The Unseen Congregation

The Unseen Congregation

by John Partridge

You might have noticed that I’ve been trying something new.  It’s not totally new, but I’ve been trying to do it more consistently.  What is it?  I’m trying to remember that our entire congregation isn’t sitting in the sanctuary but is gathered, collectively, online as well as in the pews.  I read an article recently that resonated with me when it said that those of us who were livestreaming should address those online as if they were present.  The goal is for us to make those on-line feel as if they are included as participants in worship and valued members of the congregation and not just watching church on television.

For most of us, the online part of our ministry is invisible and that’s why I have sometimes given a statistical summary at the beginning of the year.  With all the busy-ness of Covid I didn’t do that last year, but I think that it’s still an important reminder that our ministry is larger, and spread wider, than just the people that we see in church on Sunday morning.  That has been true since I first started posting sermons online in 2008 or 2009, has been growing in importance ever since, and grew even more as everyone went online during this pandemic.  Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about:

In January of 2018, Christ Church had 172 “followers” on Facebook.  By 2021 it was 228, and this past year it grew to 248.  By internet standards this is still a small circle of influence, but it reminds us that whenever we post sermons, or announcements, news, photos, or anything else about our church, there are more people watching than we might think.

The same is true of our Sunday morning messages.  As I mentioned, I have been posting the text of those messages since 2008 or so, and tracking subscribers since 2009.  In October of 2009 a 3 (three) people downloaded a Sunday sermon, but today that number has grown to almost 700 per month.  Subscriptions to those messages have grown from 333 in December of 2019 to 411 today.

And that brings us to our YouTube livestream.  When COVID-19 started, we were dumped headfirst into the world of online worship.  We didn’t have time to prepare, and we all thought, at the time, that it would all be over in a few months.  For both of those reasons, we didn’t take the time to launch a new YouTube channel for Christ Church, but instead just used the one that I already had.  We “launched” online worship with the six (yes, 6) subscribers that my channel already had for my random rocket, railroad, and travel videos.  Since that launch, I almost never use my channel for anything other than videos for Christ Church, and our subscribers have grown from 6 to 86.  Over the course of 2021, more than 1300 computers watched videos on our channel and the people sitting at those computers watched a total of 857 hours of video. 

It’s clear that there are a great many “invisible” people behind computer screens who are increasingly connected to Christ Church.  Statistically, visitors will connect with a church online before they even consider stepping foot in the door physically, and some of those online visitors do indeed come inside.  We’ve already brought some of them into membership.  But our reach goes beyond Alliance, Ohio.  We know that some of those who watch our services on YouTube are shut-ins, medically fragile, Covid cautious, former members, family members, and others out of town, and out of state that want to stay connected.  But a measurable percentage of visitors to our YouTube channel were from India, and the people reading those sermon texts this past year were from the United States, Canada, India, Ireland, Philippines, Australia, Ghana, United Arab Emirates, South Africa, Pakistan, China, Slovakia, United Kingdom, Kenya, and 37 other countries.

I have often explained that posting sermons online was entirely accidental.  I started copying, and eventually posting, sermons because I type a manuscript rather than trying to preach from a handful of bullet points on a three by five card.  I do that because I’m a better writer than I am a preacher, and because I’ve never had the confidence to preach from a handful of notes.  I have never taken credit for whatever success (however limited) we have had online.  The credit has, and should, always be given to God.  In Isaiah 55:10-11, God says:

10 As the rain and the snow
    come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
    without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
    so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
    It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
    and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

That is exactly what we are seeing as we continue to grow our presence online.  God is at work, through us, spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ in Alliance, Ohio, and around the world.  I hope that all of us will be mindful that there is an “unseen congregation” worshiping with us each week.  Our worship, and our ministry, reaches far beyond those of us who sit in the sanctuary.

Isn’t God awesome?


Pastor John

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The Power of Systems Integration


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The Power of Systems Integration

January 23, 2022*

By Pastor John Partridge

Nehemiah 8:1-10

Luke 4:14-21

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

Have you ever heard of systems integration?

As an engineer, it’s a term that is familiar to me, but even if you aren’t familiar with the term, you have seen its power in several ways.

Armies in combat once used flags, trumpets, drums, or sent runners with messages to coordinate their movements.  Then came carrier pigeons, then wired telephones, then radio, and each advance made a nation’s military stronger because its parts could work together.  Today, technology is making it possible for military units to not only communicate, but to literally see what other units, aircraft, drones, and even individuals are seeing.  The radar of a forward observer can appear on the map of an aircraft carrier or an airborne command center so that other planes can be sent in support or rerouted to avoid detection.

Similarly, although our railroads have been using computers for decades, I read an article this week that explained that some of those railroads are now going a step further.  Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific, and CSX have agreed to integrate some of the information on their computer systems so that shipments traveling across the country can be tracked by customers, in real time, so they will know where their shipment is, and when they will be expected to pick it up.  The hope, and the expectation, is that this integration will make the transitions between railroads faster and more efficient, reduce congestion at port facilities, and improve customer satisfaction.

And of course, we all understand that internet has changed the world.  Despite wasting time looking at cat pictures and posting photos of food, the internet has put a wealth of information at our fingertips, changed the world, and changed our lives, forever.  And all that happened because someone invented a way to connect computers in libraries, research centers, laboratories, and living rooms together in a global network.  That, my friends, is systems integration.

But what does any of that have to do with our faith, our church, or with our local congregation?  To answer that, let’s begin with the story found in Nehemiah 8:1-10, where the people gather to hear the Law of Moses read to them, after it had been lost and forgotten for several generations.

All the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.

So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.

Ezra the teacher of the Law stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam.

Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clearand giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.

Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.

10 Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

After 70 years of exile in Babylon, Ezra and those who had remained faithful to God returned to Israel and, while cleaning and rebuilding, Hilkiah, the high priest, discovered the book of the law buried in the rubble of the Temple.  Although people like Ezra were experts in the law and had studied the law as much as possible while in Babylon, no one had heard the law read in this way since Israel had been taken into captivity.  People were weeping with joy, and perhaps with conviction, when they finally heard God’s commands and understood, in a new way, their covenant relationship with God and their connectedness to God and to one another.  Much like the evolution from waving flags and sending runners to telephones and radio, this was a great leap forward from remembered oral traditions to hearing God’s words read aloud from a scroll.

That tradition of reading the scriptures aloud, and explaining their meaning, not only continued, but became a tradition.  Copies of the law were made and became the prized possession of every synagogue where people would gather regularly to hear, learn, and understand.  And Jesus steps into that tradition in Luke 4:14-21 when he returns to Galilee and reads from the book of Isaiah on the Sabbath.

14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus proclaims that he is, in the presence of the synagogue congregation, fulfilling some of the scriptures that foretold of the coming messiah.  This is a sort of spiritual systems integration.  Jesus says that people are being assembled, or integrated, into a larger whole.  Pieces that were lost are being regathered, outcasts are being brought in, the poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed, and all those who had been lost are being found and returned to the family of God.  This regathering is important because of how God intends to execute the mission of his kingdom.  We understand these things better as we read Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a.

12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized byone Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31 Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.

Did you follow that?  Paul is saying is that although each of us have different personalities, capabilities, education, experience, skills, and gifts, we all belong to a larger, interconnected, whole.  What’s more, from what we already know about systems integration, the assembling, or integrating, of people in this way creates a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. 

Norfolk Southern has had computers for decades and the same is true for Union Pacific and CSX, but by integrating just a little bit of data from each of their systems they create a system that makes each of them better, and more capable, than they were.  Likewise, while flying a drone over a battlefield or sending infantry scouts behind enemy lines can produce useful data, having real-time access to that data instead of waiting for hours, or days, makes each drone, soldier, marine, tank, artillery piece, ship, aircraft, and every other resources even more useful, more flexible, more valuable, more powerful and multiplies the abilities and potential of every one of them. 

Paul is describing… spiritual systems integration.  As the followers of Jesus Christ, each of us is different.  We have different strengths, different weaknesses, different skills, experiences, gifts and abilities, and we are each capable of doing something to serve God, fulfill his mission, and do the work of his kingdom.  But we are not called to do it alone.  We are called to become a part of a larger whole so that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.  We are called to do the work of God… together… because we can accomplish far more together than we could ever imagine doing separately.  That’s why we join a church instead of trying to be “Lone Ranger” Christians.  That’s why our church is stronger when we work together as a district, annual conference, and as a denomination.  And that’s why brothers and sisters in Christ of different denominations, from different nations, and with different languages all work together to accomplish the mission and vision of Jesus Christ.  We don’t always do that well, but we are stronger, better, faster, and more capable when we do.

God doesn’t want you to be a Lone Ranger Christian.  Find a church where you can plug in and take your place as a part of larger whole.  Every single person is useful, and every person is needed.

That’s the power of systems integration.

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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601.  These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at  If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online).  These messages can also be found online at  All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

When Will Church go Back to Normal?

Since both our governor and the President of the United States have been making a lot of noise about restarting the economy, and “getting back to normal,” I’m certain that many of us are wondering when church, and specifically, Sunday worship, will get back to normal.  It’s a great question, and it’s one that I have spent time thinking about, and one that has generated considerable discussion among my Methodist and other clergy colleagues.

And the answer is… it depends.

First, it depends on how quickly the rules are relaxed, both by our various levels of government and by our bishop.  But second, it also depends on how you define “normal.”  As to the first part, Governor DeWine has already made it clear that he intends to find a way forward with a “phased” restart which will insist that reopening businesses follow the safety protocols that have already been developed and put in practice by those essential businesses that have remained open.

What I think that will mean to the church, is that the restart will, at first, open things up to small groups of five or ten and then only if those group can insure a six-foot spacing between people.  It may also insist that meetings be kept under an hour.  Obviously, those guidelines will preclude worship, but we might be able to restart Bible studies, Threads of Love, or small Sunday school classes.  A little farther down that road, when larger groups are permitted, we might be able to worship in our sanctuary, but there will still be some significant changes.  We will have to be deliberate in spreading out across the sanctuary so assigned seating might be necessary.  We won’t want to shake hands, hug, or pass a plate from hand-to-hand, so our greetings and offering will look different.  Communion is going to be different too, and I have no idea how we will manage it just yet.  Similarly, it won’t be safe for the choir to squeeze into the choir loft, or the choir room, together so either we won’t see the choir for a while or, Lew and the choir will need to get a little “creative” in how they arrange themselves.  I honestly don’t know yet what that might look like.

And, more than that, any of our members and friends who are in a “vulnerable population” may well want to wait even longer.  Like it or not, gathering in groups is going to be risky, and potentially life threatening, until a vaccine is proven to be safe and becomes widely available.  That means that even though the economy restarts, people who are older, immune suppressed, have heart disease, asthma, or some other “underlying medical condition” may well want to stay home and join us in worship over the internet for some time to come.  That means that we should, and already are, thinking about how we can record, or livestream, our worship service over the internet even after we return to our sanctuary.

Altogether, the only thing that will be “normal” for a while will be change.  Things are going to be different, and the “normal” that we are used to, and the “normal” that we’ve seen for the last hundred years or so, is probably not going to return for at least twelve months.   And twelve months might easily turn intosomething like thirty-six months.  And, at some point, we might just have to accept that the old “normal” isn’t ever coming back and just get used to a new normal.

But no matter what normal ends up looking like, God hasn’t changed.  Our faith hasn’t changed.  Our mission hasn’t changed.  We are still the church.  We are still called to carry out the mission of the Kingdom and to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ.  We will still go about doing the same work that we have always done.  How we go about doing that work might change a little, and that’s okay.  This is a pivot point in history.  The church has adapted to change through the Renaissance, through the Industrial Revolution, through the changes brought about by steam ships, railroads, electricity, automobiles, and the internet, and we will adapt to whatever new things lie in store for us today and in the future.

Take heart.  Have courage.

God is with us.

But hold on to your hat, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.





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Six Ways to Get Unfollowed on Twitter

    People follow one another on Twitter (and unfollow) for a lot of reasons, but in my book, these six things will get you unfollowed pretty quickly.

1)      Post too many times a day –  My general rule of thumb is that most people can post five times a day.  Even ten is acceptable if you have something really good to say, or if there is some special event that you are live tweeting.  But once you start crowding my feed, you are a target.
2)      Post too many times in a row – Some people post five or ten tweets in a row.  Sometimes it is a bunch of separate things all sent at once, and other times someone strings a long post into five or ten tweets.  If you want to blog, write a blog.  Either way, if you do it very often, I’m probably not going to follow you.
3)      Post too many pictures – I know everyone says that pictures attract attention, but if all you do is post a bunch of pictures, posters or memes on my feed, I’m probably not going to follow you.
4)      Post Off topic – I generally follow people because I am interested in what they post.  I completely understand that we are all human and a little “human interest” is fine.  The occasional post about your kids, or your nice dinner is okay, but if you say that your posts are about science, religion, business or whatever, and spend most of your time posting about something else, your days on my list might be numbered.
5)      Post ads – I understand that many of us are on social media to promote our place of business, books, or even ourselves.  But if all I ever see are ads instead of useful content, I’m probably not going to follow you.
6)      Post “click-bait” – We all have a variety of interests and occasionally we find interesting things that we want to share, but if the majority of your posts are links to “click-bait” advertising that looks like “Wow! Look at this Crazy Stuff!”  I’m probably not going to follow you.

I’m sure that  missed a few.

What have people done that made you unfollow them?

I tweet primarily about church, faith and religion, but also science, technology, the space program and the human condition.  And of course, a few about my kids.  Follow me @PastorPartridge


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Six Degrees of Social Media Separation

    In the last few decades, there has been much talk about “Six Degrees of Separation,” which is the idea that any person in the world can be introduced to any other person in the world, by being introduced through our networks of friends.  Statisticians have demonstrated that anyone in the US can be introduced to almost anyone else in the US by going through only two or three friends.  But as often as we hear such things, it is still amazing when it happens “in real life.”
    This week I received a private message on Facebook from a woman I never met.  And that was the beginning (or possibly the end) of an unusual series of connections through my life and through social media.  To understand the connections that led to this message, let me go back in time to high school.
    After my eighth grade year, my parents moved to the south side of Akron, Ohio.  At our new church I met Keith and Jamie Weaver, who would, within the next few years, depart for Kenya, East Africa as missionaries through Africa Inland Missionwhere they would serve for twenty five years.  After I graduated from college and began working in Cleveland, I was back at that same church and reconnected with Keith and Jamie during their occasional visits home. 
    When the time came for them to consider a return to the states, our church realized that no one (other than their children) had ever had the opportunity to visit them in Kenya.  Two women, Sandi, and my wife, Patti, volunteered and along with our missions committee, we decided that we would raise the funds to send them. 
    While Patti and Sandi were in Kenya visiting Keith and Jamie, they met Steve and Nancy Peifer.  Nancy was the librarian at Rift Valley Academy; Steve was the guidance counselor and also ran a feeding program at local Kenyan schools (Kenya Kids Can).
    With that as background, we return to the funeral preparations for my father.  As soon as it was available, I posted his obituary on my Facebook page and many friends, including Steve Peifer, posted their condolences. 
    The next day I had a private message.  The woman who sent that message acknowledged that we had never met. She had seen my name pop up when Steve had written on the link to my father’s obituary and it had seemed familiar.  She followed the link, read the obituary, realized who my father was, printed it, and showed it to her parents.
    What we discovered was that our fathers had sung together in college, he had been the best man in my parent’s wedding and my father had been the best man in theirs.  Our parents had exchanged letters and cards, but over the years had lost touch with one another.  She sent me a current photo of her parents to give to my mother, and I sent a current address so that they could send their condolences and reconnect.  My Mom was a little stunned when I handed her the photo and explained who it was.
    I know that we live in a connected world, but it was still exciting to see old friends reconnect because of two children on the Internet, two missionaries to Africa, an obituary, and social media.


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Sexual Predators: The Hunters and the Hunted

    I suppose it isn’t news that there are sexual predators on the Internet.  Most of us know that we live in a dangerous world and we do our best to protect our children from the worst of it.  I am an engineer and have a natural curiosity about technology.  As a result, I’m pretty comfortable, and good at, computer stuff.  Our computers at home have a firewall between the world and our little local network, another firewall on each computer, everything is password protected, we have anti-virus and anti-spam programs, and we have a fairly effective parental control program that further limits the ability of our children to roam the dark and dangerous neighborhoods of the Internet.  I thought we were doing pretty well… until Saturday.

    On Saturday my wife and I attended a seminar and listened to Detective Bobby Grizzard (pronounced like ‘lizard’ except with a ‘g’) from the Massillon Police Department.  Detective Grizzard knows more about the dangers of the Internet than your average person.  Why?  Because for five years, Detective Grizzard,  who is six-foot something and who is built more like a linebacker than an office jockey, has been “undercover” as a teenage girl pursuing online predators with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. 
    One of the first things that Detective Grizzard told us, was that before the end of the day, as a demonstration, he would go online and engage a predator in conversation, and, if possible, would get that person to call us.  For the next several hours we learned about privacy settings, which I knew pretty well, but also about cell phone apps and devices that could give my children a shortcut around our firewalls, security settings, and parental controls.  I learned about smartphone apps with built-in virus hacks that can force your phone’s camera on so that a predator can watch and listen to what is happening in your home.  I did not know all of this and, with three teens in our home, I realized that I still have a few things to learn.
    At the end of his talk, Det. Grizzard did just as he had promised, but the demonstration was more than I expected.  He went online and within seconds had engaged several predators in conversation (posing as 15 year old girl).  In less than ten minutes he was “chatting” with ten or more of them and more were added every few minutes.  In ten more minutes he had two of these begging for his (her) phone number to call and talk live.  One of the women from the seminar volunteered to be the voice of the girl (at work, Det. Grizzard had software that changes his voice) and spoke with the man for a few minutes.  I couldn’t hear everything that he said over the speakerphone, but it was obvious from the looks of shock on the faces of some of the women in the room that the man wasn’t talking about the weather.
    When Det. Grizzard finally picked up the phone the predator immediately hung up.  It didn’t matter.  The phone number that he had called passed through the police department before being routed to our seminar.  The police department had already captured the name, address and phone number of the man before he had said his first word.
    I have always been active in maintaining the security of my children at home and on the Internet.  I thought I was doing pretty well, but I found that I have more work to do.  I always knew that there were people out there who wanted to victimize my children, but I discovered that there are more of them than I imagined.  There is new technology coming out every day.  Much of it is good, but there is some really evil stuff out there as well.
    I took two things home with me Saturday.  One, there is evil in the world that is smarter, sneakier, craftier and more persistent than we give it credit for.  Predators are cruising the Internet in search of victims.  As parents in the twenty-first century, we must me more vigilant than ever before and we must educate ourselves in order to keep our kids from becoming victims.  Two, I thank God every day for people like Detective Grizzard who go to work every day and spend time hunting for, and chatting with the vile, loathsome, scum that prey on children.  Because of men and women like Detective Bobby Grizzard all of our children are safer and we can all sleep a little better.  Thanks.

Christians are Wrong; Atheists are Right

    This week, in the span of twenty four hours, I received two invitations; one from an Atheist friend, and a second from a good Christian friend.  The atheist invitation was for International Blasphemy Rights Day (held on September 30th of each year) which “is a day to promote the rights to freedom of belief and expression and stand up in a show of solidarity for the liberty to challenge reigning religious beliefs without fear of murder, litigation, or reprisal.”  The Christian invitation was to sign a petition to force Youtube to stop a video that was blasphemous to the name of Jesus Christ. 


    It isn’t often that this sort of thing drops into my lap.  What’s more rare, is a situation in which I agree so strongly  with the atheists and so clearly disagree with the (well-intentioned) Christians.  To me, the atheists ‘get it’ and these particular Christians just don’t (however well-intentioned) particularly in light of recent events in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East.

    The United States is an amazing place.  Our Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and freedom of speech like nowhere else in the world and that gives us, as Christians, an unprecedented opportunity to compete in the arena of ideas.  I believe, as the Apostle Paul did, that Christianity is absolutely able to stand on its own in any such competition if it is given the ability to speak clearly.  Our freedom allows us to do exactly that.  My atheist friends may disagree with me on matters of faith but they understand that this same freedom allows them to disbelieve without fear of punishment or reprisal, whether from Christians, or Muslims, or anyone else.  My Christian friends want someone to protect Jesus from being defamed when, I believe, Jesus doesn’t need protecting.  First of all, Jesus is completely able to defend himself if he chooses to do so and second, Jesus chose not to defend himself when his accusers defamed him face to face.
    In recent days the entire Middle East has been in an uproar over a video produced by an American and released on YouTube.  In it, the Muslin prophet, Mohammad, is presented in a negative light.  This, the Islamists claim, is blasphemous.  They demand that YouTube remove the video, that the United States government require that the video be removed from the Internet and pass blasphemy laws preventing such things from happening in the future (sound familiar?).  Free speech on the other hand requires that none of this happen.  Free speech allows any of us to say things, to present a range of ideas, even offensive ones, without fear of punishment or reprisals.  If the government were to prohibit us from blaspheming Jesus, then why not do the same for Mohammad? 

    Already our friends in Canada have passed hate speech laws that make it illegal for Christian pastors to preach what the Bible says about homosexuality (even if preached compassionately and not being deliberately inflammatory)  but that same speech, unpopular or not, is still legal in the United States.  If free speech is constrained to protect Christians today, it may very well be used to harm us tomorrow.  I don’t like it when people burn flags, but I believe that it is a protected form of free speech that I am willing to protect.  I don’t like it when the KKK or other hateful groups march and spout their venom from the public square, but it too is an important example of free speech.  Just because I don’t like it isn’t a good reason to make it stop.  After all, I have things to say that other people don’t like very much and I wouldn’t want someone to decide that my speech was no longer legal.

 In this case, I think the Christians are wrong and the atheists are right.
Jesus is not threatened by the people who oppose him.  Christianity doesn’t need the law to protect us from blasphemy.  Jesus is more than able to compete in the arena of ideas.
The atheists are right. 
Free speech is far more valuable…
                                                           …for all of us.

A New Digital Divide – Who wins, who loses?

    As an electrical engineer as well as a pastor, I still belong to my professional society and from them I still receive a monthly magazine that keeps me up to date on current happenings and trends in my field.  This past month, one of the articles I was reading speculated on the coming of a new “digital divide” because of rising smartphone usage.  According to this article, current trends indicate that by 2013, smartphones will represent 50% of the American market.  Since, at present, 82% of all Americans (not 82% of adults, 82% of all Americans) currently have cell phones, I take this to mean that by 2013, 41% of us will have phones in our pockets that will allow us to do our banking and watch YouTube anyplace we feel like it.  
    Even worse, our cell phones are likely to see a new feature in the next generation or so.  Technology has existed for a while that allows something as small as a credit card to act as a “key.”  You may have seen these as “smart cards” where your credit card can be used to “tap-and-go.”  Until recently, cost has kept this technology from becoming widespread but recent developments have dropped the cost so significantly that it is likely that we will soon see this technology added to our phones.  The end result is that, once widely implemented, we won’t need to carry our wallets; we will be able to use our cell phone to “tap-and-go” at McDonald’s instead.  Shoot, once this is widely adopted, this same technology might be used so that our cell phones take the place of our car keys.
So why is this a problem?
    What about everyone else?  Our church has recently begun digging into demographic information about the people in our area to give us an idea of how we can better minister to their needs.  These are the people in our community and the people that God has placed in our care.  Folks around here are not well off.  We live in the foothills of Appalachia.  When I saw these articles about a “new digital divide” I got to thinking and I started digging through the demographic information of the group that makes up the large majority of our local population.  
The results are frightening.  
    To give you a better idea of who I’m talking about, here are a couple of facts.  Seventy-six percent of this group earns less than $50,000 per year and 38% less than $25,000.  Two thirds of them live in homes valued at less than $100,000 and more than half in a home valued at less than $75,000.  These are not wealthy people.  Many are retired; most have a high school diploma or less.  While more than half own a computer less than a third have an Internet connection and less than 7 percent have broadband.
    While full of numbers and statistics, this begins to describe a group of people who are being left behind by much of our society and culture.  While the experts predict that smartphone penetration will exceed 50% of the market in the next two years, it won’t here.  Currently only 49% of this group even owns a cell phone, far less than the national average of 82%.  Even worse, less than one person in twenty can send and receive text messages and less than one in ten has Internet access on their cell phone.
    The development of technology and our culture are not going to slow down to let people like these catch up.  Before you simply write off the less-well-to-do in Appalachia, you might also remember that many of our parents and grandparents fit this description as well. Nearly a third of these folk say that computers confuse them and they have no plans to learn how to use them.
    So what happens when your cell phone is your car keys, your wallet, your road atlas, and all-around information portal?  Worse, what happens to grandma and a whole lot of others people when they can’t?  This isn’t simply a matter of training.  We can’t just offer class to help people catch up.  These folk simply can’t afford to get on the train.  What happens when technology and our culture leave them behind?  From a ministry perspective, how do we minister to the people who are being left behind?  I’m not sure, but we had better figure it out soon. 
    This train is already leaving and we don’t have much time.

Why the Church should be on the Internet

    I was recently asked to speak at a men’s prayer breakfast and address what I felt was the future of ministry.  In my short meditation (we did want time to eat breakfast after all) I shared a few words about why I felt that the future of ministry was on the Internet.  Since this helps to explain why I invest my time and energy posting sermons online, worrying about office connectivity, podcasts and blogs, I thought that it was worth posting here.  In this way, the folks who read this blog (which admittedly isn’t a lot) can understand a little better who I am and why I do what I do.
    First of all, I admit that I’m a geek.  I was the kid in school who was smallish, bookish, played in the band and tried the chess club for a while.  I did eventually grow a few inches and put on a few pounds during college and ten years in the Army Reserve but with a degree in electrical engineering, my fondness for computers and electronic and science related toys remains obvious.  Regardless, there are a few facts (statistics) that we all need to confront.
    Ninety-Eight percent of all homes in the United States have a television but the television people are seeing a noticeable decline in television ratings as more and more of their audience members are leaving to spend time on the Internet or watch movies delivered in the mail or over the internet.  Today, 35 percent of all adults in the US have a profile on Facebook, MySpace or LinkedIn.  This is already a lot of people but also understand that this number has quadrupled in only three years.  Nearly 90 percent of students access the Internet every single day and spend an average of 28 hours per week doing it.  Of these, 65 percent (students aged 12-17) will log on to social networks such as Facebook and MySpace.  While the younger age groups use social networking more and older Americans tend to use it less, these numbers are growing across the board.  (See more of these statistics here:
    Obviously, scripture doesn’t say anything specifically about television or the Internet but it does have something to say about where and how we do ministry.  Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4) and her entire village came to faith.  Jesus met her where she lived because a Samaritan would have never been welcome in the Jewish Temple, the church of its day.  In Acts 2, we read about the day of Pentecost when the Spirit of God came down from heaven and entered into the followers of Jesus Christ.  What they did next is instructive.  Instead of remaining where they were and celebrating the great gift that had been given to them, every one of them, both men and women, left the place where they had gathered and went out into the streets to tell others about  Jesus.  Because this happened on Jewish feast day, the streets were full of people from across the known world.  
    Throughout the span of the New Testament, Jesus and his followers preach the good news in synagogues, in marketplaces, in the temple courts, in the street and in the countryside.  In Acts 17, Paul meets the men of Athens where they have gathered to discuss philosophy.  In each case, Jesus and his followers demonstrate by their example that the good news should be taken to where the people are and not wait for unbelievers to come to them.  Two hundred years ago, John Wesley (the founder of Methodism) broke from the tradition of the Church of England and dared to preach outside the four walls of the church.  Wesley felt that the church had abandoned many who no longer felt comfortable or welcome in the church and so he went out and preached in the open air in parks, near coal mines, and anyplace where he could find people who were interested in hearing the words of God.  The preaching of Wesley and his followers resulted in many thousands coming to Christ and was instrumental in launching the Great Awakening.   
    The common thread remains that the Gospel message was taken out of the church and out to where the people were.  Today, the public gathering place is electronic.  For our society, the place where people gather is no longer the synagogues, the markets and the temple courts but on the Internet.  
    If we are to be true to the example of Jesus and his followers, we need to be there too.