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.

What I am up to!


So I think as of September 1st my life will officially start. I thought I’d write a post about what I’m up to now and what I’m planning for this year.

So firstly I have a Job working at http://www.heidmar.com. This is a shipping company that is part-owned by Morgan Stanley. I currently have a low-level IT Job in their UK office in London. This includes doing basic stuff such as fixing printers and installing new machines and general office admin but also some more advanced stuff working with Microsoft Sharepoint. Every month I will work for one week (so 5 days) which will be fantastic as most of the stuff I absolutely need to do there is fairly mindless. You need someone with some IT knowledge to, for example, upgrade a computer to Windows 7 but once I’m started I have to pretty much repeat the same stuff over and over. Whilst the stuff that I will end up doing a bit off, (Sharepoint) will be more mentally taxing, this helps me work on what I will be doing for the next 3 weeks a month back in Manchester (So yes I will be commuting!)

The Tribes Online

I will be starting a company that will build a website building package for Churches. Currently most church website are like “Online Brochures”. They tell you largely static simple one-way information such as the service times, the location and who works in a church. They will sometimes be pretty and sometimes look ugly (Which is usually the only measure of a “good” website) in a similar way to brochures. The power of the internet is not in publishing but in communication. E-mail is by far the most successful Internet technology and wikipedia is much more succesful then the old Encyclopaedia Britannica. Wikipedia provides a community that can collaborate to build content, whereas the old Encyclopaedia merely published information. I want to provide churches with the tools to build a website that harnesses the power of the Internet for internal church communication.

Throughout this year I will be learning how dynamic websites are built and laying the foundations of our company for a friend of mine called Robert Mumford to join me next year when he has finished his computer science degree at Manchester.

What will this include?

I will be building up this blurb so this is just my first draft! However we’ll provide many tools to help connect a church internally. Throughout the weeks I will blog about these features in more detail.

  • Website building package:- We won’t build websites for people. We will build a piece of software that allows people to easily set up their own websites without too much technical knowledge. This is similar to wordpress.com and we will be building on top of a package called Drupal. This package is great because it is really easy to build on top of and modify. There are a bunch of well-known websites that use it including bbc, whitehouse.gov and htb.
  • Totally free:- This software is “Free and Open-source Software” (FOSS). This means not only will it cost no money to download and use but users of our software can also see all the code. This means geeky members of churches that know how to program can help get involved by developing the solutions to their church problems themselves and then submit that code back to us so that it becomes part of the package. This means that if our software becomes succesful there is a potential for hundreds of people to be involved in making this great. The rest of the community call this “Free as in Beer and Free as in Speech”. The Google Android phones are based on linux, this is an example of software that is FOSS.
  • Dynamic:- The big issue I have with churches is that the content is one way. We want to build software that allows churches to communicate with each other more effectively. So obvious ideas include allowing people to ask questions and comment on all the sermons that are posted up? Or maybe have online prayer? Or maybe having a youth group where people can all write their own apologetics like with CARM?
  • Communities:- Dynamic websites like Facebook help communities to form. However churches already have a community… it’s the church! This software is aimed at helping connect people already within the church to other people within their own real-life community.
  • Collaborative:- This word is what Microsoft Share point is aiming at. Getting people to work together on things. We want to build tools to help volunteers and staff to work together on projects effectively. This means church members could collaborate and work together creating fantastic youth weekend-aways or we can enable multiple staff members to collaborate easily on one contact database? Or Church-wide calendar that helps all the staff know what is going on?
  • Company:- The software is free. But I think that many churches will not have the time to set up and maintain their own website. They might not have a technically minded congregation member to manage basic things like setting up a webserver, or maybe they do have one but that person just doesn’t want to give up their free time doing what they do throughout the week. For those people (and others) we’ll set up a company where people can host their sites with us or pay for support contracts on maybe a monthly basis. This should fund the development of the product. It is a similar model to that of Canonical (the company behind Ubuntu) and Acquia that is behind Drupal.

Here are some examples of features we might implement.

  • Pretty publishing tools – So people with no IT skills can edit the pages the are responsible for in a similar fashion to Microsoft Word.
  • Online Address Books – Can be built into a tool that will manage the congregation generally.
  • Rota organisation – Band Rotas, Choirs or even Teas and Cofees
  • Event management – Including pretty looking Calendars, both random events and things like Sunday Services.
  • Resource Libraries – Sermons, Videos, Articles or Bible Studies
  • An Internal Church focus- It would be easy to advertise ourselves as “The Facebook for Churches” but really we’re not aiming for that. We’re more the Microsoft Sharepoint for churches, which is much less catchy! Facebook is powerful because everyone is on it. We don’t want to do this nor need to. There already exists mychurch.org or ukchristians.net and online versions of specific features of our future software. For example, you can easily go online and find “Prayer Wall” websites and watch people pray. Our software though is about empowering an individual church. We want to take a community of human beings that already exist and help use technology to build those real-life relationships. Our software will help people already praying with each other to connect more easily, regularly and closely. We will not be satisfied if we just build clever technology, these solutions need to grow the church in real-life. We’re here to supplement and encourage, not replace the church!

How will I go about achieving this?

  • Software  – We’ll be working on Drupal
  • A Wiki / Community – It is easy to get excited by technology that looks good but serves no real purpose. So we want to make sure that our software is built by starting with problems that exist within the church already and trying to solve it with technology. If a paper phone book does the job we don’t want to replace it just for the sake of it but solve internal church problems that have not been currently solved. So to do this I want to create a wiki, this will allow people with no technical skills to be involved in designing and developing the solutions in plain-english, so programmers can turn those ideas into a reality. Then we want to use this wiki to provide documentation so people with very little IT skill will be able to use our software effectively.
  • A Company – The software will be called “The Tribes” and the company will be “TheTribesOnline.com” handling the commercial side of things whilst .org will handle the free side of things.

So back to my life

Sorry if this is a bit of a mess. I’m still working on the best method of communicating these ideas! So I’ll go back to talking about me. The reason why I’m particularly excited by this work set up is because I have enough money to live on provided by my Heidmar Job so I can focus quite heavily on the church stuff for some time to come. However, these jobs also compliment each other fantastically. Whereas Heidmar will exclusively use Microsoft products that churches probably can’t afford and I will be using free opensource software. Many of the concepts that I am trying to get into the church are there in Heidmar. Heidmar will require their websites to look good, be intuitive to use and have good documentation. Heidmar need a website that helps facilitate good collaboration. So although a feature of Sharepoint (such integration with Outlook) will not be ported into my Church work, answers to questions such as “What does a user want to see on their homepage?” are useful to both.

I’ve had my first week of working on this stuff. For now I’m mainly learning lots (including how to programm a little!) but its been fun so far.

Starting down a new path – Drupal and the church


So, I’m in the middle of doing an essay I really don’t want to do. We’ll see if this is just procrastination talking but I’m starting to feel like doing a Masters is not what I want to be doing. I want get started on the real stuff I always planned to do after the masters, a year earlier.

I really feel there is a gap for good church website building software that is opensource that could compete with the propriety software such as City and churchinsight. I think that software like that is fine and certainly morally defensible from a Christian standpoint. However, Open Source software and the community around drupal is just so much cooler and imo so much powerful in a community like the church.

Once this essay is in I’ll start blogging a bit more with how things are supposed to go.