Interviewing @johnnylaird

Johnny Laird describes himself as “Blogger, connector, communicator, change agent & social activist…friend of the geek & radical”.  He has been blogging since 2006, in a great blog: which provides a great mix of interviews, tips and personal interest. Johnny took a break from being the interviewer, and answered some of our questions…

What’s your background, life and faith, in a nutshell?

Well, “in a nutshell” (am I the only one who instantly thinks of Austin Powers when he uses that phrase?), and dealing with the question in the order you’ve set it out, my background is that I’m the son of Salvation Army officers so as a result spent most of my early years living in one place for a couple of years, then moving on to a new town in line with my folks’ various appointments. We started off in Scotland. I was born in Aberdeen, although my first home was the fishing port of Fraserburgh, way up there in the North East of Scotland. We bounced around all over Scotland, as well as Orkney for about twelve years, before moving South to England, initially Warrington, then Bedford, which is where I completed my schooling. In a lot of ways, coming to Bedford was a really seminal period in my life; it was there that I spent those important teenage years from 13 to 19. Bedford gave me my first experience of living in a truly diverse community (and loving it) and I was within spitting distance of London. The alluring bright lights were a mere train ride away!

The diversity I mentioned went a long way towards forming a worldview that hopefully looks outwards as much as inwards.

At school my focus tended towards English and Music, reading and listening voraciously, more often than not drawn to the oblique and edgier stuff.

I was obsessive about music in those years; going to gigs, hanging around with bands, playing my trombone in every kind of set up imaginable and developed a really catholic listening  taste quite happily mashing up the Specials with Santana, Blues with Brass Bands and Depeche with Dvorák and everything in between. Ultimately that love meant that I stumbled into what was to be a long career in the Musical Instruments industry, largely with the Japanese Electronic instrument company, Roland.

That phase of my life finished at the end of 2009, when some corporate re-jigging presented me with the opportunity to take a voluntary redundancy and bring some fine focus to what my life priorities were all about.

I wrote at the time… It’s time to recalibrate.

Early signs seem to be focussed towards authentic missional discipleship, connection and some kind of increased & enhanced online activity – influenced in part because I have been inspired by those over the last little while who by their living, writing, sharing, creativity, entrepreneurial spirit, grace and love have impacted me more than they will ever realize.”

Some months down the line, that’s pretty much how it has rolled out. All of the above is happening, and I’ve met and collaborated with some wonderful people along the way.

I have a portfolio of projects I’m working on at any one time, and now am on the staff with my Church.

Bringing you up to speed to where I am today; I live with my wife, Janet and our wonderful young kids in a little semi-rural town in Surrey called Oxted. It’s a beautiful place with a fabulous sense of community, and unless we get thrown a massive and unexpected curveball I think we’ll be here for a long time.

In terms of my faith, I’m a Jesus guy, plain and simple; and the life and teaching of Jesus speaks to me of love for others, of justice, grace and mercy. There’s a quote attributed to the actor William H Macy that resonates with me, where he says:

”…in this day and age of religious wackos taking over the world I do love quoting Jesus and reading some of the things he said in the Bible. Because it’s so disarming, so simple, so true. It cannot be argued with. “Let he who is without sin…” Oh man.”

I’m with Macy on that.

I’m also convicted that we – as Jesus followers – need to be a “sent” people, not just like minded Christians hanging out in a Holy Huddle, but rather people who are out there in our communities with our sleeves rolled up. There’s a phrase that I heard the missiologist and all round top bloke Mike Frost use once, which is “Following the Mission Dei into Strange Places”. I can relate to that.

I’ve been pretty heavily involved with The Salvation Army from day one (that’s day one of me, not day one of The Salvation Army!) and that continues today.

You’ve been blogging since 2006. What started you off on your blogging journey? Did you have any previous writing experience or were you known as a ‘tech-geek’?

I’d been lurking around on other blogs for a while, leaving the occasional comment, and then I just felt I wanted to join in the conversation a little more, so I just kinda stumbled into blogging myself.

In one way or another I’d always written, but never really hung to anything I produced. Most of it has largely disappeared into the ether, or was disposed of as exercise books were shed along the way as we moved from house to house around the UK. Finally with blogging, I could write with the reasonable hope that would be able to hang on to what I’ve written.

Hopefully, I’ve learnt a little about how to write for the web.

Strangely enough, I’m not really that techy, despite being involved with a cutting edge manufacturer for most of my working life. I do love gear, but not for its own sake. It’s what it can do for broader society that I find the most fascinating.

What do you feel you’ve learnt in the 4 years that you’ve been blogging?

I suppose I’ve become more adept at navigating the blogosphere than when I started, and have a fair handle on how the etiquette of it all works. I can use Twitter with a fair degree of facility and would hope with a reasonable amount relational intelligence.

It goes back to being polite I guess…

Blogging as a medium has changed massively in that short space of time, so we should not expect it to remain as it is now forever, or even for much longer. It will continue to morph and evolve ever more rapidly, so you have to be prepared to be flexible and open to the “new”.

Who are you blogging inspirators, and how does this affect your blogging ‘strategy’?

There are three guys that immediately spring to mind – Pernell Goodyear,Thomas Mathie AKA Headphonaught and Carlos Whittaker. They were really the first ones that drew me in to blogging as a reader, and made me think I could blog under my own steam.

Pernell was doing some great missional stuff with the Freeway, a faith community he’d planted in Hamilton, Ontario centred around a coffee shop in a building that had been a bank in its previous life. Pernell shared his story with authenticity, and wasn’t afraid to expose his fears and frustrations along the way. On top of that, when I commented – he answered. This level of engagement and dialog was the hook for me to really appreciate the power of the blog.

The Headphonaught’s blog was interesting to me because it threw everything into the mix in a random and mashed up way that I found thoroughly appealing. Thomas would flip effortlessly from a post about deep felt & personal faith issues, to a geeky post about Apple Macs or the latest news about his beautiful family… and I loved it; still do! Thomas is a maven, and always ahead of the curve culturally. I enjoy the fact that there is no clear demarcation between the secular and the sacred in Thomas’ world.

Carlos Whittaker’s Ragamuffin Soul was also one of my main ports of call in the early days; and I think he gave me a superb example of how you could graciously foster an online community without overt systems or programmes. Ragamuffin Soul is just a great place to hang out online.

Beyond the initial influences I’ve mentioned, there are a whole slew of various bloggers who have had a positive influence on what I try to do. In fact, I once posted on the idea of a “Blogging Dojo” – a place of affirmation, learning and sharing – where I listed and acknowledged those guys who were floating my blogging boat. A buddy of mine, Chris Hinton, a Salvation Army Pastor, who blogs at Geek-Speak picked up on the idea, and together we’ve developed, or at least have begun to develop a site where we explore that concept.

As for a “strategy”, I don’t think I really have one. I did think hard about how I wanted my blog to function when I migrated from Blogger to WordPress earlier this year, but beyond that it’s pretty free flow, or organic. The only real parameter I have set for myself was that I would not make it strictly a faith issue blog. I wanted to reflect all of the areas of my life, and engage with all of the folks who take time to read – not just the Christians. Neither did I want to make it too preachy, or have those people who were not Christian feel that in some way they were part of some “conversion” project of mine.

What other social media tools do you use, and which are the most important as far as you are concerned?

The blog is my hub for everything I do online. I use Facebook, I Tweet, I have a LinkedIn profile and there’s a few vids up on Vimeo.

Apart from the blog itself, I would say that Twitter is the tool I use the most, which I like for its brevity and the fact that you can connect to a world way beyond your usual circle.

Would you encourage other Christians to get online? What difference do you think it would make?

Yes, I would. As to what difference can it make? You know, that’s a tough one.

I’d say it’s the message not the medium. There are clearly ways that we can, in our engagement with others, share the love that Jesus teaches, but that’s a whole life thing – it works online and offline. If you are walking the Way of Jesus, hopefully that will be reflected in all areas of your life.

What would be your top tip for someone looking to get online?

In the immortal words of Nike “Just do it!”

The tools are out there, more often than not are free and with a minimum of knowledge you can get moving online fairly quickly. It’s just a question of getting on with it in some way. Start simple, and use the tools that work best for you. When you get going it’s important to make sure whatever you do is a two way street. Don’t simply broadcast, but share in a dialog…and be polite!

What tools do you use (online or offline) to engage with the Bible?

Online, I use BibleGateway when I’m working with my PC and YouVersion on the iPhone. I’m also a regular listener to teaching podcasts from Mosaic in LA, and Mars Hill (the Rob Bell one, not the Mark Driscoll oneJ)).

Offline, I have a dog-eared copy of The Message that is full of scribbles and Post It notes that tends to go with me on my travels as I go about my business each day. It’s my day to day Bible paraphrase, and lives in my bag, ready to pull out at a moment’s notice on the train or any hot desk that tales my fancy! I also use a NIV Student Bible, and a wonderful NRSV “Peoples Bible”, which is said to provide the best insights of historical-critical, liberationist, postmodern, and postcolonial interpretation”!

I’ve dipped into a fair amount of NT Wright along the way.

Also, is this a safe space to admit I’ve read a fair deal of Brian McLaren as well? 😉

One other book that I use occasionally for its sheer simplicity and humour is Nick Page’s The Bible Book. Nick says in the introduction “My Hebrew is non-existent and my Greek is limited to two words “doner” and “kebab”.

Having said that, I do have a bit of a hankering to learn some Hebrew.

I think it must be those years of listening to Rob Bell….

How important is it to be an authentic follower of Jesus in all walks of life, and how easy do you find that online?

For me, it is massively important. It’s a given that we must do all we can – if we call ourselves Christian – to follow Jesus and his teaching as closely as we can manage. Again, I would largely rail against the notion that it should be any easier or more difficult in either our online or offline worlds.

That authenticity should (I hope) show itself regardless.

I have been encouraged by the support and kindness of my non-Christian friends who have in some way contributed to my blog by their comments, and have been willing to accept me as a Jesus follower. Just occasionally, I’ve been blown away by their perceptions and perspectives.

What next?

Well, I think I’ve realised that writing is something that I love more than ever. If there are continuing ways to use that passion I will explore them. I’ve been working away in the background on a Copywriting and Content Strategist business that should see the light of day before too long.

Very recently I have become a trustee of Kore UK, which is a Creative Agency headed up by a frighteningly talented husband and wife team that have a dynamism that is inspirational. It’s wonderful to be involved there in a small way.

I’m also starting to become increasingly involved with the great guys at the Something Beautiful Podcast, and I’m hoping that some co-presenting there can be an ongoing project.

All of these collaborative efforts are largely about telling stories, and using the current tools available to do that. This is where most of my efforts and placed.

Then, there’s always the near-future cyberpunk novel that’s been fermenting in my mind for a few years now…

People say everyone has a book inside of them. I’m just hoping mine hits the New York Times best seller list

Johnny is one of those coming to the New Media Conference on 16th October, and I’m sure he’ll be delighted to chat to you (and you can discuss whether he looks like his avatar or not). We also welcome those who are just thinking about taking their first tentative steps to the conference…

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The #BigBible Project. Educating in the digital spaces, creating 'bigger Bible conversations' between #digidisciple(s). Look out for #bigread14.