Practically and technically getting stories from the field

In response to our recent survey, one reader shared with us their challenge: “Obtaining the information and photos we need from the field to present needs in a timely and security-friendly way; presenting specific needs to donors and prayer partners in a way that’s engaging and keeps workers safe.”
I wrote to ask them to clarify a bit, and their challenge is one that we have faced ourselves in ActBeyond (and I’m sure others have faced as well). Here are some additional points they made:

  1. Workers often don’t respond to our requests for information and photos. Sometimes this is due to busyness; other times it may be due to a lack of understanding about why this information is so important, or due to security concerns. This is probably our biggest challenge: how do we convince workers that sending us what we ask for is worth their time and energy?
  2. Workers respond, but send things we can’t use. This is particularly true of pictures as many times the pictures we do receive are of poor quality or pose a security risk. (Due to the fact that many [of our] workers serve in areas in which their connection with [our agency] could pose a risk to their safety—and the safety of local believers with whom they work—it’s our policy to refrain from showing the face of any worker in our publications and online. The same goes for faces of national believers.)
  3. Due to our security concerns, taking appropriate photos often requires creativity—and more energy and effort on the part of workers.
  4. Our need for photos and information is growing (due to our increased social media engagement and developing a new website—scheduled to go live by the fall), so the level of response we once received from workers is no longer sufficient.

Have you and your agency faced these issues? What wisdom would you share in response?
In particular: do you have a sample brand guide you’d be willing to share with me (and them–I would forward)? Email
How do you practically receive and store and share photos? What technological solutions have you adopted?
Any other thoughts? Feel free to comment below or send an email to

The Time Sink of Social Media

Time and attention are things we only have so much of, and they turned up on our recent survey as something that really challenges many: how do I get the most out of my time? out of this season of life?
Social media (and email) are two areas identified as enormous time sink. People want to know how to get the best “return” for the time investment they make.
I am very active on social media myself, but having said that, I’m pretty guarded about my time there. I don’t spend hours. I access it on my phone in snatches, I have a dedicated period of time during the day for concentrated review of certain lists, I use tools to monitor what people are re-sharing, and I skim a lot. Here’s two lessons I’ve learned that have helped me to manage:
1. If you’re trying to build an enormous audience, social media will become an endless content monster. There are several sites dedicated to helping you hack your posts so they are the most viral they can be. But I’ve come to see people rarely tweet themselves to lasting fame. People that we really celebrate (=celebrities) are people who create enormously good content (art that we enjoy, books that entertain or make us think, movies, etc). Besides, more importantly, I’ve discovered building a huge audience, on any kind of media may be a path to celebrity – but it is not necessarily a path to influence. (Granted, some celebrities do use their fame for good, but most in my view do not.)
2. If all you’re doing is reading the entertaining content of others, social media will become an enormous time sink. Of the making of cat videos there is no end. Following everyone is a sure way of being blown by the wind, and making a difference in the lives of no one.
“Media” is a plural form of “medium.” The english word medium comes from the Latin term medium which meant ‘the middle, midst, center, or interval.’ Medium in the sense of communication has had the meaning of ‘an intermediate agency’ from the 1600s.
Any form of medium is essentially something that is “in the middle” of us, and enables communication. Paper is a medium for writing, painting, etc. Print is a medium for the presentation of thought: a book exchanged between an author and a reader is “in the middle” of the two of them.
“Social media” is our catchall phrase for a medium (form) of communication that enables mass sharing and resharing and commenting. The key to social media seems to me to be choosing who I communicate with, why I communicate with them, how my communications will go, what I am willing to receive, and how often I will communicate.
The “time sink” of this communication can be significantly reduced and qualitatively improved by reduction: by choosing a limited set of people to interact with, getting to know them as people, and being a blessing to them. I have found that by limiting my more personal and direct communications to people who are in my “tribe,” and acknowledging that tribe will be limited, I set a significant barriers against the time sink.
A positive form of influence to me is this: if I am a blessing to someone (through providing information, answers, encouragement, connections, etc), hopefully they will pass on that same blessing to others (by resharing a post, a document, a connection, an answer).
Audience size may be a marker of fame but not necessarily a factor in influence over audiences.

Understanding someone requires conversation, not polls

What something is purported to mean to a large portion of a sample does not automatically mean the same thing to every individual within the sample, or to every representative of the sample that you meet.
Seeing a woman in some form of Islamic dress doesn’t equate to the assumption that she sees herself as oppressed.
Maybe she does. Maybe she doesn’t. Maybe the challenges she faces in daily life have very little to do with that, and everything to do with a job she works at, or her children (or lack of them), or her husband (or lack of one), or…
You can’t know what people perceive to be their greatest challenges, their greatest needs–until you ask them.
This requires that we stop looking at people and assuming we know what their life is like on the basis of polls, studies, hearsay, or someone who knew someone who heard from someone else – and instead, say “Hello.”
Polls and studies are very useful for understanding trends which impact large groups and which may or may not impact individuals – but they can also be dangerous assumptions.

How I use a practical journal to define big rocks and focus

Several people have mentioned their need to find ways of being effective given their season of life and the time pinches they face. In this post, I’m going to describe in greater detail how I use a simple print journal to focus myself each day, in the context of the week and month.
I discovered the Bullet Journal format back in 2014, and I’ve been using it religiously since. Here’s how I go about it.
I have long used Stephen Covey’s “Big Rocks” analogy for how I handle my day. If you’ve not heard the Big Rocks analogy, see this brief article (like, half a page). Basically, “big rocks” are the key priorities of the day. If you do the “little things” first (sand), you’ll have no room to fit the “big rocks” of the day into the day.
First, at the start of the year, I have a single page in the journal which lists each month. This is a top-level macro view of the calendar. The biggest rocks of the month are noted here. Here’s what my page looks like.
For each month, I have a “3-page spread.” The first page is a daily calendar with the big rocks for the day. Page 2 are the priorities for the month – the big projects I am thinking about, working on, or think I should be working on. Page 3 is a “stock menu” – this is personal, for our family; basically I’ve found that by tracking some of the meals we like, it gives us ideas for the next month when we start building a menu and shopping for groceries (and then I don’t have the “what should we have on the menu this week” blank-paper-freeze). Page 4 is the beginning of the daily journal.
These 3 pages look like the following:
page 1
page 2
page 3
With these pages anchoring the month (and updated during the month), I then have a small daily entry following the Bullet Journal format. I often get a week of entries on 2 pages.
daily entry
Saturdays usually take a slightly different format: just an itemized list of things we might like to do. When Saturday is coming up, I look back at the LAST Saturday, and bring the list “forward.” During the week I might be taking note of things the family’s mentioned and add them to the next Saturday list. Then, when Saturday comes, and someone says, “What should we do”–I’ve got a list of possibilities (some chores, some fun).
Also, in the journal, I often take notes directly from things happening or research I’m doing. For example:
notes page
Some people have asked me why I do this over some kind of tech solution (like phone, or computer). I think the biggest parameter is: what will you use? This little journal goes with me just about everywhere (my kids have taken to calling it “Dad’s Brain”), and everyone knows if it’s written in the journal it’ll get done (eventually). It’s easy to scratch a note on a page, and you never have to worry about what key presses, key strokes, software crashes, or batteries running out will prevent you from writing down what you need.
Part of the value of journaling is to help me remember no day happens in isolation. There is a thread that runs through the days, and the journal lets me track it. It also lets me reflect back and see what I have gotten done (successes), what I have not gotten done repeatedly (is it really valuable?), and how much I can get done in a day. It reminds me that there’s only so much time. It needs to be used wisely and effectively.
My system might work for you. It might not. The important thing is to use a system, as an orientation device, a map, a discipline, a target – rather than to drift aimlessly, which is a sure way to get nowhere at all.

Fluid dynamics; or, water as a symbol of the spirit and the church

Water is frequently used in Scripture as a metaphor for religious things.
In water systems, there are many elements:

  • standing water: pools, ponds, lakes
  • moving water: streams, rivers
  • water that moves in vast quantities from one region to another: waterfalls
  • water transferred by other systems and powers: rain
  • enormous bodies of water, whole other eco systems: oceans

There are many metaphors that can be found here:

  • churches as pools, ponds, and lakes. Standing bodies of water are incredibly important to the surrounding eco-systems: they are reserves of life-giving water, they house fish, they feed nearby plants, they bring water into the earth underneath (underground streams), etc. Lakes can also become stagnant swamps (which are important ecosystems on their own, I grant you, but not very nice to look at, live in, or smell). To avoid becoming stagnant, they need movement: feeding into streams, and having streams feeding into them (also, wind). Lakes in drought will evaporate; they need streams feeding in and rain to refill.
  • moving water (streams, rivers) are an important symbol in prophecy: ‘streams in the desert’ is the most common one. Moving water comes into new places, and fills up new lakes. This is a tremendous metaphor, obviously, for the missionary task of the church, and also our interconnectedness.
  • vast moving water (waterfalls): one of the symbols we use in cascading church planting movements is the massively reproducing movement that scales up until it fills the whole of an area, and then spills over into surrounding areas. Waterfalls are powerful images of this “filling up, spilling over” idea. They move water from one place where it is vastly impactful, into another (possibly entirely different) nearby system.
  • water transferred (rain): one of the greatest forces for water transfer is of course rain, and this is often the image of the spirit: it picks up water from one place and puts it in another. (Yes, that’s a simplification–we’re going for imagery here, not scientific precision). No local lake can do anything about rain, but it’s vital to the whole process. The biggest form of rain is a hurricane that forms over an ocean and then dumps enormous amounts of water inland.
  • enormous bodies of water (oceans): oceans are often an analogy of heaven, especially in quasi-Buddhist thinking. While not going for the whole Nirvana thing, think about the qualitative difference between an ocean and a desert. You can tell a desert that the hurricane bringing life-giving water comes from the ocean, but the desert creatures likely won’t understand what an ‘ocean’ is. The ocean – Heaven – is near to us, and impacting us daily – a huge factor in our environment – but for many of us, the ocean is very far away and hardly understood. Even those living in port cities right on the edge of the ocean often benefit from it, but don’t understand it.

Here’s a thought: how are churches ‘on the edge of heaven’ like cities on the edge of oceans–and how are they connected to far-inland deserts? What does it take to etch a new stream, a new river, a new path for water? What’s the role of dams, and trucking water inland, and pipes – and how are these metaphors for the work of missions, of the church, of the spirit? What does it take for our church not to be a stagnant pool, and what is the role of feeding into streams that migrate to distant lands?

Stop trying to persuade everyone to be a missionary

Not everyone is a missionary.
Ephesians 4 identifies roles in the church. My thoughts on roles:

  • Pastors maintain existing bodies of believers. Demographic growth is incredibly important: when Christian exceeds 60% of the population, most growth will be demographic (believers who marry believers and raise believing children). When demographic growth rates are significantly under those of the population around them (e.g. marriage rate falls, divorce rate spikes, reproductive rate falls, religious defection right rises) the church will shrink as a % of the population.
  • Evangelists seek growth through conversion of culturally similar non-Christians around the church community. Demographic growth + Conversion growth will nearly always exceed the growth rate of the country’s population and increase the church’s influence. But evangelists are not the same as pastors, since they are looking for a different kind of growth. Evangelists and pastors most often are (and I would argue should be) of the same culture as those being engaged by the church.
  • Missionaries (apostolic gifting) seek growth across a cultural boundary not commonly crossed by the pastor or the evangelist. This could be linguistic, cultural, caste, etc. Apostolic types are typically not like the church they may be found in, since they are predisposed to look outward to others. For apostles to be most effective while supported by the church, a local pastor will have to ‘make space’ for them, supporting and encouraging them.

We say “every member a missionary” but we don’t actually mean it. What we really mean:

  • “every member a witness” (ready to give testimony to what God has done in your life)
  • “every member an evangelist” (ready to share the Good News of salvation)
  • “every member a disciple maker” (who works deeply with people to help them grow in their obedience to Jesus).

But “missionary” means (a) sent (b) across a boundary to where the Gospel is not (c) to see a church planted (not just converts made) that (d) can reach everyone in that place without the missionary being present (through the work of witnesses, evangelists, pastors, etc).
A person gifted as a pastor or an evangelist or a missionary should not be persuaded, pressured or demanded to be something they are not.
We need every part of the Body, each to be involved in the work of the Kingdom, doing the thing we are made to do. If indeed we were all missionaries – who would pastor?

Quotes, 1

1. “Beautiful obsession is the predecessor of greatness.” and “The obsessed survive and thrive.” Leadership Freak.
2. “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” Scott Adams.
3. “When I give food to the poor, I am called a saint. But, when I question why the poor have no food, I am called a communist.” Quoted by Sony Kapoor.
4. “The things you learn in maturity aren’t simple things such as acquiring info and skills.” John Maeda, accompanied by great list. “You find that the world loves talent, but pays off on character.”
5. “He that will not serve the Lord in the Sunday school at home, will not win children to Christ in China.” Charles Spurgeon. Because there’s nothing magical about airplane seatbelts.
6. “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.” Edmund Burke.
7. “It’s not your dreams that determine your future, but your habits.” Dr. Calvin Chong.
8. “It is never too late to be who you might have been.” George Eliot.
9. “A faith that moves mountains is a faith that expands horizons, it does not bring us into a smaller world full of easy answers.” Rich Mullins.
10. “When you innovate, you’ve got to be prepared for everyone telling you you’re nuts.” Larry Ellison.

Platform, Proclamation, Planting are not the same thing

Don’t confuse platform, proclamation and planting.
Everyone has a platform, by which they interact with the people around them.
Everyone is responsible to proclaim: to be a witness for what they have seen, to announce good news, to make disciples.
Everyone can be involved in some kind of planting: to help create the processes by which the Gospel is sustained over time.
These are three separate things, which are inextricably linked but are not identical.

Futures Perceived, 1

1. These 7 cities will be among the richest by 2025. CNN: Doha, Bergen, Trondheim, Asan, Rhine Rhur, Macau. Thus attracting diaspora, migrants, political power.
2. Asia’s fastest GDP growing cities, mostly in India, to 2019.
3. Ray Kurzweil’s predictions for the next 25 years. SingularityHub.
4. Protestant groups attracting believers across the North Caucasus. WindowOnEurasia: unconfirmed.
5. Ban on women drivers in Saudi Arabia giving Taxi Apps a boost. WSJ: women are main customers for Uber, others.
6. Robots seem to be improving productivity, not costing jobs. HBR.
7. Why the Saudis are going solar. Atlantic.
8. Researchers in Israel have developed a palm size device that can wirelessly steal data from a nearby laptop based on radio waves leaked by its processor’s power use.
9. Is the world running out of food? Economist explains. By 2050, number of ‘food insecure’ people will rise by a third.
10. A chip that mimics human organs is the design of the year. Wired. Will enable better testing, decrease time and cost.

Current trends may not continue

One of the key phrases in any scenario is, “it’s possible,” or “it’s likely,” or “if current trends continue.”
Many scenarios of the future presently being bandied about project the decline of Christianity. They say, “if current trends continue, _x_ will happen by 2050.”
Remember that 2050 is 35 years off. That’s a generation and more. It’s plenty of time to make a difference. It’s plenty of time to make sure current trends don’t continue.
The future is not inevitable. It is chosen, and even the smallest person can make a difference.

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