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The Buddy System,” an article in the Oct. 2009 issue of Wired looks at “the infectious power of social networks.” In the middle of recent H1N1 outbreaks, that’s an ominous-sounding phrase, but what the article’s author, Jonah Lehrer, shares instead is the theory that the people in our social networks may have more influence on us than we realize — especially on things like happiness.

albumBack in 2003, researchers Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler began an extensive review of the Framingham Heart Study – but they weren’t looking at vital statistics and cholesterol numbers. Instead, they looked at subjects’ social networks.

Graphically mapping out these networks, they looked at certain characteristics (such as obesity) and behaviors (like quitting smoking) over time. What they discovered is that changes occurred in clusters. For example, as smoking rates dropped between 1971 and 2001, the network patterns showed that people were far more likely to quit if those linked to them had quit.  Quitting didn’t happen evenly or randomly across the network.

And Christakis and Fowler found that while the greatest influence was exerted by friends, there was significant influence among friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends.

While the Framingham data was based on traditional social networks, Christakis and Fowler applied the same thinking to Facebook. They discovered that, while people still maintain about the same number of really close friendships as before, the extended networks of acquaintances still exert influence. Last month, they published their findings in Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How they Shape Our Lives.

This is fascinating, but it raises ethical questions too. So we discover that one of the ways to pursue and assure our own happiness is to be connected to positive, happy people. What if we gravitate toward them and away from those who are depressed, ailing, poor, unattractive, introverted, and socially undesirable, and less tech-savvy?  Should we de-friend (or ignore) those grouchy people who complain too much? And as those who are less desirable become more socially isolated and disaffected (and in theory, less happy), then what?

Scott Stosssel, in his NY Times review of Christakis and Fowler’s book, does an excellent job of getting at those questions toward the end of his (mostly positive) review. If you don’t want to read the whole review, you can skip to the last few paragraphs.

What do you think?


trust agents If you are anywhere near Orange County, California tonight you should make every attempt to go hear Chris Brogan speak at Disciples-related Chapman University. Chris is well known in the world of social media and blogging. I read his blog every morning, because I appreciate his short, actionable posts and his analogies. The comments are always a good read too. If you’re interested in going to hear him, you can get a ticket through EventBrite. P.S. It’s FREE!

Chris and Julien Smith just released a book called Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust. I’m about halfway through – it’s interesting. I’m reading it with an eye toward what DisciplesWorld might learn and employ, but also with the Church, churches, and Christians in mind.

Anyone out there going? If so, come back and post your thoughts after the presentation. I’ll be watching the comment stream on Twitter (type #broganoc into the Search box to see Tweets from the event.)

Photo: darkensiva (Creative Commons license)

Photo: darkensiva (Creative Commons license)

There have been several humorous comparisons between church and Starbucks. If you haven’t seen the YouTube video, “What if the Starbucks Marketed Like the Church?” come back to this link after reading this post and check it out.

Now let’s turn it around. What if the church behaved more like Starbucks? What I’m suggesting has nothing to do with coffee…and everything to do with something called The Green Apron Book.

The Green Apron Book is a booklet that Starbucks gives its baristas. My stepdaughter worked at Starbucks for a while, and passed along the booklet. It outlines Starbucks mission: “To provide an uplifting experience that enriches people’s daily lives,” along with 5 Principles for doing exactly that:

1. Be Welcoming: Offer everyone a sense of belonging
2. Be Genuine: Connect, discover, respond
3. Be Knowledgeable: Love what you do. Share it with others.
4. Be Considerate: Take care of yourself, each other, and the environment.
5. Be Involved: In the store, in the company, and in the community.

Others, like Jeff Myers of the Slumdog Disciple blog, have already picked up on the notion that The Green Apron Book might have something to teach us about the experience we create for people (whether we claim that aspect of ‘church’ or ignore it). Darrin at the Hands and Feet 2.0 blog wrote a series of posts. Both Darrin and Jeff also mention the book, The Starbucks Experience by Joseph A. Michelli (McGraw Hill, 2006) for a more in-depth look at the 5 principles. But if you don’t want to go into that much depth, Jeff says The Green Apron Book is yours for the asking at Starbucks.

Here’s what I’d like to add. These 5 principles are a good guideline for Christians and churches when it comes to social media. Think about it. As Will Boyd of 3StoryChurch has pointed out in past posts like this one, there’s a lot more you can do on Twitter, Facebook, and other networks than just promote your programs, classes, sermons, and worship services.

We live in a world with abundant information. What people seem to be looking for are authentic, positive experiences. If your presence online and in the realm of social media is about creating that for them, even in small ways, they’ll be more likely to come to your website to see what else you have to offer.

And of course, follow through is important. If someone who connected with you or your church via social media shows up on Sunday morning, they should expect an in-person experience that matches the online presence. [For more on that, click the link to the YouTube video at the beginning of this post].

So how about it? Would you take a copy of The Green Apron Book to your next church board meeting, elder’s meeting, or small group discussion?

Audrey Borschel, Disciples of Christ pastor and author

Audrey Borschel, Disciples of Christ pastor and author

Audrey Borschel is an ordained Disciples of Christ minister, and the author of Preaching Prophetically When the News Disturbs: Interpreting the Media (Chalice Press, 2009) During the upcoming General Assembly, she’ll lead a resource group on Saturday, August 1 from 3:45 to 5:15 p.m.

Rebecca Woods, DisciplesWorld news and website editor, spoke with Audrey in late May.

RW: So what will you be talking about during the resource group?

AB: The focus will be on media literacy — helping people to understand how the news is produced, how stories are framed, how biases creep in inadvertently, and what gets left out. We need some tools to understand this, and to get a bigger picture.

Here’s a good example — I agreed to be a community blogger for the Indianapolis Star. I’d been doing this for a couple of months, and I noticed one story they ran about recycling. It said that three percent of our stuff in Indianapolis gets recycled, while in other places, it’s 30 percent. They quoted Mother Jones [magazine] and called it a ‘progressive liberal’ magazine. So I went to the source, and I found out they [the Star] were quoting a waste management newsletter that Mother Jones had quoted in full.

RW: So there was a difference between the information the newspaper presented, and how Mother Jones presented it?

AB: Yes. We almost have to be investigative journalists….And then it gets into the definition of ‘political’ — a term that’s misused so much.

Everything is political, if you think about it. The case for Jesus’ ministry was overtly political. He wanted to evoke change among the people and he wanted people to continue that change. In our society — a democratic society — it’s all about this.

RW: Do you find that people in congregations want to hear about things that are perceived as ‘political,’ or do they want to avoid the subject?

AB: As far as people coming to church and what they expect, I’ve heard it both ways. In one congregation I was accused of being too political. I realized that I needed to do more educating. In other places, I’ve found that people really thirst for connecting the world and their faith. They wonder where the nexus is between the faith and culture.

As far as awakening a congregation to social justice issues — it’s not so difficult if people understand that social justice is all over the gospel.

RW: Your book is about preaching. What do you see in today’s preaching that causes you to be concerned?

Complacency and fear. Those are two instances when preachers don’t attend to the task of bringing the scriptures to life, and engaging the people actively — helping them think about the scriptures and the relationship to their way of living.

And a lot of preachers will stay away from the big news stories, even though they intersect really well with the scriptures. On the other hand there are people who are fearless, and if they see that something needs to be said, they’ll go ahead and say it.

RW: Are some clergy worried about the legalities of preaching on social justice issues?

AB: There’s probably some confusion — about the IRS, about the First Amendment — I cover this in a section of the book. Once people know that clergy are free to speak on many subjects and once people know what they can’t do — that should help some of the pastors who would like to preach on justice issues.

RW: Do Disciples have any particular challenges?

AB: One of the challenges, among Disciples, is in identifying the audience. Even though we purport to be pretty progressive, there are many congregations that haven’t had the exposure to a lot of the conversations that others of us have had. Because of that, they don’t have the background to understand some of the material that a preacher who might be an activist would try to convey.

Take Jeremiah Wright. That was obviously an example where a little sound bite caused terrible commotion and harm. My advice is to hear the entire story, and if it’s visual, then hear and watch the entire thing and understand the context. It’s all about context. When I saw [Wright’s] preaching, I could understand [his comments] because I understand the context of black preaching and theology.

The same for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. From the get go, I knew people would cherry pick her ‘wise Latina’ comment about making decisions at the appellate level. But we need to be able to look for context.

RW: Do you think most journalists would prefer a media literate audience? Are there some who perpetuate media illiteracy?

AB: I’m not sure that journalists don’t want people to be media literate. I might question some of the radio personalities or blog commentators who are so biased that they want their point of view to be the dominant one.

But in my book, there’s a chapter about op-ed writers. There is a lot we can learn from op-ed writers when we compose our preaching. The way that some of the commentators use images and structure, cinema, all kinds of things — it’s great. And they want to be understood.

I haven’t really become cynical through this process of learning and teaching media literacy, but I do tend to look at some news stories and wonder, what are the facts, what’s missing, and why are they framing it in this particular way?

RW: What about blogs?

AB: As a blogger, I’m well aware that bloggers are criticized for being inaccurate. Some of them do misuse information. For example, using e-mails as source of information can be misleading.

RW: How did you become interested in media literacy?

AB: When I was doctoral student at the Aquinas Institute of Theology, somehow I had this idea about the intersection between preaching and ‘disturbing’ news, and about doing theological reflection on the news. An advisor hooked me up with someone who had done a lot of work with the news. The framework for my doctoral thesis was media literacy for preachers.

RW: What will people learn by coming to your resource group during General Assembly?

AB: I’ll be trying to lay the groundwork for why [media literacy] is important. I will be giving some of the tools for media literacy — how to identify pieces of stories, for example. We’ll discuss the different types of news media, so that people see that there’s a variety of print and electronic sources, not only newspapers. I want to make people aware of how they get the news, and how the new sources of news can be intimidating, and sometimes misleading.

They’ll also gain insights that will be helpful not only for preaching but for pastoral care. When we do preaching, we are doing mass pastoral care from the pulpit. If there’s a crisis for the community, preaching on it can be a way to help people understand the relationship between their faith and the events that happen around them. There are great pastoral implications for it.


Audrey Borschel’s book, Preaching Prophetically When the News Disturbs, is available through Chalice Press. She will be doing a book signing right after the August 1 Resource Group. Audrey is also a member of The Intersection.

(This appeared as my newspaper column, “Notes From My Knapsack” in the Granville (OH) Sentinel 4-23-09, just before Ms. Saberi was convicted and sentenced, and word came out of her planned hunger strike pending an appeal in the Iranian court system. Please keep her in your prayers! No word in subsequent coverage about whether she got her books, but i’m praying for that, too.)

Roxana Saberi is a freelance reporter whose work has been on NPR along with other national venues.

Her profile may have gotten a small boost from being Miss North Dakota over a decade ago, and her ethnic background with Iranian parents led her to try to cover the story of women’s lives in Iran from the inside.

If you’ve heard her story, it’s likely because she’s been arrested by the Iranian government on suspicion of espionage; which friends, family, and most recent employers all agree is balderdash. Sharing accounts of how women have to live in the Islamic Republic of Iran may be as worrisome to authorities there as the possibility of spies checking out their atomic program, since neither issue gains them much favor around the world.

What caught my attention about Ms. Saberi’s story is a recent development, when her parents traveled to Iran and finally got the chance to visit her in prison. They asked her what they could bring her, and she asked for books.

Specifically, she requested Plutarch’s “Lives,” a biography of Gandhi, and a French dictionary, since many Iranians speak that language (odd quirks of colonial history pop up across the Middle East – lots of older Iraqis speak German, especially if they worked on the railroads).

Still no word (as of this writing) about whether she will be allowed these books in her cell, but it set me to thinking “what books would I ask for if I had a long undefined stretch ahead of me?”

For myriad reasons, I’d ask for a Bible, ideally with the Apocrypha (extra books, y’know), but it isn’t clear whether that would be allowed in any case, just as they are entirely and shamefully illegal in Saudi Arabia.

Beyond that Book full of books, what else would I request? If I could only have, say, five other books, what would I pick? “Tristram Shandy” would top my list, and then . . . this gets hard! They would have to hold up under re-reading, not just be long, although length would have to be a criterion.

Herodotus’ “The Histories,” Dickens’ “David Copperfield,” “PrairyErth” by William Least Heat-Moon, where he does for Chase County, Kansas what I hope to do for Licking County someday, and then I think “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau.

When Shannon Lucid was up on the Russian “Mir” Space Station in 1996, and the internet was new, there was an interactive feature on a NASA website that allowed you to click through a series of pictures showing life during her then-record-setting nearly 200 days in space.

In one shot, within a mesh bag near her berth, I could make out the distinctive cover design of the Penguin Classics edition of “Walden” and I thought “Brilliant! The perfect book to take on such a trip.” When the Mir was “de-orbited” in 2001, I wondered, as we saw the footage of the burning hulk slash into the South Pacific on TV, did anyone bring that copy of Walden back home?

Having said all that, I wonder if poetry might not be a better choice for re-reading: a volume of Shakespeare’s plays (his birthday today!) and a collection each from Frost, Maxine Kumin, Jaroslav Seifert, and Billy Collins. What five books would you pick, in a prison or for a season in space? It’s an interesting thought experiment.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; toss him a list of books at or on Twitter at “Knapsack.”

Last week, I threw a bit of a teaser out there, with this whole “Spider vs. Starfish” concept. As I’m sure many of you have lost hours of sleep, and perhaps have had a hard time forcing down a decent meal in eager anticipation of the follow-up, I figured it wasn’t fair to keep you waiting any longer.

The whole concept came from a book on business management practices, called The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom. The model presented here resonates with the idea I’ve had for a while now that church could learn a whole lot from the structure and governance of organizations like twelve-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. After all, they have reached millions with virtually no budget, and they seem immune to economic conditions, flourishing while we institutional churches struggle to keep the doors open.

So what’s the difference?

I might help answer that question with another question; if you cut the head off a spider, what happens? We all know it dies, right? But what if you cut off the arm of a starfish? It just grows another starfish. Where you once had one, there are now two. In trying to stop it, you actually only made it stronger.

So, how many of our churches are more like spiders instead of starfish? I thought so.

Here’s where the advent of recent technology might teach us an awful lot. If Rebecca Woods will indulge me in the future, I’d gladly post some other blogs about using applications like facebook, podcasting and blogging to further our ministries, but for now, let’s consider them a little more systematically.

In particular, consider a phenomenon known as “Web 2.0.” This is much like the so-called “leaderless organizations” that Brafman and Beckstrom are referring to. They are viral in nature, highly adaptable and scalable, and relatively easy to manage because the users generate the content.

I’ll offer a few examples to clarify the differences between a 1.0 – or spider – model and a 2.0 – or starfish – system. Amazon, which has become a behemoth presence for online commerce, would be considered a 1.0 model. They have a product that they sell to customers, pretty much in the traditional model, despite their lack of storefronts. Though they’ve been successful up until now, they are depending on some basic truths about the market. If, for example, the cost of paper or transport fuel went through the roof, it would affect their business model significantly, or if a supplier shut down, they might be stuck.

eBay, on the other hand, is a 2.0, or starfish, model. eBay, as you probably know, doesn’t actually sell anything. All they do is create the framework within which people can conduct business. This means they can be a conduit for everything from sweat socks to automobiles and homes. If the price of gold plummeted and jewelry markets crumbled, people could just sell more baseball cards or used books on eBay.

Another comparison might be looking at the difference between the traditional military structure versus a network like Al Qaida. Though you can throw an entire military into chaos by attacking its senior leadership or supply lines, Al Qaida is hard to stop in one sense because it is a headless beast. You kill or capture current leaders, and a dozen more pop up in their place. The system is so adaptable, it’s hard to stop.

Our churches have been based upon a 1.0 “spider” model for centuries, and so far, it’s worked pretty well. But now, we’re surrounded by starfish like facebook, Craigslist, BitTorrent, MySpace, eBay and the like, and we wonder why it is that we, the institutional church, don’t seem relevant to younger people.

For starters, we not only don’t look familiar: we don’t even look relevant.

People may not be able to put their finger on it, but they know 1.0 versus 2.0 when they see it, especially younger people. There are consequences to being a starfish organization instead of a spider, such as letting go some control over the content exchanged within the system, but there’s great opportunity as well.

In future installments, I’ll discuss a few more ways in which we can employ Church 2.0 methods in our existing congregations, both with technology, and even on our boards and in our Sunday School rooms. But for now, look around you and see if you can start spotting the differences between the spiders and starfish, all around you.

Until next time!

Christian Piatt is the author of MySpace to Sacred Space: God for a New Generation, and Lost: A Search for Meaning, and he is a columnist for various newspapers, magazines and websites on the topics of theology and popular culture. He is the co-founder of Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Amy. For more information about Christian, visit

I’ve been asked a number of times to speak to various churches and other leadership groups about young adults, their relationship to organized religion, and their take on – and use of – technology. Unfortunately, church and technology tend to generally mix about as well as the football team and chess club. Neither the two shall meet, right? Who needs technology to find God, after all?

Sure, a few of us may have put up a screen to show words to our praise songs, and we may have even had a kid from the youth group throw together a website for us…which hasn’t been updated in about forty-seven years or so. As they say in the twelve-step tradition: how’s that working out for you? Folks generally fall into one of two categories. Either they are terrified by technology and want to have nothing to do with it in church at all, or they see it as some sort of silver bullet that, if aimed properly, will magically fill the now-empty pews with young families.

In truth, neither perspective is particularly realistic. For one, technology isn’t going anywhere, so by ignoring it, we risk making our churches even more irrelevant. On the other hand, if we hope that technology – or emergent worship, whatever that is, or a groovy website, or even a podcast – will save us from a fate we’re hoping to avoid, we may be putting way more trust into a handful of tools than they deserve.

Rebecca has invited me to contribute a few pieces to the NewsMuse blog, for which I’m honored and grateful. In future installments, I hope to share some ideas about how technology can be used to complement a vibrant ministry, as well as dispelling some misconceptions about technology, digital media, social networking, emergent worship and so many of these postmodern-emergo-hip buzz phrases we hear so often, yet about which we understand very little. So stay tuned to explore questions with me such as:

What exactly is “Church 2.0?”

Are you a Spider Church or a Starfish Church?

What do young adults really want from organized religion?

What the heck does it mean to be postmodern, and what is emergent worship?

Until next time!

Christian Piatt is the author of MySpace to Sacred Space: God for a New Generation, and Lost: A Search for Meaning, and he is a columnist for various newspapers, magazines and websites on the topics of theology and popular culture. He is the co-founder of Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Amy. For more information about Christian, visit


Noticed Kory Wilcoxson posted a review of the book “The Year of Living Biblically” on his Thoughts on God and Other Stuff blog. Kory’s description: The author, A.J. Jacobs, tried to follow the Bible literally for one year. No haircuts, a full, bushy beard, dietary restrictions, observance of all the religious holidays. He even followed the command to “be fruitful and multiply.”

Here’s more from Kory, about Jacobs’ book:

His initial approach to this endeavor was a bit tongue-in-cheek. Jacobs, a self-proclaimed agnostic, is never disrespectful or mocking, but he starts out with a healthy skepticism about this revered and authoritative book.

But over the course of the year, as he spends more time studying and following the scriptures, Jacobs gradually begins to see the benefit of living a religious existence. At one point Jacobs found himself saying little prayers of “thank you” throughout the course of the day. He admits he’s not sure to whom he was praying, but he remarked this shift in his outlook changed him as a person.

Dan Mayes blogs about bats in his belfry…well actually, his next door neighbor’s.

And over at the Rethinking Youth Ministry blog, the guys share their thoughts (and others’) about Jesus at Wendy’s, Jesus Pizza, and the bait-and-switch approach to youth ministry.

Will visit more Disciples blogs tomorrow to see what you all are up to. Now, it’s off to Applebee’s. Wonder if I’ll see Jesus there?

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