Supporting Individuals in their Pursuit of God


As I’ve said a bunch of times, we are Common Nonsense have been thinking about why we are doing any of the things we’re doing. There seems to be quite a bit of mileage in the line “Supporting Individuals in their Pursuit of God”. Me and Adrian have spoken lots about it and chatted other others in CNS and around CNS but I’ve been struggling with how to actually write any of this down. There is just so much to unpack:

  • What does pursuing God mean and how do we go about doing it?
  • What does it look like when we pursue other things than God? Is that bad and what does it mean?
  • Why Individuals compared to something else?
  • Does Common Nonsense count as a collection of individuals that need to be equally supported by common nonsense?
  • Who does the “supporting?” Is it Common Nonsense? Is it some new system? Is it just the church?
  • Is this just a line? Just some clever marketing, does it make any difference? Practically what impact does this tagline have?
  • If this is a big deal then why aren’t other people going on about it? Are other people going on about it? Have other Christian groups just got it wrong or are they basically doing the same thing and we’ve just wrapped it up with a new
  • Is this something Common nonsense has invented itself or is it based on something?

I think this tag line is based on a frustration with how churches and Christian organisations are acting at the moment. Time and time again I’m meeting orthodox committed Christians who feel that the church is just not the place for them. Meanwhile we’re working with lots of Christian organisations and whilst they do fantastic stuff they make mistakes and there seems to be a pattern. There is also a book by A W Tozer called The Pursuit of God which you can download for free which I think talks about one half of this.

So here are a couple of examples, pictures or stories that describe what excites me about setting “Pursuit of God” as the goal. I’ll then try and explain why the Individuals bit of the tagline is so important.

Being able to be nothing – and know that God loves me and that that is enough (Its not) – Job

A while back I tried to start my own company. Just as I was doing it a girl who I would soon be dating asked me “Why are you doing this? What do you want to get out of life”. She was a bit of a hippy and I felt like she was presenting me two options, one being the right option. A) “I am starting a business to make loads of money” B) “I’m starting a business so that I can help people” where B was the correct option.

Whether or not she actually thought that is irrelevant. That’s what I felt. It matters that we would soon be dating only to show that this question was not academic. I felt like my answering this question correctly was important to being socially accepted by her. This scenario is played out quite a bit in churches. The person might not be deciding on whether or not we should date but still the same thing of whether or not they will accept me in their social circles.

I responded that I wanted to be someone who could in theory be hated by everyone, a complete failure at everything I do, pathetic in every way alone on my floor and crying and then know that God loves me and that that’s ok. I said this a while back and one person jokingly mentioned that it seemed like I wanted to be like Job. I don’t know. I obviously don’t want all those things to happen to me! And I don’t know if “God loves me and that is enough” is quite what Job saw.

But what is interesting about this is that if I wanted to be successful, this method would probably work quite well at making me successful. Matt Stone and Trey Parker spoke quite a bit about how much bargaining power you get when you just don’t care. Anxiety about failure tends to encourage failure. There is a line from CS Lewis “Aim for the world and you’ll get nothing, Aim for God and you’ll get God and the world thrown in with it”. It was quite a useful thing to make me more successful.

I think the thing that is interesting to me here is how wrong I was!

“Know that I am loved by God and that that is enough”. It sounds too similar to the many many orthodox Christian who spend so much time focusing on salvation and nothing else. Or in the words of Tozer, “have been snared in the coils of a spurious logic which insist that if we have found him we need no more seek him”. I don’t want to know that God loves me… I, like Paul to the Phillipians, want to know God. Knowing that he died for me and knowing that he loved me are all part of that. But I can keep on knowing him more and more. Knowing that he loves me is just the start.

The rest of that journey is the continuing pursuit of God.

I am a friend of God – Moses, Adrian and Common Nonsense.

The Israelites had been marched out of Egypt after all the plagues happened and they had seen God do a bunch of pretty crazy stuff. They get to Mount Sinai and the leaders of the tribe went up with Moses. However in Exodus 20:

18 When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance 19 and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”

Moses went on and just hung out with God. He asked God to show him his glory. He got incredibly close to being truly in the presence of God. This is very cool and the Israelites missed out on this because they were scared. Instead they got a bunch of rules.

This has been something that we at Common Nonsense have been doing with our boss Adrian. Adrian spends time with God and then comes back from that as our boss and tells us what to do. The problem is that Adrian doesn’t really like telling people what to do, and would rather be just hanging out with God whilst we don’t really like being told what to do, its just we’re scared.

Is this because we’re terrible Christians and our boss is a uber Christian? Well I’ve already written a blog post about what a good Christian I am. In fact everyone at Common Nonsense has demonstrated a huge degree of obedience to God. This is the thing. Now I am not perfectly obedient. But I am obedient enough to know that obedience is great. But God gives us something more then the opportunity for obedience. In John 15

15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.

My mum’s favourite song for a while was “I am a friend of God“. Its a very silly song and just says “I am a friend of God” over and over for the chorus. However its exciting.

It is not that we are “bad Christians” and my boss is an “uber christian”. We are almost as obedient as each other. The difference is that whilst God has made himself known to all of us. We have been busy with simply obeying whilst my boss has gone further and been a friend of God. Obedience is the starting point, but we can go from blind obedience to knowing our master’s business! This is not something that is supposed to condemn us but is exciting. I love obeying God, but now I can obey him and more!

This is the answer to that previous blog post about me not belonging. Before I tried to obey God, and instead the move must be towards pursuing God.

Why wanting to build towers is ok – Babel, Abraham and Isaac

This is a question that has been bugging me.

Genesis 15 “After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:

“Do not be afraid, Abram.     I am your shield,[a]     your very great reward.[b]

But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit[c

What’s going on here?

God said to Abram that GOD was Abrams’ reward. And then Abram asks how can he receive gifts as he has no children to pass them on to? Hasn’t Abram completely missed the point here? Isn’t the gift God himself? So shouldn’t Abram be like “cool thanks God” rather then complaining? I don’t know the answer to this and I’m asking lots of people. But I do know that when Abram brings this question, this desire to have children and God answers him by promising him children. What is God doing?

(EDIT: Since writing this I have discovered that in both The Message and ESV versions this passage makes more sense as God says “You reward will be great”. Would be awesome if one of my hebrew speaking friends could shed light on this)

Later Tozer describes what happens to Isaac after he was born. “the child became at once the delight and idol of his heart”. I’m guessing we all know how that ended up!

See, Isaac was part of God’s plan. Isaac being alive and looked after by Abraham, and loved by Abraham was very much what an obedient Abraham was supposed to do. It was part of bringing about the Kingdom of God, it was part of bringing Jesus into the world it was part of everything. There is nothing disobedient about Abraham’s love of Isaac. But… even then this child became an idol that God dealt with by almost taking it away from Abraham. Tozer talks a bit about how that must have made Abraham feel.

Now I’m going to put this to one side for a moment and talk about Babel.

Building Towers of Babel in the Christian world

Adrian makes a big thing about Babel. He is very cautious about branding anything (Logos, company names, vision statements, websites) etc. As he believes that when you build an organisation, build a brand, build a tower of babel you get sucked in to maintenance mode. You get sucked into trying to maintain the organisation rather then instead pursuing God and what he wants. When you call the church “The Church of England” suddenly the reputation of that organisation and the structure matters. Christians spend days in pointless squabbles about nothing-doctrinal arguments or whether or not wafers matter to keep the unity of that organisation. Individuals in charities will be more likely to find ways to re-invent their charity rather then just let it go and let it die because its boring not needed any more.

He’s talked about this quite a bit and lots of people may agree with this but where do we go with this? Do we not make a company Common Nonsense and instead work as freelancers? Do we just keep our terrible website and smugly try and tell people its because we care about Jesus that we keep it like that?

What is wrong with building a tower of babel in the first place. There are two reasons. 1) because God knocked it down and 2) because the tower was never going to be that great. The first is what motivates most people, the second is more important.

See one thing a lot of mature Christians do, including Adrian. Is they will occasionally start telling you what it is they think God is doing or what it is they want to do. Then hold back. They go a little silent for a split second and then say “well I don’t really know, whatever God wants”. There is almost this thing where people are trying to trick God. Its like if Abraham regularly said “Hey God, this Isaac is pretty great but I don’t really care, you could kill him any one of these days as all I want to do is do what you want”. This is silly and being ok with killing your kids is not good.

This is the brilliant thing about “Pursuing God” rather then simply saying “Supporting Individuals who do what God wants”. Abraham’s journey included God stating at the very beginning the point of it all. “I am your reward”. It involved Abraham laying bare his desires to God and God giving him everything he wanted, then taking it way and humbling Abraham in a way that pointed Abraham back to the point of all this. But after this God still actually gave him what he wanted anyway! Abraham almost aimed for the world and got nothing but instead aimed for God and got the world thrown in with it.

We need to realise that when we try and create projects, churches, organisations, brands, businesses, etc. We are going to get tempted to focus on what Tozer calls “Things”. These things have the potential to distract us from focusing on God. This is scary and so some Christians run away from them, they run away from their desires and instead just talk about how they “just want to do what God wants”. I don’t know what it is we should do… but one thing we definitely shouldn’t do is hide those desires for things from God! Instead we can bring them to him and then we get to point 2.

The tower of babel wasn’t that great anyway! These guys got all excited building a massive tower but actually it can’t have been that tall. Our buildings are going to have been taller and we’ve put man on the moon! At some point those guys would have suffocated. Rather then build their tower they should have presented their desire “to build a massive tower” to God and then attempted to actually go all out.

If they would have gone all out they would have found that they couldn’t have done it without him. They would have also found that what they really wanted wasn’t a big tower but to “get to the heavens and make a name for themselves”. If they had just waited and got on team Jesus they would have actually got to heaven and made a much much bigger name for themselves (at least as part of the Church that has Jesus at the head).

John Piper’s “Desiring God” and John Eldreges’s “Wild at Heart” talk a lot about this.

As Christians we have the danger of pursuing good things of God’s kingdom above God himself. Of getting excited by evangelism itself, or preaching or healing. These things are good in themselves but putting them before God is Idolatry like any other and bad. However, despite this trying to pretend that you don’t care about these things and just care about God isn’t good enough either. You have to ACTUALLY pursue God like Abraham after he almost killed his son. Its ok to like things, just not put them before God.

Where this gets confusing – flirting with temptation or fleeing

The complication here is that if you take this line of reasoning to an extreme it gets dodgy and the question to get us there is ask the question “Should Abraham have avoided turning Isaac into his Idol? And if so would he have been able to avoid the whole sacrificing his Son thing?”

There is a danger here for this to turn into a pointless Calvinism verses Arminianism, free-will verses determinism debate. I want to avoid that and deal with the more human angle.

Pursuing God is scary. The Israelites were scared because they thought it would kill them. It sometimes leads us to areas of life that have the potential to trap us. I think as Christians what happened to Abraham is part of our fear to verbalise our desires. If we tell God that we really like Isaac then he’s going to take it away. If I tell people that I really want to get married, then God is likely to demand form us a life of singleness. I used to particularly feel like this with respect to preaching. I really wanted to preach and when I did I loved preaching but I constantly held back from asking to preach because I thought that if I did God would “humble me”. By humble me I really mean properly lay the smack down and humiliate me in front of everyone.

Even now, if a church leader asks me how I’d like to help in the church I’m much more likely to say “Stack chairs” then “preach”.

But pursuing God has to involve actually pursuing God himself and not a self-imposed stoic rejection of all things like some of the early monks.

So what I seem to be suggesting is that. Even though we know these things have the potential to become our idols. We OUGHT to go for them anyway. That people who spend their time trying to avoid sin do it out of a lack of faith in God’s ability to look after us. Where does this stop? Should I deliberately get naked with prostitutes, pay them and dance because I trust God is going to have dealt with my temptation for sexual sin? How does this reconcile with verses from Paul that ask us to “Flee the occult” or “Flee sexual immorality”?

End

So here are a couple of thoughts about pursing God that I’ve thought about. I think its more then my previous thing of knowing God loves me. Its something that Moses had on Mount Sinai and without it we have to resort to rules and “mere” obedience. Although obedience is important and included in knowing God its more then that. It is also something that is paradoxial involved with our own personal desires whilst simultaneously hindered by our desires.

Somewhere in all this will be spending time with God. There is something I’m worried about which is my lack of regular bible reading. I don’t want to get into legalistic daily quiet times but I think someone who is really into pursuing God will naturally find themselves getting into the bible lots.

I decided not to focus on the “individuals” bit. Probably leave that for another post but onwards!

Connecting the church around their personal passions

Connecting the church around their personal passions


Where are we going?

We at Common Nonsense have been working for a while on a couple of larger projects. However the end is getting in sight for these projects and there is a question of where we can go next and what do we want to do? There are loads of avenues that could probably be met with commercial success and more clients. This is quite cool but there is a second question we need to answer before we go ahead with it. Why are we doing this? What is the point? More money? More developers? More Clients? To what end? Ultimately our goal was broadly to use technology to help the church. So the question is for us, what is our vision for the church and how could we help it get there? There are two things that come to mind. One is practically something that is exciting for the near future and so I will try and write this one up in a little more detail. I’d love to see if there are people wanting to help out with this. The other is probably something that is more interesting in the longer term and I’ll just set the stage. The first is about connecting people across websites around their passions. The second is about connecting the church to those within the persecuted church.

What it is we do now.

For those of you who don’t know me that well, at the heart of what we have been doing technically is the Party module with Drupal. Drupal is a popular content management system but it is also a framework with which people can build websites. 2.1% of the web is powered by Drupal. It provides tools to make it easy to build web pages built around realistic data structures. If I am building a website that is reviewing theatre productions, I can do more then just categorise and tag the reviews. I can add what Drupal calls “Fields” such as a Date Field that says when the play took place. Another date range Field that tells you until when you’ll be able to see the play and other kinds of fields such as the directors, actors or writers. It then provides tools to lay this data out in lists or web pages.

Our Party module takes Drupal and turns it into something called a “CRM” system. This is like a glorified address book that collects information about people. Usually businesses use this kind of software to keep information about their customers and then use this information to market to a subset of their customers, etc. As organisations are predominantly about their people, whether its staff, stakeholders, customers or just people know about the organisation and make the brand happen, this kind of data is incredibly important. Drupal’s tools for building web pages suddenly become incredibly useful for building databases of users. The UI for adding fields to a review can be used to instead add other information about the people in your system such as their date of birth or gender. The tools for laying out pages and making lists can be used for reports on the people you work with or making workflows for managing those people. Drupal’s tools enable us to very quickly build workflows and user interfaces that show only the information the staff need to see whilst saving them time and being a joy to use (in theory!)

Because all these tools are open source software, as we develop our toolset it is going to be incredibly easy to scale this. We can use the same tools to help many different organisations. This can include Christian church networks or event organisation companies or individual churches or other forms of Christian ministries. We’ll be able to quickly provide many of these organisations tools to manage all the data on the people they interact with and save them time and money. The more organisations that sit on our platform the stronger it can become as other developers contribute both code and interesting ideas of how to use those tools.

This stuff is ok. Its the stuff of a commercial success. Saving people time and money means they will give us money. Us having money means we can pay more developers and expand faster making more money or better websites and tools which in turn make more money. But this isn’t really cool yet. It gives our business a means to exist but not a reason.

Connecting passionate people around the things they are passionate about.

Imagine a Facebook for the church.

Imagine all the things the people in the church might like. All the different groups or events that could spring out about it. I might be really excited by speaking to homeless people in manchester. Or really into youth work and online gaming or maybe I just want to battle out the theological questions of Calvinism verses Arminianism again in light of more philosophical developments. Maybe I really love apologetics and I have this cool new argument I want to try out and figure out if its any good or if its been done before. Maybe I hate apologetics and want to just go around the clubs in the cities handing out cheap flipflops to girls who have spent all night dancing in high heels and are now in a lot of pain. I could be someone who is passionate about evangelising to people walking in the park, or maybe praying for healing, or maybe prophetic. Maybe I really love the flower arrangement of the church and need to figure out how I can make them healthy without spending as much time watering them. I love working with kids but my tiny rural church really can’t fit the children that are signed up here or the youth in my youth group are from difficult backgrounds and are being quite disruptive  I want to give them a place to hang out and show them some of Jesus’ love but I can’t keep having things smashed up in my church.

Whatever you’re passionate about in the church, whatever problems you face or things you want to do about it. They all are vastly helped by being connected to the people who are similarly passionate about it. Those people may have already gone ahead and can give you support and advice or maybe they are in a similar position to you and would want to help you.

Now imagine why there isn’t a Facebook for church.

People wouldn’t gather around and do cool things together. They would fight! The Calvinists would continue to rip into the Arminians. The conservative evangelical christians would attack the  mainstream evangelical Christians on their approach to women in leadership who would attack the liberals who agree on that but disagree on the authority of the scripture who would then attack the Anglo-catholics on their attitude toward women in leadership who are in turn attacking the conservative evangelical Christians for their attitude towards Mary!

I could say that when 2 or more are gathered in Jesus’ name… there will be arguments but really even if a Church only contained one person you’d find that person bickering with themselves!

Distributed Social Networking

Our software is free open source software. As we expand our company more people will use it and then other companies may start using it for their projects. Everyone will have a similar platform. However they don’t have to agree on women on leadership to both use the same tools that help them quickly search through their database. Now, remember the Drupal fields? It becomes trivially easy with Drupal to add the field “What are you passionate about?” There could be an infinite number of things people might put as their thing as New Frontier’s found out. Suddenly every single church, Christian ministry or network could easily ask what the people they work with care about. That’s quite cool, that will probably be useful to them.

However imagine now you’re the individual who really cares about the homeless in Manchester. You might put that down in your church profile but maybe your church is quite small and whilst there are people who would be willing to help you if you badgered them enough, they aren’t passionate about it like you are. You find it frustrating because every time you read the bible you see God’s heart crying out for the poor but never see that in the Christians around you. The chances are you’d be willing to work with people who aren’t in your church. You probably don’t care about your colleague’s attitude towards predestination!

In fact I think I’ll assert this. The boundaries that the larger ministries and that the church leaders care about are rarely the same boundaries that an individual in the church cares about. This means that whilst the churches will probably not want to come together into one massive Facebook for churches the individuals within the church may want to connect with others around the things they are passionate about.

Enter Distributed Social Networking.

The Internet is really great at connecting information but computers are dumb. See if I go and look at a book on Amazon,  I am clever. I can know that the front page image is the front page of an actual book in real life that has the title as its book title and the name next to “author” as the book’s author. In fact it doesn’t take much thought to realise that a name is actually a name. For a computer this is really difficult. A computer just sees a bunch of arbitrary text and random images. There is no way a computer can know easily that those bits of data are related. RDF and the Semantic Web aim to change that. It provides little tags that tells computers what the data it is looking at is (a name) and how it relates to other bits of data (it’s the author of that book).

Combine RDF with a whole collection of organisations that store information about people’s passions and you have a potential distributed social network. See, as this information is (by choice) available to everyone on the Internet it means it is available to computers on the Internet. If its available to computers on the Internet a website could potentially collect all this information into one place. Bare with me!

Imagine an organisation that has a website including information about people. We’ll call this a node. Another website could read all this information and store it somewhere. It could read this information across multiple websites (Nodes) and aggregate them into one place. This one place could be a searchable website. We’ll call this website a Network. This Network could be a website that aggregates all people who are interested in homeless people across all the churches in the UK for example. It could aggregate every speaker who is interested in politics across all Christian events. It could aggregate every sermon preached on Romans 2 and spoken in Arabic.

The Networks don’t need to ask for permission to do this any more then a human needs permission to manually go to every website, write this information down in a notebook and then publish the notebook online. The website that has sermons on Romans 2 in Arabic could have sermons from Anglo-catholic churches and conservative evangelical churches even if those two churches wouldn’t naturally come together.

This is starting to get cool.

What it takes

Its hard getting lots of churches, organisations and ministries storing their data in a format where this would be even possible. That’s what we’re doing and we could do this anyway. Having their data on one common platform makes things cheaper for them. The second part, connecting this becomes much easier and this is what I’d like to put to anyone reading this blog. There are things that need to be done and so I’ll just list them.

  • Make it so that each node can output the data in a machine readable format (Trivially easy)
  • Make it so that each node speaks the same language! This involves creating what is called an RDFa schema. In the Amazon example we have the “author” of a book. There needs to be a common language for what the author is. I could potentially use the word “Writer” on one website and “Author” on another. A Network trying to collect this information wouldn’t know that Author’s and Writer’s are the same thing unless they both use the same language or someone tells them they are the same. This is interesting when dealing with books of the bible for example. Are Song of Songs and Songs of Solomon the same book for example? It doesn’t really matter which one you use, the only thing that matters is that everyone uses the same one..
  • We need easy to install packages for the nodes. A church website distribution on Drupal for example so that lots of organisations can easily install a similar package.
  • We also need some code for the network website. It needs to be easy to set up a website that pulls all this information and aggregates it but this has its own problems.
    • How will a network know which nodes to pull data from
    • How will it actually pull the data
    • How will it store and cache the data (if that is what it should do) and how does it know when to index the information? Will it just index the web like google does?
  • Currently I have talked about Networks as mere “Aggregators” but really we want to connect people. This presents more interesting uses of Distributed Social networking which is probably beyond RDF.
    • Can I have a discussion that is actually located on lots of sites? This conversation about Calvinism, can it be across lots of blogs that are talking about it? Something like Disquss but even more open then that. If someone comments on a post on the network (Such as the sermon on Romans 2 in Arabic). Is that comment stored on the Network? Or can a node pull that comment back from the network? Is the discussion some how spread across all these websites?
    • How about organising events across multiple churches? Maybe all the churches in New Malden can organise an event together? But then you need authentication and permissions to edit this event and there is the question of where the event exists? Which version of the event is the true event and which ones are copies?
  • An investigation into the inevitable privacy issues. How can you make it so that individuals have complete control over their own data whilst enabling all this cool sharing. How can you make sure that a 70 year old in the church may not accidently post something confidential that goes out to everyone?

Diaspora has tried distributed social networking. I don’t think its worked out well because Facebook is so much easier and people will always take the path of least resistance  This is why the Party module is so important. If churches are using the platform anyway for other things that make their life easier, they would become far more likely to opt into the cooler aspects of what we’re talking about here.

Conclusion

There is something really exciting about the Internet’s ability to connect people. There is something exciting about connecting the right people around the thing they are passionate about. There is a tremendous opportunity for this to happen if organisations are all already using the same platform to store data about people. This is hard though. Most websites that connect people do it by making sure everything is in one walled garden (Facebook, Twitter, Discussion Forums etc) and this is something that simply won’t work with the Church. I’ve outlined a technical way using RDFa and aggregators that could potentially connect people but we’re REALLY in the early stages of this! Currently we’re just focusing on building the tools to solve our client’s needs as they exist now. I’m really interested to see what others might think of these ideas and where they could go.

This is only starting to get cool. How can we make this really cool?

What I’m excited about.

I’m typing this in a different colour as this post is long and you can ignore it. I really like connecting people in the church for the sake of connecting people in the church. My boss is more interested in connecting people so that they can do something together to achieve something for the Kingdom. The focus is on people eventually doing something. What I’ve posted here is more along the lines of my boss’ interest. However my passion has always been about connecting people as the end not the means. This includes watching online communitites and MMORPGs and connecting people in the church across age groups, etc.

I have always had a real passion for reading about and praying for the persecuted church. I have done a few mission trips. A lot of the time the whole reason why that mission happens is just to show solidarity. Its really easy when you’re under persecution to feel alone in all this. Recently I read a book by Brother Andrew called Secret Believers. In it there was a letter from the Church of Afghanistan to the President of the US. They told of what it is like for them and asked for help from the Christian west. There was something so exciting by reading a letter penned by real Christians in that country.

Imagine if we built software that could connect the church and then if this software got into the hands of people who are under persecution. Imagine if I could talk to and pray with people in that church in a way that was completely safe and secure in a manner that things like the TOR network are trying to enable. Even in that book, one of the converts from Islam, who had to leave due to all his friends getting killed, ended up in a safe environment but still desperately wanted to connect with other converts from Islam. He did it through chatting on the Internet.

The technology is there to make this possible. It just requires buy in from the church. However, this is in my opinion, where we go from cool to awesome :)!

I want to work for Valve! (Or at least a company like them)


This weekend I got a little obsessed about Valve and watching Gabe Newell talk about stuff. The company structure is simply amazing. For this blog I’m going to assume you know about it but in summary they have a completely flat hierarchy. Gabe felt that hierarchy works really well for the military of any industry focused on getting as many people as possible to perform the same task as efficiently as possible (such as in factories). However he thinks it is terrible for creative industries and so they have implemented their corporate structure. It has strange consequences because no one is able to tell anyone else what to do so everyone focuses 100% of time on the projects of their choosing. They deal with hiring, salaries and bonuses through this kind of way. There are no departments as everyone has direct contact with the customers and so everyone can do art or sales or marketing or development or managment, etc.

Even new Valve employees have trouble getting their head around this. So here are some links:

Now getting that out of the way I’ve been thinking a lot about if Common Nonsense the company I work for could act more like Valve? Its an on-going thing but I thought I’d post yet another Facebook conversation.

Isn’t it amazing!!!! I’ve been spending the evening chatting to one of my programmers seeing if we could make our company like that… I don’t think we can within a consultancy business model. I think you need to sell products and you need to be privately owned

The problem with the consultancy model is the way information flows. I (or my boss) meet with my clients and consult with them and then my developers build the things I come up with my clients. This means my developers can’t easily know exactly why they are doing what they are doing and to some degree have to just do what they are told. Ultimately we can’t just do what is best for our clients, we have to do what we’re told. So we as a company are under their structure and therefore of the theoretical inefficiencies that come with our client’s being managed internally hierarchically (according to valve’s economist in the above link)

In order for the information to fully flow either I’d have to essentially repeat every meeting I have with the clients, to all the developers or every developer would have speak to the client directly. Agile Software Development methodologies such as Scrum do a lot to get around this (which we do use) but they are no way near as cool as what Valve are doing.

This is particularly clear when looking at the way Valve focus heavily on quantitative testing of everything they do. As Gabe says, anyone can explain retrospectively why something didn’t work and so they put a lot of pressure of people coming up with quantitative tests before you do something. 

What this means is that every single individual in the company can do what is the best ultimately for their customers. This is because They have access to all the data they need to understand all the information they need to make the right decisions. This data may exist in someone’s head but they can sit next to them.

Now it might be possibly if our clients were ok with it to do something like this. But Gabe talks a lot about how its quite hard to adapt to valve’s way of working and so we’d have to have that struggle with every one of our clients and essentially force them to think differently about the way they make desicions!

The advantage of a consultancy model is that cash flow is really not a problem. I get paid for every hour I work and so we haven’t needed any start-up money. Now if we switched to a product business model we’d probably not make any money for quite a while. Gabe had made millions with Mike Harrington so he could self-fund the company. I don’t have millions and so would probably have to seek investment so that we were owned by someone who didn’t directly work for the company. It would be possible to pull this off but much more difficult.

(oh yeah the final thing! Is the pricing structure of consultancy. We’re not paid to provide value, we’re paid to work hours. At valve they encourage you to rest and chill out (and so does my boss) and what that means is that creative people may only work for a couple of hours in a day but it works if those 2 hours provide tremendous value. However, although we aim to provide that kind of value to our clients because we’re not doing it for the money. Our pricing structure discourages this and encourages us to just work hours because thats what we get paid to do. Even worse, if I sit around and come up with an amazing idea with lots of value, it might get lost on our clients because if they haven’t paid more for it they may not value it and so they may not use it.

I’ve spoken to people in the software world who complain about this and try and switch to a value based pricing structure rather then time based but so far I haven’t seen anyone suceed)

So there you go! Maybe if Common Nonsense were to move away from pure consultancy it could work? Maybe there is a way to get close to Valve with a consultancy model? Maybe Agile is kind of close?

Why I’m excited by Drupal and the Church


This is another e-mail that I thought could become a blog post

Drupal and the Church in the UK

Looking at Drupal specifically many UK christian organisations are standardising around Drupal. HTB use it and employ Drupal developers, Spring Harvest use it, CCK (Church of Christ the King, big New Frontiers church in Brighton) are using Drupal more and more now. Meanwhile we’re working with New Wine and Soul Survivor (Disclaimer: whilst we are a Drupal shop, just because we’re working with them, it doesn’t mean they will use Drupal for everything . What Standardising on one technology enables churches to do is share their innovative ideas. Sharing ideas means that technology can become inter operable and achieve a greater reach and scale.

Sharing innovations on one platform

Trying to convince people to work on one platform is difficult. But that is already happening. Also everything we build we open source. Now we’re snowed under with our work on New Wine at the moment so I don’t know what the future holds for us. But hopefully when we’re less snowed under we can put effort into marketing the open source stuff we’ve done. This means the other organisations that are just using Drupal already could potentially just “slot it in” to their website.

For now we’re dealing with stuff that will probably only help larger organisations. We have a piece of work coming up to build a site that helps Sutton pray more (an area outside of London). It’s for a group that are working on increasing prayer in Sutton (linking lots of organisations and churches in that area) but the website will include a public prayer wall and a “adopt a street”. (like this http://prayadoptastreet.net/).

Now this stuff already exists but by using Drupal’s modular nature any other website that uses Drupal can just put it on their website with almost no hassle. Currently it requires a developer with a bit of Javascript and Google Maps API knowledge to do. This is exciting because by putting these tools in the hands of non-techy people they can do things we couldn’t imagine. Long term with Drupal 8 we can have better cross-site communication. So Churches could have their own “adopt a street” working alongside other church websites.

This is really small but lots of small things like this has a huge potential (methinks).

Prophecy, God and technology

The thing my boss is really excited about investigating as well is combining IT with the prophetic. We haven’t really figured out how to communicate this because its not something you can say, its more something you demonstrate. I mean, you can say it, but its so easy to say “I’m a christian company making money from christian organisations and I want God intimately involved in our work”. If you say that to christians and they believe you, you’ll make money out of it which instantly means saying it means less.

However, there is something exciting behind it. I’ve heard from both my dad and boss how they have had times when they have tried to solve a bug in their code. They had spent ages sorting through it but finally they decided to do a quick nehemiah style “arrow prayer” and after praying almost instantly found the answer.

Also technology is kinda like a language. A chunk of code is one way that ideas can be communicated between people and organisations. Prophets aren’t about control and telling people what to do because God said so. They just need to tell people and let the church choose whether it listens or not. Technology has something that is analogous.

For example we could tell a church “You should give away all your sermons for free”.

Or we could work with a bunch of churches that went to sell sermons. We could build resource and sermon libraries that you can use that allow you to categories  find and share all your resources. We can build it as a shop with a private area, subscriptions or pay per sermon and because its Drupal any church website already using Drupal can just use it.

But with the press of a button in configuration those churches can go from charging to using it all for free.

In the olden days where making more tapes or CDs cost money it was easy for churches to justify making a little bit of money on the side. When it costs them no extra to give away their talks to more people for free it changes the question from “Why do I have to give everything away for free” to “Why shouldn’t I give it all away for free?”

At no point are we dictating to churches how they should act. That church that wants to sell anything is welcomed to do so. If they use our software or pay us to do it, we would only be building the things they want. We wouldn’t use their time and money to make it easy to give things away from free. But because this is open source software we don’t have to. The functionality just has to exist out in the community (either built by us or someone else in their spare time or paid for by another church) for this to be true.

This means the things we choose to build and release could potentially impact the church. This means that every piece of code we write needs to be treated with utmost respect in terms of listening to what God wants us to do. Whether I’m running a prayer meeting for the city or writing a payment processing module for Drupal, they both have the ability to impact the church positively and both need God involved in it…

Anyways…

This is a work in progress. I’m guessing most of what I’ve said is complete rubbish and I’ll have to think about it a bit more and see where I’m wrong. Also I’m not trying to convince you of anything! But thought it might be a fun rant to read if you have a bit of a computer science background.(Disclaimer: I’m not very good with the prophetic stuff. I do what I can to listen to God but I couldn’t pin point what ideas in my head belong to me or belong to God or whether that distinction is even helpful for me. So this is another area where this rant might be wrong as I probably need to explore these ideas more)

Creating a Platform


After reading the blog of Esther Rose Stewart I have been inspired to once again attempt to continue this blog every friday. Today its about software and next week I’m hoping to have something written about Heiddegger and Jesus, though the plan is to keep these blogs much much shorter.

I’ve read an awesome rant by a Googler ranting at Google+, the article I read is here: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/10/13/google_does_not_get_platforms/ and it has a link to the actual rant below. Its pretty exciting but I haven’t figured out if I’m just excited due to my own personal extreme arrogance. I’ve been told that pretty much every philosopher with their own idea tends to try and argue that their idea is something Aristotle said all along. Even if they are completely contradictory, I don’t know if I’m just reading into this post what I want but it really feels like this post reflects a “I told y ou so” to the world, it fits in with what we at the tribes online are really excited about.

That is, the importance of building an accesible platform for the church.

Now that we’re actually starting our business and business problems like, being able to pay rent are popping up we’ve had to put loads of effort into side projects. This is building small websites just to earn money, writing summaries of work for companies that ultimately we don’t intimately care about and building drupal modules to see where it goes. One thing we’ve spent quite alot of thought hours into is our killer app. What is it that we’re doing that will truly provide value? We don’t have to provide much, just enough value that someone will pay us to be able to sleep and eat!

In this article he talks a bit about killer apps. Steve mentions that Facebook’s killer app is its wall and profile. But says that the long term success of Facebook is not the app, its not a good product, its the fact its on an awesome platform. Anyone can make a wall on a profile, I could put together a facebook profile clone in about 10 minutes using Drupal but it won’t have anywhere near the success of Facebook. Its partly because of the huge user base but its also because of the platform. Facebook did not have to predict Mafia Wars or Farmville, as steve puts it, they just make it so other people can come up with their own ideas.

Whilst we spend our time looking at how we can make money, or looking at our killer app that will fuel our platform, or as we talk to the various church networks and churches we’re talking to. There is still the initial vision in site and the world hasn’t changed enough to not need our vision. Our vision is that when we were 14 and 16 building a little discussion forum for our church, we wanted to do it as part of something. We wanted to find tools already working with churches that we could use. And when we turned a “Like” button on our forum into an “Amen” button and discovered a really cool way to take our spirituality online, we wanted someone to tell about it.

There are still plenty of questions though:

  • Everyone wants to be a platform, but how do you actually attract developers? Is the church ready for this?
  • What does the platform do? Amazon’s platform is its computing ability, Apple is that loads of people use iphone, Facebook is a huge connection of users. What are we sharing? Code? Connections? Data? Ideas? All?
  • We need to remember Canal Mania, Railroad Mania and the dotcom bubble, we need to be able to use our own platform and get that killer app.
  • How open is this platform? Is it a fully distributed network of websites? Is there a central server with APIs? Is it just some code? Is it just the ideas?

Connecting people to people


This was posted here: http://groups.drupal.org/node/98199

A friend of mine linked me to this article:

http://www.goodmanson.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/websitewisdom.pdf
where the website is http://www.goodmanson.com/church-technology/the-truth-about-church-websites-and-effective-online-outreach/

One thing that is interesting there, is that on the second page near the top of the second column, 39 percent of people said that the feature they wanted most from their church website (which I’m assuming they don’t already have) is “connect with other members”. Personally this is one of my pet peeves about church websites. They all seem to be “online brochures”. Either boring understated brochures such as church in the UK or really big flashy brochures as they tend to be in the US but brochures non-the less*. I’ve seen lots of good use of advanced web technologies to connect people with the paster/leader/vicar such as sermons, blogs etc. But very little for new comers to a site to connect with actual people in the church.

The article talked about people requesting the ability to pray online. When I set up a youth website the online prayer board became the most successful aspect of our site. We had a fairly large group of 14-18s (about 90 ish) and at that age it was invaluable having an ability to post anonymous prayers (though moderated) at any point in the week, exactly when you needed it. Around exam time there were plenty of posts at early hours of the morning! (though perhaps advice on the uselessness of late night-day-before-exam revision was needed :S). This fits with a feature that actually connects people with other people in the church (rather then just the pastor, or just a brochure).

We’re planning on creating a drupal church distribution / work with install profiles (yes I know, another one! I’ve heard of plenty of other attempts). We’d be aiming it at the UK market which I feel will need to be less flashy then then the idea outlined by Geeks and God. Currently working with a couple of churches including one church that wants to find novel ways of connecting a congregation with its overseas mission partners.

However one worry I have despite this research is that of control. The Church is famously lead by people who like control over stuff generally. It’s also famously very involved with its own image. Many times I’ve watched American comedy programs where they show a clichéd Christian anti-abortionist teenage that might also be head of an abstinence society in their school. They then show this person having sex to point out some kind of hypocrisy. Whilst this is sometimes similar to the Pharisee and teachers of the law Jesus attacked, the reality is that this shouldn’t be shocking. Christians are Christians because they KNOW they are sinners! So it shouldn’t be shocking when Christians are found sinning as that is what they are. If anything those that feel they don’t need Jesus ought to be morally superior to us admitted sinners! (I realise this is an over simplification 😛 CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity deals with this topic better then me.

However, the reality is if a church leader allows new comers and people outside the church to connect with the human beings inside the church. Not only will they have less control, they are allowing people to connect with a sea of sinners. Will this be a problem? Will it be embarrassing to come across a church prayer wall and find the inevitable prayers of those addicted to internet pornography and trying to over come it?

So there are a couple of questions. Will people find it difficult allowing the lack of control that comes from connecting people to other real people?

If people do find this difficult is this something that we’d want to fight (As in fight for people to connect to real people despite the problems of control)?

I post it here because if there is ever a piece of software that will successfully connect humans with humans on a smaller scale, I feel like Drupal is the only way, much more then bespoke systems (even if they are open-source)

*I’m British and I don’t mean that as an attack. I quite like boring understated stuff. I heard an interested documentary about the American view of the famous British show Countdown. They couldn’t understand why we’d have a actual personal Carol Volderman literally picking the numbers on some card rather then computerising everything.

Opening up the church


I’ve talked previously about how we are trying to do for churches what facebook is trying to do for the world. One idea I want to investigate into is how we can open up the church in the same way. The important words that I want to investigate into here is that I want to dilute the control of the church whilst maintain authority. Like everything else, we want to do this through experimentation and case studies so that this view is encouraged and not forced.

Here is an example of how the church can possibly benefit from this using technology and a fairly controversial example – Homosexuality.

The story

I attended a church that was more conservative on the issue of homosexuality. They believe that the biblical text suggests that homosexuality is a sinful act that ought not be practised. Regardless of your personal opinion on the matter I think this is a clear example of where authority is important. The pulpit is not supposed to be a place for random arbitrary opinions, it is not like the comments section of a newspaper. Authority is not about control but it is about trust. If someone is in a position of authority in the church they can be challenged in the same way that the Apostle Peter was challenged by Paul over the issue of eating with gentiles. However, someone in authority is trusted to treat their position with respect and know that people trust them. So in this conservative church, whenever someone in authority preached about homosexuality and the bible, it tended to be negative. I think this is right. I think you can disagree with that whole church and suggest reasons why homosexuality is o.k. But for the church that has made its stance it makes sense for the preachers to “tow the party line”.

However, one person from the church told me that they were proud that they had never let a gay person in their house. Now this person wasn’t particularly horrible and with all the controversy and media attention I personally think it understandable how this person reached their position. Unfortunately, this is not the position the church would want to encourage (this is important, what is interesting here is not that I agree or disagree, or really what you the reader thinks, it is interesting because even this church would not agree with their attitude). But isn’t this to be expected if homosexuality is talked about in a negative light all the time? Even saying “They are sinners but we should love them” isn’t a positive attitude to have to an actual person (It can be but isn’t inherently in that sentence).

Also at this church was someone who worked in the fashion industry. Many of this guy’s colleagues were gay. In a conservative church environment it was interesting hearing this guy’s opinion on the topic of homosexuality. It was essentially that he quite liked his gay colleagues and specifically it was much easier being a Christian in this work environment compared to say a London banking job heavily involved with alcohol and macho-ism. What is interesting here is by speaking to this friend I could get an insight into his attitude towards a bunch of people. His statements were neither agreeing nor disagreeing with all the controversial issues of homosexuality. They weren’t statements of doctrine on gay bishops nor attitudes towards policy regarding gay marriages. They were simply one human being’s attitude towards another and I think these attitudes are invaluable. (Both of them, the more homophobic christian brother and the more accepting, they are both part of the church here).

Now, if you disagree with the authority in this case. (The doctrine of homosexuality this church excepts) then this story won’t go far.  You would still have to go through the normal channels of arguing about doctrine, campaigning in church communities, writing articles, etc. However, this story highlights something I think is important. The reality is that you can leave authority exactly where it is. Good Doctrine will help but it will not ultimately change your attitude. Understanding that Racism is wrong and that all people are created in God’s eyes will not fully stop you crossing the road when you see a hooded black teenager. The reality is you need to interact with people, you need to spend time with gay people or black people to truly influence your attitude to them.

Authority can stay where it is. We need something more, we need something from the Christians who aren’t necessarily in authority. This is what impacts the church today anyway and will continue to. We need to encourage this and help people connect with it and in doing so we will open up control. If I am able to connect with more people in the church on an issue such as racism or homosexuality, then the person in the pulpit will still have authority, but now less control over exactly what I think. Fortunately for us the church already has a method of this, anglicans like to call it “the peace”.

On-line testimonies – blogs

Now the important thing about this company is that we are not creating new churches. We are merely facilitating and encouraging the good things that are already there. In the church life we already have something that moves complete control from the leaders of the church but allows the leader authority – that is testimony. If at a baptism someone stands up and explains their testimony and they tell you something scripture told them, it is normal in the church to enjoy this whilst not believing this person to be an authority on the subject. Similarly when Christian books are read about people’s lives they are read in a different manner to a book of theology or doctrine. In fact one way of wording “testimonies” is just “getting to know the impact of God on the lives of Christians around you” and probably the church would have benefited from the two people in my story just sitting down and chatting about their lives. This is great.

However, how do you personally meet up and get to know about the lives of everyone? Even if your church only has 50-100 people let alone 900 it gets difficult. Some churches have tried having “testimony” sections in the service for maybe 10 minutes where christians in the church just tell stories about what God has done in their lives that week. This is quite cool but is also daunting and sometimes there are particular stories you just don’t care about.

So a simple way to do this is to use blogs! If we could get a church of say 100 people and manage to get every person to blog maybe once a year. That is 100 awesome testimonies about their lives and God that I would have access to. Secondly, I had a friend who wanted to go into fashion design and another who wanted to become a model. How cool would it have been if they had known there was an old, experienced Christian working in that industry in their own church they could have spoken to? So here are some conclusions from this:

  • Fellowship. We can all read blogs of well-written Christians online and using wordpress.com! The tribes on-line is about connecting the thoughts and eventually the people within the church to each other.
  • Accesibility We need to develop ways to make it incredibly easy for anyone to blog. We could try a bunch of things, intergrating blogs with e-mail, automatically giving blogs to everyone who signs up, have pieces of paper that people can write out and submit like they might do anyway if they were going to give their testimony during a service.  We don’t need an army of regular bloggers, but we want as many individual people blogging. Its not the number of articles but the number of people that provide diversity.
  • Relevance – We then need to develop clever methods of making it really easy to connect people. WordPress.com does this tremendously well. Depending on my categories and tags I can sometimes get total strangers reading this, we need to find out how to do this within the church. Maybe my fashion friend would have tagged his post? Then maybe other modelling friends would have tagged their profile with being interested in fashion and things would have popped up?
  • Importance – We need to test and investigate this with case studies. We need to find real life solutions to real life problems and examples of them rather then the more theoretical post I’ve written today. Once we have these stories of how the web actually did connect the fashion designers to those in the industry and how that went, then we will be able to show the church why blogging just once or twice in your life time is worthwhile.
  • Same Authority – diluted control – These blogs will never be the authoritative opinion of the leadership in the church. This does not dilute authority. But the blogs will remove some control. The leader of the church will have less control over the total image of the church because the blogs will represent the genuine thoughts of the individuals that make up that church. Some will be scared of this. Well with our software if you’re scared you just turn off “multiple blogs” and it is fine! But hopefully once our wiki gets going we will have a lot of stories of why it is worth the risk.