3 lessons churches can learn from social media.

Social media

If Johannes Gutenburg could have forseen the impact of the printing press when he invented it in 1440, he would have been astounded. The ability to transmit large amounts of information widely and over great distances transformed society, culture, education and institutions. Many historians believe the printing press gave birth to the scientific revolution of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, and has resulted in modern culture and lifestyle we enjoy today.

When scientists began to develop the internet last century, they couldn’t have forseen the revolutionary impact on culture, commerce and communication that is taking place today. The ability to connect and to access information at a global level is changing the world we grew up in. Everything we thought we knew is changing. Business models are crumbling. The way we shop, read, learn and interact has completely shifted – and we’re not going back.

The printing press was the start of “mass media” – for the first time in living history, information could be passed on to a large portion of the population, rather than contained to a small sub-group of society. The internet has given birth to “social media” – for the first time in history, people are able to connect and participate in a two-way interaction, rather than passively receiving a one-way broadcast. Take a quick look at the big success stories of the internet – Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, to name a few. The brilliance and attraction of these sites is that they give ordinary people a voice. Anybody can be a somebody. Contribution and participation are encouraged and valued.

People aren’t satisfied anymore with organisations who continue to broadcast at them, without allowing them the opportunity to interact, connect and contribute. If churches want to move away from performing for a passive audience, they can learn a few key lessons from the successful social media giants.

Lesson 1: Let people talk.

People like the sound of their own voice. They pay more attention and learn more from a conversation they have been part of than a monologue they have listened to. Instead of a sermon, set up discussion groups or conversation pairs to explore God’s Word together. Use questions to get them thinking, rather than feeding them the answers. Create learning opportunities which allow them to reflect and grow. Empower God’s people to think for themselves.

Lesson 2: Listen when they talk.

Giving people a voice in church empowers them to use it outside of church. Affirm people when they contribute and speak up – they have something of value to share with God’s family. If you stop speaking and start listening, you allow room for the Holy Spirit to talk through others. Pay close attention to those who appear to be “the least of these” – many times, it is the youngest, or most broken members of the church who have the most profound insights to share.

 Lesson 3: Prioritise connection.

I’m not talking about that “one-way” connection, where the pastor smiles and shares personal stories and the audience members feel connected, even though he doesn’t know their names and probably can’t even see them through the bright stage lights. And I’m not talking about that “shallow” connection that occurs when morning tea is the only interaction time built into the regular meeting time – often in a different area from the sermon and worship and “spiritual stuff”. I’m talking about letting people really connect with each other – through shared experiences, shared stories and laughter. I’m talking about setting up our meeting times to build relationships with each other, not just stare at the back of each other’s heads.

Social media is not just a “fad”. It is a global shift in the way we communicate and interact. It is impacting businesses, governments and establishments worldwide, and it is already changing the way many people do church. It’s time to sit up and pay attention to the underlying message – people want to be heard, they want to contribute, and above all, they want to connect.

Church for the disempowered.

Man with Tattooed Arm

Riley brings so much to our church meetings. He has profound wisdom and insights which open up the Scriptures for others. He leads the church in moments of powerful worship. He comes alongside others and encourages them. He notices people’s pain and speaks directly to it, asking if he can pray for them. He reaches out to untouchable people, and touches them deeply.

Riley wouldn’t be considered “leadership material” in most churches. To start with, he’s homeless. Sometimes he lives in a shelter with some other guys; sometimes he lives on the streets. He doesn’t always turn up. He doesn’t always dress right. We all know he slips back into his old lifestyle from time to time – and if you knew his life story, you wouldn’t judge him for it. Then there’s the fact that he’s undereducated. His reading level wouldn’t be high enough to read and understand a lot of the Bible – but for all that, he seems to “get it” at a deep level.

The truth is, in most churches, Riley wouldn’t be allowed to speak up at all – except perhaps to share his “testimony” (a glamorous account of how different his life was “before” and “after” Christ – without reference to the messiness he continues to live with on a daily basis). The majority of church meetings are still structured in the old-school format of a paid professional speaking at rows of passive spectators. Only the “expert” is entitled to speak in this model of ministry. Our Universities, schools and businesses used to be like this too – until recently. In the 21st century, this approach doesn’t make sense anymore. Theologically, it never did make sense. It’s a very Old Testament approach to the New Testament relationship between Jesus (the Head) and his church (the Body). How can God’s people take part in actively loving one another if they are positioned to sit silently and passively whenever they gather?

I look forward to seeing churches where Riley and his mates are allowed to speak freely, and share their wisdom, life experience and understanding of Christ with the rest of us. Where God’s people meet face-to-face and speak openly and honestly with one another. Where the Rileys of this world are given the opportunity to find their voice, find their gifts and find their place in the body.

You see, our God is a liberational God. He came to release the prisoners. To heal the sick. To break the chains of addictions. To give a voice to the voiceless. To place value on the undervalued. To lift up the weak. To empower the disempowered.

I thank God that Riley has found his voice and has been empowered to use his gifts in the Body of Christ. The world is a better place because of him.

Tomorrow’s church – Part 2: Participation changes everything.

In my last post, “Welcome to a new era“, I discussed the recent cultural shifts our society is going through. Social media allows people to participate and contribute. The internet gives ordinary people access to extraordinary amounts of information. What does this mean for the church?

There is an often-told story of a real-estate agent who explained to his client the three most important factors in selling a property. “I would say the first thing to consider is location“, he begins, “followed closely by location, and last – but not least – location.” It may be an exaggeration to say nothing else matters in real estate, but this familiar quote drives home a point – location is not something to overlook.

If you were to ask me the most important shifts needed in church today, I would hold up three fingers and say … “participation, participation, participation.” I’m not saying nothing else matters. I am saying participation is a major element that is missing in churches today – and that we are getting ready to embrace once again. Culture has changed, and it’s not going back. The internet has given people an opportunity to connect, interact and get involved. God’s people would like to participate in church, too. But churches will need to accept some shifts from within, because participation changes everything.

Participation changes the way we meet. If we are committed to allowing God’s people to participate, we can no longer line them up in rows and keep them silent during our meetings. We need to rearrange the seating to allow more interaction and involvement. We should share our stories and connect with one another. The time we spend sharing food and drink together will become more than just a coffee break at the end of the service, and take on a greater significance.

Participation changes the way we learn. Neuroscience has shown us that people learn best when they are actively engaged and involved – hands-on learning is more powerful than passive listening. Did you know that most adults are unable to listen effectively for more than 10-15 minutes at the longest? The Vatican has even recommended that sermons should only last around 8 minutes, as this is the ideal length of time for listening without shutting down. We’re discovering better ways of learning, and we should start using them in our churches.

Participation changes the way we lead. No longer should the pastor do all the talking. It’s time to get everyone involved, get everyone teaching each other, and to rediscover Christ’s leadership for the whole community. The payoff is enormous. When we move from performance to facilitation, we empower God’s people to have a voice, a value and an impact. We enable them to discover their spiritual gifts and use them to minister to one another. We release them to change the world around them.

The Bible compares the church to a body, with Jesus as the head, which will grow in maturity “as each part does its work” (Eph 4:16). The goal of church is spiritual maturity, not numbers. Every one of us has a part to play. It’s time for the church to prepare for participation. Continue reading

Tomorrow’s church: Changing the way we meet, the way we learn, and the way we lead.


There are certain points in history when change is inevitable. Certain time periods are associated with broad scale social change, which eventually trickles down into every institution. The Industrial Revolution reshaped society and institutions. There are many signs that we are going through a shift just as significant, which is changing the way we do everything – including how we learn, interact and see ourselves.

The impact of the internet on our society is huge. Nobody has to be a passive consumer anymore. Everyone has the choice to be an active participant. We are never turning back from that. Once ordinary people are given a voice, and an opportunity to express it, they won’t ever give it up. Businesses, media, schools and governments are going to have to deal with this creatively and sensitively – and many already are.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to explore how the church can take advantage of this broader cultural shift to change church culture from within. The societal changes which are such a headache to businesses are a golden opportunity for the church. For the first time in many years, the church is poised to return to a more interactive model of meeting, where all of God’s people are empowered to participate and to minister to one another.

By the time we finish this series together, I hope to have communicated some adaptable strategies that every healthy church can consider to shift the way they meet, the way they learn and the way they lead. Here are some of the topics I will cover;

How to create a connecting culture
  • by rearranging the seating
  • by connecting through stories
  • by sharing food together

How to activate a hands-on learning environment

  • through action and reflection
  • through direct access to God’s Story
  • through one-another prayer
How to develop a liberating leadership
  • one true leader (Jesus), many teachers (each other)
  • facilitation, not performance
  • listening is the new talking
I hope you enjoy journeying through these suggestions with me, and that this triggers new thoughts and ideas for you – please share them with me along the way! Continue reading

A new format for a new era – a blog series to change church culture from within.

church steeple

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to release a 12-part series of blog posts on how to change church culture from within.

I’m going to start by discussing the new era we are entering as a society, and why this has profound implications for the way we meet together as God’s people. I’m then going to outline the three major shifts all healthy churches should embrace to create a connecting culture, a hands-on learning environment, and a liberating leadership. I will follow up with a series of nine adaptable strategies any church can apply to help connect, engage and empower God’s people more effectively. The series will finish with a look at change and the church – and why they can go together (even though they often don’t).

The following posts in the series are now up;

I hope you are able to follow my 12 part blog series – “Tomorrow’s church: a new formula for a new era”. Subscribe now or follow me on Facebook so you don’t miss any posts. I’d love you to interact and discuss the ideas presented here, and share your experiences. 

If you like what you’re reading, please take the time to share it with your network. Thanks!


Can churches move from sermons to interactive learning?


Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur has developed a learning technique which he has found to triple students’ learning in comparison to a conventional lecture. Instead of trying to explain complex physics concepts to students, he asks them a question which will show who already understands the concept. He then gets the students who got the answer right to explain it to those who got it wrong. There’s a lot of noise, but also a lot of learning that goes on in this interaction. Within minutes, the recent learners have taught the rest of the class how to solve the problem – while the lecturer could have spent the whole class on the same concept without the same results. Follow-up studies show that students recall the information for much longer using interactive learning than they do in standard lectures.

Mazur has tapped into  the power of peer-to-peer learning. Learners make the best teachers. Someone who has recently grappled with and understood a new concept has fresh ways to teach others. The lecturer, on the other hand, learned the concepts so long ago they have forgotten which aspects were hard to understand, and can’t communicate as effectively to someone at a different level on the knowledge ladder. Mazur explains that when you become an expert in an area; “it becomes harder to teach, because you’re unaware of the conceptual difficulties of a beginning learner.” It’s easier to talk to a peer than to someone of higher status, so students are more able to admit their difficulties and ask questions when they need help. The students doing the explanation also benefit, as teaching is one of the most powerful ways to solidify learning.

If we could grasp this concept and use it in church, it would radically change the methods we use for teaching. Sermons simply aren’t tapping into the ability of God’s people to teach each other. If we re-structure the church meeting to facilitate people to share with one another what they have learned about God, it would engage people, empower people and challenge people. God’s people can learn more from each other than from any sermon.

How to bring about change in an established church.

change button

A number of people have asked me how to move an established church towards change. Change from performance to empowerment. Change from sitting silently in rows to actively participating in circles. Change from a passive audience to a facilitated learning community.

Change isn’t an easy process. Change only becomes desirable when the alternative is too painful to live with anymore. People diagnosed with diabetes or coeliac disease are willing to give up their favourite foods in order to improve their health and well-being. Many churches and pastors are struggling with a dawning realisation that the model they have used for so many years is no longer working. Their dissatisfaction with the status quo is driving them to consider a new model for a new era.

Neil Cole has written a blog post which lays out five steps for a church wrestling with the need to change. The church needs to see it (develop a vision for change), want it (feel the need badly enough to pursue change), pray it (the most pivotal step of all), pay for it (change always costs something – but the price is worth it), and do it (slowly at first, in phases and incremental steps).

Cole is convinced that the established church in the Western world is ready to receive a transfusion of organic life which will alter the way we meet together, minister to one another and impact the world. His latest book seeks to gift the established church with the wisdom and knowledge accumulated from many years of working with the missional church movement worldwide, and is a timely contribution to the growing awareness for the need for systemic change from within.


A tale of two workers – an allegory of empowerment.

two men

Meet Mike and Peter. These two guys studied together, and have both recently started their new jobs. They both have the same training, the same skill set, and the same potential.

Mike is really happy with his new position. The boss seems like a great guy – intelligent and full of advice. He seems to know everything, the kind of guy who can talk for hours about any topic (and frequently does). He is willing to spend time telling Mike how to do his job well. He’s always quick to solve problems for Mike, and even takes over and does the work for him if Mike gets stuck. Mike has found a comfortable work environment and has settled in well. He doesn’t realise he is slowly being disempowered.

Peter’s new boss is also an experienced, intelligent kind of guy. He asks Peter for his advice and opinions. Continue reading

Placing value on the undervalued – turning competitive culture on its head.

My Dad, Dr George O’Neil, is a very clever man. He has designed medical products which are used worldwide. His most significant invention is an implant which breaks the cycle of heroin addiction, and he has poured his life into helping almost 8000 addicts on the path to recovery over the past 15 years. He could have made millions out of his inventions – instead, every cent gets poured back into helping more people. He has received many awards along the way, and I’m always amused to find them in odd places around the house, rather than proudly on display. That’s not where he places his value.

Dad places value on the undervalued. He believes in people – even those who have proven themselves untrustworthy. He loves the unlovable. I believe there is more to his success than the clever design of the implant. I believe there is Continue reading

How media shaped the church.

How did church end up becoming so performance-oriented? And is that such a bad thing?

Well, no, it’s not a bad thing at all. The way we collectively worship God reflects a great deal about the time we live in. Of course we bring a great deal of our culture into the way we relate to God and to each other. That’s why church has changed significantly over our lifetimes. My grandmother’s church is a lot different than the church I attended when I was a teenager – and just as well. I would have struggled to grow my faith in a church that wasn’t sensitive to the cultural shifts and communication styles of the time period.

To understand how church became so much about performance in the past few decades, and why it is in the process of shifting away from that today, we need to look at the development of modern media, which impacts on culture, which impacts on how we do church.

First, lets slip right back in time to an age before the printing press was invented. The only printed books were Continue reading