Last week at The Basics Conference I was privileged to lead a seminar on the topic of blogging. The topic that was assigned to me, “Blogging Your Ministry,” is probably not the best title for what I delivered. I spent a couple of weeks trying to figure out what I could possibly say about blogging that would not be both tedious and boring. I soon found that there was a lot that was worth saying when I looked deeper than the simple nuts and bolts of blogging. When I dug a little bit deeper and looked at the history, value and impact of blogging, I found all sorts of interesting issues that the church would do well to think about. So over the next few days I’d like to share some of that with you. These few articles, which will be similar but not identical to the seminar, should be of interest, I think, to those who blog but also to those who read blogs or who are wondering what blogs are. There should be something of interest in this series for all Christians. I’ll define blogging, share the story of how I came to be a blogger, look at the short history of blogs, suggest ways you can begin a successful blog of your own (something I did not address in the body of the seminar as delivered last week) and try to see what blogging means to the church.
Let’s begin by defining this term blog. When people think of this term they usually picture a teenage girl posting disjointed ramblings about how much she hates her parents or a grumpy Christian leveling both barrels at someone who has drawn his wrath. Though these are mere caricatures, they are popular ones. Thankfully, though, they are ones the blogosphere is beginning to overcome as people begin to take it more seriously. Let me give you what I consider to be the marks of a blog: they are a personal form of communication, they are an instant form of communication, they are a time-stamped form of communication and they are a public and interactive form of communication.
Blogs are personal in that the tone of a blog post is typically informal and conversational. Where books and magazines tend towards formality, blogs tend to be written from a more personal perspective and are directed more deliberately at the reader. I enjoy reading a blog by Randy Baseler, a bigwig at Boeing who is Vice President of Marketing for that company (NOTE: Randy just retired so another Randy, Randy Tinseth). Where most communication from within the aircraft industry would be hopelessly formal and tedious, Randy gives information that is targeted at people like me, who have an informal interest in the latest and greatest developments when it comes to aircraft. We do not know the industry lingo so need someone like this to decipher it for us. He gives a personal look at an industry that is usually very impersonal.
While blogs are personal, they are also personalized, reflecting the personality of the author, perhaps through the actual look of the site, through the presentation of the content or through the content the author chooses to deal with.
Second, blogs are instant. Where a newspaper is always a day late with the news, a magazine is a week or a month late and a book may be a year late, a blog is right up-to-date. They are instant and immediate, allowing people to tell others what they are thinking at exactly the moment they are thinking it. Obviously this can be both a benefit and a drawback.
Third, blogs are a time-stamped form of communication. Blogs are organized by date so that the most recent article is at the top of the page and the ones below it are necessarily those that were posted before. Thus blogs value what is new over what is older and possibly even better. If you visit the site of an author you might find that his best book is the one featured first on his site. In the blogosphere it is always the latest article that is featured. You would also find that any archived post on a blog is likewise stamped with a date. Thus blog posts always have a wider context of the date and time they were written.
Finally, blogs are a public form and interactive of communication. What is posted online may well be available forever. As I was preparing this article I was shocked to see that I could still find copies of the very first articles I had ever written–articles I had long-since forgotten about and which were erased from my site many years ago. Content posted on blogs is meant to be public. It is possible that a blogger hopes the public will remain contained to a specific group, such as his family or his church, but sooner or later content will be picked up by search engines and other people will find it. This is the very nature of blogs.
You may have noticed that I did not define blogs as dealing with a particular subject matter. While there was a time that blogs were more consistent, today they can come in many forms and deal with absolutely any subject matter. They can be authored by a single person or by a team of people. They can represent merely a hobby or, on occasion, represent a significant income stream. When attempting to understand how blogs work, it is helpful to see them as a network where one is connected to another. Articles written by one blogger tend to be picked up and discussed by others, so that there can be an intricate web of discussion between many authors and many sites. And, while comments are not necessary to make a blog a blog, most sites to allow interaction between the author and the reader and discussion between other readers.
With that formality aside, let me briefly share my story.
In September of 2002 I decided, rather on the spur of the moment as I recall, to begin my own web site. I really knew nothing about web sites but thought maintaining one might prove to be a fun distraction for me. My parents and four siblings had recently moved down to the Atlanta area and, with a one-year old son and with my wife pregnant again, I thought I would use the site as a photo gallery to post pictures of this growing family. Since this was going to be a site by family and for family I spent thirty five dollars to reserve the family name, choosing the domain challies.com. Using some borrowed web space, I pieced together a really bad little site. I uploaded a few photos and over the next few months updated the site every now and again, adding a new set of pictures or writing the occasional personal comment.
As the months passed I continued to update the site, but did so only every few weeks. It was really a sad little site in desperate need of attention. But I found that I did enjoy posting little updates on my family when I got around to doing so. In late 2003 I heard a new word in the media. This word, blog, sounded intriguing. I inadvertently stumbled across one of these blogs, one day, while doing some research and realized that it was really not much different from my site and from what I was already doing. The only real difference was that blogs offered the ability for people reading the site to interact with the content by posting their own comments. That seemed like a great idea, so I installed some blogging software and began calling my site a blog. When I posted an article my mother or my wife would post a little “Good job!” comment for me. But I still didn’t update it much.
October 31, 2003 was a pivotal day. I decided that day that I should get serious about this blogging thing and committed to either blogging every day for a year or giving up and getting rid of the site altogether. So I wrote an article on November 1, November 2, November 3…and before I knew it, it was a year later and I was still going. I recommitted in 2004, 2005, 2006. That was over three years ago and I’m still blogging every day and look forward to doing so almost every day. According to the silly little counter I maintain for my own amusement, I am nearing my 1300th consecutive day.
It came as a great shock to me that, when I began to write, people began to read the site–people I didn’t know and people from all around the world. Before I knew it I had twenty people reading my site every day. Then it was fifty and a hundred and a thousand and two thousand and three thousand and five thousand…and then it occurred on day that my site had become one of the most widely-visited Christian blogs. I realized that I had been plunked into the center of something that was getting really big really quickly.
But things continued to get stranger and stranger. I soon passed my one millionth visitor. I began to receive emails from people I regarded as heroes or to read the occasional reference to something I had written in articles these people were writing. In 2005 I was asked by Desiring God to fly to Minneapolis to liveblog their annual National Conference and that was soon followed by many other invitations. Since then I’ve been privileged to attend major conferences across the United States. I even recently completed my first book, The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment, which should be available in January and which deals, obviously, with the subject of spiritual discernment. And now I’ve begun to receive and to accept the occasional speaking engagement. All-in-all it’s been quite a ride. And it could be that it’s just starting.
I’ve often paused to ask myself just why I continue to blog. As I’ve done so it has become clear over the past years that I do this primarily for the good of my own soul. I treat blogging as nearly a spiritual discipline or as an extension to the other disciplines of reading the Bible and praying. My desire to post something every day that is new and interesting and theologically-correct keeps me turning constantly to the Bible and constantly to good books. It has been very good and healthy for me.
Let me put this in perspective. I am a self-employed computer guy from Canada with no seminary or Bible college education. I have nothing more than a bachelor’s degree in history and one I really only barely deserved, and I earned it from a college people only know of because Clark Pinnock taught there. I attend a church no one has heard of and, until recently, had never met any well-known Christian leaders or speakers. So while I am supremely unqualified, people continue to visit the site. When they do so, they read book reviews, they read personal reflections, and they read what I attempt to teach or share on the subject of theology. I often feel like I’m in over my head.
I do not tell you all of this to boast or to point to anything I have done. When I began my web site I had no plan for it but to post pictures of my children. When I began writing I had no plan but to give my family and immediate friends the occasional article to read. Yet it has grown into something so much more. A quick search of the Net will turn up all kinds of articles telling you how you can quickly create a blog that is widely-read and influential. Apparently there are certain shortcuts a blogger can take. The thing is, I didn’t know about any of this when I began and have done very little to deliberately promote the site. I just kept writing.
I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out what God is doing through this web site. Is this leading to something or is God preparing me for something? What does He want me to do with all of this? These are private wrestlings–things I hope become increasingly clear to me. But if we look beyond these private struggles I think we come to some interesting questions that the church needs to address. We’ll get to this in a future article. This series will continue tomorrow.