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October 27, 2007

Rather than attempt to answer a question today, I thought I’d ask one instead. This is a question primarily for people who read blogs, though certainly people who write them may be interested as well. The question is this: How much should bloggers disclose?

Let me explain. Bloggers tend to put a lot of work into their sites but receive relatively little in return. There are usually just a few options open to bloggers who wish to make a few dollars. One of the more popular of these are affiliate programs. Stores like Amazon and Westminster Books offer programs whereby anyone who links to them will receive a small amount of compensation. It’s usually a safe bet that if a blogger links to Amazon, he is doing so through his affiliate account, meaning that any items that are sold after people click through that link will kick back about 6%. Westminster’s program is a little different in that they tally clicks and pay out a certain amount at the end of the month based on the total number of visitors sent to them.

What I am asking today is whether you think bloggers should disclose when they are referring people to some kind of affiliate program. If a blogger writes a book review and links to a store for which he is an affiliate, should he disclose that he is part of the affiliate program?

I’d be interested in your responses to this.

Why? Well, there may be several ramifications. Here is just one: In theory, a person may direct visitors to a particular store or even a particular product he would not otherwise direct people to because he knows he will receive some kind of compensation. He may direct people to a store that offers higher prices or inferior service not because this represents the best deal but because he stands to benefit. Just take a look at the number of bloggers who chose to announce that Westminster Books (which has an affiliate program) upgraded their design compared to those who announced that Monergism Books (which at that time did not have a program) had upgraded. People stood to benefit directly from one announcement but not the other.

This is not to accuse anyone of dishonesty or deliberate deception. But it is definitely something worth considering as bloggers attempt to establish some kind of code of conduct and as they seek to find their place in this new media.

So let’s talk it through…

October 17, 2007

The Second Annual Reformation Day Symposium

October 31, two weeks from today, will mark the 490th anniversary of the day that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church at Wittenburg. In so doing he struck a match, beginning a fire that quickly spread throughout Europe and throughout the world. Having become increasingly disillusioned with the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, and in particular the sale of indulgences, Luther wrote his Theses to try to begin the process of reform. While he was unable to bring reform to the church, he did trigger the Protestant Reformation by rediscovering the Gospel - the good news of salvation by grace through faith. The Reformation had profound influence in politics, art, literature and theology - while it was at its heart a Christian movement, it impacted all areas of society. That seemingly insignificant act is, in reality, one of the defining points of history. It is a shame that the day has largely been forgotten in favor of what is now the year’s most popular day, Halloween (Halloween is, after all, one of the few holidays that our society can celebrate without shame and without feeling politically incorrect).

Last year, on October 31, I hosted a “Reformation Day Symposium” and invited bloggers to write articles dealing with the Reformation. A whole crowd of bloggers participated and it was a thrill to read all of the articles written to celebrate such a monumental occasion in the history of the church.

Due to the success of last year’s Symposium, it seemed worthwhile to me to revisit the idea. So once again I’m asking you to consider blogging about the Reformation to celebrate Reformation Day. As I did last year, I’ll link to all of the posts from this site. And as I did last year, I’ll award prizes to the “best” entries (as judged by myself and likely a couple of other judges, and based on whatever subjective criteria we come up with).

You may want to reflect on a person, an event, or a particular point of theology. The topic is wide open, so long as it somehow ties in to Reformation Day. And remember, you do not need to be Reformed to appreciate the Reformation and all it stood for. If you do not have a blog of your own, but would still like to participate, why not ask another blogger if you can “guest” on his site that day.

There will be three winners, each of whom will each receive two free prints from Reformation Art.

So start thinking, start writing, and prepare to post your articles on October 31. When you have prepared an article and posted it (please hold off posting until October 31), include a URL to my blog (so I can find all of the posts using Technorati) and send me an email to make sure that your article has been included.

October 10, 2007

An Interview with Darren Rowse.

Darren Rowse is the original ProBlogger, presiding over ProBlogger, a site that draws tens of thousands of visitors every day. After stumbling across blogs in 2002, Darren began a site of his own that explored “issues of Pop Culture, Spirituality and Blogging.” The pastor of a small, emerging type of church, Darren has become a full-time blogger and the coordinator of a large blog network.

Because I’ve attempted to make a point of giving a lot of thought to issues regarding faith and blogging, I thought it would be interesting to gain Darren’s perspective on some issues. Though there would be some obvious theological variance between Darren and myself, I couldn’t think of too many people who have given more time to this subject. So here is a brief interview I conducted with him.

Tim Challies: The discussion about Christians who blog reminds me a little bit of the similar discussion with Christian music. You are a Christian who blogs but would probably not be considered by most people a “Christian blogger” because your blog does not deal primarily with faith issues (kind of like how Switchfoot doesn’t care to be labeled a “Christian band” even though they are all Christians who play [really good] music). Yet I’m sure you do not draw a distinct line between who you are in Christ and what you do for a living. How does your faith impact how you pursue this vocation?

Darren Rowse: It’s an interesting discussion point and one that I’ve considered quite a bit over my 5 years of blogging.

My first blog was a ‘Christian Blog’ in many senses (not that it had a conversion experience…). I started it to talk about issues of faith, spirituality and church. It became reasonably well known in Christian blogging circles and I had a lot to do with other Christian bloggers. One of the things that I became a bit frustrated with over the two or so years that that blog was active was that I saw the majority of Christian bloggers gathering together to talk about subjects that related to them - but very little outward focus or interaction with the wider blogosphere.

While I think that there is definitely a place for Christian bloggers to do more inward focussed blogging (fellowship and doing faith together is a big part of what I see us called to do as followers of Christ) I wondered whether we were ignoring another part of what we’re called to be on about - mission.

My critique of Christian blogging is actually similar to my critique of much of what I see happening with the Church today - an overemphasis upon gathering together as believers - at the expense of ‘going into the world to make disciples’.

I came to a point where I saw incredible opportunity in blogging to ‘go’. People are gathering around the web through blogs to learn, build relationships, have dialogue, share their lives, talk about every aspect of their existence - but the majority of Christian bloggers that I knew at the time (including myself) were gathering together in our ‘Holy Huddles’ to do ‘Christian Things’.

I made a decision to spend more time focussing upon going and participating in what I saw happening outside of the ‘Christian Blogosphere’.

What I found is that there are some amazing opportunities in the wider blogosphere to connect with people - to share your life with them and to make a difference. I also found that there are a lot of bloggers with similar faith perspectives doing similar things and not getting into ‘Christian Blogging’.

TC: Do you think ProBlogger would be different if you were not a Christian? If so, how?

DR: I’m not sure. I think ProBlogger is an extension of who I am in some ways and much of it would be similar whether I was a Christian or not. I do see ProBlogger as a tool that not only provides my family with an income but as something that helps others - but suspect that this would be important to me whether I was a Christian or not. It’s very hard to answer that as I’m not sure what I’d be like if I wasn’t a Christian - let alone what my blog would be like.

TC: How has blogging impacted your faith?

DR: There have been times when I’ve felt incredibly blessed and enriched by blogging. I learned a lot and made some great friends in early days of my first blog when I was connecting with and learning from other church planters around the world who were planting similar kinds of churches to LivingRoom (our community).

On the flip side I came away from some of what I saw happening in the ‘Christian Blogging community’ feeling quite depressed. In some of the debates between different ‘varieties’ of Christians I saw terrible personal attack and disunity which left me feeling somewhat jaded and frustrated.

Since spending less time in the ‘Christian’ blogosphere I’ve found my faith challenged and enlivened in many ways. I now run a large blog network with hundreds of blogs and lots of people working for us. Being involved in a large business in this way brings a lot of challenges in terms of the decisions you have to make and the interactions that you have with others. I think I pray a lot more than I used to as a result!

TC: Would you like to see more Christians blogging beyond the realm of the so-called “Christian blogosphere?” Do you think there would be spiritual benefit in having Christians impacting other areas of the blogosphere? Do you know of Christians who are blogging in other areas and having a significant impact?

I’d love to see more Christians to catch a vision for being more outward and missional in their outlook in every area of their lives - including their blogging.

I think there is an incredible opportunity to be a part of the seeing in of God’s Kingdom if we do so.

I have met a number of Christians who are exploring this in similar ways to me and have seen numerous examples of where God’s used them/ us through our blogging.

TC: As Christians blog about other topics should they seek to do so in a way that makes it clear that they are Christians?

DR: I’ve never been one to thrust my faith upon another person.

My own understanding of missions is one that we’re called to:

  • have Proximity - to go into the world, be near people, rub shoulders with them etc
  • have Presence - build relationships, walk with people, hear what’s going on in their lives, share out lives
  • be Powerless - (wrong word, but this is a 4 ‘P’ sermon) - to be humble, to allow God to be the great missionary and do his work and to allow the other person to have some power in the situation
  • Proclaim - out of these other 3 steps we need to be ready and willing to proclaim the Gospel. I think that often as Christians we rush to the ‘proclaim’ stage but miss out on relationships

As a result in my own blogging on ProBlogger I don’t hide the fact that I’m a Christian (and a minister of a small church) - but I don’t talk about it a lot. I’ve mentioned it from time to time - but my approach is much more about getting to know people on their terms and to allow things to progress naturally.

TC: New bloggers seeking to find ways of increasing readership will undoubtedly find long lists of ways they can do so and will see that many of these require drawing attention to themselves. Do you feel that the desire to draw attention to one’s blog (and hence to oneself) can be reconciled with the character of a Christian? Is there a danger in pursuing many of the ways that bloggers can draw traffic to their sites?

DR: It’s a fine line and one that I’ve grappled with numerous times. Self promotion is something that you need to be able to do to some level as a blogger - but I guess it’s the same in many areas of life (eg - getting that promotion at work, you sometimes need to put yourself out there and prove yourself to get it).

I guess for me it’s about knowing who you are, knowing what your values are and putting yourself out there in a way that is consistent with this.

Also - I actually find that blog readers respond very well to humility and to people who are not all about promoting themselves.

While sometimes self promotion works - the most successful blogs are built on the back of them being useful to their readers in some way. I often write on ProBlogger that the key to building a great blog is to find ways to enhance the lives of your readers. I think that this fits pretty well with a Christian perspective also.

TC: With so many tips available on how to write good blog posts (keep the word count low, write a pithy headline, write a post that can be easily skimmed, etc, etc…) do you think bloggers risk losing the message in the means? Can we become so carried away with writing posts that are going to do well in search engines, social media sites and the like that we miss writing significant content?

DR: Yes - some bloggers get so bogged down in this kind of thing that they forget to write quality content that helps people.

However I think that if you get the balance right between all of these techniques and having a blog that is useful you can achieve both. It takes time to find what this balance is - but it’s achievable.

TC: When someone writes a history of the church of the 21st century, do you think he or she will need to include a chapter on blogs? Will blogs be shown to have that kind of significance or will they eventually just be forgotten?

DR: From what I know of the development of the Printing Press (a technology that changed the world) - Christians were at the forefront in using this tool to print Scripture. Many futurists believe that what’s happening online at the moment is as significant as what happened with the Printing Press - the world is changing. I guess my question is - are we as the Church embracing and using this new technology - or are we being left behind?

As I said above - Web 2.0 is surging ahead and developing all kinds of wonderful websites and applications that draw people together for community, create conversation, help people achieve their potential and equip them for life - but sadly the Church seems to be be missing from the conversation.

July 12, 2007

This article is probably going to seem far too self-serving. Yet I’m willing to recklessly plow ahead regardless. Yesterday, while I was talking to Kevin Boling on “Calling for Truth” we received a call from a reader of this site who asked an interesting question. He wanted to know how he, as someone who reads the blog, can serve as an encouragement to me. I thought it was a timely question because I’d been thinking about writing about that very thing, though focusing less on myself and more on bloggers in general. So I hope you’ll bear with me today as I address this. If you can take these suggestions and apply them to your other favorite bloggers, we’ll all be happy.

Bloggers, or at least the bloggers who have sites that convey valuable information, put in a lot of work for very little tangible reward. It’s the nature of blogging, I guess. While I’ve heard that the big-name bloggers—the one whose sites drawn tens or hundreds of thousands of visitors each day—can make a handsome living doing what they do, I’ve also heard that even they make next to nothing. I actually tend to believe this. The blogosphere, at least in my experience, hasn’t found a way of generating a lot of income. Lots of people place advertisements on their sites, either banners or Google AdWords, but these tend, at least in most cases, to generate very little revenue. Many, like me, tend to link to Amazon through an affiliate link when they mention a book or other bit of merchandise and see a few referrals come in this way—referrals that eventually lead to Amazon sending a gift certificate. It is a small reward, but a reward nonetheless. But on the whole blogging isn’t going to make anyone rich. Quite the opposite, in fact!

Thankfully most bloggers don’t blog for the financial benefits. Christian bloggers in particular blog for the higher ideal of furthering their own faith and serving the church. As they do this, they can always use a bit of encouragement. This is geared primarily towards Christian bloggers, though most is applicable more widely. Let me provide just a few ways you can be an encouragement to bloggers.

Leave a Comment. This is likely the easiest thing you can do but it can be very encouraging, especially for people whose blogs do not receive a great deal of traffic. Simply leave a comment, noting that you read and enjoyed the article. If you feel there was a problem with the article, leave a comment and the reason you disagreed. Simply knowing that an article is being read can be a real blessing to a blogger.

Send a Note of Encouragement. Short of leaving a comment, this is probably the easiest thing you can do. Simply find the person’s email address or contact form and send them a brief note, mentioning that you enjoy reading their blog (and perhaps why you enjoy the blog) and encourage them to continue seeking the Lord.

Pray for Them. I find that the greatest source of encouragement is to know that people are praying for me. Of course it is always a blessing to know that others are holding us up before the throne of God, but I think in the case of blogging is also stands as validation that the person’s efforts are sufficiently significant that they are worth praying for. So pray for them and drop them a note to let them know you’re doing so.

Tell Someone Else About the Site. When you find a site that you enjoy and that has been a source of encouragement to you, tell other people about it. While most bloggers will say (and, in most cases, truly mean) that they do not much care how many people read their site, it is an encouragement to see more people gravitate to a blog. So tell your friends!

Shop at Amazon Through an Affiliate Link. As I said, many bloggers are part of Amazon’s affiliate program. This means that we receive a commission (of about 6 or 7%) on any item you purchase after clicking one of our links. So if a blogger posts a link to a product on Amazon and you click on the link and then purchase the product, the blogger will receive as reward a small percentage of that amount. Also, the blogger will receive a similar percentage of anything else you purchase at Amazon during that session. This is unlikely to generate much revenue, but even a gift certificate that allows the blogger to purchase a couple of books per month is a nice little bonus. So when you are thinking of shopping at Amazon, find an affiliate and enter Amazon through that person’s link. Many people even place an Amazon search box directly on their site. If you search through that box the blogger will receive credit for anything you purchase. This is a simple but effective way of sending some support to a blogger. And best of all, Amazon foots the bill!

Look for Amazon Wishlists. Many bloggers maintain an Amazon wishlist. This is simply a list of products from Amazon they would like to own. You’ll often see a link to this list from a blog or you can even visit the Wishlist section at Amazon and search by name or email address. You can then send a small gift anonymously or with a small note of encouragement.

And that’s all I have for now. Again, I trust you’ll take these in the spirit I intend them, not as a plug for you to do anything for me, but as an encouragement to take notice of the people whose blogs you enjoy and to serve as an encouragement to them.

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