I have people ask me all the time how to get started writing. I suspect there are many who enjoy putting words together and just don't know how to get going. Maybe they are intimidated by the idea of writing a book or a long-form piece to a journal or magazine. Or even the idea of "blogging" and social media scare them. Here is the best advice I can give them. I hope this helps you if you are reading it:
1) Get started somewhere, even if it's small. My advice now is to just get started. Create a blog and start putting your best stuff online. Michael Hyatt's book, Platform is a great way to get started, though I advise you not to be intimidated and think you HAVE TO DO ALL OF THIS RIGHT NOW. Start with a free service like Tumblr, Blogger, or any of the others. Select a nice template, come up with a creative name and maybe tagline and then GET STARTED. Besides blogging, you might try to query some magazines or periodicals. The best way to do this is to purchase Sally Stuart's Christian Market Guide. Find publications that might be a good fit for your writing style. Start, maybe, with devotional publications, curriculum publishers, etc. You might also consider guest-posting on popular blogs that offer content in your niche. Blogs are consistently in need of new content, so you might contact the proprietors and see if they are interested in your ideas. But do take risks and get started.
2) Publish that first piece. I talk to a lot of would-be writers and I hear the same thing, "I have this thing I wrote, but I'm not sure . . ." My advice is to get that piece of writing as good as you can get it and then publish it on your blog. Then get started writing another piece and publish it on your blog. The only way to get better at writing is to . . . write. You need to write hundreds, then thousands of pieces before you get good. Then you'll discover that you're only marginally good and need to write another hundred, if not another thousand to get better. But, for Heaven's sake, stop perfecting that first piece like it's the Mona Lisa. It's probably not. Publish.
3) Have confidence that in time, good writing gets noticed. It's my own personal law of creativity that the best stuff gets noticed. So before you try to sell yourself ahead of time, write in the trenches, write in obscurity for a good long time and actually get good at writing. Trust the process and know that if you consistently put your best content online, if you grow, if you're open to critique and change, then you'll get discovered. You will. Case in point: I've been writing for about 15 years. But I've only been seriously blogging for about 5 or so. I still don't have one of the most highly trafficked blogs in the blogosphere, but after I committed to working hard and putting good stuff online, I got noticed. People starting reading my stuff, linking to it, passing it along. I think this goes back to a good theology of work. We work, we develop our gifts, not so we can get a fat contract or be rich and famous, but to the glory of God. The work itself matters, not who sees it and what happens. God sees it. So do your best work, even if only one human reads it. And, typically, you will get noticed and good things can happen.
4) Don't be the one who pesters everyone to tweet, link to, or give you attention. Maybe this is a pet peeve of mine, but don't be the guy who on Twitter tags someone famous and says, "You might like this . . . ." or "I write this, can you tweet it out." Look, if you're writing is good, people will notice. That's not to say there is something wrong with promotion or marketing. Not at all. If you believe in your message, you want it to get out there. Still, there is a crass way to do this that skips all the steps it takes to be good enough to be well read. Don't take that shortcut. Write well and you won't have to convince anyone to read your stuff.
5) Don't build your platform on outrage. There is a increasingly rich market for "evangelicals who are not like other evangelicals." Controversy sells and generates clicks. And for a short season, this formula works. But over the long haul, if this is your game, you'll end up running out of steam and having to generate outrage to keep your rapid fan base happy. But is this the way of Christ? Is the way to glorify God with your gifts? And do you want to be that guy know solely by what you are against? Now, an important caveat to those, right now, queuing up blog posts to say that I'm part of a secret cabal stifling dissent: there is a place for thoughtful, robust, substantive, even satirical critique. But always check your motives and make it your mission to be creative, tell your story, take risks, and use your gifts to glorify God.
It's kind of ridiculous to ask, "What if Jesus were on Twitter?" But indulge me for a second, anyways. I've noticed something about our generation's engagement online and with those we consider "Christian celebrities" - famous pastors or church leaders who have big platforms. There's a tendency among those of us who blog, tweet, write, post, instagram, etc toward a subtle kind of Phariseeism. Our generation prides itself on not being legalistic, of casting off the sort of religious, rule-making paradigm we didn't quite like about our parent's version of church. But in our zeal to not be like those we think are bad representations of Christianity, we've adopted a legalism of a different sort.
In Luke 18, Jesus shares a haunting parable about who is justified in the eyes of God. I'm struck by a few things in this passage. First, Luke gives us a vague description of the audience. The NIV puts it like this: "To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else." I"m guessing everyone in the audience thought that they were not in this self-righteous group. It was everyone else who needed to work on their pride.
Jesus then sets up a story of two people going to the temple to pray, a common occurrence in that culture. You first have the religious person, the spiritual one, who enters a time of prayer with pride. He wants to be seen as being prayerful and utters a public declaration, "I thank God I'm not like . . . . ." The people he names are people held in contempt by the culture, people who are "safe" to mock for their sin. Easy targets of ridicule and scorn. These are the people we might mock on Twitter and seek to distance ourselves from with heated denunciations or humorous take-downs. You can even envision the hashtags from this Pharisee's prayer: #robber #evildoer #adulterer. Then the Pharisee, wanting to squeeze out every bit of public praise, narrows his focus to "and even this guy, the tax collector." Here he is calling out the other man to enter the temple to pray, the guy with the worst reputation in the community, the easy target for manufactured outrage and public scorn. You can even envision this in a tweet, "So glad I"m not like @taxcollector who preys on the poor and betrays his own people."
But Jesus, poking holes in the self-righteousness of the Pharisee, turns the narrative focus on the tax collector, who enters the temple, head down, full of remorse. Unlike the Pharisee he has no illusions of his own righteousness. He's overcome with guilt and sorrow for his sin. He knows he doesn't deserve anything from God but punishment and so cries out in mercy, even beats his breast.
This man, Jesus said, walked out more justified than the Pharisee. Why? Because it wasn't others' sin that so gripped his heart and soul, it was his own.
Now most of us would hear a story like that and shout "amen!" because we don't think we're the first guy, the self-righteous Pharisee. Those are the people with all the funky religious rules and weird clothes. Those are the fundamentalists of another generation or the obnoxious guy on Facebook who doesn't celebrate Halloween or the celebrity pastor who keeps saying dumb things.
But I think Jesus would beg to differ. Remember he addressed this parable to "some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else." That cuts both ways. What's more, if the tax collector in Jesus' day was the easy target, the hated person in the culture, the one that reasonable, middle-of-the-road, kinda spiritual people are free to mock, then maybe it's us who are the Pharisees.
Jesus words to the Pharisees of his day and to the Pharisees of our day is simple: "For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted," (Luke 18:14). Empty, vacuous declarations of self-righteousness bounce off the ceiling. But desperate, humble cries for mercy and grace reach the throne room of Heaven.
Today, social media is our "public temple" in a way. It's where we declare who we are and what we stand for, for better or for worse. And I'm afraid we're so quick to make sure everyone knows that we're "not like that other guy who keeps getting it wrong." You might substitute "obnoxious celebrity pastor" or "outrageous Hollywood entertainer" or "corrupt congressman" for tax collector. Our generation of Christians seems too eager to "not be like those other kind of Christians." We all think we are among the most reasonable people we know.
In our lurching attempts to not be Pharisees, we become Pharisees of a different stripe. But Jesus' words to the self-justified should haunt us and then drive us to our knees in humility and cries for mercy. These may not be the stylish prayers of the digital world. But they are the prayers Jesus seems to answer.
I'll never forget the one time I visited Las Vegas. I was in town for a wedding and was awed by the amazing architecture. It seemed to me, at the time, that no expense was spared by the developers. But while Christians can admire the beautiful architecture of Vegas, we must admit that there is tremendous social cost to the seemingly innocent vice called gambling. When I was a pastor, I saw first-hand who the gambling industry preys on: the poor. Sure you have your high-stakes wealthy who drop lots of money, but mountains of social research have documented the troubling social costs of gambling. Really the only ones who win, when a casino comes into your town, are the business-owners and the local governments. And sadly, those local governments end up paying out more in social benefits over the long haul. Families, the poor, and communities suffer greatly.
Recently, the Institute for American Values has released a report titled, "Why Casinos Matter." My ERLC colleague, Joe Carter, has put some of the best of this info in an article "9 things you should know about casinos and gambling." He also created a handy infographic that I've pasted in below. If you are interested in speaking on this topic in your church or community group, this would be a great resource:
"Nobody has ever told me that before," she said to me. Her tired voice and tired posture betrayed years of faithful ministry work that had gone unnoticed and unappreciated. It was my first week on the job as a Senior Pastor and I had much to learn about shepherding God's people. But one thing I carried with me from childhood, something my mother taught me repeatedly, is the value of a simple "thank you" to those who work with and for you. So I said thank you to this church lady for volunteering every week for one of our key ministry programs.
Leaders of all types have one thing to give to their people that nobody else can give: encouragement. By this I don't mean flattery that withholds useful criticism and coaching. I mean a simple affirmation of their gifts and their contributions. Even if you're managing people who make a salary and shouldn't have to be rewarded with praise for performance, you should still let them know periodically that they are valued and appreciated. If you're a pastor leading mostly volunteers, your gratitude is even more important. Volunteers don't have to give you their time and money, they do out of belief in the cause.
Sometimes Christians withhold praise from a kind of Pharisaical moral platform. I've heard longtime believers say, for instance, that we shouldn't clap after someone sings in church, for fear that this person might "get a big head and not give glory to God." For one thing, God never tasks you and me with the "Glory Watch" of others. What I mostly hear in Scripture is that any identification of pride is to be a Spirit-directed self-discipline. In other words, if there is anyone's pride who needs to be kept in check, its my own, not the dear saint who labored to give us some music on Sunday. And of course we have Jesus' own example of praising John the Baptist, calling him the greatest man who had ever lived (Matthew 11:7). One wonders if there was a know-it-all disciple within earshot who felt Jesus went a little far in his praise. Jesus also lamented that only one out of ten healed lepers expressed their praise to him. Ironically it was the Samaritan, the least likely object of a healing by a Jewish rabbi, who felt the weight of his miracle enough to offer praise. Often its those who expect miracles lose the wonder when they actually happen. Lack of gratitude, far from a minor character flaw, is at the root of man's disobedience from God. Satan's enticement of Eve began with the premise that God was withholding good and in Romans, we see the Apostle Paul finger this insidious sin as the root of human rebellion (Romans 1:18-32).
Those of us who have experienced an even greater miracle, whose souls have been cleansed by Jesus' healing death and resurrection, should be among the most grateful. Not only toward God who, through Christ, rescued us from death, but also toward those who He has sovereignly placed in our lives. Those who we are privileged to work with and around, the loved ones we live with, and friends who enrich our lives. For leaders, especially, gratitude should be a discipline. There are words we can speak to those who look up to us that only we can speak, words that mean more coming from our mouths than anyone else's. A son shouldn't assume his father loves and values him. He should actually hear, regularly, that his dad actually loves and values him. Employees shouldn't wait years to know their worth to the company. They should hear it, not in flattering, untrue ways, but in real, tangible, specific instances.
I have found, personally, that gratitude is like a muscle. I must discipline myself to exercise it regularly. So I must remind myself to daily affirm those I'm called to love at home, my wife and children. I must remind myself to notice something special about my staff. And I must regularly remind my friends how much I appreciate them.
I have found that when it comes to encouragement, I needn't worry whether or now my praise will "give someone a big head." The rough and tumble world already takes care of people's ego quite well without me. Plus, I've found that it's usually me with the biggest head and uttering words of gratitude usually let out some of the air.