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Not long ago, I posted my interview with Disciples theologian and author Rita Nakashima Brock, founder of Faith Voices for the Common Good and a member of the Axis of Friendship — a coalition of individuals and groups reaching out in solidarity with the people of Iran.

With the visit of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the U.N. this week and the ongoing concerns about its nuclear aims, the spotlight is once again on Iran, as it has been off and on since the highly-contested elections of this summer.

On Wednesday,  Brock and fellow Axis of Friendship member Amir Soltani had an opinion piece, “An Empty Roar from the Lion of Islam,” published as an op-ed in The Boston Globe.

In another article, published the same day on the Dog Canyon blog, Brock asks “What has Christianity to do with Iran?” and answers “A lot, it turns out.”   Her article there, “Iran and our Axis of Friendship,” is a fascinating look at the role of Persia (now Iran) in the world at the time of Jesus’ birth.

What are your thoughts on Iran, and on Ahmadinejad’s visit and speech?

Like many pastors I’ve taken up blogging.   I expect that each of us blogs for different reasons – I read enough of these blogs to get sense of how different we are in our use of the blogs.  But, each of us blogs because we have something to say to a broader audience – an audience that is likely broader than our immediate congregation.  On any given day I get between 150 to 250 hits.  That’s not huge, but it’s respectable, and it is a number far beyond the number I reach in my own congregation (especially when you take a weekly cumulative number).

Rebecca asked me to write this post in part because I blog so frequently.  My practice is to blog daily, except when I’m simply unable to get to a computer with internet access!  Part of my reasoning for blogging daily might have something to do with vanity.  I want to attract readers.  With that in mind, early on I had read a blog post by Scot McKnight, author of the Jesus Creed blog, which said that if you want to attract and keep a readership, you have to blog daily.  I took up the challenge, and have tried to keep up the pace ever since – and my readership has grown as a result.

As to why I blog –  I must confess up front that one of the attractions of blogging is that it allows me to publish whatever I want to publish, whenever I want to publish it.  I am my own editor.  Now,  I enjoy writing, so this is not drudgery.  Before I took up blogging I had to depend on the good graces of publishers and journal editors – and I have been able to put out a fairly large number of published pieces, including three books and numerous articles and reviews for both general and academic journals – to get my thoughts in print.  Although I have a fairly large corpus of published works, and I even edit a journal (Sharing the Practice), that has never seemed to be enough for me.  So, now I can write what I want, when I want, with few if any filters (the only real filter is me – I’m ever cognizant of the fact that I have a family and I’m a pastor).

In my personal blog – Ponderings on a Faith Journey –  I write upon a wide spectrum of issues, but always with my faith in mind (except those occasions when I talk sports).  Even my political posts usually have a faith component.  I also have sermon blog, on which I post my sermons each week entitled Words of Welcome.

The question is – how do I keep this in balance with my daily work as a pastor and my commitments to family?  That is a difficult question to answer, except to say I do my best to keep things balanced.  Much of what I write are reflections on theology and the daily news.  Sometimes I pick up political/social/cultural issues – usually after reading the news online.  I might pick up a point to comment on.  Sometimes it’s the comments made by my visitors that propels a series of blog posts.  I tend not to engage in too many conversations in the comments section, but instead, offer up a new post to further the conversation.  Blogging has also given me impetus to finish the books I read – especially the ones sent to me by publishers – so that I can offer reviews.  As you can see there is an untold amount of information to dig through, reflect upon, and comment upon.  There are times, when I have to really dig deep to come up with something, but that usually has more to do with where I’m at that day than it does with regard to my sources of information.

One of the things that a blogging pastor has to be aware of is the “employer.”  Rebecca,  in inviting me to offer this post, commented that I often pick up controversial issues.  That is true.  I’ve endorsed a candidate for President – noting carefully that I did so as private citizen and not as a pastor.  I’ve dealt with gay marriage, the death penalty, war, and even abortion.  If you’re a church member and you have access to the blog you likely know what I think about such issues.  Now, I have the advantage that the search committee – or at least some members of the search committee – had been reading my blog even as we were in the interview process.  They knew in advance that I took up controversial issues, that I was somewhat to the left on certain issues, and that I wasn’t afraid to express them on the blog.   When I was presented to the congregation, it was noted that I was a blogger.  So, even if you don’t agree with my positions, you know I do this.  That gives me a certain amount of freedom.  But, at the same time I try not to abuse that freedom.  My suggestion to prospective blogging pastors is simply to check it out with your leadership.  Let them know what you’re up to.  If they have concerns about what you write, then heed their warnings.

Not every pastor needs to have a blog, though having ways of utilizing the new media is important.  But if you’re going to do this, and do it right, you have to enjoy writing.  I write, because it’s part of who I am, and I’m thankful that I have this outlet to express my thoughts.  Hopefully over the course of time, I’ve become a better writer and more adept at sharing my thoughts clearly and as concisely as I’m able!   I will let my readers decide if this is true.

Preacher Bob 4-5-2009Bob Cornwall is Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church of Troy, MI, husband of Cheryl, and father of Brett.  He is also editor of Sharing the Practice  (Academy of Parish Clergy) and a regular contributor to the Christian Century blogTheolog.

Social Monday: Secrets of powerful blogging

By Christian Piatt

It seems like everyone’s blogging lately, and those who aren’t often feel left out of the loop and bewildered about the whole “blogging thing.”

Well, if it makes you feel any better, lots of people who are blogging are pretty close to clueless too. So here are a handful of tips to help you make more out of your blogging experience.

Know your purpose: Sometimes people blog simply as a glorified diary to jot down personal thoughts to share with friends and family. Others, however, are expecting the world to flock to their blog once it’s set up, and then wonder why they’re getting little or no traffic. So before you even start, try to define why you’re doing this. Is it to educate people about something on which you’re an expert? Is it to get them to visit your website, or maybe purchase something? Maybe you’re using it to build community. Whatever it is, know this from the outset and let this guide your content.

Know your audience: This is another one where people can often get tripped up. Just getting lots of traffic on your blog doesn’t mean it’s effective. You need to make sure you have in mind who you’re writing for, and where they can be found. Once you know this, your blog work will become more effective.

Select a blog host: Once you’ve done your initial homework, it’s time to pick where you’re going to host your blog. There are plenty of free hosting sites, but make sure the one you choose allows for keyword search (described more below), and has the capability to be integrated into your website if you have one (also explained more below). The most common hosts are WordPress, Blogger, Blogspot, LiveJournal and others. But more important than its popularity is whether or not the blog host can do what you need it to do.

If all you want is to create something for a select group, such as a church group, family or specific circle of friends, you’re pretty well set. However, if your goal is to draw in new readers, growing traffic from people you may not even know, read on…

Blog Search Engines: Sites such as Technorati, Blogsearch, Digg and Google Blog Search can help raise the “searchability” of your blog posts. This means that people searching online for the kind of content you are generating may stumble across you. There are plenty more search tools like this, but you want to make sure you’re in the big ones so the most people have the best chance of finding you.

Keywords or Tags: Any blog host worth using will offer the ability for you to add tags to each post. These are the key words people should use to find your post. For me, I always include my first and last name as well since, as an author, I want my name to be high in all search engines when they look for me. Make sure your tags are fairly common words, and avoid using words you think may grab some attention, but that actually have nothing to do with your content.

Active Links: Like in this post, you’ll want to offer direct links to things online to which you refer so readers can jump right to them. Folks get annoyed in the blogosphere if you talk about a resource, and then don’t give them the link right to it. Become a sort of portal of information, and readers will return to find out what else you have to say. This also doesn’t hurt your searchability, or Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Integrate into your website: This is where I’m a bit of a hypocrite, because although I recommend adding your blog to your website so people can directly read it from your main page, I have yet to do this myself! This can greatly enhance SEO for your site, and it also make for more of a one-stop shop for people to find all they want to know about you or your organization in one place. As an alternative, at least make sure you have direct links to your blog from your website, or even RSS feeds (Real Simple Subscription) so people can track your post activity.

Feeds: If you’re on Facebook or other social networking sites, look into the ability to add a feed to your page. This just means that you tell the site where to find your blog. Once you set up a feed, each new post will automatically show up on your Facebook page. For you authors, you can also add a feed to any book page on Amazon by you. Check out Amazon’s profile features for more on this.

Regular, reliable content: Last but not least, make sure you’re giving readers what they want and expect, when they expect it. Think about if you got your newspaper at different times every day, or if you opened it to find a new layout every time you tried to read it. Familiarity and predictability help lead to faithful readers, so keep this in mind when asking yourself, “is this blog-worthy?”

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 www.christianpiatt.com.

By Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is an author and new church planter in Pueblo Colorado with his wife, Amy. His podcast can be found on iTunes, or by visiting his website at www.christianpiatt.com.

When I first heard of podcasting, I thought it was pretty cool. Immediately, I went online and set up free subscriptions for way more of my favorite shows than I can reasonably listen to, but as a junkie for free information, I couldn’t pass it up!

How great would it be, I thought, if I could do my own podcast? But surely it’s way too complicated and time-consuming to manage myself, right? I had received a book on podcasting a while back, but I was too intimidated to get started. For months, it remained no more than a good idea in the back of my mind.

Then, because of a series of curious circumstances, I ended up with a credit of a couple hundred bucks at my local music store, which is a dangerous thing. I wandered the aisles for a while and came across a cabinet of digital recorders. The price tags ranged from $200 to $350 bucks, and given my experience with digital recording gear, I assumed these were mediocre gadgets at best.

Turns out that digital recording technology has come a long way both in quality and affordability. Next thing you know, I’m on my way home with a little portable unit, complete with built-in microphones, cables and headphones. At home, I did a few test runs, speaking and playing into the recorder, amazed at the quality of this little machine that ran off of four AA batteries.

Maybe this podcast thing is not such a crazy idea after all.

I got online and found links to Audacity, a free audio mixing software program. Surely, I figured, this thing is lame. I mean, who can get anything decent out of some freeware? But the more reviews of it I read, the more convinced I became that it could at least handle my basic needs.

Next, I’d need a host site – somewhere to put my podcasts online so people could find and play them. Again, after some browsing, I found Podbean, one of many podcast “hosts” who offer free basic packages to get you started. Like others, they charge for premium services and extra memory storage, but I could get started and see if this podcasting thing was right for me without signing up for some pricey membership.

As a fan of National Public Radio, I had a fantasy of making my podcast sound like “This American Life,” so I’d need some sound clips to break up the narrative. I found more than I could use in three lifetimes at FreeLoops.com and The Freesound Project.

Outfitted with all the necessary gear, now I needed some interesting content. I started by narrating a few chapters from my newest book project, followed by a memoir-style account of my own faith journey and some spoken word clips. But what about ministry? Could I use podcasting to get the word out about our church on a local scale, or maybe nationally? That’s when I put together the “Big Fat Jesus Head” series I did with my wife.

I was getting some decent traffic from friends and people I told about my new project on Facebook, but I wondered if there was another way to get my work in front of people who liked podcasts, but who might not know who I was. That’s when I learned about Podcatchers, which are online services that serve as a clearinghouse and search tool for the thousands of podcasts out there.

In a few months, I’ve gone from this podcasting thing being an intriguing but daunting idea to having almost 600 hits on my first handful of episodes. Even better, when people search my name on search engines, the podcast is yet another thing that pops up. My literary agent was thrilled too, because that book project she was promoting for me found a foot in the door when a publisher showed interest in listening to the first few chapters online.

Next steps include recording Amy’s sermons, archiving personal stories from members of our church, concerts and interviews with other activists, artists and various people of interest. Aside from being a great tool for non-readers to get your message, there’s something deeply personal about hearing someone’s story or message in their own voice.

Now that I got it going, I have to wonder why it took me so long to come around. Turns out even we tech-heads have our hang-ups about new technology. But like anything else, it’s just a new tool at my disposal and, once I learned how to use it properly, became another avenue for personal expression, publicity and connection with people regardless of place or time.

Even better, it’s broadening our circle of people who hopefully will get some benefit from the ministries we’re doing here in Pueblo. If what Amy preached about Sunday can help someone in Nebraska a month from now, it just extends the life and scope of our ministry.

If you ask me, that’s technology at its best.

To sign up for Christian’s E-newsletter, “Faith Portals,” visit www.christianpiatt.com, or email him at cpiatt@christianpiatt.com.

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 www.christianpiatt.com.

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 www.christianpiatt.com.

Some of you may have heard about this, or seen the AP article we posted on our website under “Offbeat News” about a church in Tampa, Florida encouraging married couples to have sex every day for 30 days, as part of Lent. They also challenged singles to do the opposite – abstain for 30 days. There’s much more to the story, and intrepid Ohio columnist, preacher and reporter Jeff Gill set out to investigate.

Jeff writes:

What the pastors are offering in their congregation, and to others who wish to participate over the internet, is a season that is clearly embedded in Lent, while not mentioning those 40 days and Sundays since their target audience is a largely unchurched bunch for whom Lent is something under the bed.

Read Jeff”s blog posting, which includes links to the church website and its downloadable Lenten study guide, here. Or a slightly edited version that appeared in the Newark (OH) Advocate here.

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