CBC’s ‘Q’…and Are There Enough Hymnals?

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Next month I’m co-leading a workshop on all of this ‘web stuff’ for the UU Ministers of Canada.  I’m working with Rev. Meg Roberts of BC and ministry student Liz James of Saskatchewan.  Yesterday we were having a Skype call planning our event.

Hmm, a three-way computer conference call.  It barely deserves mention in this kind of blog anymore so commonplace has it become, eh?

Anyway, we decided to accept an offer to lead worship for our colleagues before our 3 hour session and chatted briefly about what it might be like.  At one point one of us asked, “Will there be enough hymnals?”  There was a pause, and then, “We have computers, a projector and a screen, and we are talking about technology.  Do we NEED actual books?”

In a workshop on how technology might change the way we do ministry, the least we can do is play with how our gadgets can enhance a worship experience.  So our brief service will be paperless, and I rather expect there will be some use of video as well.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love our hymnbook.  My personal copy was the second one sold at GA the year it came out.  That said, there is one theory, especially in evangelical circles, that projected lyrics mean people have their heads up and can see one another as they sing.  It makes for a more communal experience.  The UU Minister’s Association used that to good effect at our continental Convocation a few years back.  Announcements, shared readings, hymns and even meditation images were all projected for the 500 participants.

But I love my hymnbook, and I love books generally.  I do have an electronic reader, but nothing beats turning paper pages for me.  That said, I have a feeling that ministry is going to have to adapt a bit in the coming years.  We Unitarian Universalists have been “People of the Book(s)” for a very long time.  I can’t imagine there are very many book genres that haven’t been part of a worship service at one time.  A minister arrives in a new town and the one of the first questions asked is, “Where’s the best bookstore?”

But I fear that if we limit ourselves exclusively to books, we will fail to reach a lot of potential UU’s who stimulate their brains with different media.  And for some people there is a faint whiff of elitism attached to sermons with too many footnotes.  Certainly some topics will best be addressed bookishly, and some sermons will be devoted to specific books and their ideas.  For example, I am planning a service Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists.

I guess my point is that we choose only way of worship at our peril.  The world doesn’t work that way anymore.  That thought hit home yesterday when I listened to Jian Ghomeshi’s opening remarks on CBC’s mid-morning program Q.  It started as an afternoon show and now anchors the key mid- morning slot across the country.

What’s Q? it started as the hip culture show meant to appeal to Gen XY, but they took risks.  As the host noted the show wanted to offer:

cultural affairs, arts, debate and hopefully some entertainment to the country…We stretched the definition of culture wide to include everything from punk music to literature to sports to international politics…We’ve done it in large part through larger conversations and debates, long form interviews we were told would not work in this new ADD world.  We strove to let ideas take flight… combating a hyper-active sound byte culture...

In other words the show does everything that many ‘net watchers think is entirely wrong for this new digital age.  But it’s working!

Jian was marking the show’s fifth anniversary.  I like Q, though having been a devoted Morningside fan, that like was slow to develop. Morningside was the long running predecessor of Q hosted by national treasure the late Peter Gzowski.

Why mention this?  In his remarks, Jian noted, “Q now reaches more people with this show than CBC ever has in this time slot.”  Really??? YOU BEAT OUT ST. PETER???

And then I thought about it.  Peter was an old newspaper man who did radio. Period.  Every couple of years he also published a book of show excerpts called some variant of The Morningside Papers.  But as Q has grown, they have expanded their web presence.  They have an excellent webpage and blog that invites live commentary during the show.  They are broadcast on satellite and the internet and are even carried by some American public radio stations.  Podcasts of shows are available (free) through the website archive or on iTunes.  You can even “watch what you hear” on the website or on some upper cable channel.  And Jian Tweets constantly and the Facebook page is always up to date.  Phew!

The point is you can listen to Q, watch Q, and read Q.  You can get to it through radio or computer or even TV wherever and whenever you want.  And it’s working.  Of course the quality of the program is also consistently good.  All the access in the world won’t get audience if the audience isn’t interested.

For me Q offers a lesson from which churches can learn.  Perhaps we don’t have the resources to do all they do, but that doesn’t have to stop us from asking how we can enhance what we do by repackaging it for various platforms.  Many congregations already offer video or audio recordings of sermons, although we might start thinking of offering five minute ‘sermonettes’ – condensed versions of some presentations that suit a shorter form.  Here’s an example of one Liz James did on the Sacred Lego  (the music was added by the posting site).  We can occasionally use video clips in services instead of traditional readings and so on.  All it takes is some imagination and a willingness to extend comfort zones.

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What are nonprofits doing with social media? Six interesting stats

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Katya Andresen is a marketing expert specializing in non-profits and marketing  ‘good causes’.  She wrote the book Robin Hood Marketing: Stealing Corporate Savvy to Sell Just Causes.  She also writes Katya’s Non-Profit Marketing Blog.  Stefan Jonason drew my attention to this one and it seemed good to repost, especially for those among us who are promoting social justice work in our congregations and our movement.  Her links are live and lead to a lot of interesting ideas and figures.  Enjoy! B

Welcome to my blog on nonprofit marketing, fundraising, social media and doing good in the world better and faster. I’m glad you’re here.

What are nonprofits doing with social media?  Six interesting stats

It’s the week of studies!  First we had the eBenchmarks study, then the Convio benchmarks study, and now the Blackbaud social media benchmark study.  It’s an opportunity to see how you stack up in all different ways online.

The Blackbaud study shows despite limited budgets and staffing, nonprofits continue to find value in their growing social networks.

Here are six key findings:

• 98% have a Facebook page with an average community size of over 8k fans.
• Average Facebook and Twitter communities grew by 30% and 81%, respectively.
• Average value of a Facebook Like is $214.81 over 12 months following acquisition.
• 73% allocate half of a full time employee to managing social networking activities.
• 43% budget $0 for their social networking activities.
• The top 3 factors for success are: strategy, prioritization, dedicated staff

It’s interesting to view this data against the backdrop of discussion about so-called slacktivism.  I’m quite weary of that term as I feel it undervalues low-effort actions as a first step toward a conversation with potential supporters.  This Sortable graphic pulls from data from the Georgetown Center for Social Impact Communication to make that point.  (View the original here if it’s hard to see.)

wordle.net

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Over the next while I will be posting resources I stumble across or that people suggest, resources that might be useful in this reformation discussion or in letting UUs and others bring technology -gently and easily- into church life.

This fun resource is called a Wordle.  Anna Isaacs suggested it in a recent comment on this blog.  It can be used in blogs and web pages or printed for a program cover.   You might even in use it in worship services (on-line or in church) as a projected image for meditation and contemplation.  It could become an exercise in some Lifespan Learning program – rather like making a word mandala.  It’s kind of fun and has lots of uses.

It’s also dead simple and entirely free.  Go to wordle.net, , click “Create” and then type in a bunch of words and click ‘Go’.  Voila! Once it’s up you can delete some words, which rearranges the design or go back to the word list and add more.  There are colour selections and probably other features I haven’t figured out yet.  Seriously, this took five minutes of simply typing in words that seemed appropriate to this blog.  After that it was point and click till I had a format and type face I liked.  It can be printed, shared, exported and used in all sorts of ways.

(I ‘printed’ this as a pdf file then saved the pdf as a jpeg so I could post it here.  For some reason Wirdpress didn’t like their embedding code, so I did it myself.)

Have you got a favorite app or site you would like to suggest?  Add a comment or write me at brikie@aol.com.  Thanks!

Spring Break, Dinosaurs and “Text and a prayer”

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Hi all,  This post starts entirely off topic…but then comes back.

Sorry if I have been silent for awhile, but last week was Spring Break here in Alberta and, as you can see, I took my daughters to Drumheller to the world famous Royal Tyrrell Museum home of Alberta’s amazing dinosaur collection.  And as you can see from the pic, the girls were feeling some attitude having just climbed up the inside of the World’s Largest Dinosaur (86 feet high and 151 feet long) and stared through its jaws.

OK Back on Topic!

But I have been tracking some interesting posts, articles and broadcasts which I will share with you in the coming days.  I am preparing both to participate in the CUC Symposium in Ottawa in May, and working with colleagues Liz James and Meg Roberts to prepare a workshop for the Canadian ministers at the retreat which follows.  No doubt some of their insights will be working their way into this blog.

Today, I offer an article from the Winnipeg Free Press brought to my attention by Stefan Jonason via Facebook.  Seriously, ask Stefan to friend you.  Really.  His short posts on life, politics (mostly Canadian), theology, philosophy and…oh yeah, life…are always worthy of a read.  I love his stuff, but maybe it’s just cause we’re both middle aged guys.  Nonetheless, he is a UU minister who has defined one way to make social media part of his working life.  Stefan has created a simple on-line addition to his ministry that I admire.

The specific article below speaks of a Christian pastor in Winnipeg who welcomes text messages during the service and includes some rules for congregational etiquette on the practice.  It’s a whole new way of doing “Sharing Time”.  It’s not for every congregant and probably not for every minister, but it does raise provocative questions about the degree to which we let technology come inside the church.  Enjoy.

Text and a prayer.

Marketing in a Crisis

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Terry O’Reilly has long been a major player in Canadian marketing and advertising.

Terry O'Reilly

In the last few years he has created CBC radio programs, the first called The Age of Persuasion about the ad industry, and just recently Under the Influence about marketing.  His programs are insightful, witty and fascinating.  You can find some of the podcasts through the links and more on iTunes.  Sorry to start a church blog this way, but this is one of my favorite all-time radio series…it makes walking my dog in any weather a joy.

So why mention him?  I was walking my dog in the cold winter rain the other night and listening to his episode on Marketing in a Crisis.  Now just to point out the link in the title leads you to the show’s website where you can read the script and watch supporting video clips…or you can listen to the show on this streaming audio link …or if you want to walk your dog while listening to the podcast, you can get it free on iTunes.  You know, the guy knows how to market his show!

Ok, so getting back to why read or listen to this episode.  About 8:30 minutes into the show he describes the marketing disaster that accompanied the real life disaster of the Carnival Cruise ship sinking off the Tuscan coast.  O’Reilly argues that companies need a crisis marketing plan.  After parsing the Carnival mess, he goes on to recount the story of Tylenol outlining how they literally wrote the book on successfully marketing in a crisis many years ago.

The reality is that churches run into crises as well.  Sometimes members or ministers perpetrate criminal acts.  Sometimes in our liberalism we take on causes that are controversial – maybe not in our eyes, but sometimes in the eyes of folks who don’t like our theology much…and they call us names or worse.  It’s likely we won’t know what it will be till it happens.  I guess that’s why they call it a crisis.

In Marketing in a Crisis, O’Reilly outlines a couple of simple ideas that can form the cornerstone of any response strategy:

First, the company and its PR firm has to implement its crisis strategy right away. Assuming, of course, they have one. If they do, it usually means gathering all the available information, assessing the situation, and drafting initial communication for the press.

Next, a company has to display visible leadership. One of the first things on the crisis checklist is to suspend all advertising. But in the case of Carnival, reports stated that the company didn’t pull its advertising until one week after the event.

Another vitally important factor is that the company can’t just be working its heart out to deal with a catastrophe, but it has to be seen working its heart out.

In a crisis, communication is everything.

In the days following the disaster, it also became clear that Carnival had no plan for dealing with social media.

Its main Facebook page continued to offer the usual updates on trips and deals. CEO Arison, an avid Tweeter, went virtually silent. Six full days after the accident, a post appeared on the Carnival Facebook page saying that out of respect, they were going to, quote: “Take a bit of a break from posting on our social channels.”

But after virtually no online activity for nearly a week, people started to post negative comments on ship safety, and shock over Carnival’s 30% discount offer to the Costa passengers.

By contrast the makers of Tylenol handled the crisis of someone poisoning several bottles of their medication extremely well as the show details.  But the most important factor is why they did what they did:

The way Johnson & Johnson handled the crisis was revealing of the company’s integrity – which included giving the grieving families counseling and financial compensation, even though the company was not at fault.

Should a crisis befall us, as church folks we first have to look to our Principles and take a little time to think through not the most expedient thing to do, but the right thing to do.  In the long run using the crisis to call us back to our best selves will be what gets us through.

As we think about implementing social media strategies in general, O’Reilly reminds us that we have to also set up some plans for what to do when things go wrong, either in church or in the world.  Back on the morning of 9-11 when the towers fell, we had a staff meeting that quickly became a sharing circle.  From that came the idea that we hold hold a supportive vigil service that night and the word went out mostly by phone and some by e-mail. It worked.  It wasn’t a church crisis, per se, but it was a crisis for church folk.  Caring for people is what we do.

I have drafted a document that might be a place to start in thinking out a congregational plan,  Check it out:  Crisis Management Plan: Media

Also here are some helpful links:

“Ready for a Crisis?”

SEVEN DIMENSIONS OF CRISIS COMMUNICATION MANAGEMENT:
A STRATEGIC ANALYSIS AND PLANNING MODEL©

Yes, sorry, this is another thing for your To Do list, but spending some time setting down an even rudimentary policy for how your congregation, and who in your congregation,  can step up in a crisis can save grief and actually help the image of your congregation.

A Case of Managing Message in Mixed Media

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The UK newspaper The Guardian released this video about three weeks ago.  The simple purpose is to show consumers how The Guardian now both follows and covers news on several media platforms.  But the genius of the piece is the use of an old morality fable to demonstrate a new reality.

Enjoy the cleverness of the message as you watch this, and then read on…

…and thanks to Kathy S. for bringing it to my attention!

My favorite bit is “There’s no way he could have blown down those housest, he had asthma!”

In the flashing visuals and voice overs we see much of what is good and bad about the instant info access we now enjoy.  In the course of two minutes, the basic story of the third big boiling the BB Wolf gets spun several ways as more facts emerge.  And through it all people comment, sometimes adding misinformation to the story, sometimes empathizing with one character or another.  And it beautifully illustrates how many of us shape the information we receive from whatever source through the filters of our own biases and preferences.  Homeowners support the pig’s right of self-defense.  Others are troubled by the violence of the pig’s respnse to the wolf.  You don’t have to have watched much cable news  to know the truth of this wee morality play.

Of course, the full story doesn’t emerge until the trial, probably months later.  That’s months of people telling and retelling the story according to partial information and personally biased opinions.  Where lies truth.

“OK, Kiely, what’s that all got to do with church?”

Like it or not, that’s the way information spreads even in church.  Anyone who has spent a lot of time working in churches – paid or volunteer – knows that even with simpler technology – like word of mouth – misinformation can get out there.  This ad merely reminds us that the information -whether correct or incorrect – now spreads faster and in more media forms.

I would argue that this is one reason why churches and the people who work there, are going to need to develop a lot more than just a web site in the near future.  I am coming to believe we need to develop a very intentional social media strategy.

I think I have mentioned elsewhere that when I come back from sabbatical, I expect to start managing some aspects of my work week differently.  Instead of occasionally answering the phone and tending to e-mail…oh, yeah, and actually seeing people… I will have to work with church leaders to manage social media like Facebook posts and tweets on behalf of the church, attend to what’s going on in currently moribund church Facebook messaging page, encourage content from members and friends and so on.

Why?  Well, for one thing, that’s where some people are looking for us to be and that’s where the want to interact with our Unitarian message.  For a second thing – and some will no doubt feel uncomfortable with this marketing approach – we must control our own message and not let others define us based on rumour or their different theological points of view.  In this US Republican nomination campaign, broadly defined liberal religion has been under attack by those who would turn the USA into a Christian state.  My good UU friends in the US are not sitting idly by, but are countering with strong social media campaigns of their own. We can all learn from that.

For a third and final thing, not being there represents a large hole in our attraction/marketing strategy.  When I started in ministry, district staff used to preach (sometimes in vain) the importance of the Yellow Pages listing so that newcomers to town and visitors could just find us.  Anyone still use the Yellow Pages?  Just as that listing was vital 25 years ago (along with the ad in the newspaper religion page), an up to date, vibrant and comprehensive web and social media presence is growing in importance.

I know, I know, some reader is saying, “But I hate Facebook…or Twitter…or whatever.”  No problem, except that if you are in a position of leadership, the people with whom you might need to connect embrace that technology.  Wise leaders find the crowd, they don’t wait for the crowd to find them.

In my next post I want to direct you to a marketing program on radio that describes the need for a crisis plan in marketing.  Stay tuned.

— The Size of My Church is 37 x Larger Than We Assume

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Hi Friends,

June Herold recently connected with me because she discovered this blog.  What a nice piece of good fortune it was for me!  We had a wonderful hour long Skype call that left me very excited.  June worked for AOL in the days when they were doing some really creative stuff in social networking, and continues to work in the field.

She is also doing great stuff in her UU Church in Arlington, VA creating a social networking ministry with great result.  The 11 slide presentation below will give you a first taste of how one church is successfully venturing into the field, creating ways for members to create large amounts of content, which, in turns, creates large amounts of buzz as they post their contributions through their various networks.  I invite you to take a look at this review/overview.  Thanks June

— The Size of My Church is 37 x Larger Than We Assume.

If you want to check out their site, it’s UUCAVA.org

And you can visit or follow June’s own excellent blog called The New UU

Glimpsing the Shadow Side of Social Network Causes

Well, so far I have been largely singing the praises of the uses of new technology in and for church.  But technology is neither good nor bad in and of itself.  It all depends on how we use it.

Now most of us have a pretty strong sense of right and wrong, and I generally trust people’s moral compasses to be well intentioned.  I’m a glass 3/4 full kind of guy.  The challenge is that old Law of Unintentioned Consequences.  That’s when we try to do good but end up causing problems we never envisioned.  Our global environmental mess is a fairly macro example of this. ” Oops…sorry Mother Nature…we were just making things better for everyone…especially the rich everyones.”

Social media is no different.  It brings a lot of good with the incredible leap forward in information sharing and communication, but it, too, has a shadow side.

Most obvious, perhaps is that there is no guarantee that facts are checked before being tweeted or posted or YouTubed.  As many of you know, denials by those gored by unchecked claims are usually disbelieved, if, in fact, anyone bothers to read them.  Accusation, sadly, often equals guilt in our society.  Some posters are just sloppy, some are mean spirited and some are downright vicious.  The rise in cyber-bullying in schools (and out) is an example of how information can be used for bad purposes.

Secondly, and perhaps more insidiously, the short attention span of net browsers means that people with a cause or an idea to promote have to necessarily condense and simplify issues.  On Twitter, for example, you have to get the message across in about 140 characters – not words, characters.  I can’t even manage the day’s grocery list in 140 characters!  It is impossible to explain issues fully, or to consider nuance or the finer points of discussion in this headline style media age.  It’s about persuasion, not explanation, polemic instead of critique.  Social media generally lacks subtlety.

As a Canadian I am acutely aware of how this oversimplification of issues can raise the emotional pitch of a debate to a point where rationality disappears from the discussion and polarization becomes the standard.  European ire over the nature of the Canadian seal hunt completely ignored the values of traditional life for the Inuit and the east coast fisherfolk, and also ignored the devastating of an uncontrolled seal population on the fishery.

And living in Alberta, the overblown rhetoric on both sides of the oil sands debate has left most moderates despairing over ever finding a useful and workable middle ground.

And please don’t assume my position on either issue just because I point them out.

My point is that social media campaigns tend to leave little room for diplomacy or collaborative thinking.

In the last few weeks anyone even slightly switched on has caught a whiff of the star issue of the social network world, Kony 2012.

Yesterday the CBC Radio One program ‘Q’ hosted and excellent and friendly 15 minute debate on the unintended effects of the Kony2012 campaign.  I HIGHLY commend it to you.  Kony 2012 is the viral video attacking the Ugandan warlord who has done devastating things to and with children for 25 years.  The video is meant for high school students, but has had 80 million views in a couple of weeks and has drawn all kinds of celebrity support. It is controversial because it is said to be simplistic, inaccurate at times, and that it reinforces stereotypes about the negative aspects of politics in Africa.  It does not lead viewers to deeper resources for further exploration, or even towards some kind of solution beyond a world day of action in April. (By the way, I just discovered that the full 29 minute film is now being blocked on YouTube at least in Canada by some stock exchanges…interesting!)  The CBC debaters – one a Ugandan – make wonderful, nuanced points.  Though cast as being for and against, in reality the two chose to point up positives and negatives in a most respectful way.  It was refreshing and provoked me into writing this.

Social media is good for incitement and calls to action.  Certainly that has its place, but we need to be wary of that power.  There are so few checks and  balances on the net right now that it seems to be a fertile place for unintended consequences to get started.

A final concern for today, one that also stems from short attention span of the average net user, is that there is a fairly good chance that even if you have read this far, you probably didn’t and won’t do the deeper research by clicking on the Q radio debate link.  Don’t worry…there is a fair chance I wouldn’t either if I were reading this.  Typically 50% of people will not proceed to a second page of any document on the web.

I think we have to be aware of these concerns as we go forward.  Social networking in all of its forms is a tool box.  Just as we have to choose between a screwdriver and a crescent wrench, so we have to choose wisely among the tech tools available to us.  Before we embrace the new boldly and enthusiastically, we need to do a little research on the downside and shortcomings of any program or tool we think we might like to try.  It might take a few more clicks or a couple of hours or so of research, but it might save some unintended consequences.

Sermonic Test Drive Result: Video!

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Sunday, March 11th provided a first opportunity to ‘test drive’ the things I have learned since I started this blog in front of a congregation.  It wasn’t the congregation I serve, of course – after all, I am on sabbatical still.  Nope, the test drive happened across the river at the Westwood Unitarian Congregation in Edmonton.

Here’s the video of the sermon in two parts.  If you prefer, I have also posted it in written form.

Enjoy!

Sermonic Test Drive Result: a Sermon! (text)

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No matter when you grew up, no matter what your age, I bet that you have heard this from your elders: The world is changing so fast!  I can’t keep up and I’m not sure I want to!

That’s okay.  Every one of us grows up in a distinct context.  We learn how to live in that context, and just when we have figured it out, they change the darn context.

It can leave us feeling anxious, stressed, out of touch and, well… OLD!

And we face choices.  We can try to embrace the new context.  We can ignore it and insist it goes away, though that tends to make our personal world smaller over time.  Or we can try to adapt, accepting the parts that work for us while still preserving the old ways that give comfort and that have sustained us for so long.

During my sabbatical leave I have been wrestling with my own anxiety about this changing world and how technology is changing religion.  I was fortunate right at the beginning to attend two intensive courses at Meadville/Lombard, my old seminary in Chicago, one on Digital Spiritual Literacy, and the other on Church in a Post-Denominational World.  It was a great start that led me to begin this blog.

Organized religion is facing a redefining moment – another Reformation… called a Digital Reformation by one author.  It’s about more than technology, but technology is a catalyst. Unprecedented volumes of information and the means to apply it are readily available to everyone willing.  Sitting in a restaurant disputing the year the Berlin Wall fell?  Look it up on your Smartphone, and while at it buy tickets to the movie you plan to see after dinner and check-in for your flight tomorrow.

But that changes your conversational pattern.  That’s okay, she’s checking mail, Tweeting about the wonderful meal and setting up her PVR to record a TV show.  And if that scares you, it shouldn’t.  It’s not bad, and it’s not the death of anything…it’s just different.

Whenever there has been a game changing technological innovation, there have been people well versed in the old technology who have condemned the new as a threat to all that is good and worthwhile.  Consider this quote:

“This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learner’s souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.  The specific which you have discovered is not an aid to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth.”

That was Plato, about 370 BC quoted by Socrates.  What was he complaining about?  The creation of the Greek alphabet and writing.  The irony, of course, is that had he won the day, we would not have his ideas or words.

As a young minister over two decades ago, I spent an hour a day on the telephone.  These days, it seldom rings more than four times a week – and one of those will be robocalls.

These days I spend an hour on e-mail instead, but even that is changing.

Last Fall I was traveling. Nevertheless, I had significant interactions with two parishioners, one over SKYPE and another by text message.  The first was someone my age.  The other was with a 24 year old.  The first took an hour, the second lasted about 10 minutes.  Both felt g effective, which was later confirmed by the two people involved.

Some colleagues were shocked that ‘real’ pastoral care could happen in such a way.  Too removed?  Too ‘not face to face’?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that I was called to adapt, to do ministry in a manner that was comfortable for the people that need service.

Unusual?  Perhaps, but then two months later Peter Morales issued his manifesto asking us to attend to “Uses of social media that are rich and flexible. Technology is critical to connecting people today.”

Or as a pastoral care professor once said to me, “When you go into a hospital room, your comfort doesn’t matter much.  It’s the needs of the person in the bed that matter.”

Morales suggests that we re-vision ourselves as a movement more than an association of congregations for exactly the same reason, so that we focus on how we can serve more people in diverse ways, rather than focusing on a congregational model.  This poses a few critical questions for our congregations.

The first is what is our purpose?  You have just developed a new statement here, which is great. Parse it and I bet you will find ideas supporting communication, mutual support and opportunities for exploration.  Those goals work no matter what model we prefer.

The second question becomes for whom will you do this?  That answer defines your target market and defines how you will do business.  The congregational model offers a viable choice serving the people we have always served.  That’s fine, but I think you will agree it’s not a long term growth strategy.

We have to learn how to serve the people outside the Boomer and even the Gen XY er generations, and that may be a challenge.  The world of young people today is just plain different.

In January I got to spend time in sessions with Rev. Terasa Cooley, the head of congregational services at the UUA.  Every 10 years there is a large multi-faith American survey of religious attitudes.  She had just begun working with the 2010 data. Here’s a paraphrase of what she said:

The 2000 data taught that healthy congregations were large, multi-staff, multi-program institutions.  For 10 years I have been teaching UU’s to staff for the congregation they want to become.  The 2010 data shows that doesn’t work so well anymore.  Large churches of every stripe are bleeding members.  Mega churches are becoming unstable, some unsustainable.  Life isn’t linear, and the pendulum is swinging again.

And here’s the direct quote as Terasa laconically described discovering that what she’s been doing for the last 10 years might not work anymore, “Shoot!”

Young adults are used to large, evolving extended families including step-relatives. Thanks to the way we reform families with separation and re-partnering those boundaries are permeable and membership is somewhat flexible.  ‘Family-sized church’ is not an idea as fraught with negative meaning for them as it is for many church leaders concerned about control in the hands of a few gatekeepers.  Small bodies may be one source of strength in the years ahead.

From the rest of my notes of Terasa’s excellent analysis:

Religious life for the Millenials (roughly aged 15-35) is different. It’s still important for them, but it’s not necessarily tied to institutions…or institutional financial or volunteer support as we have known it.   People are finding religious community in small groups (Yay! We have those.), in casual settings and in social settings.  They are a lot less frightened of discussing spirituality with friends that previous generations were.

There is a greater tendency for these younger folks to connect in affinity groups.  Circles form as needed and last only as long as needed by the group.  The idea of commitment to, say, a two year church Board appointment is not so much on the radar.

The notion of service is critical.  Apparently all US school kids engage in service projects during their education.  It’s become an expectation of young people to give back in some way.  Religion should provide that opportunity.

This generation is culturally diverse and they assume diversity is the norm.  They tend to be urban, connected to each other and to other generations, often living at home much longer than their parents expected.  They are NOT a generation that has rebelled, probably because this parenting generation has placed so much emphasis on relating to kids and spending quality time with them.  They have been well nurtured and have experienced diversity in schoolmates.  They have an intolerance for intolerance.

But here is something else I have learned. The Digital Natives, the ones who have grown up never knowing a world without computers manage information differently from, well, me.

For example: People of my background tend to organize computers like filing cabinets.  We retrieve info by looking for a certain document in a certain file.  What student colleagues in Chicago showed me is that digital natives have a radically different approach. Instead of orderly files they… (inaccurate visual metaphor coming) pile every piece of information on the floor – marking or ‘tagging’ words and ideas here and there- and then send digital bloodhounds after those tagged items.  Instead of retrieving the one specific reference I sought, they pull out a string of things all relating to the topic in question -say spirituality.  These connected pieces train them to see the relationship between information and ideas much more intuitively than we ever did. They look up spirituality and they might find the chalice lighting words I wanted, but they will also find a song, a prayer, someone’s sermon, some Buddhist references, and a really cool YouTube video.

They also process information much more quickly.  These days, and I am not talking about any specific age group here, typical web article loses 50% of its readers every time they have to go to a second page.  Video clips longer than 3 minutes have significantly fewer viewers.

As a novice blogger, I have learned to post my ideas in 500 words or 90 second video clips.  Of course I include links to longer articles for the dedicated, but the reality is we have to get ideas across in a condensed form in the virtual world.  People are less concerned with footnotes than with the core idea.

And they don’t just want to consume it, they want to participate in the conversation and this implies a challenge for religious leaders and perhaps for Sunday service planning.

Phillip Clayton is a theologian write on how church leadership roles are changing in this Google world:

“The New Christian leader is a host, not an authority who dispenses settled truths and wise words… Above all, they remind me of a great hostess.  She makes guests comfortable; she anticipates their needs.  She matches folks up and gets the conversations started, though she doesn’t need to place herself into the middle of each one.  She leads by example, often by establishing an atmosphere or an ethos that fosters deep sharing.  I cannot think of a better model of leadership in the church after Google.”

It’s a good point.  As someone who makes his living standing in front of the church, it’s a challenge to provide content that is as deep, and as fully developed as in, say, the average TED talk.  Maybe part of the job will be to be the host for a Sunday morning where the content will be a screening of a TED talk and facilitate a discussion afterwards.

I recently saw a clip of a minister in the US who has a live feed screen on stage where listeners can tweet their responses while he preaches.  He stops half way through his sermon, they sing a hymn or two while he consults all these posts, and then he does the second half of the sermon responding to the comments and questions.

Now some of this might sound pretty scary.  Some blog followers have responded anxiously to my posts by making calls for ‘Slow Church’.  They have reminded me that what we really build in these congregations of ours is a sense of community that comes from physically being with other people.  No amount of social networking can provide that.  Said one commenter in her early 30’s

I definitely feel that there is a balance to be struck between the worlds. I don’t think “virtual” church could ever supplant the many virtues of communal worship under the same roof. I’m seeing the advances of IT as a bolster to religious education and a catalyst to religious and spiritual movements, and I don’t think our biology (or soul) allows us to accept it as a complete spiritual solution.

But to sit back and think ‘phew, we’re okay then…we’ll always need the congregation’ is a poor idea.  We can no longer afford to count on a single strategy to sustain us.  Our congregations are shrinking 1-2 % per year.  If we do not reach out now to those who can pass as Digital Natives, then we are risking our future.  If they do not get to know us now, then they won’t look for us when they start feeling a longing for community.

How?  Liz James, was my classmate in Chicago.  She offered this observation:

Our churches offer two things to both Boomers and Millennials:  freedom of belief and religious community.

Boomers are accustomed to religious community in their lives and are excited by the freedom of belief thing.

Millennials, by contrast, expect freedom of belief and are excited by the idea of religious community.

Sooo, she concludes, we need to promote freedom of belief in church and talk more about the promise of community in our on-line presence.

Hmmmm…makes a lot of sense.  But go look at most church websites.  What images do you see?  People?  Video clips of people of all ages saying “Hi! Come see us?”  Nope.  You see pictures of buildings and chalices.  If we want to impress people with our communities, then we had best find ways to give an on-line representation of that community with images, video clips, with social network links that are up to date and interesting, with ways of connecting with others in meaningful and interesting ways, and with content that can connect even with people who will never come into this building ever, but who might like us..

And that brings me back to Peter Morales asking us all to think beyond the congregational model.

“We have long defined ourselves as an association of congregations. We need to think of ourselves as a religious movement.

“Creating ways of engaging people who are not members of our congregations is not a threat to congregations. Quite the opposite is true. We can help lower the walls between our congregations and the larger world. This can help make our congregations stronger.”

The physical congregation and the online congregation have to become integrated: what you find online you must be able to find in church and vice versa.  The new role for religious leaders is to give up thinking of websites and bulletin boards.  Instead we need to think of it as coffee hour.  We need to allow it to become small group ministry if that’s what’s needed, or become and adult education course if that’s what’s needed.  The website can’t remain just a place to post notices of upcoming activities.  It has to become a place where church, at least in part, actually happens.

Friends, I don’t think we have to give up the things we love, but we do need to think about carrying our Unitarian message into a different kind of space in ways that are appropriate to the people who thrive in that space.

It’s not about giving something up, it’s about adding ways to reach a more diverse group of people.