school class has been looking at some of the Apostle Paul’s letters. Now, you may be wondering how Paul’s letters relate to hashtags. Recently, I’ve been seeing hashtags…I mean a lot of hashtags. I’ve been seeing posts with three or four or more hashtags. I see posts where half the post is taken up with hashtags. What do I do? I ignore the post and keep on scrolling. I suspect most other people do as well. We need to think about hashtag strategy, and I think Paul’s epistles can help us with that.

Paul’s Form

Paul followed a standard form, when he wrote his epistles. This may have been how he was taught to write in school, but it is worth considering. First, he tells the reader who he is. In your Bible you’ll see that all of Paul’s letters begin with the same word. Can you guess what it is? Absolutely right. “Paul” is the first word of every letter. (Hebrews would be an exception, if it is written by Paul.)

Next, Paul gives a brief introduction to himself and tells who writing the letter with him. In some cases, such as in Colossians, Paul simply says “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, by the will of God.” But in other places he gives a longer statement. In 2 Timothy, Paul says, “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, according to the promise of life which is in Christ Jesus.” That statement about “the promise of life” is quite significant when you consider that Paul was writing this letter in preparation for his own death.

Then, Paul includes a statement about who he is writing to. This isn’t just the names, so that people know the letter is addressed to them. 2 Timothy 1:2 says, “To Timothy, dearly beloved son.” This is more of a reminder of how important these people are to Paul.

Paul then writes a prayer of thanksgiving, goes into the body of the letter, and he concludes with mentioning key people who he knows are in the same area as the person receiving the letter. Given that Paul’s letters are much too long for social media posts, you’re probably still wondering what his letters have to do with hashtags.

A Hashtag Strategy

If we simplify Paul’s form, we see that he makes sure the reader knows:

  1. who is writing
  2. why they should listen
  3. who he is writing to
  4. what he is writing about
Number one, do people know who is writing? And even if they don’t, is a hashtag the best way to tell them? Most of the time in social media, we don’t need to tell people who is writing, because our name appears at the top of the post. Things are different if we are posting to an organization’s page. The organization’s name is on the post, so we don’t need a hashtag for that. If someone uses personal pronouns like “I” or “we” in the post, it is helpful to have the person’s name at the end of the post, so people know who “I” is, but a hashtag won’t tell you that.

Number two, do people know why they should listen? Even if they don’t, hashtags won’t help. Imagine a social media post that includes the hashtag #apostle. Do you think people are going to sit up and listen because of that? What if I included the hashtag #programmingexpert on my posts? Don’t you think people might wonder what I mean by that? But on the other hand, if I began with, “Timothy, who majored in Computer Science/Mathematics and who has a Masters in Computer Science and who has nearly twenty years of experience programming computers, and who has developed multiple websites and who has written books on programming computers,” that would mean something. But the hashtag would be meaningless, because even a college student with a couple of years of programming classes is a #programmingexpert, when compared to the average computer user. Your resume belongs on your profile page, not as a hashtag on your posts.

Number three, do people know you are talking to them? One of the problems with social media is that we tend to write about people, not to people. Suppose I write the post, “Coffee…down the hatch. Water bottles…filled. Tires…110psi. Let’s get this show on the road.” If you’ve been reading my posts, you know that I’m about to hop on a bicycle and go road cycling, but who am I talking to? If I’m just putting it out there for anyone who happens to read it, you’ll probably think “That’s nice. Maybe I should ride a bicycle sometime.” You might even click the like button. But here’s where a hashtag can be useful. Suppose I include the hashtag #SSMCycling. (You don’t have to know what that means.) Suppose some friends and I decided that we would call ourselves the “SSM Cycling Club” and we would use that hashtag on our posts when we are talking to each other. That post might well be followed by a post from another one of your friends, “I’m fixing a flat tire. Don’t leave without me. #SSMCycling” There may be only four people who pay any attention to that hashtag, but it is effective because it tells those four people that someone is talking to them.

But some hashtags intended to identify a group to talk to are just wishful thinking. Suppose there is a business called “Stacy’s Half Pies.” Stacy writes posts that includes the hashtag, #halfpielovers. Unless Stacy has a supportive customer base, just putting #halfpielovers on her posts won’t help her find true half pie lovers. She would be better off using the same hashtag that one of her competitors is using effectively, or not cluttering the post with hashtags at all.

Number four, do people know what you are talking about? Paul wasn’t limited to one paragraph, so he had plenty of room to explain what he was talking about. This isn’t always true for us, and hashtags can help. One of my favorite hashtags is #BAAW. That stands for Bike Against A Wall. Doing an image search for images with the #BAAW hashtag will give you some very beautiful pictures of bicycles supported by walls, or rocks, or sticks in interesting locations. I don’t know who took these pictures. I don’t know why each person felt the desire to post a picture. What I know is that we share a common interest.

It’s Personal, But To Whom?

While we need to communicate the four things that Paul communicated, we need to limit our hashtag use. We need to make it personal, but not by talking about ourselves. Instead, focus on the needs of the reader. No one wants to see more than one or two hashtags on a post, so limit their use to who the targeted reader is and a topic that your reader wants to read about. Don’t just make up a hashtag unless you know you can get a following for that hashtag. Often, what we want to do is to use and @tag, rather than a hashtag. If people want to hear from you, specifically, they’ll sign up. They follow hashtags when they want to hear from several different people or groups who are part of a bigger organization or subject matter. There’s a reason why businesses with successful Facebook strategies don’t include self-referential hashtags in their posts. They add no value to the reader.

Where hashtags become important is when you want to communicate your message to people who aren’t following you. These people are identified by a hashtag that they follow. You might also use a hashtag when you want people to identify posts that they want you to see. You wouldn’t put these hashtags on your own posts, but you would inform people that you will be reading the posts that include the hashtag, thus providing a means of people communicating with you about specific topics.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Gift Problems

So, as I’m reading through 1 Corinthians and trying to prepare for a lesson on Sunday, it occurred to me that when we get to chapter twelve, Paul is still dealing with problems. He has just addressed the unfair distribution of the Lord’s supper. Chapter thirteen is going to call for them to place a priority on love. But that usually not the way we address it. Usually, when we see this thing about spiritual gifts, we ask people what their spiritual gift is. We may even send them off with a spiritual gift assessment and when they come back and tell us that they have the “gift of wisdom” or the “gift of prophecy” or whatever it happens to be, we start trying to match them up with some ministry that tends to have a lot of people with the same assessment as they have. Besides the fact that the Bible tells us nothing about what circles to fill in for each of the spiritual gifts, what does that have to do with problems?

It seems to me that Paul is stating what he seems to think is obvious to give support for what he is actually saying. If so, he didn’t need to tell them how to find their spiritual gift, but rather he needed them to recognize that they were all good at different things. But they appeared to be taking it too far. It wasn’t just that they were good at different things, they appear to have the idea that a different Spirit gave them different gifts. Or at least, Paul feared their pagan upbringing would lead them to think that. I can see where that would be a problem. If I am gifted in one thing and think that the spirit of that thing is telling me to do one thing and someone else is gifted in something else, then they would see no reason to doubt that the spirit of that thing might be telling them to do something different. Paul corrects this thinking by telling them that it is only one Spirit, so whatever the Spirit is leading them to do, he’s going to be leading the other people to be working on something compatible.

Today, when I look at what churches do, I see a different set of gifts than what Paul talked about. Sure, you may be able to cram them into the gifts he mentioned, but I think about that there are people who are gifted greeting people at the door. I’m not gifted in that and I know it. I do it when no one else is doing it, but that’s not my gift. There are people who are gifted in getting people’s attention. Again, I’m not gifted in that, so when I find myself with responsibility over a noisy bunch, I pick out someone I know is gifted in that way and I’ll ask that person to pray. There are people who are gifted in decorating stuff. There are people who are gifted with knowing what to say and saying it. There are people who are gifted at keeping up with the latest trends. There are people who are gifted writers. There are people who are gifted geeks. There are people who are gifted soul winners.

Think about those various gifts. Each person is likely to think that what they do is more important than what other people do. That can be a problem. Many times, a person who isn’t gifted in a certain area will assume that no one is. For example, we have some people at our church who are very gifted at serving meals for the whole church. If it were me, I’d put some bread and lunch meat on the table, point people to the racks of chairs and tables and tell them that if they wanted to sit down they could get their own chair and put it back when they were done. Okay, so maybe not quite that bad, but I’ll admit that I sometimes wonder why we’re worried about whether the centerpieces on the table match and stuff like that. But you can be sure that if I make an issue of it, the people who are gifted in that are going to be very upset with me. And rightly so.

It occurs to me that if you aren’t gifted in an area, you would do well to stay out of the way of those who are. If you aren’t a gifted singer, you have no business telling a gifted singer that they don’t need to practice. Instead, you turn them loose to do what they do, including those things that you don’t understand why they need to do them. If you do, what you’ll find is that all that strange stuff they are doing comes together with the strange stuff you are doing and the end goal will be more easily achieved. In other words, let the experts be the experts.

Paul seems to be saying this 1 Corinthians 12:21, “So the eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” Or again, the head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” It is easy for us to say that an eye can’t be a hand or a head a foot, but what about people? Why is it that we see people who have no business trying to lead music get up and wave their hand around like they know what they are doing, while singing in a different key than what the pianist is playing? Instead of saying, “We can do it ourselves,” why didn’t they go find someone so gifted?

It leads to problems, because the person who is gifted will feel like they aren’t respected and if they aren’t respected, they aren’t loved. Even so, I don’t think most people even realize what they are doing. What does an eye know about what a hand does? It has seen a hand do everything it does and it doesn’t look difficult. It just has to open and close and move things around. The impression most people have of a music director is just what they see. He gets up on stage and does what he does and that’s it. They don’t see the hours he spends looking for music and running through it over and over and practicing with the other musicians. He has it easy, right? And I suspect you’ll find that with everything else that people in a church are gifted to do. When you begin to say, “we don’t need them,” you are going to have problems.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

No Sounding Boards

Some years ago, following a committee meeting at church, I made a sarcastic comment to a friend about what had been discussed. I don’t remember what I said, or what had been discussed in the meeting. What I do recall is that I found myself summoned to a meeting at church, a few days later. I show up at this meeting, not even thinking about the earlier conversation. But when I got there, the door closed and the conversation began, “Someone told me that you’re upset.”

So much for my idea that this meeting had something to do with a project I working on at the time. For the next hour or so, we discussed this thing that I didn’t want to discuss at all. A simple offhand comment had turned into a position that I was expected to defend and my attempts to dismiss the whole thing did nothing to bring the conversation to a close. All from me just thinking aloud.

I learned something from that. Venting is not allowed. Never say something that you aren’t willing to defend. I was looking for someone to bounce and idea off of, someone who would either agree with me or tell me I was thinking wrongly. That is not what I found.

There are times when it is helpful to hear your own thoughts spoken out loud. When dealing with people, it isn’t always easy to know what to do. We often point to Matthew 18 for handling church problems. It is here that Jesus says, “if they brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault.” That’s great instruction, but what if you don’t know if you want to bring the thing up. Maybe you aren’t sure that it is a “trespass” or you’re trying to find the right words to say. Maybe it’s something that’s not worth making an issue of and you’re trying to sort through it in your own head.

It seems like there ought to be people that you can discuss things with to find the right answer. But what my experience has shown me is that a comment meant to feel out other people’s ideas on a topic will be taken as a statement of fact. A statement made in a moment of frustration is taken as a sign of being angry. So, if you can’t figure it out yourself, you’re kind of stuck.

The irony is that it wasn’t long before that incident that I was lectured for “bottling things up inside.” So, which is worse, to keep it all inside or to deal with people who get upset with they discover that I’m trying to figure out whether I agree with what they are doing or not?

Thursday, June 30, 2016

What Selfie-sticks Say About Us

Stephen Wilkes made the observation that “The act of sharing has become more important than the experience itself.” He made this statement in a TED talk in which he was telling about his work as a photographer. To achieve the affect he is looking for, he spends many hours in one location, shooting thousands of photos of tourist attractions. This gives him a lot of time to observe human behavior. While doing so, he noticed that people were using historic locations more as a backdrop for photos of themselves, rather than exploring the site.

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. We’re unlikely to change it. I’m more interested in why this is the case. This hasn’t always been the way things are, but one thing we know about humans is that we don’t change much. Our motivations today are very similar to what people’s motivations were when the Bible was being written. It’s unlikely that the change in what people do at sites has anything to do with a change in people’s motivations.

Why do people share photos on Facebook and other social media sites? I believe it is because we crave social interaction. It isn’t that we really care if people know that we visited the Alamo, or the Statue of Liberty, or the restaurant down the street. The real reason we post about these visits is because we expect that someone is going to respond. Perhaps it is only a like, or maybe it is a simple statement like, “I didn’t know you were going there,” or maybe it triggers a lengthy conversation. Whatever the case, sharing results in social interaction.

Now, think about why people visited tourist sites prior to social media. We might think that they went to learn something, but maybe not. I remember going on trips as a kid and there were postcards everywhere. People used to say, “Send me a postcard.” Of course, they are collectable, but the purpose of sending a postcard is to say, “Look where I’m at.”

But think also about who visits tourist sites. You rarely see someone there alone, unless they are one of the local workers who has stopped there for lunch. Tourist sites are places to take a date, or to take the wife and kids, or to take relatives who are staying in town. We don’t go to these places to see the site, rather we go because they provide an opportunity for social interaction with the people who visit the site with us.

At the end of the day, it is all about social interaction, and it always has been. Of course, there are things we can do and learn while we are at various sites, but what we want to do is interact with other people. We might need to think about that. The next time we see someone with a selfie-stick, maybe we should go talk to them. That’s probably what they’re hoping for.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Get Your Shoes On (The Armor of God)

How is salvation like a helmet? I’ve heard many sermons about the armor of God. More often than not, emphasis is placed on what a helmet is rather than on the armor itself. Just as we aren’t battling flesh and blood, we aren’t actually wearing armor. There is value in knowing that a helmet protects the most valuable part of our body and we might point out that like a helmet, salvation keeps us alive, even if we have other injuries. But maybe the point of Ephesians 6:10-20 isn’t that spiritual things are like physical armor, but we are to prepare ourselves for battle.

Truth

When we stand in battle, we are to have truth. We are battling for hearts and minds. The enemy is lying to those we are trying to reach. When we speak the truth, the enemy is caught with his pants down. No lie can stand up against the truth. So, we go into battle with truth like a belt.

Righteousness

Of course none of us are completely righteous, but Jesus is our righteousness. Even so, one of Satan’s favor tactics is to point at Christians and say, “Look at them! They’re worse than you are.” But consider what happens when that lost soul we are battling for hears Satan say that but what the lost person sees is things that we are doing for the Lord. Our righteousness protects against the attack. Satan’s words bounce off of our chest, because the lost person, sees something better.

Readiness for the Gospel of Peace

When I was a kid, Dad had a rule that we couldn’t ride our bicycles unless we had shoes on. Even though I loved to go barefoot in the Summer, there were many times that I would wear my shoes, just so I would be prepared to ride my bicycle, without going back to the house to get my shoes. Of course, Dad’s reason for the rule was to protect my feet, and it’s not wrong to talk about soldiers needing shoes to protect one’s feet, but I think people miss the point on this. The point is that you need to keep your shoes on, so you’re ready to run into battle. But in this case, it is the “readiness of the Gospel of Peace.” Are you prepared to share the gospel with someone at a moment’s notice? Are you ready to run to a lost person to tell them about Jesus? If you aren’t, you’re like a soldier without his shoes on.

Faith

A shield is an offensive weapon, but primarily it is defensive, protecting from all kinds of attack. Faith, is believing that what God said is true. If we know that what God has said is true, then the lies that Satan throws at us extinguish very quickly. Jesus demonstrated this during his wilderness temptation. His response to Satan’s attacks was to put them out by going back to what the scripture says.

Salvation

This one’s a headscratcher for me. Why does salvation come here in the list? So often, we think of salvation as being an event that takes us from being a non-Christian to a Christian, but that would imply it should be first. We might think it has something to do with the order a soldier would put on his armor, but wouldn’t he put on the helmet before he picked up his shield? But faith, salvation, and the word of God appear to be a sublist of things we are to take, while the others are things that we are to have in a state of readiness. Faith precedes salvation, so that may explain the order. But the hope of salvation gives us much the same confidence that a helmet gives us.

The Word of God

Our weapon, is the word of God. The rest of that armor serves only to protect us as we carry the word of God into battle. But I find interesting phrasing in Ephesians 6:17. It doesn’t say, “And take…the sword, which is the word of God.” Instead, it says, “And take…the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” It isn’t our sword. We’re just the sword bearers. Our job is to carry the word of God to the world, but it is the Holy Spirit who wields it.

Prayer

We don’t normally list prayer among the elements of the armor of God, since it doesn’t have an associated piece of armor, but it is in Ephesians 6:18-20 that we see what Paul is telling these armed Christians to do. He’s asking them to ask God with persistence on the behalf of all saints and for Paul in particular.

But notice what he doesn’t do. He doesn’t say, “Pray that the Lord will save people.” So often, that’s what we do. We think of a lost friend or family member and we say, “Lord, save this person.” Instead, Paul desires that they pray, “that utterance may be given unto me, that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in bonds: that therein I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.”

That is what spiritual warfare looks like. Praying on the behalf of others, and boldly preaching the gospel in whatever situation we are in.

Get your shoes on. It’s time to go.